THE EPISTLE TO PHILEMON A Model Of Christian Courtesy (1-25) INTRODUCTION 1. There is a book in the New Testament which has been described as: a. A model of Christian courtesy b. A manifestation of Christian love c. A monument of Christian conversion 2. That book is Paul's epistle to Philemon, the shortest of all of Paul's letters 3. In this lesson, we shall take a brief look at this unique letter [Before actually reading it, it might be helpful to consider some...] I. BACKGROUND INFORMATION A. THE AUTHOR... 1. The apostle Paul, of course 2. As clearly indicated in verses 1,9,19 B. THE TIME AND PLACE OF WRITING... 1. By carefully comparing this epistle with the one to the Colossians, it is clear that both were written at the same time and from the same place a. Like Colossians, the epistle to Philemon was written while Paul was in chains (Phm 1,10,13,23; Col 4:18) b. Timothy joined Paul in both epistle (Phm 1; Col 1:1) c. Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke joined in the salutations of both (Phm 23,24; Col 4:10-14) d. Onesimus, the subject of the epistle to Philemon, was one of the messengers by whom the epistle to the Colossians was sent (Col 4:7-9) 2. If the epistle to Philemon was written about the time of Colossians and the other "prison epistles" (Ephesians and Philippians)... a. Then it was written during Paul's imprisonment at Rome, the time mentioned in Ac 28:30-31 b. This would make it sometime during 61-63 A.D. C. THE MAIN CHARACTERS... 1. PHILEMON a. He was likely a member of the church at Colosse b. A very hospitable one, as we shall see c. It is possible that he was one of Paul's own converts (cf. Phm 19) 2. APPHIA - possibly the wife of Philemon 3. ARCHIPPUS a. Thought by many to be the son of Philemon b. A minister of the gospel (cf. Col 4:17) 4. ONESIMUS a. He had been one of Philemon's slaves (Phm 16) b. Who had evidently run away (Phm 15) c. Somehow, he had traveled from Colosse to Rome, found Paul, and was converted to Christ (Phm 10) d. He had become very dear to Paul, and very useful (Phm 11-13; Col 4:10) D. THE OCCASION FOR THIS LETTER... 1. Paul did not think it right to keep Onesimus with him in Rome, and was therefore sending him back to Philemon 2. This letter to Philemon is an appeal by Paul... a. To receive Onesimus back, now as a brother in Christ b. To forgive him if he had done any wrong [With this background information, let's now READ the epistle, noticing...] II. THE MAIN DIVISIONS A. PAUL'S GREETINGS (1-3) B. PAUL'S THANKSGIVING AND PRAYER FOR PHILEMON (4-7) C. PAUL'S PLEA IN BEHALF OF ONESIMUS (8-21) D. PAUL'S CONCLUDING REMARKS (22-25) [With a reading of the epistle fresh on our minds, let me suggest some...] III. OBJECTIVES FOR STUDYING THIS EPISTLE A. TO BE IMPRESSED WITH THE LOVING HOSPITALITY THAT CHARACTERIZED THE EARLY CHRISTIANS... 1. Philemon opening his house for the church to meet - Phm 1-2; cf. also Ro 16:3-5; 1Co 16:19 2. His love for all the saints - Phm 5; cf. also Col 1:4; 2 Th 1:3 3. How he refreshed the hearts of the saints - Phm 7; cf. also 1Co 16:15-18 4. How Paul could depend upon on him for a place to stay - Phm 22 -- Certainly an example worthy of imitation! B. TO LEARN TACT IN DEALING WITH OTHERS... 1. Paul could have "commanded" Philemon, but instead he "appealed" to him - Phm 8-9 2. He introduced the subject of his appeal "gradually" - Phm 10 (in the Greek, the name of Onesimus is the last word in the sentence) 3. He refused to compel Philemon to let him retain Onesimus in Rome, but sent him back - Phm 12-14 4. He offers to pay Philemon for any wrong incurred by Onesimus - Phm 18-19 5. He believes in the basic goodness of Philemon, not suspicious of how he will react - Phm 21 CONCLUSION 1. From both the example of Paul and Philemon, there is much to be gleaned from reading and meditating on this very short epistle a. From Philemon, a model of Christian hospitality b. From Paul, a model of Christian courtesy 2. If you have not ever carefully studied this epistle before, I hope that this brief lesson has whetted your desire to do so in the future 3. In closing we notice the last verse: "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen" Are we living in such a way to allow the grace of the Lord Jesus to be in our lives?
