February 24, 2005

Galatians II: Paul's alibi

(This blog post makes use of the BWGRKL font for some Greek text, available for download from BibleWorks at no charge.)

I grew up reading a lot of mystery novels, especially Agatha Christia. Many of her stories had a common plot twist in them. At some point in the novel, Hercule Poirot confronts the prime suspect in the murder. This person always appears as though he has something to hide. However, it is soon revealed that what he is hiding is not guilt in the crime. He has an alibi for that, but it turns out that for him to reveal it would be personally embarrassing - so much so, in fact, that he would rather face the music for a murder he didn't commit than admit that he was (for example) in the arms of his lover at the time.

Apparently Paul's opponents were trying to undermine its authority by spreading false accusations about him. His apostleship wasn't authentic. It was "second-rate," because he never met Christ. His Gospel was different from that of the "true" Apostles in Jerusalem. Or he had ulterior motives (an accusation I will examine later). Paul responds to this by establishing his own alibi.

The origin of Paul's Gospel

But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ. For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews' religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it: and profited in the Jews' religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers. But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother's womb, and called me by his grace, to reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood: neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days. But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord's brother. Now the things which I write unto you, behold, before God, I lie not. Afterwards I came into the regions of Syria and Cilicia; and was unknown by face unto the churches of Judaea which were in Christ: But they had heard only, That he which persecuted us in times past now preacheth the faith which once he destroyed. And they glorified God in me. (Gal. 1:11-21)

In defending his Gospel, Paul says four things about it. First, it was not from man. In other words, it was not a human invention. Second, Paul elaborates, it was not received from man. That is, no human institution handed it down to him. Third, Paul was not taught by man. He did not receive the Gospel sitting in Sunday school or from the Apostles in Jerusalem. Finally, on the contary, it was received by revelation. Paul got his doctrine directly from Christ himself.

But one could well ask him, "This is all fine, Paul, but where's the proof?" So Paul begins to construct his alibi with three proofs of the Gospel's divine origin.

First proof: Paul's former life

Paul was formerly a practitioner of Judaism. Writing to the Philippians, he said that he was

[c]ircumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. (Phil. 3:5-6)

By birth Paul was a Benjamite. Because Saul, the first king of Israel (of whom Paul was a namesake), had been a member of the tribe of Benjamin, Paul's pedigree was a prestigious one.

By education Paul was a Pharisee, a member of a religious party whose name meant "separated one." He was affiliated with the spiritual leadership of Israel. He was also educated by Gamaliel, one of the most famous Pharisees of all, the grandson of the great rabbi Hillel and the president of the Sanhedrin. For a Pharisee to be able to name Gamaliel as his teacher would be the equivalent of a physicist having his dissertation supervised by Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking.

By zeal Paul was unparalleled. He writes that he "profited in the Jews' religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers" (Gal. 1:14). He applied his zeal: writing that "beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it" (Gal. 1:13). Elsewhere in his letters he elaborates. He was in hearty agreement with the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 8:1). He "made havock of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison" (Acts 8:3). He "breath[ed] out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord" (Acts 9:1) and "persecuted this way unto the death" (Acts 22:4). Finally, he cast his vote against them when they were being put to death; he "compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, [he] persecuted them even unto strange cities" (Acts 26:10-11).

Paul's first proof of his Gospel's divine origin is that he had not been born or educated into Christianity. He was so fanatical about his own tradition that he was incapable of having his mind changed!

Second proof: Paul's conversion

But Paul isn't finished yet. He says that he was set apart from his mother's womb (Gal. 1:15) - as Daniel says, God

doeth according to his will in the army of heaven
and among the inhabitants of the earth:
and none can stay his hand,
or say unto him, What doest thou? (Dan. 4:35)

In fact, Paul didn't stand a chance. Being on the way to Damascus to do even more damage to the Church wasn't going to thwart God's plans for him. God called Paul "by his grace" (Gal. 1:15), not because Paul deserved it. Quite the opposite, in fact.

On the contrary, it was because "it pleased God." Paul often speaks of God's pleasure in saving souls. For example, consider Eph. 1:5,9, in which salvation is said to be "according to the good pleasure of his will" - or, as the NASB renders it, "the kind intention of His will." God is not obligated to save sinners. He does it because it gives him pleasure.

Paul's second proof of his Gospel's divine origin is his conversion: accomplished at God's initiative, in God's time, for God's purpose, which was to use Paul to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles. He became a Christian because of what God had done for him, and not because some man had persuaded him.

Third proof: Paul's whereabouts

Paul writes: "[I]mmediately I conferred not with flesh and blood: neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me" (Gal. 1:16-17). His first thought was not to rush immediately to Jerusalem, contact the Twelve, and make an appointment to do lunch. Instead, he "went into Arabia" (17). In those days, "Arabia" meant not the Saudi penninsula as we would understand it today, but the kingdom of Nabatea, which extended from there up to the area south of Damascus. Nabatea's capital, incidentally, was Petra - that amazing and mysterious city in present-day Jordan that was hewn out of the cliff faces.

What Paul did in Arabia isn't stated. Some people have theorized that he was evangelizing amongst the Gentiles that lived there. Others suggest that he was on a "retreat" to reflect and contemplate his conversion. Still more say that he was being taught his doctrine directly by revelation of Christ (as though he was making up for the three years of teaching the other Apostles received at Christ's feet!).

But that doesn't really matter. What is important at this point is not to work out a detailed diary of Paul's personal life, but to establish an alibi for the divine origin of his Gospel. Paul was in Arabia, and therefore he was not in Jerusalem.

Next, Paul says, he "returned again unto Damascus" (17). Luke speaks about Paul's time in Damascus in Acts 9:19-23. However, it is of note that Luke doesn't mention Paul's time in Arabia. He gives the impression that Paul was in Damascus continually for a few days. Keep in mind that Paul and Luke have different purposes for writing, however. They are not trying to collaborate on Paul's life story; rather, they are both describing different aspects of Paul's conversion and ministry. Luke is narrating an account of Paul's early life as a new believer, in particular the reactions of the local Christians and Jews to his new faith. Paul, on the other hand, is explaining to the Galatians that he was in Damascus, and therefore he was not in Jerusalem.

