The book of Philemon is the shortest Pauline epistle in the Bible, and for quite a while I’ve been puzzled at the inherent difference between the epistles of Romans or Corinthians to this short, little letter. Even the Pauline letters addressed to Titus and Timothy (persons as compared to Churches) made a lot more sense than the book of Philemon to me. I’ve never really gotten anything out of the book of Philemon because it seemed to be nothing more than a regular letter, from Paul to his friend Philemon about a mutual friend. I’ve never really wondered what this book was about, I’ve never really wondered who Philemon was, and most importantly, I’ve never really wondered who Onesimus was.When I finally began to ponder about these three questions, suddenly, the book of Philemon became a rich and doctrine-filled book. However, in this study, we will put aside the theme of slavery and just focus on Paul’s letter-writing abilities. His numerous letters have been a great blessing to many for generations, and even in a short letter like the book of Philemon, we can clearly see how his encouragement to Philemon was direct and affirming. In today’s study, we will put aside the short but intriguing plot of Philemon and Onesimus, and instead draw some attention to how Paul’s encouragement to Philemon took the form of a few words in a letter.
There are 3 subjects in this verse alone, and it is based on these three subjects that I will analyse this verse today. Firstly, Philemon as the recipient, secondly, Paul as the author, and lastly, the saints, or the rest of their brothers and sisters in Christ.
you, brother – it is not rare for Paul to call someone intimately – brother – though the phrase used here can be seen as a higher level of intimacy than the usual ‘brothers’ that refers to Christians in general. Out of all his letters, only his letters to Timothy, Titus and Philemon were written to individuals – the rest were written to churches. He was perhaps a lot closer to Timothy and Titus than he was to Philemon – calling them his dear sons – [1 Tim 1:2, Titus 1:4], as he did regarding Onesimus – that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains [Philemon 1:10]. Note the difference in intimacy – Philemon was a brother, Onesimus, Timothy and Titus were ‘son’s. For good reason of course, the three of them clearly had followed Paul for a significant amount of time and assisted in his mission trips. Philemon, on the other hand, while a fellow worker in Christ, was never directly mentored by Paul – or at least we have no inclination to believe that he ever was. The letter to Philemon is notably short, and it was arguably for Onesimus’ sake [the son] and not Philemon [the brother] that Paul wrote this letter.
Your love has given me great joy and encouragement – And Paul proceeds to talk about Philemon’s role in his life – we may not always play a major part in the lives of others, but when we show our concern to others, or when our good deeds spread to the ears of others, we are able to be an uplifting testimony and a source of encouragement to others. An example of this was given in Paul’s second letter to the Church of Corinth – He told us about your longing for me, your deep sorrow, your ardent concern for me, so that my joy was greater than ever [2 Cor 7:7] – the he in this verse refers to Titus, who reported to Paul about the situation of the Church in Corinth. We see here a clear example of how the love and concern of the church of Corinth was a source joy to Paul – my joy was greater than ever. Indeed, when we feel the love and the concern of others, we will feel joy and we will be encouraged. Sometimes a little expression of concern from somebody is all it takes to give us the strength to live another day through our afflictions. Sometimes a little bit of love from somebody is all it takes for us to smile like a fool for the rest of the day.
have refreshed the hearts of the saints – Saints in general have referred to those who believe in Christ, and hence, Christians, or other brothers-and-sisters-in-Christ. The Church is a body of Christ, and members of the Church are akin to the parts of body – we are a collective, we are One. When a member of the Church encompasses the love of God and acts in love, there is a fresh breath of air in the entire collective. It empowers the entire community. Using the previous example in 2 Corinthians 7 – By all this we are encouraged. In addition to our own encouragement, we were especially delighted to see how happy Titus was, because his spirit has been refreshed by all of you [2 Cor 7:13]. Titus was the one who delivered Paul’s letters to the church of Corinth, and the one who reported on the situation of the Church after receiving Paul’s first letter. By the good works and deeds of the Corinthians, Titus was influenced, his spiritual well refreshed, his faith strengthened.
I happen to enjoy writing letters and sending them out via, what we crudely and rudely term as ‘snail mail’ today. It’s sad, but in general, the term ‘mail’ today refers to email. You can’t even call them posts, for people will immediately think of blog posts or tweets or facebook posts. Often it is hard to write letters – especially now that letters become even more personal because of their rarity (that’s how I feel at least) – you don’t know if what you write will affect the recipient positively or negatively. Yet, letters are useless if they are not sent. The New Testament authors wrote letters and sent letters, and through their letters, impacted and encouraged generations of people. Our letters won’t be comparable, of course. But still, using Paul’s letter to Philemon as an example, we can learn how to honour our brothers-and-sisters in Christ and encourage them through words.
