Week 15: Between Culture and Calling

Readings for the week: Psalm 43-44, Joshua 1-14, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Psalm 45,  Listen to these passages

Opening Prayer:

 Dear Lord,

Thank you for the blessings you have given to me and to those around me. It is easy to focus on the troubles or the negatives in life. Then I get to complaining. Then maybe even forget about you. But you’ve done wonderful work in my life. I look around and can see this in every direction. Thank you for the people you have put in my life. Thank you for steering and guiding me so that I know you and seek you.  Thank you for life and thank you for beauty, which I can see if I remember to listen, to look, to notice.  Your way isn’t full of burdens, it’s full of life. May I dance in this life this week and move to your rhythm and help others to join in on this great music in whatever ways they can.


  1. Psalm 43-44
  2. Reading through Joshua 1-14

Get ready.  Get ready to cross. It begins.

The new stage.  A great journey into and through the wilderness has finally shifted to being in a place, finding a home. But God’s leading isn’t over. Nor is the absolute need for obedience. Just because they’re at the Promised Land doesn’t mean Israel can coast the rest of the way. It’s the Promised Land, but they’re the People of the Promise, and God’s work is primarily about the people, shaping them, guiding them, yes blessing them, but also expecting from them.  They are to walk in faith even still.

The challenge of the wilderness is faith in just surviving, trusting God for the basics, and knowing that such survival is a sign of God’s presence. The challenge on the other side of the wilderness may be even more difficult. The people are to face familiar situations with an unfamiliar faith in a God who is not only calling them to a purpose but also to a method.

This kind of faith is hard because the people now get mixed messages from inside and outside the camp. Do this instead. Don’t do that. Did God really mean this? God doesn’t really care about that does he? It’s the same as it ever was, just like in the Garden, where the serpent encouraged eating the fruit.It’s a very unoriginal temptation for unoriginal sin. But it gets people all the time.

We rationalize and excuse and try to use the methods of the world around us to accomplish the tasks that God has given us.

In these first chapters of Israel, the people have been sharpened in both action and faith. They resonate the victory of God, so much so the rumor of God’s triumph has spread. The actions of faith inspire faith.

God provides. Provided the people keep walking in faith. But a little rot goes a long way, and a little greed undermines the unity of the mission in Joshua 7.  The result is very interesting, as it seems the miracle of God here and throughout is not always in some grand miracle, but in providing courage.

With God, the people can face mighty walls. But disobedience breeds fear and discouragement.  Like we see in Acts 5 (or will when we get to it), we can’t lie to God and when we try, it is a sin against the community.  Because others depend on us.

Meanwhile, in this passage we also have the very interesting story of Rahab. She’s a prostitute. She also makes a stance of faith that risks everything. In this sense we can see a very interesting contrast that happens throughout the Bible. Israel is often tempted to follow other gods, they “prostitute” themselves, abandoning their commitment. This prostitute makes a claim of faith, acts on it, and is included in the People, and not only that (spoiler warning ahead!) she’s included in the lineage of King David and Jesus. The prostitute is the speaker of virtue to a people who needed to hear that reminder.

Who does God favor? Those who walk in faith.

Sidenote: I’m far from an expert on the Bible, even after studying it all my life. But in seminary, they teach us how to study the Bible in depth, giving us tools for a lifetime. We use the original languages, and use advance research tools.  The kind of work that goes into writing a commentary.  In learning these methods, I had to apply them to certain passages in the Bible, becoming a momentary expert in a narrow range of passages.  Oddly enough, both the OT and NT readings this week include passages I studied in depth.  It’s odd, because I only wrote a few exegetical papers in my time. For your interest, or amusement, here’s the one I wrote on Joshua 2:1-14. (written in 2002)

  1. Reading through 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon

These letters are likely the last we have from Paul. They represent Paul in his maturity, a lifetime of serving Christ.  His second letter to Timothy and his letter to Titus give clear guidance to two of his most promising students, who themselves are already leading ministries. In this, we have a pragmatic insights about what is really important and how to carry on faithfully. Up to this time, those in the church could ask questions to those who knew Jesus personally, who have proven their faith and wisdom in a myriad of different ways. They could answer questions about what Jesus taught, because they heard him teach. What would Jesus do? They saw him do it!