Then, "after three years [he] went up to Jerusalem" (18). Well, finally! Now he's had a chance to talk with the Apostles and receive teaching from them, right? Not quite. He went up "to see Peter" (18) - literally, the Greek word here, i`store,w (historeo), means to pay a visit, to get to know, to meet face-to-face. It doesn't mean he was there to sit under the teaching of Peter and the Apostles. But it would be interesting to know what they discussed. It probably wasn't just a social call; no doubt they had much to discuss. We could speculate, for example, that Peter filled in Paul on details of Christ's life and ministry that he hadn't known. And no doubt they could have swapped stories about God's grace, since both Peter and Paul had done Christ a great disservice in their past. In any case, he says he "abode with him fifteen days" (18). Two weeks. Not a very long visit!

Also, Paul says, "other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord's brother" (19). Again, Luke has something to say of this visit (Acts 10:26-28) - and again, though the details appear different on the surface, Luke is again describing Paul's early life while Paul is explaining that he never received teaching from the Apostles.

Finally, after this visit he went "into the regions of Syria and Cilicia" (21), up near the northern corner of the Mediterranean, where Turkey meets Asia. Luke adds:

And [Paul] was with them coming in and going out at Jerusalem. And he spake boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus, and disputed against the Grecians: but they went about to slay him. Which when the brethren knew, they brought him down to Caesarea, and sent him forth to Tarsus. (Acts 9:29-30)

Paul's third proof of his Gospel's divine origin is his whereabouts after his conversion. He was never around the Apostles to receive his Gospel from them, and he never got to Jerusalem for three years. When he finally did get there, he saw only Peter and James, and he was only there to get to know them, then he was whisked away to Tarsus after only two weeks.

The significance of Paul's alibi to us

The Gospel comes from God. All of Paul's proofs were intended to underscore the fact that he got his teaching from God and not from men. Therefore, it has authority. If Paul is merely one more voice in the marketplace of ideas, he has no more authority than anyone else, much less the right to bring down curses upon anyone who disagrees with him (cf. Gal. 1:8-9).

The Judaizers are not alone in trying to undermine Paul's authority. Many individuals and movements throughout history have attempted to discredit the divine origin of Paul's teaching in spite of Galatians.

The Ebionites were a heretical sect of Judaistic Christians from the second century. Amongst other Christological errors, they claimed that God selected Jesus as Messiah because he kept the Jewish Law perfectly. They rejected the Scriptures of the New Testament, with the exception of a vetted version of Matthew's Gospel. Their canon also included a writing titled the Ascents of James, in which it is asserted that Paul was a Gentile who wanted to marry the high priest's daughter, so he converted to Judaism. However, the high priest rejected him, so he became bitter and began railing against the Law and circumcision.

The Deists of the 17th and 18th centuries sometimes claimed that the ethical religion of Jesus had been corrupted by his followers. For example, Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, published his own edition of the Bible in which he cut away the supposed pure religion of Jesus from the corruptions of the Biblical authors - a process which, in a letter to fellow Deist John Adams, he likened to recovering the "diamonds in a dunghill."1 Jefferson was especially convinced that Paul was the villain of the Christian story, having turned the simple religion of Jesus into a religion about Jesus.

About fifteen years ago, former Episcopalian bishop John Shelby Spong wrote a book titled Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: a screed in which he defends every fashionable notion of liberal Biblical criticism of the last hundred years. He writes:

Paul's career as a missionary does not seem to have begun earlier than the late 40s. No evidence points to any direct knowledge of the earthly Jesus on the part of this man. What he knew of Jesus he seems to have gotten through the oral tradition at the feet of itinerant preachers, from the various apostles, or from disciples of the apostles. John son of Zebedee, mark, and Luke all appear in the letters of Paul as names of those with whom he had more than just a casual relationship (Gal. 2:9; Col. 4:14; Philem. v. 23; Col. 4:10).2

Paul was a limited man captured by the worldview and circumstances of a vastly different time. It is the height of foolishness to try to claim eternal truth fro is culturally conditioned and time-limited words. Paul's words are not the Words of God. They are the words of Paul - a vast difference. Those who try to elevate Paul's words into being what they cannot be will finally discard Paul's words in the dustbins of antiquity.3 (emphasis in original)

Then in the midst of this, he argues that Paul was a repressed homosexual who persecuted Christians to prove his masculinity to his fellow Jews. (Like Madonna, some people will say or do anything to get some press.)

But all these heretical claims run against the one who swore, "behold, before God, I lie not" (Gal. 1:20). While we might say, "I swear," and take it lightly, a devout Jew who dared invoke the name of Yahweh meant it.

And if the Gospel does come from God, then this means that what happened to Paul on the Damascus road can and will happen again. Paul declared that the Gospel was "the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth" (Rom. 1:16). We see the power of God at work all through the Acts, which says over and over again that the Word of God spread and the disciples increased. And since the Gospel is power, that makes our job as evangelists simpler! Paul says:

I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. . . . And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God. (1 Cor. 2:1-5)

When we proclaim the gospel to our friends or co-workers or on campus, we don't have to worry ourselves over the right arguments or the best means of persuasion. This is not to say we should settle for a slipshod presentation, but God's Gospel does not need slick packaging to improve it. We need only speak the plain truth. The truth of the Gospel speaks for itself, and the power of God does the rest.


1 Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 12 October 1813, "The Code of Jesus," From Revolution to Reconstruction, 6 March 2003, 23 February 2005 <http://odur.let.rug.nl/~usa/P/tj3/writings/brf/jefl222.htm>.

2 John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism (New York: HarperSanFrancisco - HarperCollins, 1991) 100.

3 Spong, 104.


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February 17, 2005

Galatians I: The Truth

(This blog post makes use of the BWGRKL font for some Greek text, available for download from BibleWorks at no charge.)

Paul, an apostle, (not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead;) and all the brethren which are with me, unto the churches of Galatia: Grace be to you and peace from God the Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father: To whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.

For do I now persuade men, or God? or do I seek to please men? for if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ.

Last week I introduced a series on Paul's letter to the Galatians. This was likely the earliest letter Paul wrote, and it was to address what was probably the earliest major doctrinal crisis to face the early Church. This was the issue of "Judaizers," really Jewish legalists, who were trying to persuade the early Church that in order to become Christians, they had to become circumcised, and effectively to be made subject to the Law of Moses.

