Category Archives: Scripture

Slavery in the Bible

One of my favorite Christian artists, Michael Card, recently said at a concert that he is working on a book that explores the concept of slavery in the Scriptures. Some mistakenly discredit what the Bible has to say on the topic because it doesn’t outright prohibit the practice.

It can be easy to forget that the Bible is the redemptive story of God’s interaction with humanity. God knows that you cannot completely change everything over night, and He always meets people where they are to take them where they should be. We must be patient with societies in the past just as we will need people in the future to be understanding of us. Each new generation has its practices that future generations will find odd or outright immoral.

Here are some quick thoughts on the Bible and slavery:

  • Everyone is a slave to something or someone.
  • All true Christians are “slaves” to Christ so that we may be free from the grip of sin and death.
  • God brought the Israelites out of Egypt “the land of slavery.” But when things got tough they preferred the familiarity of slavery over the hardships of freedom.
  • God desires obedience not sacrifice.
  • Jesus didn’t have an entitlement attitude neither should His followers.
  • After the introduction of the Law, the Israelites were not to enslave each other because they were to be a nation of slaves to God.
  • God provided for humane treatment of slaves in the Law.
  • Slavery in antiquity was somewhat different than modern slavery. Some people even sold themselves into slavery to pay off a debt for a period of time.
  • Jesus came to set the captives free.
  • Paul encouraged Philemon to treat Onesimus (his slave) as a brother. This was as close to prohibiting slavery as Paul could get without completely sidetracking the greater purpose of his mission. Slavery during the Roman Empire was a central part of the world’s economic system. Calling for the outright end of slavery was something that Paul didn’t seem to want to overtake.
  • Jesus forever set aside the distinctions between slave and master.
  • The Year of Jubilee was a gift from God to the Israelities that we don’t know if it was ever practiced. This year long celebration and the forgiveness of debt is a foreshadowing of Christ’s work on the cross. 
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The Gospel IS…

The gospel is…

The power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16), God judging the secrets of men by Jesus Christ (Romans 2:16), veiled to those who are perishing (2 Corinthians 4:3), light that shows the glory of Christ who is the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4), not another gospel (2 Corinthians 11:4), is not man’s gospel (Galatians 1:11), to be proclaimed among the Gentiles (Galatians 2:2), justification by faith (Galatians 3:8), the word of truth and a sealing of believers with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13), standing firm in one spirit with one mind (Philippians 1:27), the hope laid up for you in heaven (Colossians 1:5),  proclaimed in all creation under heaven (Colossians 1:23), come in power and in the Holy Spirit with full conviction (1 Thessalonians 1:5), preached with boldness in the midst of much conflict (1 Thessalonians 2:2), sharing ourselves to others not just words (1 Thessalonians 2:8), the infliction of vengeance on those who do not know or obey God (2 Thessalonians 1:8), the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light (2 Timothy 1:10), Jesus Christ risen from the dead (2 Timothy 2:8),  preached to those who are dead (1 Peter 4:6), is to be obeyed (1 Peter 4:17), proclaimed to every nation and tribe and language and people (Revelation 14:6).

More Carsonisms

Here are a few more gems of Hebrew insight from my Hebrew teacher, Dr. Carson Brisson.

“Hebrew is a revealed religion. They are not interested in what you have to say if you have not listened.”

“In the Scriptures, the land becomes the personification of the people.”

“In Hebrew, you don’t turn light on and off. You open the light and close the light.”

Revelation

Dr. Brian Blount, the new president of Union-PSCE, spoke in my NT2 class today. As a respected African American New Testament professor, he brought an interesting perspective to Revelation, the last book of the New Testament. He wrote a book called Can I Get a Witness? that connects the struggle of blacks in the USA with the events and imagery covered in Revelation. While I am more interested in pure Biblical exegesis than cultural studies, Blount’s connection of Revelation with modern struggles flushed out some new ways to look at a somewhat familiar and bewildering text.

I have always been suspicious of anyone who has everything in Revelation worked out. When somebody walks toward me with an End Times chart, I want to run. At the same time, I don’t want to be lumped in with scholars who downplay the prophetic nature of the text believing it is merely imagery. I think all sides in this discussion have some valid points. And it seems that all too often the real key issues get lost in disagreements over lesser details or wild goose chases trying to figure out specific pieces of the apocalyptic puzzle. I tend to think that God uses mystery as much or more than specific instruction to get our attention and motivate us to His holy goal.

Dr. Blount made many interesting points during his lecture. Here’s some of the highlights:

