Reflections on spiritual themes (and a few other things).

Tag: Paul

Pen & Paper

A fellow-preacher and friend of mine is currently vacationing in Ireland. While in Dublin, he visited the Chester Beatty, a library and museum which houses a document called “p46,” the oldest known manuscript of the apostle Paul’s letters. It’s a collection of most of Paul’s letters dating to the middle of the second century, discovered in Cairo Egypt in the 1930s. 

The earliest reference to a collection of the apostle Paul’s letters is in the New Testament itself in 2 Peter 3.15-16. There, Peter says to “regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.” 

Peter was writing to an audience in Asia Minor (what we call Turkey) that was already acquainted with Paul’s writings. Peter equated Paul’s letters with “Scripture” (v. 16). So then, by about AD 64, Paul’s letters were already being collected and circulated in Asia Minor. The existence of manuscript p46 means that within a century, Paul’s letters were being published and distributed across the Roman Empire at least as far away as Egypt.

One interesting feature of manuscript p46 is the presence of reader’s marks – strokes and dots – written with a different ink than in the original text. Apparently, whoever owned this document made notations in it. They appear to be efforts to divide the text into smaller units (much like our chapter and verse divisions). Marking in your Bible is not a modern invention, it appears to be a long-held tradition for serious Bible students.

One of my great fears about modern publishing is the disappearance of physical documents. These days, everything is “virtual” – real documents, but only in electronic form. Much of what we know about ancient Christianity and Judaism comes in the form of physically written documents preserved over time. Once an electronic document is destroyed, they’re almost impossible to recover. At least with pen and ink, fragments are often left behind for us.

I’m thankful that God in his providence used pen and ink to preserve His Word in a permanent form. I’m thankful that ancient brothers and sisters in Christ loved their Bibles enough to mark in them. I’m thankful that something as simple as a stick with some ink at one end can be such a powerful instrument in God’s eternal plans.

I encourage you to do two things. First, don’t be afraid to write in your Bibles. It’s a great memory and study tool. Many electronic Bibles allow you to do this. Second, the next time you’re in your Bible, take a moment to thank God for preserving it for us to read today.

For Love’s Sake

“Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to order you to do what is proper, yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you”.

The apostle Paul, Philemon 8-9

The apostle Paul wrote this to his friend and fellow-Christian Philemon. Philemon was apparently a wealthy Christian who lived in Colossae. He was wealthy enough to own slaves, one of whom was Onesimus whose name meant “profitable” or “useful” (v. 15-16).

If you carefully read Paul’s this letter, it seems that Onesimus ran away from Philemon’s household and may have even stolen from his master (v. 18-19). He wound up in Rome where Paul was imprisoned. At some point, Onesimus met and was converted to Christ by Paul’s efforts (v. 10). Now Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon with this letter to effect reconciliation (v. 15-16). 

The wording of Paul’s appeal to Philemon is striking. Legally, Philemon had the right to do pretty much anything he wanted to Onesimus. He could treat him as harshly as he wanted and could even have him executed. Slaves were considered the property of their masters and were treated according to their whims. Onesimus was returning to Philemon at great personal risk. Paul knew this and took a different approach. 

Paul says that he could “order” or “command” Philemon to do right. Paul wasn’t asserting legal authority but moral authority. As an apostle he could have required Philemon to receive Onesimus, but Paul let him choose. He appealed not to authority, but to love (v. 9). 

Doing this “for love’s sake” meant that Philemon should treat Onesimus with brotherly love since now they both were Christians. Paul says to treat him like a brother, not just a piece of property. Hovering in the background is also the love we have for others because of our love for God (cf. 1 John 4.11). 

It’s for “love’s sake” that we rise above ordinary expectation to extraordinary action. For love’s sake a mother stays up all night with her sick child. For love’s sake a man may work for years at an unfulfilling job to support his family. For love’s sake a sibling helps a younger or weaker brother or sister with homework and chores. For love’s sake we help our neighbors with yardwork and errands and paying bills when they’re struggling with poor health, or they’ve lost their job. For love’s sake we sit with the sick and dying. For love’s sake we volunteer for hopeless causes, truly believing that our actions make a difference. For love’s sake we exhort others to faithfulness to Christ. For love’s sake we pray for one another. 

For love’s sake we do all these things and more, knowing it was for love’s sake that God saved us from our sins. That’s a love worth imitating. 

When Firing Isn’t An Option

Lou Holtz once said, “Motivation is simple. You eliminate those who are not motivated.”

I suppose that for someone in a position of power or authority that is one possible solution to motivation. The head coach can always bench an unmotivated player, or increase his level of motivation with extra conditioning, or cut him from the team. The boss in the workplace can also fire an unproductive worker, or assign him to “the job that nobody wants.” I would think that sometimes this is the best way to motivate someone else. 

But not always.

There are three problems with this approach. First, you can’t always get rid of problematic people. Anyone who has ever coached a team knows that sometimes the lazy athlete may also be more popular than the coach. The athlete may be protected by a prideful administrator or by irate parents. The boss may not be able to fire someone because of contract issues, union protection, or simply because he can’t afford to go out and find better workers.

Second, there are often better ways of motivating others: Being patient with someone; showing someone a better way; offering further training or opportunities; making the workplace more internally competitive. All of these things might prove to be better motivators than the threat of being banished to a deserted island.

Third, this approach overlooks the fact that some of the greatest triumphs in life come out of situations that we cannot change. There are many circumstances in life that we cannot control. I may not be able to control my coworkers’ attitudes, but I can change mine. I may not be able to change the work that someone else does, but I may find a better way to do mine. And, when all else fails, I could learn to be content. Yikes!

The apostle Paul demonstrates this kind of thinking in his letter to the church in Philippi. At the time he wrote, he was imprisoned in Rome for the impolitic act of preaching the good news about Jesus of Nazareth. Some of Paul’s fellow preachers took advantage of his imprisonment and hoped that it would cause him distress. They apparently thought that since he was in jail this would create an opportunity for their own prominence. They thought they could gain some sort of competitive advantage with Paul out of the picture. They thought this would show him that Brother Paul wasn’t the only preacher in town.

Paul’s response? “Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ even from envy and strife, but some also from good will; the latter do it out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel; the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice” (Philippians 1.15-18).

Paul couldn’t control his circumstances. He couldn’t control their circumstances. He couldn’t change their motives or their actions. Nor could he fire them. So, he found the good in what they did, even if their motives were corrupt.

Maybe you can’t change someone else’s motivation, but you can certainly change your own. Maybe you can’t change your circumstances, but you can certainly change your attitude about them. Maybe you can’t get rid of your problems, but you can choose to thrive anyway. 

And that’s worth celebrating!