To Paul, however, this was more than merely a checklist of things for Christians to do or not do. It cut to the very core of Christianity: What is the Gospel? He wrote this brief, strongly worded letter to the church at Galatia defending the true Gospel against the errors of the Judaizers. He specifically focuses on the basis of the Gospel, faith alone - faith in Christ,not mixed with the works of the Law.

Legalism is still with us and around us, not merely in the form of "classical" Judaizers such as the Seventh-day Adventists, but also different forms of the same error: baptismal regeneration as practiced by the International Churches of Christ and other "Campbellite" groups; the whole system of confessions, prayers, penances and other rituals of the Roman church, which is the error the Reformers so effectively wielded this book against; the superstitious works-righteousness of Islam, and so forth.

Paul's Gospel

But what is the true Gospel, then? Paul actually gives a quick thumbnail sketch of his preaching in Galatians 1:3-5. I want to focus on those three verses for the most part, but also cross-reference heavily from other parts of the New Testament, in particular Paul's letter to the Romans, where he systematizes this teaching more comprehensively than he does in Galatians.

Galatians 1:3 begins: "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." It's worth noting, as an aside, that even if Paul is upset with the Galatians, he hasn't lost his graciousness. He still wishes them grace and peace. His correction of their error is an act of love, not spite or malice.

Gal. 1:4 continues: "Who gave himself for our sins". Paul doesn't really touch on the problem of sin in Galatians, but he gives it a much fuller treatment in the first few chapters of Romans:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse . . . (Rom. 1:18-20)

Man is not ignorant of God. Man knows there is a God because the evidence is all around him. He knows there is a Creator who ought to be worshiped and obeyed. But he doesn't do this. Paul continues:

Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. (Rom. 1:21)

And a little further down, he adds:

Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things. (Rom. 1:22-23)

In other words, the natural man is in a state of denial where God is concerned. And what is the consequence of this?

Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves: who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen. (Rom. 1:24-25)

God turns people over to their own desires, and their first inclination is to sin some more. Paul says that they turn to "uncleanness" - and, specifically, he is thinking of sexual impurity as well as idolatry. The natural tendency of man without God is to turn to perversion and paganism. That's not a pretty picture, is it?

But Paul isn't finished yet. So far, he's only dealt with the pagans. But "there is no respect of persons with God" (Rom. 2:11). So he turns his focus on his own people, the Jews. Focusing on their pride in being the chosen race, Paul writes this:

Behold, thou art called a Jew, and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God, and knowest his will, and approvest the things that are more excellent, being instructed out of the law; and art confident that thou thyself art a guide of the blind, a light of them which are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form of knowledge and of the truth in the law. (Rom. 2:17-20)

But then he brings the hammer down:

Thou therefore which teachest another, teachest thou not thyself? thou that preachest a man should not steal, dost thou steal? Thou that sayest a man should not commit adultery, dost thou commit adultery? thou that abhorrest idols, dost thou commit sacrilege? Thou that makest thy boast of the law, through breaking the law dishonourest thou God? For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles through you, as it is written. (Rom. 2:21-24)

No one on earth has any excuse that will wash before God. Paul sums up his teaching on the sinfulness of man with a litany of verses drawn from throughout the Old Testament:

There is none righteous, no, not one:
There is none that understandeth,
there is none that seeketh after God.
They are all gone out of the way,
they are together become unprofitable;
there is none that doeth good, no, not one.
Their throat is an open sepulchre;
with their tongues they have used deceit;
the poison of asps is under their lips:
Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness:
Their feet are swift to shed blood:
Destruction and misery are in their ways:
And the way of peace have they not known:
There is no fear of God before their eyes. (Rom. 3:10-18)

Is there any wonder that the wrath of God is directed against the world? Man, in his natural state, is the very opposite of what God is. The wrath of the perfect Judge, the morally perfect Creator of the universe, whose creation has spurned him, is directed against the unjust. Paul doesn't even have to defend the idea that God will judge his creation; that is a given. All men, without exception, stand accused and condemned for their sin because they have spurned the good God and ignored his laws. The penalty for sin is death: eternal separation from God and eternal punishment in a state the Bible describes as a "lake of fire." That is the universal human condition.

But that's the bad news. Paul has good news for fallen man. Suppose someone else paid the penalty? None of us could do it, because we all stand condemned ourselves. But one man, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, God in the flesh, was completely without sin. When he died on the cross, it wasn't for his own sins that he was put to death, but for ours. And Paul goes on to write that:

[N]ow the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood . . . (Rom. 3:21-25)

"Propitiation" isn't a word we tend to use anymore. But it has a simple enough meaning: Christ's death satisfied the Father. It was an acceptable sacrifice. It met the requirements of justice, and it took away God's wrath.

On the basis of Christ's death on the cross, it is possible for God to both declare us sinful men righteous, and to meet the demands of justice. It is not that God actually makes us righteous. But he treats the righteousness of Christ as though it belongs to us. The theological term is imputed righteousness. It is imputed to anyone who will put his faith in Christ's ability to save him from the penalty for sin. Because Christ was not guilty, we are also declared "not guilty."

Furthermore, it is this faith alone that is a sufficient basis for our justification, as Paul writes:

Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. (Rom. 3:27-28)

This is "faith alone." The Judaizers were trying to persuade the Galatians that "faith alone" was not true, and that it was also necessary to obey the Law of Moses. But Paul shuts down that argument. If we could gain God's favour through some kind of good work, we would have ground for boasting. But since it is faith alone there is no ground. We have been saved because God is merciful, not because we earned it.

Let us leave Romans for the time being and return to Galatians. Next Paul says that Christ gave himself "that he might deliver us from this present evil world" (Gal. 1:4). We have been saved from the penalty of sin by Christ's substitutionary, atoning death on the cross. As a result we are now set apart by God from the world - we are being saved in this life from the power of sin. Romans 8:29 says that those "whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son." In the present we are being rescued from the evil age because we have the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, and one of the works of the Holy Spirit is to make us more like Christ. But there's more to it than that, because Paul goes on in the next verse to say, "whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified" (Rom. 8:30). Those whom God foreknew, that is, us Christians, he conformed to Christ-likeness; and in the end we will have eternal life in glory. God is absolutely faithful to do this.

