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From Useless to Useful

Series Title: Going Up with the Psalms of Ascent (chapter 12)

 

These edited transcripts are taken from Dwight's most loved audio series, Highways in Their Hearts. Click here to see the downloadable audio version in our online store.

 

Let’s look at and wrestle with the implications of two powerful images from the Psalms of Ascent. The first is found in Psalm 124:7.


We have escaped like a bird

from the snare of the fowlers;

the snare is broken,

and we have escaped!


The second is Psalm 123:2.


Behold, as the eyes of servants

look to the hand of their master, [...]

so our eyes look to the LORD our God,

till he has mercy upon us.

  

The first metaphor is that of a caged bird. The idea here is narrowness, distress, and being closed in. Yet the snare is broken, and the bird escapes, free. The second metaphor is that of a servant, a slave looking up to a caring master.


What is the relationship between freedom on the one hand and slavery on the other?


It is quite striking how many times the early followers of Jesus described themselves as slaves in the New Testament letters. Because the Greek word slave [doulos] is translated as servant, it’s easy to miss how compelling this metaphor was for them.

 

Rom 1:1 – Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God

2 Peter 1 – Simeon Peter, a slave and apostle of Jesus Christ

James 1:1 – James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ

Jude 1 – Jude, a slave of Jesus Christ


Is this simply a literary device? Or is there spiritual substance to the apostles describing themselves as slaves? I think it is the latter and that it speaks of some incredibly deep spiritual wisdom at work in their lives. Slavery was a widespread phenomenon, very familiar to the Greeks, the Romans, and the Jewish peoples.


In the ancient world, one became a slave by:

1) Being captured and conscripted during wartime

2) Being born to a slave mother

3) Selling or yielding yourself to another


In 2 Timothy 2:24, Paul describes a leader in the early church as the Lord’s slave and their work as that of helping lead to repentance those who are captured by him [Satan] to do his will (25). Paul is using this common image of warfare, people being taken captive and forced into slavery against their will.


You’ve heard me say the Kingdom of God is an upside-down kingdom. Here, in a great reversal, the slaves of God are those who work to free the slaves of Satan from the snare of the devil (26).


He uses this metaphor again in Colossians 1. Except this time, it is from the perspective of our testimony. He [God] has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (13-14). The victory of Jesus is pictured as setting slaves free—free to serve him in freedom.

  

Paul uses the slavery metaphor in Romans 6:16-18 in the third sense of selling yourself out of desperation or being sold involuntarily. Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?


You submitted yourselves to a slave master and were a slave to sin in its myriad manifestations. Whether you wanted to or not, you were serving the Evil One. But in Jesus Christ, you are set free. Why? So you can be free. And what does being free mean? It means you can now submit yourselves to obeying Christ as your King!


I hope this is stirring your heart like it is mine.


Here are two questions that can help you get a sense of the cosmic weight of these truths. What are you set free from? And, what are you set free for?


The LORD says to his people through Moses, Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days (Deut 30:19-20). Here is the paradox. True liberty is found only in obedience to the One who sets you free.


The great wisdom of Scripture teaches freedom is more than freedom to choose; it is freedom to choose to serve God.


Let me encourage you with a fascinating story about the book of Philemon, one of the most peculiar texts in the New Testament. It is a personal letter. One that embarrasses modern theologians because, in it, we see Paul telling a runaway slave (Onesimus) to return and submit to his owner (Philemon).


Paul, imprisoned in Ephesus, had befriended the young man. He subsequently wrote to his master, Philemon, who was a church leader in Colossae, probably an elder. Paul seems to have written this letter at the same time that he wrote the letter to the Colossians. Most likely, they were sent together.


I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus—I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me. (vv 9-10)


The name Onesimus means “useful”. Notice Paul’s play on words. The runaway slave Onesimus was useless to you, but now he is useful to you and me. He is asking Philemon to consider treating this slave kindly when he returns, suggesting he even release him from slavery.


Paul speaks of this boy as a child so perhaps he is a teenager. How did they come together? We do not know. It is not inconceivable to imagine that Onesimus stole some money to escape slavery, went to Ephesus, and ended up in prison with Paul. Paul subsequently wins him to the Lord and instructs this young man to do what is right: to repent, return, and seek reconciliation and restoration.


There is great risk in doing so. In the ancient world, the slave owners had legal authority over slaves; they were possessions without rights. Paul is asking Onesimus to risk his life to do the right thing.


We do not know how Onesimus or Philemon responded to Paul. But there is an intriguing possibility.


Some fifty years after Paul wrote to Philemon, there was a bishop in Syria named Ignatius. He was taken captive by the Romans and led from Syria to Rome. As this beloved church leader passed through towns and cities, delegations of Christians went out to encourage him. When he got to Rome, Ignatius wrote thank-you letters to the churches that risked themselves to care for him.


Among those letters is one addressed to the church at Ephesus. In that letter, Ignatius extolls the wonderful bishop of the church at Ephesus, whose name was Onesimus. Ignatius mentions Onesimus by name several times, and in one instance, he uses his name in the same wordplay as Paul did when he penned Philemon.


Is it possible that this slave, won to Jesus by Paul, decided to act on Paul’s instruction and return? Is it possible Philemon acted on Paul’s instruction and restored Onesimus to freedom and fellowship with the church in Ephesus, too? Is it possible the slave boy grew up to become the bishop of one of the most influential communities of the early church age?


I know this is not provable but the possibility sheds light on the mysterious question of why this personal letter to Philemon—so totally unlike any other document in the New Testament—became part of the canon.


Most scholars believe someone went to great lengths to find and gather the letters Paul had written and sent to various places during his ministry. Is it possible the church at Ephesus compiled them? They certainly had the resources. And is it possible that someone influential in that church had a particular fondness for the letter to Philemon and included it in the collection?


And could that someone have been the slave boy saved by Jesus, Onesimus?


My fellow slaves, remember that true liberty is doing what is right in God’s sight. When you submit to the yoke of Christ, you experience a freedom no chains can bind.



 

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This study is from a professionally produced transcription of the audio recording. It was edited for readability by the team at JC Studies.


Dwight A. Pryor (1945-2011) was a gifted Bible teacher of exceptional clarity and depth who earned the friendship and admiration of both Christian and Jewish scholars—in the United States and Israel—as well as the respect and appreciation of followers of Jesus around the world. His expertise in the language, literature, and culture of Israel during the life and time of Jesus and the early church yield insights that nourish every area of faith and practice.


Dwight founded JC Studies in 1984 to edify the people of God. Click here to explore over fifty of his audio and video seminars.

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