(Photo: Reuters/Denis Balibouse)A graphic showing a collision at full power is pictured at the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experience control room of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Meyrin, near Geneva March 30, 2010.
The recent verification (to within a whisker) of Peter Higgs’s prediction made in the teeth of weighty skepticism is rightly celebrated as the inspiring stuff of which great science is made – the payoff for the intellectual commitment and scientific prowess of a dedicated international team of specialists working for many years.
The Higgs boson has been dubbed the “god particle” much to the dismay of many physicists, including Peter Higgs and Lawrence Krauss. Yet the latter, perhaps unintentionally, gives a new twist to the “god particle” epithet in his Newsweek article: “Humans, with their remarkable tools and their remarkable brains, may have just taken a giant step towards replacing metaphysical speculation with empirically verifiable knowledge. The Higgs particle is now arguably more relevant than God.” Krauss has not taken that giant step himself, since his statement, far from being a statement of science, is another metaphysical speculation – a mixture of hubris and an inadequate concept of God.
What does Krauss mean by “more relevant than God?” Relevant to what? Clearly the Higgs particle is more relevant than God to the question of how the universe works. But not to the question why there is a universe in which particle physics can be done. The internal combustion engine is arguably more relevant than Henry Ford to the question of how a car works, but not for why it exists in the first place. Confusing mechanism and/or law on the one hand and agency on the other, as Krauss does here, is a category mistake easily made by ignoring metaphysics.
Krauss does not seem to realize that his concept of God is one that no intelligent monotheist would accept. His “God” is the soft-target “God of the gaps” of the “I can’t understand it, therefore God did it” variety. As a result, Krauss, like Dawkins and Hawking, regards God as an explanation in competition with scientific explanation. That is as wrong-headed as thinking that an explanation of a Ford car in terms of Henry Ford as inventor and designer competes with an explanation in terms of mechanism and law. God is not a “God of the gaps”, he is God of the whole show.
Indeed, it was belief in an intelligent Creator that convinced the great pioneers, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Clerk Maxwell, Babbage and many others that science could be done. C. S. Lewis put it this way: “Men became scientific because they expected law in nature and they expected law in nature because they believed in a lawgiver.”
The Nobel prizewinner Melvin Calvin traces the rise of modern science to the conviction “that the universe is governed by a single God, and is not the product of the whims of many gods, each governing his own province according to his own laws. This monotheistic view seems to be the historical foundation for modern science.”
All this notwithstanding, Lawrence Krauss thinks that the Higgs boson “brings science closer to dispensing with the need for any supernatural shenanigans all the way back to the beginning of the universe”. Yet, even Isaac Newton did not imagine his discovery of the law of gravitation banished God like that. On the contrary, Newton was motivated by his magnificent discovery to write his magnum opus, the brilliant Principia Mathematica, expressing the hope that it would persuade the thinking person to believe in God.
The more Newton understood of the mathematical structure of the universe, the more he admired the creative genius of God, not the less. Surely it is obvious to all but the willfully blind that the more we understand of engineering, the more we admire the genius of a Rolls or a Royce, not the less. And the more we know about the Higgs boson . . . ?
Furthermore, dismissing God by pejoratively describing his activity as “supernatural shenanigans” is not perhaps the wisest approach for someone who appears to think, if I don’t misunderstand him, that the Higgs field is a “nothing” out of which the universe (self-contradictorily) creates itself by means of “a purposeless quantum burp”. Natural shenanigans?
Also, such reductionist analysis provides no more clue to the meaning of it all than an analysis in terms of particles of paint would help us understand the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel – to say nothing of the absurd idea that the paint particles created the painting in the first place. Analysis of particles of paint may help you create a new paint, but not a new painting.
If the universe, as Krauss alleges, is ultimately the product of a purposeless quantum burp, then so are we and so are our minds. Thus Krauss, in a delightful irony, gives us good reason to doubt the reliability of our human cognitive faculties and, consequently, to doubt the validity of any concepts, beliefs or arguments that they produce, including those involved in the Higgs boson, atheism – and, of course, shenanigans. It is Krauss’s atheism that is at war with his science – not God. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein pointed out that the meaning of a system will not be found within the system. The meaning of the universe will be found where Newton and Clerk Maxwell found it: in God. So what can we say about the Higgs boson? Simply this: God created it, Higgs predicted it and Cern found it. We rightly celebrate the last two – what about the first?
Clerk Maxwell’s answer is above the door of the most famous physics laboratory in the world: the Cavendish in Cambridge: “The works of the Lord are great, sought out by those who have pleasure in them.”
John C. Lennox is the Professor of Mathematics, Oxford, and Fellow in Mathematics and Philosophy of Science, Green Templeton College, Oxford. He is also Adjunct Professor at the Oxford Centre For Christian Apologetics.