Again, returning to Galatians: Paul says that all this is done "according to the will of God and our Father" (Gal. 1:4). Salvation isn't a contingency plan. God wasn't caught unawares by human sinfulness so that he had to send Christ to the cross as some sort of cosmic "plan B." It was planned right from the beginning, when God promised Satan, the serpent, that a descendant of Eve would crush him. When the risen Jesus walked with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, the Bible says that he "expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself" (Luke 24:27). The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is threaded throughout the entire Bible! Acts 2:23 says that Christ was handed over to be crucified "by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God."

Finally, Paul says that this was all done for the glory of God. Soli Deo gloria, as the Reformers said. Everything that God does is for his own glory, and so should 5everything we do be for his glory as well.

Beware of counterfeits

This is the Gospel Paul is guarding so closely, and what he is so upset that the Galatians abandoned. And he pronounces a very strong curse upon those who would pervert it: "But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed" (Gal. 1:8). In Greek, the word "accursed" is avna,qema (anathema), and it's the strongest curse Paul can pronounce on someone. In other words, he is saying this: "If someone comes to you preaching something different than what you learned from me, I don't care if an angel drops from the sky and does it, it's a counterfeit, and he can go to hell." And he says it again in verse 9: "If someone preaches something that contradicts what I told you, he can go to hell."

Can't we all just get along?

Paul follows this up with what is surely a cynical and sarcastic question: "So, now do you think I'm trying to please men?" Apparently he had been falsely accused of preaching a Gospel that tickled the ears of his listeners. Is claiming to have an exclusive lock on truth, then proclaiming an anathema on anyone who contradicts you, going to make friends?

Of course, there's nothing new under the sun. There is still an awful lot of man-pleasing going on in the world these days. We live today in a civilization where the cardinal sin is to be even slightly critical of what someone else thinks or does.

The prevailing ethical worldview claims that it is much better to seek understanding than insist upon truth. It's a by-product of postmodern philosophy. Like most such philosophies it has its origins in the humanities before percolating out into society in general. Contemporary literary theory, for example, often places more emphasis on the response of the reader to a text than the original intent of the author (the so-called "intentional fallacy"). Stanley Fish, professor of English and former Dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is probably the reigning king of postmodern intellectuals. His book Is There a Text in This Class?1, a classic of reader-response theory, argues that the meaning of a text arises from a reader's contact with it. There is no objective meaning to the text, only agreement within, and disagreement between, what Fish calls "interpretive communities," which filter the text through their own presuppositions. So there's no right interpretation, only competing interpretations, some of which are more competitive than others. The "right" one is the one your community believes in, and you are incapable of thinking outside of the limits of your own community.

This kind of thinking percolates outware into other disciplines. Thus it is not unusual in certain academic disciplines (particularly the non-scientific ones) to hear that society is structured to favour those in power and oppress those without it, and therefore the "truth" is nothing more than a social construct enforced by the existing power structures. Unfortunately, this kind of thinking inevitably impacts the non-academic world in very practical ways. Consider this excerpt from an opinion piece in the New York Times from October 15, 2001:

When Reuters decided to be careful about using the word "terrorism" because, according to its news director, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, Martin Kaplan, associate dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, castigated what he saw as one more instance of cultural relativism. But Reuters is simply recognizing how unhelpful the word is, because it prevents us from making distinctions that would allow us to get a better picture of where we are and what we might do. If you think of yourself as the target of terrorism with a capital T, your opponent is everywhere and nowhere. But if you think of yourself as the target of a terrorist who comes from somewhere, even if he operates internationally, you can at least try to anticipate his future assaults.

Is this the end of relativism? If by relativism one means a cast of mind that renders you unable to prefer your own convictions to those of your adversary, then relativism could hardly end because it never began. Our convictions are by definition preferred; that's what makes them our convictions. Relativizing them is neither an option nor a danger.

But if by relativism one means the practice of putting yourself in your adversary's shoes, not in order to wear them as your own but in order to have some understanding (far short of approval) of why someone else might want to wear them, then relativism will not and should not end, because it is simply another name for serious thought.2

Who authored of this op-ed? Stanley Fish, professor of English and former Dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Note the implication of what Fish is saying: We can't declare that killing thousands of people by using a loaded passenger jet as a giant cruise missile is actually, objectively, evil. That moral judgment has no basis except in our own culture's values. The perpetrators have a different culture, with different values. So the best we can do is try to understand the values of the people who would do such a thing, and hopefully we can prevent them from doing it again.

This is the prevailing sentiment of Postmodernism: no values are truly objective, no act is truly evil. We should learn to understand, not judge. The premiere episode of Enterprise summed this up quite well when T'Pol admonishes Trip after he has become upset at something an alien mother has done to her child: "You should learn to objectify other cultures so you know when to interfere and when not to." Those poor, unenlightened humans, all too ready to pass judgment rather than seek understanding!

Why doesn't secular society want to make moral judgments? They are trying to please men. They don't want to invalidate anyone or give the impression that they believe they have an exclusive lock on the truth. The ultimate anathema (no pun intended) is to insinuate that someone else might be wrong.

Unfortunately, this kind of thinking has made some inroads into the Church as well. Ever heard someone say something like, "Doctrine divides, love unites"? Or, "We should focus on what unifies us rather than what separates us"? Even in the Church we don't want to say anything that might displease someone else. Thus a televangelist like like Robert Schuller can recast Calvary in terms of "sanctify[ing] the ego trip" rather than showing mercy to condemned sinners. In his own words, Schuller could never address an audience as a group of sinners or speak of the wrath of God, because:

If you preach that . . . I sure hope you give it the kind of interpretation that I do or, I'll tell you, you'll drive them farther away and they'll be madder than hell at you and they'll turn the Bible off, and they'll switch you off, and they'll turn on the rock music and Madonna. Just because it's in the Bible doesn't mean you should preach it.3


Never compromise the integrity of the Gospel, even for a second, even if it gains you a few brownie points with the people you are witnessing to. Heed the advice that Paul gave to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:15: "15Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." It's God's approval we should seek, not men's. Peter and John understood this; they were called before the Sanhedrin for preaching the Gospel, and told to stop. They replied, "Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:19-20). Paul said that if he were to trying to please men, he would not be Christ's servant. If we are Christ's, we cannot compromise on the truth. We can't afford to.


1 Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1980).