There is Still Hope for Israel
|by||Dave Miller, Ph.D.|
Many years after God gave laws through Moses in Exodus 34:10-16 and Deuteronomy 7:1-5 pertaining to marriage, the people were exiled in Babylon. When the Persians toppled the Babylonian Empire, the Persian king Cyrus issued a decree in 536 B.C. permitting Israelites to return to Palestine and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Zerubbabel led the first wave of Jewish exiles back to their homeland and eventually the temple was rebuilt by 515 B.C. (Ezra 1-6). Over 50 years elapsed when, in 458 B.C., Artaxerxes, then king of Persia, granted permission for Ezra to gather a second wave of exiles to return to Jerusalem (Ezra 7-10). Ezra was a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses. It took him and his traveling companions five months to get to Jerusalem.
Ezra’s great purpose was to bring religious reform to the Jews in Palestine, to re-establish Mosaic institutions, and to revive the spirituality of a people who had degenerated socially, morally, and religiously. He worked feverishly to call them back to God’s written Word. Ezra sought to do what Jeremiah had tried to do: “ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein” (Jeremiah 6:16). Ezra was just the man for the job: “For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel” (Ezra 7:10). When God’s Israel today (cf. Galatians 6:16) grows lax and neglectful of God’s will, we, too, stand in dire need of men who know the truth and who will teach it to the church!
So in Ezra 8:15, Ezra began to tackle the enormous task before him, beginning by organizing the financial offerings as well as sacrificing burnt offerings to God. But then things got tough. Obeying God and bringing one’s self back into harmony with God’s wishes is often tough. Read carefully Ezra 9:1-10:12 and notice the following six lessons to be learned:
- If a marriage relationship is unauthorized (i.e., not in harmony with God’s will), it must be dissolved. This proves that divorce or putting away is not always wrong, but is, in certain situations, God’s command.
- Even if children have been born to the illicit marriage union, the relationship still must be dissolved. Yes, submission to divine authority sometimes entails the sacrifice of human companionship to facilitate fellowship with God (Luke 18:29-30).
- Repentance, in the case of relationships, entails more than simply acknowledging or confessing one’s sin. It includes the termination of that union in order for God to be pleased.
- We need more members of the church who will possess the deep sorrow and penitent shame that Ezra manifested, instead of excusing sin or proposing absurd quibbles or foolish arguments in an effort to dodge the stringency of God’s will. We need people who, instead of grasping for straws or scraping the bottom of the barrel in a frantic effort to justify adulterous unions, will just face and accept the truth like Shechaniah: “We have been unfaithful to our God.... Let it be done according to the Law” (Ezra 10:2-3).
- We need to understand that if there was hope for Israel then (10:2), there is hope for Israel now—not by expecting God to just look the other way, or wave His hand and make unrenounced sin go away. God has given “a little space” of grace (9:8). He has punished us less than our sins deserve (9:13). Our hope lies in our resolute decision to repent and turn from relationships that are out of harmony with God’s will. Then He will forgive and bless. Refusal to do so must be confronted with expulsion from the congregation (10:8; cf. 1Corinthians 5:13).
- We need to get ourselves back to “trembling at the word of the Lord” (9:4; 10:3).We’re just not too impressed by divine words anymore. We do not know what it means to “fear God” (Ecclesiastes 12:13) or to “fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). Ezra did. He asked rhetorically: “Should we again break Your commandments and join in marriage with the people of these abominations? Would You not be angry with us until You had consumed, so that there would be no remnant or survivor?” (9:14). Ezra was right in step with the words of Paul: “Knowing, therefore, the terror of the Lord, we persuade men” (2 Corinthians 5:11). He knew that there would be no substitute for straightforward obedience if, indeed, “the fierce wrath of our God is turned away from us in this matter” (10:14).
The Bible teaches us that, sooner or later, we will reap what we have sown. Jesus said there are only two possibilities—repent or perish (Luke 13:3). Let us never be reluctant or hesitant to bring our lives into conformity with God’s will, regardless of the hardship or difficulty involved. Let us love Him (1 John 5:3), for “there is still hope in Israel.”
