II TIMOTHY 1-4 contains a great many personal details about Paul’s imprisonment (Most likely Rome) toward the end of his life. Evidence of preoccupation over what will survive him abound, such as his warnings about apostasy and persecution in later times. And yet there are a few remaining details, even about some mundane things, like a cloak and scrolls of his left at Troas, to tie up. Of special note is the positive reference to Mark, in 4:11: “he is helpful to me in my ministry.” This after Paul and Barnabas had parted ways over Mark and the fact that he had earlier abandoned them in Pamphylia (Acts 15: 35-37). Some years later, we’re still not sure about how Mark stacked up, as he writes in Col. 4:10, “You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.” Evidently, by the time of this letter to Timothy, something changed, and for the better.

The summary and purpose of 2 Timothy is in chapter 1: 13-14 “What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.”

TITUS is someone we first meet in references sprinkled throughout Paul’s letters as, “my partner and co-worker among you (2 Cor. 8:23).” He also seems to have had responsibility for gathering and transporting the collection from Gentile churches for the Jewish Christians in famine-stricken Judea and Jerusalem (2 Cor. 8). In Galatians we read that Titus accompanied Paul and others on the trip to Jerusalem, with the offering that resulted in Paul’s arrest and imprisonment. Now the letter shows him to be the emissary of Paul’s missionary team, charged with establishing and teaching the churches and leadership of Crete, which island was briefly reached by Paul and some of his team (Luke, et. al) during their ill-fated voyage there, on the way to his appeal before Caesar (Acts. 27). Whether that was the start of the Cretan churches seems unlikely, their visit was so short, and Paul didn’t have much liberty.

Paul’s concerns are similar to those expressed in I and II Timothy: establishing the leadership and its roles, and guarding against false teaching and moral decay. Much of that seems to be of a speculative, magical kind of folk Judaism (“Jewish myths” in 1: 14) mixed with legalism. But there’s also much of pagan licentiousness to deal with. In the face of growing Jewish and pagan opposition and accusations against the new Christian movement, Paul is concerned that everyone, including slaves, set a good example as a contrast society. Speaking of slavery…..

….PHILEMON gives us a window into the difficult and important issue of slavery in the early Christian movement. Figures vary, but at least more than half the inhabitants of many parts of the Roman Empire were slaves. These ranged from convicts being worked to death in the mines, to tutors and scholars contracted to teach the children of wealthy families. That makes it hard to generalize about what slavery was like, or how much and for how long anyone called a “slave” was in bondage to a master. Most slaves had either been taken captive in war, or had sold themselves and their families into slavery to pay their debts. Over time, it would not be uncommon for them to finally purchase their freedom. Both conditions reflect social injustice, but only some categories of ancient Roman slavery reflect anything akin to the slavery that some Southern white Americans were trying to use the Bible to justify before the American Civil War.

While we look in vain through the New Testament for anything like a call, from Jesus or Paul, for a massive slave revolt, or for a blanket manumission of all slaves, the formative and central event of the Hebrew Bible is God’s liberation of slaves from Egypt, the Exodus. After God got the slaves out of Egypt, it proved harder to get the slavery out of them.

As for New Testament slavery, it was just a given that the early church had to deal with, once the gentiles were engaged. Paul seems to have engaged in some spiritual jujitsu, by urging slaves to take on a loving leadership and responsibility for their masters and their homes, like what Joseph did as both a slave and a prisoner in the Old Testament, what John Howard Yoder calls “radical submission.” In other words, when you have no choice, as do slaves, then embrace the situation positively, for the sake of witness. Over time, this would earn many Christian slaves even more persecution and harsh treatment, once their exemplary conduct drew attention to their faith in Christ. Of particular difficulty was when masters demanded of their Christian slaves (of either gender) immoral sexual favors, as was the masters’ legal right. We have martyr stories from the time that tell us how such Christian slaves, who excelled both in doing good and resisting evil, as free and responsible moral agents, ended up in the Coloseum because of their refusal to do evil, to be martyred by gladiators and wild beasts. But that is to follow Christ, Peter says to his disciples in slavery (I Peter 3: 13-18).

As for Christian slave owners, Paul did not call upon them all to release their slaves. In some cases, freedom may have been disastrous for those released. Some may have had no economic options but to sell themselves into slavery to someone else. Paul went a step further all the times that he urged Christian masters to treat their slaves as brothers and sisters in Christ, making them, in effect, family members or at least employees, rather than just slaves.

And then there is the event that turns the whole social pyramid, from slaves to emperor, upside-down, and which relativizes all social hierarchy and distinctions: the kenosis, or emptying of the Son of God of his divine status to enter Creation and history as a slave (Philippians 2: 5-11). Even lower than a slave, Jesus was counted as a rebellious and seditious slave, as his crucifixion shows. The cross was not used on citizens or nobility.

Out of this murky moral soup comes Paul’s letter to Philemon, a slaveholder with news that his escaped slave, Onesimus, has turned up where Paul is imprisoned, either Rome or Caesarea. Rome is the more likely place for an escaped slave to hide out. With Philemon are his wife, Apphia, and Archipus, Paul’s “fellow soldier in Christ,” perhaps the pastor of the church that meets in Philemon’s home. Archipus is mentioned in Col. 4: 16-17, where it may be that Archipus, Philemon and Apphia were in Laodicea. Paul uses the slave’s name in a pun (v. 11), as the name Onesimus means “useful.” Onesimus, under Paul’s influence, has become his “son,” that is, a believer whom he is discipling. Paul wants his master to forgive Onesimus’ flight (and theft?) and receive him back as a brother. Under Roman law, any punishment of a slave, including death, is permissible under the circumstances. You have to wonder what forgiving and receiving him back as a brother will do to the slave/master relationship. In effect, the gospel is pulling the rug out from everything other than the title.

Onesimus is named again, later, in ancient Christian sources as the bishop of the church in Ephesus, which is just up the road from Laodicea. If this were the same Onesimus, it would not be the only recorded time that a slave became a spiritual leader over free men and women. As one pagan critic of the early church noted, when slaves become Christians, they learn to think.

PSALM 133 relates the grace of God to human relationships, and reminds us that harmony among humans is an integral part of what the Bible calls, “eternal life.”

PSALM 134 is the last of the pilgrimage songs, which may reflect a litany for departure from Zion and the road home. The pilgrims bless the priests and Levites who attend to the ongoing worship of God (vv. 1-2), while perhaps the priests and Levites respond with a blessing for the return trip (v. 3).

PSALM 135 is an Alleluia hymn, ending with the formula still used today, all around the world, “Alleluia,” or “Praise the Lord.” It recounts the sovereignty and grace of God over the nations and nature, especially over kings, who would have been worshiped as divine or semi-divine beings, as well as forces of nature, like thunder, the sea and the rain. As in Psalm 115, the psalm asserts that we become like whatever it is we worship. In the case of idols of silver, wood and gold, the result of that is disastrous. Since humans are inherently and incurably religious, the question for us is what and who will we worship, and therefore, who and what will we become?

PSALM 136 shows clearly something of ancient Israel’s liturgy, with the phrase we find many places throughout the Bible, “God’s steadfast love endures forever.” This psalm could very well have served as the litany that the Judeans and Jerusalemites sang and prayed as they followed King Jehoshaphat out, unarmed, to meet the allied forces of Edom, Moab and the Meunites that had invaded their land, as recounted in II Chronicles 20.


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