2 Fish, "Condemnation Without Absolutes," New York Times 15 October 2001, late ed.: A19.

3 "A Discussion with Robert Schuller," On Doctrine, 21 February 2005, <http://www.ondoctrine.com/1schul01.htm>. [Originally published in Modern Reformation, Nov/Dec. 1992.]


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February 10, 2005

Introduction to Paul's Letter to the Galatians

(This is adapted from a Sunday school lesson originally delivered on September 9, 2001.)

Paul, an apostle, (not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead;) and all the brethren which are with me, unto the churches of Galatia: Grace be to you and peace from God the Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father: to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, if any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.

So begins Paul's epistle to the Galatians, a short, but very important part, of the New Testament canon. I want to start here with an overview of the letter before walking through it start to finish.


There is no doubt that this letter is from the apostle Paul. Of all Paul's letters, this is the one that is deemed the most certainly authentic - that is, it was actually authored by the Apostle and not someone using his name to lend his words credibility. The few cranks that have doubted its Pauline authorship have never been taken too seriously. On the contrary, where the authorship of other Pauline letters was less certain, it was by comparison with Galatians that their authenticity has sometimes been established.

Date and location

What is less certain, however, is where, when, and to whom this letter was written. Whom Paul was writing - and therefore when he was writing, and where the letter was going - is is one of the great debates of New Testament studies. There are two competing theories about this.

The North Galatian theory says that Paul was writing to the churches in the Roman province of Galatia, in the northern and central part of Asia Minor. He had visited that region twice, on his second and third missionary journeys, and established churches there. North Galatian theoirsts hypothesize that Galatians was written no earlier than AD 50-52, following his third missionary journey, during which he had had time for a second visit (cf. Acts 18:23). Paul wrote from Corinth, or possibly (as the subscript in the King James version says) Rome. Until the 17th century, the North theory was taken for granted.

But later, when the science of archaeology began to shed some new light on the Bible and the dating of significant historical events, conservative Bible scholars began to argue that it wasn't the northern political district of Galatia that Paul was addressing, but the southern ethnic district, named after the Gauls who had immigrated there from Europe in the third century BC. Paul had travelled through this region during his first missionary journey, retracing his steps on his way back to Palestine. Predictably, this is known as the South Galatian theory, and it hypothesizes that Paul wrote Galatians earlier, sometime between AD 46-50, probably from Syrian Antioch or somewhere else relatively close to Jerusalem.

Today the South Galatian theory is favoured by most conservative scholars. The North Galatian theory still has its proponents, but they tend to be the sort of liberal scholars that question the historical reliability of the New Testament in the first place. Stephen Mitchell writes:

The most authoritative champion of the South Galatian theory was the great explorer of Asia Minor, W. M. Ramsay, and although the North Galatian Theory still finds many supporters, his work should long ago have put the matter beyond dispute.1

(I find it interesting, however, that the next article in Anchor [on the Epistle to the Galatians] is written by a North Galatian proponent.)

The South theory resolves a number of dating and harmonization problems that the North theory poses. For example, according to the South theory, Paul would have written the letter prior to the council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). If this council had already occurred, why would Paul have to formulate a complex theological argument in favour of justification by faith alone and against justification by works of the Law? Could he not simply have appealed to the apostolic letter on this subject drafted by the apostles and delivered to Antioch? The South theory also explains why Barnabas was able to travel with Paul to Jerusalem (Gal. 2:1); they had travelled together during the first missionary journey, but by the time of Paul's second journey, they had already had a falling-out over John Mark.

Major themes

When you read the Epistles, remember that you are reading someone else's mail. At some point Paul must have received word of some crisis that provoked this response. Although we don't have that first message, we know what the crisis was about: legalism.

Compare the situation in Acts 15: while Paul and Barnabas were teaching in Antioch, some men had come along and started to teach that unless the Gentiles were circumcised according to the Law of Moses, they could not be saved. This resulted in controversy, and the issue was brought before the twelve apostles in Jerusalem. There again, these same people, who were converted Pharisees, insisted: "[I]t was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses" (Acts 15:5). After some debate, the apostles sent out a letter declaring that it was not necessary for Gentiles to observe the Jewish Law to be saved.

Obviously, the same sort of people had gone into the churches in Galatia and started spreading the same teaching around. We call these Pharisees and troublemakers "Judaizers," because they were Jews who were trying to turn Christianity back into Judaism. But for my purposes I prefer a more generic term: legalists. Simply put, they were claiming that faith in Christ was not enough to save, but you also had to meet some other legal requirement as well.

Apparently, the legalists managed to persuade a lot of the Galatians. A number of them had been led astray. This was a major crisis, and it was urgent that Paul respond. His letter reflects this urgency: it's brief, terse, forcefully written, and strongly worded. Paul knew the true gospel: justification by faith alone. Sola fide. The Galatians were turning away from the truth. To Paul, the gospel of faith alone was crucial. To abandon it and go back to the Law of Moses was tantamount to being a free man and turning back to a life of slavery!

This, then, is the major theme of Galatians: a defense of the true Gospel. Paul wrote to defend the good news that man can be put into a right relationship with God by faith in Christ alone, and not by accepting circumcision or following the dictates of the Law.

The commentator H. A. Ironside notes in his commentary on Galatians that Habakkuk 2:4 - "the just shall live by faith" - is quoted three times in the New Testament, each emphasizing a different aspect of this saying. (Ironside takes this recurring theme as strong evidence for Pauline authorship of Hebrews.)

Romans emphasizes the just. The purpose of this long letter is to show us how it is that we are justified by God.

Hebrews emphasizes faith. The author of Hebrews quotes Habakkuk at verse 10:38, which is only a few short words before the great "faith chapter" that holds up the faith of the Old Testament saints as an example worthy of following.

And in between them lies this little letter to the Galatians, emphasizing that the true saints of God shall live according to faith in Christ, and not the dictates of the Law. "[I]f ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law" (Gal. 5:16).

Another theme we see in Galatians is the unity of believers. Paul describes three different kinds of unity.