The World Before Sin
|by||Eric Lyons, M.Min.|
Imagine living in a world that is free from sin. It is a world where there are no murderers or thieves. It is a place free from racism and war, and from divorce and physical abuse. In this world, there is no strife, hatred, or jealousy. It is a place void of all pain and suffering. You would never be scared, because in this world there is nothing to fear. It is perfect. You live in complete harmony with every creature around you. You love every person you meet (and they love you!). And, most important, you have a perfect relationship with God.
Although you may think that such a world never existed, or that such perfection will be known only in heaven, the truth is, at one time Adam and Eve lived in such a paradise. According to the last verse in Genesis chapter one, after God finished His six-day creation (which included the making of Adam and Eve) He “saw everything He had made, and indeed it was very good.” Before sin entered the world, Adam and Eve lived in complete harmony with nature, with themselves, and with God.
Instead of living in a world where animals are scared of humans, and where humans are afraid of various animals, Adam lived in harmony with all of God’s creatures. In fact, on the very day he was created, God brought the cattle, birds, and beasts of the field to Adam to be named. The animals were not frightened of Adam, and Adam was not scared of the animals. They lived in perfect harmony. [The Bible indicates it was not until after the Flood that the animals began to fear man (Genesis 9:2-3).]
Rather than having to work a “cursed” earth full of “thorns and thistles” (Genesis 3:17-19), Adam and Eve simply picked and gathered the fruit that God freely gave them in the Garden of Eden. And, as long as Adam and Eve ate of the tree of life that was in the middle of the garden, they would live forever (read Genesis 3:22). It seems that if Adam and Eve had remained in a sinless state, having access to this tree of life, they would have stayed in perfect health—being free from the diseases that claim the lives of so many people today.
Aside from all of these blessings, the most wonderful thing about the world before sin was that Adam and Eve lived in complete harmony with God. There was no sin separating them from their Creator. It was a perfect relationship. Blood sacrifices were not offered, and forgiveness of sins was not needed. Truly, before the fall of man, a kind of paradise existed on Earth.
Even though the sin of man brought a tragic end to the earthly paradise once known by Adam and Eve, God graciously has promised that He will give an eternal life (in a heavenly paradise) to everyone who responds, in faith through obedience, to the good news of Jesus Christ (Titus 3:7; 1 John 5:11-13; Acts 2:38).
The Unique Church
|by||Dave Miller, Ph.D.|
On Thursday night, April 21, 1938, in a public discussion in Little Rock, Arkansas, before an immediate crowd of 1,000 people and a radio audience of thousands more, N.B. Hardeman engaged the famed debater Ben Bogard on the subject: “The Establishment of the Church.” On that occasion, Hardeman articulated an extremely significant truth about the church of Christ when he stated: “The kingdom, friends, has always existed.… It existed in Purpose, in the mind of God; it existed next in Promise, as delivered unto the patriarchs, and it existed in Prophecy; and then it existed in Preparation; and last of all, when the New Testament went into effect, it existed in Perfection” (1938, p. 178, italics in orig.). More than sixty years have come and gone since that insightful observation. But it remains an accurate expression of biblical truth. Before Adam and Eve inhabited the Garden of Eden together; before the skies, seas, and land were populated by birds, fish, and animals; before the Sun, Moon, and stars were situated in the Universe; and before our planet Earth was but a dark, watery, formless mass—God purposed to bring into being the church of Christ.
Indeed, Scripture describes this divine intention as “eternal.” Central to the great purposes of God from eternity has been, not only the sending of His Son as an atonement for sin, but the creation of the church of Christ—the blood-bought body of Jesus and living organism of the redeemed. Listen to Paul’s affirmation: “To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God, according to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ephesians 3:10-11). It is difficult for human beings to fathom “eternal.” There are times when the notion of “everlasting” is abbreviated—like Jonah 2:6 where Jonah said he was in the fish’s stomach “forever.” It must have seemed like it to him. So the word can be used in an abbreviated way. In Philemon 15, Paul said Onesimus would be with Philemon aionion—“forever when he returns to you.” But the context limits the meaning to just until he dies.
But when we speak of deity (e.g., Psalm 90:1-2) or the church, we are talking about everlasting, eternal, forever. Hebrews 12:28 asserts confidently: “Wherefore we, receiving a kingdom which...” will someday end? No! Rather, “a kingdom that is unshakable,” destined to be around forever—an eternal institution. No wonder Daniel was informed: “The saints of the most high shall take the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, even forever and ever” (Daniel 7:18). With that grand purpose in mind, God gradually began foreshadowing through promise and prophecy the eventual accomplishment of that purpose.