Paul, who wasn’t a follower of Jesus during his earthly ministry, had a profound calling that pulled him out of his regular life and into a life lived in Christ, radically devoted because the risen Jesus had personally called him into action.  Now, the early leaders were imprisoned and increasingly being killed. John was still around, but the rest were testifying to faith unto death itself.

Paul sees his end coming soon, so sends letters to remind the next generation of what is important, what to pay attention to, and what to emphasize.  It’s interesting because these letters are still good reminders to us today, and seemingly for the same sorts of reasons–they’re good instruction because we have tended to ignore what is important for what is less important.  We’re tempted to obsess over all sorts of other issues and lose sight of what is key. Like with Israel, God isn’t just calling us to accomplish certain goals in our own power. God is calling us into a way, a method of life that has certain goals, but is equally about how we are living in new patterns of life.

This life, not our words, is our testimony–an expression of the good news we’re inviting others into. Throughout history, from the very beginning, people have chosen to ignore what God says they must do and replace it with tasks or goals they think God must want.  We ignore the way of Christ and substitute our own patterns and priorities. What’s the result? A Christianity without Christ.  A religion without life.  The result is always a faltering faith.

Paul’s lasting advice is to stay focused, not get dismayed and definitely don’t get distracted. If we lose sight of Christ’s calling or if we lose our hope, we’ll be like Demas, getting pulled back into this world.

Don’t be like Demas.

Philemon is a very different kind of Biblical book. In a quick reading, it may not seem clear why this is a Biblical book at all.  It’s a short letter to a specific person about a specific situation. A slave ran away, ran to Paul, and now Paul is writing to the slave’s master, who happens to be a Christian.  This happens to be a very important letter in fact, for Paul and for us.  It’s often heard that the Bible supported slavery, Philemon is a testimony against that claim. It’s sometimes thought we have to use force or power to help the oppressed. Philemon is a testimony against that.

While a little long (why stop now!) here’s how I finished my long study of Philemon verses 8-14 from my seminary days (the longer paper has a lot of Greek that doesn’t go online well):

Paul begins this section having already established the relationship between he and Philemon. This is by no means an angry or accusing letter, rather we find here a very personal and friendly Paul, who is aware of his own place and role, but also strongly understands the approaches which best fit with his relationships with his fellow believers.

This section begins with a not so subtle reminder of Paul’s authority. Because of his unique calling as an apostle, and his years of work establishes churches, but most of all because of who he knows Christ has called him to be in regards to his mission, he knows that he has enough authority to command certain actions and responses. His authority comes from Christ, and thus he can speak with the same authority as Jesus did when he was walking the earth.

Although he mentions this authority, he purposefully does not invoke it, concerned rather more with peace and wholeness.

It is because of love that Paul does not assert what he knows he can. The love which he once wrote is patient and kind, neither rude nor proud, is his primary concern here. His approach to Philemon must be one of love.

Rather than commanding Philemon, he first establishes that what follows is a request not an order. For although he as Paul, anointed by Christ as his messenger and bearing of good news, can order, he also is aware that he is now in prison, with his position being one of a humble nature.

What follows is a request from a man who is completely confident in his role and place, yet because of this role and place he must continue to act in such a fashion that reflects the God he serves.  He is in prison now, but this is not simply a human predicament. He is a prisoner of Christ Jesus, bound to him, and led by him wherever he goes, so he does not see his situation as being one outside of God’s control.