First, we are all the same before God despite our rank or social status or whatever authority we might have. When Paul recalls his interview with the apostles at Jerusalem, and he says that although they were of high reputation, nonetheless "whatsoever they were, it maketh no matter to me: God accepteth no man's person" (Gal. 2:6): that is, he doesn't play favourites. Perhaps Paul's detractors were claiming that he was only some kind of second-rate apostle, compared to the original Twelve. But Paul, aware of the authority the Twelve held in the church at Jerusalem, respected their position but was not in subjection to them because in the eyes of God, he was their equal. James says that we ought not to favour the wealthy over the poor in church (Jas. 2:1-9). We see it also in the sayings of Jesus, who said that "many that are first shall be last; and the last first" (Mark 10:31).

Second, Paul says that we are all the same before God despite our nationality. The whole purpose of the letter is to demonstrate that Jews and Gentiles both stand righteous before God because of faith. He writes:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Gal. 3:28-29)

Again, we see this thinking elsewhere in the Bible, such as Acts 10, where the Gentiles first receive the Gospel and Peter says,

Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him. (Acts 10:34-35)

Third, we are all the same before God despite when we lived. Justification by faith has always been the means by which we are made God's people. Abraham was justified by faith 430 years before the Law. And the Law itself was never intended by God as a means of earning his favour; when Paul writes, "if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law" (Gal. 3:21), he is implying that the law had no ability to save. Instead, he says,

the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. (Gal. 3:24)

A third major theme in Galatians is liberty. This is a recurring theme in Paul's letters. In Romans and 1 Corinthians, for example, he argues that where issues of conscience are concerned, such as the eating of meat, drinking wine, or observing certain holidays, Christians are free to make their own decisions as an act of faith. In Colossians he says that we are free of foolish philosophical reasonings and man-imposed rules and regulations. But here in Galatians, our liberty is from the works of the Law as a means of gaining favour with God.

It is important to remember that in the Bible, Christian liberty is never an excuse to do whatever we want, although some false teachers have portrayed it that way. Liberty is the freedom from law as a means of salvific merit - that is, trying to earn our way into heaven. We are saved through faith in Christ, and it is only because of his righteousness that we are enabled to be righteous at all! We have been freed from slavery to sin, and freed to obey God. Whenever Paul speaks of liberty, he always qualifies what he says by enjoining believers to "[b]ear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2); and, "[a]s we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith" (Gal. 6:10).

Galatians' significance to us

Of course, I don't believe that explaining all this is an end unto itself. The purpose of theology is to change lives or to equip saints. It has practical value. What, then, is the significance of Galatians to a contemporary reader?

First, there are still Judaizers with us. This error didn't just die out in the first century. There have always been fringe elements that have insisted that keeping the Law is a necessary prerequisite to salvation. Arguably the best known group of this type today would be the Seventh-day Adventists. Their theology is based on the premise that the rest of Christendom obeys only nine of the Ten Commandments, and that only they (and like-minded groups) observe all ten by observing God's Sabbath on the seventh day, Saturday, instead of the first day as we do. (According to official SDA doctrine, Sunday observance is the "mark of the Beast.") Practically speaking, the Adventists go even farther than this, because their moral standards extend beyond the Ten Commandments and into the minutiae of the Law.

Second, other so-called Christians want to return us to the bondage of works. It's no surprise that Galatians was a key text for the Reformers; it has been called the "Magna Carta of the Reformation." Luther once said that he was betrothed to Galatians, that it was his "Katy von Bora." His commentary on Galatians is a classic, arguably the magnum opus of his written work, apart from the German Bible. To the Reformers, this letter was not merely an apologetic against Judaizers, but the very "Christian" system that they sought to reform. Martin Luther wrote:

The papists quote the words of Christ: �If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments� (Matt. 19:17). With His own words they deny Christ and abolish faith in Him. Christ is made to lose His good name, His office, and His glory, and is demoted to the status of a law enforcer, reproving, terrifying, and chasing poor sinners around.

The proper office of Christ is to raise the sinner, and extricate him from his sins. . . .

With their doctrine these lying sects of perdition deface the benefits of Christ to this day. They rob Christ of His glory as the Justifier of mankind and cast Him into the role of a minister of sin. They are like the false apostles. There is not a single one among them who knows the difference between law and grace. . . .

Paul's argument has often comforted me. He argues: "If we who have been justified by Christ are counted unrighteous, why seek justification in Christ at all? If we are justified by the Law, tell me, what has Christ achieved by His death, by His preaching, by His victory over sin and death? Either we are justified by Christ, or we are made worse sinners by Him."2

Here is another pithy quote from John Calvin:

Hence it appears with what silly trifling the Papists of our day dispute with us about the word, as if it had been a word of our own contrivance. But Paul was unacquainted with the theology of the Papists, who declare that a man is justified by faith, and yet make a part of justification to consist in works. Of such half-justification Paul knew nothing. For, when he instructs us that we are justified by faith, because we can not be justified by works, he takes for granted what is true, that we cannot be justified through the righteousness of Christ, unless we are poor and destitute of a righteousness of our own. Consequently, either nothing or all must be ascribed to faith or to works.3

Knowing the enemies of truth was far easier in earlier times, when heresy was a capital crime and opposing Rome could have cost you your life. Today, the methodology is a lot more subtle, and therefore more persuasive. There have been a number of books published in recent years by Protestant converts to Catholicism, and an increase in the intensity of Catholic apologetics in general, that have had as their goal promoting the Roman church as Christ's true church on earth, by casting doubt on traditional Protestant beliefs such as sola Scriptura and portraying the Roman church as rich in history, tradition, and authority. Of course, the real issue isn't these things, but truth - what is the true Gospel? Knowing true doctrine is the first line of defense against false doctrine.

All the cults, to some extent, deny that faith in Christ is sufficient to save you. These groups are especially pernicious because they actively and aggressively recruit new members. Often they target campuses for "evangelism." Ten years ago as a student living in Toronto, I had frequent run-ins on the subway or in the malls with members of the "Toronto Church of Christ," who saw my school jacket and invited me to attend church or a Bible study. (One such person, after hearing that I already had a church I attended regularly, becameq quite antagonistic.) Controversy would ensue when the International Churches of Christ (ICOC) attempted to establish some sort of presence on campuses. The old Cult Awareness Network received more complaints about the ICOC than any other group except Scientology. (A word of warning: In 1996 the Church of Scientology actually took over CAN after an aggressive lawsuit designed to silence criticism.). The major error of the ICOC is twofold: First, they believe in the Campbellite error of baptismal regeneration; second, they believe in an extreme form of "discipling" in which a "discipler" has the authority to micro-manage virtually every aspect of members' personal lives. Is this not works added to faith, exactly the error Galatians refutes?