Some 750 years before Christ came to Earth, Isaiah announced the eventual establishment of the “Lord’s house” in the “last days” in Jerusalem (Isaiah 2:1-4). At about the same time, Micah enunciated essentially the same facts (Micah 4:1-3). Some 500 years before Christ, Daniel declared to a pagan king that during the days of the Roman kings, the God of heaven would set up a kingdom that would never be destroyed (Daniel 2:44). He also stated that the “Son of man” would pass through the clouds, come to the ancient of days, and be given an indestructible kingdom (Daniel 7:13-14). Thus, the church, which existed initially in purpose in the mind of God, now existed in promise and prophecy in the utterances of His spokesmen.
With the appearance of John the baptizer and Jesus on the Earth, the church of Christ entered a new phase of existence. Now, more than ever before, the kingdom was presented with a sense of immediacy, nearness, and urgent expectation. Now, God’s emissaries actively prepared for its imminent appearance. John exclaimed: “[T]he kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). Jesus echoed His harbinger with precisely the same point: “[T]he kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). As John made preparations for the Lord (Matthew 3:3; 11:10; Isaiah 40:3; Malachi 3:1), so the Lord made preparations for the kingdom. He announced His intention personally to establish His church (Matthew 16:18). He declared that it would occur during the lifetime of His earthly contemporaries (Mark 9:1).
Just prior to His departure from Earth, Jesus further noted that the apostles would be witnesses of His death and resurrection, and would preach repentance and remission of sins in His name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. He would even send the promise of the Father upon them, which would entail being “endued with power from on high” (Luke 24:46-49). This power was to be equated with Holy Spirit immersion (Acts 1:4-5,8).
Now that the kingdom had existed in purpose, promise, and prophecy, and in preparation, the time had come for the church to come forth in perfection. After urging the apostles to “tarry in Jerusalem,” Jesus ascended into a cloud and was ushered into heaven. The apostles returned to Jerusalem and for ten days awaited the fulfillment of the Savior’s words.
Then it happened. With stunning splendor, after centuries of eager anticipation (1 Peter 1:10-12), God poured out His Spirit upon the Twelve on the first Pentecost after Christ’s resurrection (Acts 2). This miraculous outpouring enabled these one dozen “ambassadors” (2 Corinthians 5:20) to present a stirring defense of Christ’s resurrection, convicting some in the audience with the guilt of the crucifixion. Peter then simultaneously detailed the conditions of forgiveness and the terms of entrance into the kingdom of Christ. These terms consisted of being pricked in the heart, repenting of sins, and being immersed in water (Acts 2:37-38).
The church of Christ was now perfected into existence on the Earth, consisting of approximately 3,000 members—all of Jewish descent. From this moment forward, the kingdom of Christ on the Earth was a reality. To its Jewish citizenry, were added the first Gentile converts in Acts 10, when those of the household of Cornelius obeyed the same terms of entrance that their Jewish counterparts had obeyed some ten to fifteen years earlier. By the cross, Christ had made “in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body” (Ephesians 2:15-16).
This “one body” is totally unique, and is unlike any other entity on the face of the Earth. She is distinguished by several unique and exclusive characteristics:
First, she wears the name of her head, owner, and savior—Christ (Daniel 7:14; Matthew 16:18; Romans 16:16; Ephesians 1:23; 4:12; Revelation 11:15). Her members wear the divinely bestowed name of “Christian” (Isaiah 62:1-2; Acts 11:26; 1 Peter 4:16).
Second, her organization was arranged by God to consist of Jesus as head, elders/pastors/bishops as the earthly overseers or managers, deacons as the designated workers/ministers, evangelists as the proclaimers of the good news, teachers as instructors in the faith, and all the other members, who are active in serving the Lord (Acts 6:1-3; 14:23; 20:17,28; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9; Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 5:1-4).
Third, her unique mission consists of bringing glory to God (1 Corinthians 6:20). As Peter explained: “If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God. If anyone ministers, let him do it as with the ability which God supplies, that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 4:11). This task is accomplished by disseminating the Gospel of Christ to the human race (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:46-47; Acts 8:4; Romans 10:14; Philippians 2:15-16; Hebrews 5:12-14); by endeavoring to keep Christians faithful (Romans 14:19; 15:1-3; Ephesians 4:12; Jude 20-24); and by manifesting a benevolent lifestyle (Matthew 25:31-46; Galatians 6:10; James 2:1-17). In short, every member of the church is to strive for complete conformity to the will of Christ (Matthew 22:37-38; 2 Corinthians 5:9; 10:5; Ecclesiastes 12:13).