  • There are many visions in the book but only one Revelation. Blount stated that the key theme of the revelation is that Jesus stands as sovereign Lord over all human history.
  • Revelation can be dangerous book for those who don’t heed its warnings or misapply its message. Some people have wrongly taken the text to mean that this world does not matter. But Blount insisted that is completely contrary to what John wanted his reader to think.
  • In John’s day, it would have seemed ridiculous to those in the natural world for Jesus to be declared Lord of all. Rome was the ruling power on the earth.
  • Blount stated that if more people today understood John’s Revelation, there would be more daring action and transformation in the Church.
  • Revelation does not flow in linear progression. It is a series of conic spirals that interweave. There are flashbacks and different spheres going on at the same time. Blount called it a “3-ring apocalyptic circus.”
  • John’s visions in Revelation pick up on some important themes and characters from the Hebrew Scriptures, including Jezebel, Balaam, plagues of Egypt, Eden imagery, Ezekiel’s visions, etc.
  • Another key concept is that John was calling the early Christians to be “witnesses” of the Gospel. He wanted them to be willing to do things that made them stand out even if it caused them persecution or death. The goal was to live as a witness of Christ not to die as a martyr. John wanted Christians to stop passing as normal Greco/Roman citizens who believed in the emperor cults.
  • Even when God is unleasing plagues on the earth, His aim is repentance and restoration not destruction.
  • The Lamb is portrayed as both a gentle sacrifice and a warrior. 
  • Blount said that the imagery in Revelation was meant to frighten its readers into fearing eternal judgment more than any earthly pain imposed by Rome.
  • Blount explained the imagery of Satan being released after the millennial reign of Christ as a sign of sins stubborn ability to keep coming back to deceive humanity.
  • The restoration of the garden imagery from Eden closes the loop of history from Adam to Eve.
  • John doesn’t want the reader to try to calculate or flowchart the last days. It is not about knowledge as much as action, devotion and striving to be a witness to God’s kingdom here and now. It is a call to be radical for the cause of Christ because Jesus said He was coming soon.
  • Instead of trying to figure out who the beast is, John would want modern readers to be motivated by the imagery to act in such a way that upholds Jesus as Lord and seeks to bring godly transformation to this world here and now.
  • Blount pointed out that the term antichrist is not in the book of Revelation. That is pretty interesting since antichrist is one of the first things that many Evangelicals think about when you mention the book of Revelation.

I may blog on some of those points later. For now, I hope they give you something to chew on.

Beyond the “Faith vs. Works” Debate

In Galatians 2:15-21, the Apostle Paul outlined a clear argument explaining why sinners can only be justified before God by faith in Christ and not following the Law or doing good works. This is one of the classical passages in the debate about the “new perspective” on Paul and the age old discussion about what a person must do to be saved from God’s wrath against sin.

Following Paul’s rebuke of Peter, the passage makes it clear that 1.) no one will be justified by works, 2.) in trying to justify ourselves, we discover our sinfulness, 3.) believers are nailed to the cross with Christ and die to the law, 4.) Christians live in the flesh by faith in Christ, and 5.) works nullify grace and Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

The new perspective on Paul stems from research by E.P. Sanders. And the crux of the debate revolves around what exactly did Jews believe about salvation and works during the time of Paul. This reflection helps modern readers better understand Paul’s chief concern with the Judaizers. Sanders maintained that the Jews were not looking to works to save them as many Christian scholars had suggested.

I partially agree with Sanders that not all Jews held this belief while some obviously did or at least Paul saw it as a threat to Gentiles converts. I believe all people are somewhat hardwired from the beginning to default to work’s based righteousness even if we start out claiming “Grace, Grace.”

It is not as much as a Jew/Gentile thing as a human condition. Thus, it is impossible to concretely say one way or the other what Jews believed during Paul’s day, and more than likely, there was a wide variety of experiences and opinions on the subject.

Cool Online Bible Resource – YouVersion

Have you ever had an idea that you wanted to see come to fruition but you had no idea how to make it happen? That is what I thought when I saw YouVersion a few weeks ago. This is a collaborative Bible site where people can share insights, links, video, audio and other resources connected with various Bible verses. I have been talking about this idea with some friends for more than a year, and I am glad to see someone actually did it.

The design is smart, clean and intuitive. YouVersion provides access to multiple Bible versions as well as other resources that users post. Think of YouVersion as a really big small group discussion complete with text, audio and video. The site has reading plans and the ability to create a personal Bible journal.

I  suggest you check it out. This is the next big thing in Web-based Bible exploration.

http://www.youversion.com/

Slavery, Transforming Grace and the New Testament

The apostle Paul made a call to grace in the epistle of Philemon. Paul wrote it while in prison and appealed to Philemon, a Christian in Colossus, to accept and forgive Onesimus, a run away slave who also happened to be a fellow Christian. Paul wrote about a specific situation, which identified key differences in how Christians should view the world compared to pagans. 

Under Roman law, a master could severely punish a runaway slave. This included beating the individual, breaking bones, confining to hard labor or even death. Huge numbers of people were slaves during the first century. The Roman economic system depended on slavery.

The apostle Paul did not directly condemn or call for the abolition of slavery. However, he clearly didn’t support it either. Paul made a case for transforming grace that would eventually topple the slave system due to new relationships in Christ. 

Paul appealed to Philemon’s reputation, their personal relationship, Paul’s involvement in Philemon’s conversion, the transformation that had taken place in Onesimus’ life, and the new relationships created in Christ as slave and master became brothers. Paul recognized that Onesimus had wronged Philemon, yet he called on Philemon to charge whatever debt was owed to his account. Then, Paul carefully reminded Philemon of his personal debt to him as well as Paul’s apostolic authority. 

In one sense, Paul sent Onesimus back to his master to keep from undermining existing law. Also it provided an opportunity for Christ-centered grace to be exemplified in a real life situation. This epistle shows us one example of how the early Church dealt with the challenging institution of slavery. We can learn from this example today as we seek to deal with social injustice in the world.

Paul challenged the evils associated with slavery while recognizing that the focus of the Gospel should not be confused with mere social reform. This could cause us to lose our heavenly mission for merely an earthly one. Instead of focus on slavery, Paul changed the dynamic to focus on brotherhood and mutual respect in Christ.  In a subtle way, Paul called for more than just forgiveness of a debt. It seems that Paul was urging Philemon to free Onesimus just as Christ had done for him.

In the first century, the Christian faith created a new paradigm where slaves and masters became brothers due to a change of heart that only comes through relationships. Paul’s instruction provides a deep justification for forgiveness and reconciliation.