His  request has to do with a certain slave who had come his way while he was in prison. This slave had run away from Philemon, for an unknown reason, but had found himself drawn to visiting Paul. While with Paul, this slave named Onesimus, became a Christian, and was taught the faith and built up while serving Paul in his need.

Paul has an intimate connection with those who he converts. They are not “notches” on his staff, but rather he understands his role as being that of a father to those who respond to the message he is preaching.

The name Onesimus was a very common slave name, which meant “useful.” Thus in verse 11, Paul can make a play on words. First, he expresses that Onesimus was not useful, for whatever reason, to Philemon before he ran away. After becoming a Christian, however, he now becomes “useful” both to Philemon and to Paul. Indeed, at this point Paul is making emphatic distinctions, emphasizing himself and his authority behind the “request”, saying essentially that Onesimus “is useful to you and to me”, with a stronger emphasis on the me part.

Paul, however, understands that peace in the community demands that this matter be settled appropriately, which means that Philemon has the responsibility to choose the “right thing” to do in this case. So Paul sends Onesimus back, maybe even as the bearer of this very letter. But because of Paul’s intimate connection with his converts, Onesimus is no longer the simple slave of before, rather he bears the stamp of Paul’s own heart and efforts and thus it is in some ways like Paul himself is being represented in the person of Onesimus as he comes before Philemon. Once again in verse 12, Paul strongly emphasizes himself as part of this decision.

Sending him back was not Paul’s inclination, rather he wished (again an emphatic emphasis on himself) that Onesimus could have stayed with Paul, helping him out with his various needs, and letting him accomplish even more while in prison. Paul understands that Onesimus, as Philemon’s slave, represents his master’s presence.

By having Onesimus stay to serve Paul, it would be just as if Philemon were serving. This is probably not a reference to a lack of service on Philemon’s part, but rather a reference to the fact that Philemon probably looked to do all that he could (he even hosted a church in his home), and this would be a great opportunity which would not tear him away from his work and family.

Paul did not follow through on this desire though, knowing that the proper thing for him to do in this case was to send Onesimus back to Philemon, and allow Philemon the opportunity to do “the good thing” and receive his slave back with kindness and forgiveness, deciding for himself Onesimus’ future role.

Paul could have certainly kept Onesimus, and wrote to Philemon that he had made this decision, but this would not be an act of love. Paul respects Philemon’s place and role as much as his own, so is willing to put aside his own prerogatives for a greater good. Paul does not command Philemon, but rather appeals to him. However, though, this appeal and request is a weighty one indeed, almost rhetorical.

Paul sets up the entire situation so as to gently remind Philemon of Paul’s higher authority in this matter, as well as the duty that Philemon embarked on when he confessed Jesus as Lord. There is still, however, a great distinction between being ordered to do something, and being shown which way is the proper and right way to choose.

Philemon was certainly an influential Christian in his community, and Paul respects and honors this fact. Thus, in this passage we find a Paul who is absolutely confident in his role and mission, and the proper duty in this situation, communicating in a way which honors and shows love toward one who is likewise seeking Christ in all things. As such this is a model for all leadership and conflict in the church.

5. Psalm 45

6. Respond

If you’ve fallen behind in the readings or having started year, don’t worry.  Reading the Bible isn’t a limited time offer. Jump in this week, and catch up with what you’ve missed in future years.

Also, I highly encourage you to share your thoughts with others in your family, or immediate community. Talk about this stuff! 

And, since I sometimes feel lonely, share your thoughts in the comment section.

Talking about your thoughts and questions is a very important part of the reading goal. Writing out our thoughts can help us remember what we read and keep our minds on the passage. It also is very helpful to share as we learn from each other. Even our questions or confusion can bring us together, as we highlight what others may have missed or address what a lot of us are also wondering.   Don’t feel like you have to say or write a lot, or feel pressure to be profound. Respond with honesty and openness.

Just jump right in where you’re at, knowing that Christ invites you to respond without pressure or anxiety. It’s a journey not a performance.