Fourth, her entrance requirements are unlike any other entity on the face of the Earth. The individual who is struck with the heinousness of sin, recognizing the purpose of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice through His death upon the cross, comes to believe in Jesus as the Son of God and the New Testament as the only authentic expression of His will. This belief leads him to repent of his sins, to orally confess Jesus as the Christ, and to be baptized in water, with the understanding that as he rises from the waters of baptism, he is forgiven of sin and added to the church by Christ (Mark 16:16; Hebrews 11:6; Acts 2:38,47; Romans 6:1-6; 10:9-10). These terms of entrance were given by Jesus to the apostles, who declared them on the occasion of the establishment of the church (Matthew 16:19; Acts 2).
Fifth, her instruction manual is likewise exclusive and unique. The Bible, consisting of both Old and New Testaments, constitutes her one and only authentic and authoritative guide (Galatians 1:6-9; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 2 Timothy 2:15; Acts 17:11; 2 Peter 3:16). These 66 books, written by some 40 men over a period of 1,600 years, are actually the product of the Holy Spirit, Who empowered the writers to pen only what God wanted written (2 Samuel 23:2; 1 Corinthians 2:9-13; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 1 Peter 1:10-12; 2 Peter 1:20-21). The Bible is thus verbally inspired of God, inerrant, and all-sufficient.
Many other characteristics of the church of Christ could be cited. But these five are sufficient to show that the church is easily identifiable and not to be confused with any other religious group. It was inevitable that people would deviate from the simple guidelines given in Scripture (1 Timothy 4:1; 2 Peter 2:1-2). The result has been the formulation of unbiblical doctrines, unscriptural practices, and unauthorized churches (Matthew 15:9,13; 2 John 9-11).
The Scriptures make clear that God never has and never will sanction such a state of affairs. The only hope of any individual is to be in the one true church living faithfully to God’s desires. Many in our day are working overtime to obscure and blur the distinction between the New Testament church and the manmade, counterfeit churches that exist in abundance. They seem oblivious to the fact that no denominations are ever found in the Bible. Many people do not seem even to be aware of the fact that the Bible describes a single church—Christ’s church.
Yet anyone who cares to consult the inspired guidebook can see that the church described in the Bible is easily identifiable today. The matter may be easily determined upon the basis of two criteria. First, can one know how to become a Christian? If so, then the church can be identified, i.e., those who have obeyed the one and only Gospel plan of salvation. Second, can one know how to live the Christian life faithfully and obediently before God? If so, one can identify those who continue to constitute the saved body, the church.
In light of these simple truths, no legitimate claim may be made by denominational bodies to consider themselves as churches of Christ. The pluralistic mindset that has permeated our thinking has prodded us to be more accepting of other viewpoints and to “lighten up” in our opposition to false religion. For some years now, we have been goaded and prodded into feeling guilty about claiming certainty about anything, let alone biblical truth. But the truth continues to be that denominations are manmade divisions, unmitigated departures from the faith.
Denominationalism is about the best thing Satan has come up with to subvert the truth of the Bible and to bring otherwise religious people under his influence. The world religions, as well as those who embrace humanistic philosophies like atheism, by definition, have rejected the one true God and have capitulated to Satan. So where do you suppose Satan is going to focus the brunt of his assault upon the Earth? The more he is able to muddy the waters and to obscure the certainty of the truth, the more chance he has of luring people into his clutches.
We are at a moment in history when Satan is making great inroads into the church, and scoring impressive victories against the cause of Christ. As the book of Judges records a cyclical pattern among God’s people of apostasy, punishment, repentance, faithfulness, and then back into apostasy, we are at the point in history where apostasy holds sway. This periodic purging process seems to be an inevitable recurrence. What God would have us to do is to stand confidently and courageously upon His will, unmoved and unintimidated by the overwhelming forces that pressure us to succumb. In this fashion, the justice of God will be made evident at the Judgment and, in the meantime, impetus is given to the redeemed to strengthen themselves in the struggle to stay loyal to the Master. Every possible soul must be “snatched out of the fire” (Jude 23).