Third, other world religions seek God's favour through works. We cannot afford to ignore other religious movements - particularly Islam. It is the fastest growing religion on the planet, and some of its sects target students very aggressively. The Muslim student associations at my old school used to bill Islam as the fulfillment of Christianity. Islam is pure works-righteousness, and if you've ever seen one of those "ask the imam" sites on the Web, you know their form of legalism is often taken to the point of sheer superstition.


That is a very superficial treatment of a very complex letter for its size, but I hope it at least sets the stage for the the closer examination that it deserves. Starting next week I will start working through it from start to finish.


1 Stephen Mitchell, "Galatia," The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1992) 871.

2 Martin Luther, A Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians, tr. Theodore Graebner, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 10 February 2005 <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/luther/galatians.htm>.

3 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, tr. William Pringle, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 10 February 2005 <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom41.htm>.

Works Cited

Calvin, John. Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians. Tr. William Pringle. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. 10 February 2005. <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom41.htm>.

Luther, Martin. A Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians. Tr. Theodore Graebner. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. 10 February 2005. <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/luther/galatians.htm>.

Mitchell, Stephen. "Galatia." The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 2. New York: Doubleday, 1992. 870-72.

In addition to the above, my series on Galatians makes regular use of the following commentaries:

Barclay, William. The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians. Rev. ed. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976.

George, Timothy. Galatians. The New American Commentary. Vol. 30. Nashville: Broadman, 1994.

Longenecker, Richard N. Galatians. Word Biblical Commentary. Vol. 41. Dallas: Nelson, 1990.

Stott, John R. W. The Message of Galatians. The Bible Speaks Today. Leicester: InterVarsity, 1986.


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February 03, 2005

Philemon: Background and word study

(This post is the final exam that I wrote for my Biblical Hermeneutics course last year. I decided to blog it since I did very well and it follows on last week's entry on Philemon. While I'm still satisfied with the results of the original, the answers to this exam reflect a bit more thinking about this short letter and suggest some different directions into which I could take a similar study today.)

Update (Mar. 31/05): I located the hardcopy of the exam and have added the specific questions that the exam answered.

(This blog post makes use of the BWGRKL font for some Greek text, available for download from BibleWorks at no charge.)

What can we know about the geographical and chronological setting of this letter? For example, where is Paul when he writes? Where is Philemon living? (Note: Reading Paul's epistle to the Colossians might be useful at this point.) Make sure you support your claims from the text itself, indicating biblical references.

Question 1. Paul addresses his letter to both Philemon and Archippus (Philem. 2). Paul also sends greetings to Archippus in his letter to the Colossians (Col. 4:17). If Philemon meets with the church in Archippus' home, as Paul seems to imply, then Philemon also lives in Colosse.

The epistle to Philemon is a plea on behalf of Onesimus (Philem. 10). Yet Paul sends Onesimus with Tychicus to deliver his epistle to the Colossians (Col. 4:7, 10). He also sends greetings from the same people in both letters: Epaphras his fellow prisoner (Philem. 23; Col. 4:12), as well as Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke (Philem. 24; Col. 4:10, 14). Clearly, Paul wrote both letters to Colosse at the same time - one to be read to the church, and the other a personal letter - and had them both delivered by Onesimus and Tychicus on the same trip.

When Paul writes these letters, he is on good terms with Mark. At first this suggests an early dating, before Mark abandoned Paul (Acts 15:38). However, Paul writes these letters from prison (Philem. 1; Col. 4:18), and Acts does not record Paul being imprisoned during the first missionary journey. Therefore, Philemon must be one of Paul's later letters, most likely written after the third missionary journey, after Paul had reconciled his differences with John Mark. Possibly Paul wrote the letter in Jerusalem. More likely, however, it originated in Rome, since Luke records that he and an Aristarchus accompanied Paul on his journey there (Acts 27:2), and Paul spent at least two years under house arrest (Acts 28:30). However, Demas has not yet abandoned Paul (2 Tim. 4:10), and Timothy and Mark are still with him. Therefore, although Philemon is late enough that Paul describes himself as an old man (9), it must still be somewhat earlier than 2 Timothy.

Who are the different characters mentioned? What is their relationship to Paul?

Aside from Paul, the two most significant characters are the letter's recipient, Philemon, and its subject, Onesimus. Philemon is a friend of Paul in Colosse. He is one of Paul's converts: Paul writes to him, "you owe to me even your own self" (Philem. 19). Philemon is the owner of Onesimus, a slave (16). Onesimus apparently ran away from Philemon (15) and went to Rome, where he encountered Paul and became another of his converts: Paul says he has "begotten" him (10).

Paul co-addresses his letter to Archippus, his "fellow soldier" (2). Clearly he is a Christian worker of some kind. He hosts a church in his house. Paul saw fit to make sure he read the letter as well, which suggests that he is Philemon's pastor. Possibly Apphia is Archippus' wife, and Paul extends the courtesy of including her in his greeting.

Paul's young protégé Timothy is included in the salutation (1). This suggests that he co-authored the letter along with Paul. Perhaps the addition of his name lends additional authority to the letter. If Timothy is seen as backing Paul, then Paul's request to Philemon becomes less of a mere personal favour, and more of an official request of the Christian church at large (albeit a tactfully worded one).

Other minor characters also receive mention in this letter. Epaphras is imprisoned with Paul. Mark, cousin of Luke, abandoned Paul on his first missionary journey, but at this time they are reconciled. Aristarchus accompanied Paul on the voyage from Jerusalem to Rome. Demas is another Christian worker with Paul, who would later desert him (2 Tim. 4:10). Luke is the author of the third Gospel and Acts, the "beloved physician" (Col. 4:14) who also accompanied Paul from Jerusalem (evident from the first-person narrative of the journey, e.g. Acts 27:1).

What are the natural, logical divisions of the letter? Title these divisions. Use outline form for this question, and provide the biblical references (verse numbers).