While the Lord would have us to demonstrate concern and compassion for the lost denominational world, He also would have us exercise discretion in the extent to which we fellowship and affiliate with such groups. Regardless of the fashionable sentiments prevalent among some in our day, the Bible still delineates God’s disapproval of the righteous associating with error and false religion. When we become proud of our ability to mingle with denominationalism—manifesting acceptance and tolerance of their unbiblical beliefs—we are guilty of the very attitude that Paul condemned in 1 Corinthians 5:2, that Jesus condemned in Revelation 2:15-16, and that John condemned in 2 John 11.
We need to return to the Old Testament, and learn afresh the lessons that Israel failed repeatedly to learn. We need to stand at Elijah’s side and breath deeply his spirit of confrontation as he boldly distinguished between true and false religion (1 Kings 18:17-40). We need to follow Phinehas into the tent and learn to identify with his jealous intolerance of disobedience and defiance to the will of God (Numbers 25:1-15). We need to step across the line to stand at Moses’ side and witness the calm fury with which he sought to expunge sin (Exodus 32:25-28). We need to identify ourselves with the young king Josiah and feel the same sense of horror and tearful concern as we watch him burn, break, desecrate, destroy, cut down, stamp, and slay everything and everyone who represented unauthorized religious practice (2 Kings 22 and 23).
Perhaps once we have honestly filled our minds with these inspired accounts, and allowed these truths to penetrate and permeate our being, we will possess the proper frame of mind to view denominationalism, and all other alternatives to the one church, in the same way that God views them. Maybe then we will perceive counterfeit churches and rival religions with the depth of righteous anger and displeasure that God perceives them. Until then, we will be gripped by an unconcerned, blasé, live-and-let-live mentality that will allow Satan to proceed with his subversion of humanity. If we do not stand up and proclaim the distinctiveness of the one true church of Christ, nobody else will, and we will lose our souls along with them. If Noah had not been comfortable with standing in a minute minority in an effort to stem the tide, the tide would have swept him away in the Flood along with the rest.
Do you love the church for which Jesus shed His blood? Do you? Do you love the body of Christ deeply enough to temper your concern for the lost with a righteous regard for the purity and loyalty of that body? Rather than obscure the reality and identity of the unique church of Christ, we would do well to take note of the clearly defined borders of the kingdom, that we might be able to give our attention to bringing in those on the outside. Fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness is not the answer; teaching and exposing them is (Ephesians 5:11).
If we would truly fathom that the church of Christ is distinctive, exclusive, and unique; if we would truly view fraternization with the denominations as traitorous; if we would love the genuine body of Christ with the same fervency and jealousy with which Jesus loves her; then we would be in a position to proclaim with Paul: “Unto Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end” (Ephesians 3:21).
Hardeman, N.B. and Ben M. Bogard (1938), The Hardeman-Bogard Debate (Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate).
The Thief on the Cross
|by||Dave Miller, Ph.D.|
Legion are those who dismiss water baptism as prerequisite to salvation on the grounds that “the thief on the cross was not baptized.” The thought is that since the thief was suspended on the cross when Jesus said to him, “Today you will be with Me in paradise” (Luke 23:43), he was being pronounced as saved by Christ without being required to be baptized. As one well-known preacher put it, “There was no water within 10 miles of the cross.” Please give consideration to two important observations.
First, the thief may well have been baptized prior to being placed on the cross. Considerable scriptural evidence points to this conclusion (Matthew 3:5-6; Mark 1:4-5; Luke 3:21; 7:29-30). If he was, in fact, baptized, he would have been baptized with the baptism administered by John the baptizer. John’s baptism was temporary (i.e., in force only during his personal ministry, terminating at the death of Christ). However, even John’s baptism was “for the remission of sins” (Mark 1:4) and, hence, essential for salvation for those to whom it was addressed. John’s baptism, like the one administered by Jesus while He was on Earth (John 3:22,26; 4:1-2), was unique and temporary. It was addressed only to Jews, and only to the Jews who populated the vicinity of Jerusalem and Judea. It was designed to prepare the Jewish people for the arrival of the Messiah. But John’s baptism must not be confused with New Testament baptism that is addressed to everybody, and that did not take effect until after the cross of Christ. If the thief was a Jew, and if he already had submitted to John’s baptism, there would have been no need for him to be re-baptized. He simply would have needed to repent of his post-baptism thievery and acknowledge his sins—which the text plainly indicates that he did.
Second, and most important, the real issue pertains to an extremely crucial feature of Bible interpretation. This hermeneutical feature is so critical that, if a person does not grasp it, his effort to sort out Bible teaching, in order to arrive at correct conclusions, will be inevitably hampered. This principle was spotlighted by Paul when he wrote to Timothy and told him he must “rightly divide the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). In other words, if one simply takes the entire Bible—all 66 books—and treats them as if everything that is said applies directly and equally to everyone, his effort to be in harmony with God’s Word will be hopeless and futile. For example, if a person turned to Genesis 6 and read where God instructed Noah to build a boat, if he did not study enough to determine whether such instruction applied to himself, he would end up building his own boat—the entire time thinking that God wanted him to do so! The Bible is literally filled with commands, instructions, and requirements that were not intended to be duplicated by people living today. Does God forbid you and me from eating a certain fruit (Genesis 2:17; 3:3)? Are we to refrain from boiling a baby goat in its mother’s milk (Exodus 23:19)? Does God want you and me to offer our son as a burnt offering (Genesis 22:2)? Are we commanded to load up and leave our homeland (Genesis 12:1)? Moving to the New Testament, does God want you to sell everything you have and give it to the poor (Matthew 19:21)? Does God expect you to leave everything, quit your job, and devote yourself full time to spiritual pursuits (Matthew 4:20; 19:27; Mark 10:28; Luke 5:28)? Does God intend for you to “desire spiritual gifts” (1 Corinthians 14:1), i.e., seek to possess miraculous abilities? The point is that the entire Bible applies to the entire human race. However, careful and diligent study is necessary to determine how it applies. We must understand the biblical distinction between the application of the principles of the Bible and the specific details.
Here, then, is the central point as it pertains to the relevance of the thief on the cross: Beginning at Creation, all humans were amenable to the laws of God that were given to them at that time. Bible students typically call this period of time the Patriarchal Dispensation. During this period, which lasted from Creation to roughly the time of the cross, non-Jews were subject to a body of legislation passed down by God through the fathers of family clans (cf. Hebrews 11:1). In approximately 1,500 B.C., God removed the genetic descendants of Abraham from Egyptian bondage, took them out into the Sinai desert, and gave them their own law code (the Law of Moses). Jews were subject to that body of legal information from that time until it, too, was terminated at the cross of Christ. The following passages substantiate these assertions: Matthew 27:51; Romans 2:12-16; Galatians 3:7-29; Ephesians 2:11-22; Colossians 2:11-17. The book of Hebrews addresses this subject extensively. To get to the heart of the matter quickly, read especially Hebrews 9:15-17. When one “correctly handles the Word of truth,” one sees that the Bible teaches that when Christ died on the cross, Mosaic law came to an end, and patriarchal law shortly thereafter. At that point, all humans on the planet became amenable to the law of Christ (cf. Galatians 6:2). The law of Christ consists strictly of information that is intended to be in effect after the death of Christ. It includes some of the things that Jesus and His disciples taught while He was still on Earth. But as regards the specifics of salvation, one must go to Acts 2 and the rest of the New Testament (especially the book of Acts) in order to determine what one must do today to be saved. Beginning in Acts 2, the new covenant of Christ took effect, and every single individual who responded correctly to the preaching of the gospel was baptized in water in order to be forgiven of sin by the blood of Christ. Every detail of an individual’s conversion is not always mentioned, but a perusal of the book of Acts demonstrates decisively that water immersion was a prerequisite to forgiveness, along with faith, repentance, and confession of the deity of Christ (Acts 2:38,41; 8:12,13,16,36-38; 9:18; 10:47-48; 16:15,33; 18:8; 19:5; 22:16).
The thief was not subject to the New Testament command to be baptized into Christ’s death (Romans 6:3-4), just as Moses, Abraham, and David were not amenable to it. They all lived prior to the cross under different law codes. They could not have been baptized into Christ’s death—because He had not yet died! The establishment of the church of Christ and the launching of the Christian religion did not occur until after Christ’s death, on the day of Pentecost in the year A.D. 30 in the city of Jerusalem (Acts 2). An honest and accurate appraisal of the biblical data forces us to conclude that the thief on the cross is not an appropriate example of how people are to be saved this side of the cross.