Philemon can be outlined as follows:

  1. Salutation and Blessing (1-3)
  2. Thanksgiving and Prayer (4-7)
  3. Letter Body (8-22)
    1. Paul's appeal on Onesimus' behalf (8-16)
    2. Paul's request to Philemon (17-21)
    3. Paul's hope to visit Philemon (22)
  4. Closing (23-25)
    1. Personal greetings (23-24)
    2. Benediction (25)

What does Paul mean when he writes about one "who is my very heart"? What is the meaning of the word translated as "heart" in v. 12 (NIV)? Conduct a word study of this word. . . . Limit yourself to the use of the word in the NT, but still conduct your research using appropriate tools such as Kohlenberger's Greek English Concordance to the New Testament, NIDNTT, TDNT, and BAGD (if you can access Greek). Set up a nuance chart.

The word translated "very heart" in Philem. 12 is spla,gcnon (splanchnon). The word literally means intestines or innards. Figuratively, it is used of the intestines as the seat of strong emotion. While the King James Version literally translates the word as "bowels," modern English Bibles substitute the word "heart," a more familiar idiom to contemporary English speakers who speak of emotions as coming from the heart. Sometimes the term stands for the innards as the seat of compassion; Paul uses it to refer to the emotions themselves, particularly affection. In Philemon, however, he distinctively uses the word as a metonymy standing for the whole person. When he calls Onesimus his "very heart," he is saying that Onesimus is very close to him, as it were, part of himself.

Nuance Chart for spla,gcnon

Nuance Paul Rest of NT
intestines Acts 1:18
tender mercy Luke 1:78
beloved Col. 3:12
affection 2 Cor. 6:12; 7:15; Phil. 1:8; 2:1
heart (fig. the seat of compassion 1 John 3:17
heart (fig. the whole person) Philem. 7, 20
very heart (fig. the whole person) Philem. 12

Write a summary on the principal nuances of the word, and explain which nuance best fits v. 12.

The original meaning of spla,gcnon in the fifth century b.c. was literally the entrails or viscera of a sacrificial animal. It later came to mean the sacrifice itself. In later usage, it was used to refer to the inward parts of man, subsequently the organs of procreation, and then figuratively for children, the result of procreation.1

Acts 1:18 speaks literally of Judas' spla,gna spilling out on the ground after his suicide eviscerated him.

In later Jewish thought, the viscera figuratively became known as the seat of the emotions.2 With the exception of Acts 1:18, all the uses of the term in the New Testament have some connection to this meaning.

The synoptic gospels use the verb form of the word, splagcni,zomai almost exclusively, and it is uniformly translated "to have compassion." In Luke 1:78, the only use of the noun form, spla,gcnon means "tender mercy." John uses the word in a similar sense in 1 John 3:17, where the heart or bowels are a metaphor for the seat of compassionate feelings: "the source of action that helps and relieves need."3

It is Paul's letters where spla,gcnon gets the most use. In most cases, Paul uses the word to mean "affection": specifically, fondness, tender feelings. In one case, Col. 3:12, the word means "beloved," standing for the object of God's affections.

However, in the letter to Philemon, Paul uses a distinctive nuance of spla,gcnon. Here the seat of the emotions, the innards (usually translated "heart" for a contemporary English-speaking audience), is a metonymy standing for the whole person. Thus, "refresh my heart in Christ" (Philem. 20) means "refresh me in Christ" (cf. Philem. 7). In v. 12 where Paul refers to Onesimus as his "very heart," the sense is that by sending Onesimus back to Philemon, he is sending a piece of himself back. This would appear to be the best nuance for spla,gcnon in this place. The metaphor as rendered in the NIV and other English Bibles seems a little obscure; for a contemporary audience, it could possibly have been rendered "my heart of hearts" or "a piece of myself" and still retained Paul's meaning.

Considering that Paul's letter to Philemon is a "masterpiece of tact and persuasion" steering "a delicate course between pleading and demanding" (KBH, 356), indicate how Paul's letter to Philemon might be significant to everyday life in the twenty-first century.

The situation with Onesimus and Philemon was one that, if left unaddressed, might have disrupted the unity of the church. In secular life there was a profound class difference between Philemon the slave owner and Onesimus the slave in a society where slavery was taken for granted. However, Paul had taught that in the Church these class differences did not exist, since all believers had the same standing before Christ (Gal. 3:28). This tension needed to be resolved for the good of the church. Thus, it was tantamount to a church discipline issue.

The example of Philemon demonstrates that these matters ought to be handled with grace, rather than coercion. Philemon was fully within his civil rights to punish Onesimus even to death, and a direct order from the Apostle to receive him back without consequence may have had a chilly reception. Rather than pull rank on Philemon, however, Paul's gracious letter appeals to him as a dear friend, his spiritual child, and a partner, casting his request in terms of a personal favour rather than an apostolic command.

There is also a subtext in Philemon: In the Christian community, the relationships between believers are transformed. Paul calls Onesimus his child in Christ and a brother. He appeals to Philemon to treat him as he would Paul, a partner. One who is considered a brother, a son, or a partner cannot rightly be considered a slave; the positions are antithetical. While the social institution of slavery is gone, the message of Philemon can still be applied in a general sense to lessons about loving the unlovable. For example, in the United States, which still has a relatively recent history of slavery, D. A. Carson has noted that in the classroom he uses Philemon as a starting point for serious discussion about the nature of racism.4


1 Helmut Köster, "spla,gcnon etc.," Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, tr. and ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, vol. 7 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965) 548.

2 Köster 550.

3 Hans-Helmut Esser, "Mercy, Compassion," New International Dictionary of New Testament Terms, ed. Colin Brown, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975) 600.

4 D. A. Carson,"Old Testament Prophecy," Heritage Expository Lecture Series, Heritage Theological Seminary, 4 Oct. 2001.

Works Cited

Bible Gateway. 1995-2003. Gospel Communications International. 5 Jul. 2004. <http://bible.gospelcom.net>.

Carson, D. A. "Old Testament Prophecy." Heritage Expository Lecture Series. Heritage Theological Seminary. 4 Oct. 2001.

Esser, Hans-Helmut. "Mercy, Compassion." New International Dictionary of New Testament Terms. Ed. Colin Brown. Vol. 2. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975. 593-601.

Köster, Helmut. "spla,gcnon etc." Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Tr. and ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Vol. 7. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968. 548-59.

The Unbound Bible. n.d. Biola University. 6 Jul. 2004. <http://unbound.biola.edu/>.

Next Thursday: Introducing Paul's letter to the Galatians.


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