Thoughts on the Prison Epistles
Reflections: Philippians 1:1-2:8
Paul supports his letter of thanks with a selflessness that permeates every chapter. His initial thankfulness is built on a selfless disposition, which flows into prayer that speaks of the benefits he desires for his readers. He then references his prison experience, not in bitterness over the conditions or the injustice of the situation, but gratitude for the advance of the Gospel through his shackles.
His incarceration may be born out of what others were saying about him, yet he selflessly focuses upon the benefit of the Gospel spreading no matter the motive. He recognizes his potential martyrdom, but if given the choice he would gladly decline heaven for the profit of his beloved audience.
The example of Christ
By the time we get to chapter two, the table is already set for the foremost example of selflessness in the Lord Jesus. Paul skillfully points out three requisite attitudes, all of which are the very perspectives of our Savior.
- He is not seeking his own ambition or conceit
- He is esteeming others as more valuable than himself
- He is on the hunt for the needs of others rather than his own.
What is amazing is that I am the focus of all three attitudes: He is not selfish or conceited with me, he counts me as more valuable than himself, and he has and does actively scout out my needs in order to meet them. It is fitting then, that the contrast is made between the “form of God” vs. the “form of a slave,” rather than “form of man.”
The Spirit is pointing out the attitudes of a slave that Christ has adopted as his own and then puts me (and his father) as the object of service. Since when do I think like that? I am more interested in furthering my interests and not esteeming other parties as more valuable than I. I hate to admit it, but this is my very problem in my own marriage and parenting. Oh, may You save me from myself once again…I beg of You!
Reflections: Galatians 5:16-26
“Walk in the Spirit and you WILL NOT fulfill the desires of the flesh.” This sentence has always evaded me. It bespeaks of mutually exclusive activities. You do one thing (i.e. walk in the Spirit) and almost by default you will not do the other thing (i.e. not fulfill the desires of the flesh). Complex strategies are contrived that basically amount to “How not to lose”, however, the sporting world will tell you that excessive resources allocated to “how not to lose” usually ends up in just that, a loss.
Yet, I develop elaborate schemes of prayer cycles when I am tempted so as to “chase the temptation away.” Bible memory and recitation during the heat of the tempter’s attack is carefully outlined and hopefully followed. Accountability checkpoints are creatively employed such as my weekly brother or sister coffees or software that alerts a trusted friend of my internet activity. I am not at all saying those are useless and unnecessary. These measures go a long way in making “no provision for the flesh” (Rm. 13:14).
However, I fail to see how these defensive tactics engage the relatively offensive battle plan of walking in the Spirit. Indeed, the key resides in the idea of walking: Not a rushing, not a sprint, not a hurry nor fear of deadline or failure. Walking implies that ease of motion that two people share in the cool of a hot summer Sunday evening (cf. Gen. 3:8).
I wonder how much of my failure hinges upon disproportionate effort for defensive maneuvers? It is by calmly, cautiously, but comfortably walking with the Spirit that the lusts of the flesh have no attraction or fulfillment. Lord, do I have the cart and the horse in the right order?
Reflections: Ephesians 4:11-16
Perhaps the most influential portion of Ephesians to me was not only the broad roadmap of God’s plan for his glory and humanity, but also the extrapolation of the macroscopic blueprint down to the microscopic level of church life, family life, job life, and marital life. What initially captured my attention was the application of his schematic-like plan in church function.
To summarize, there are individuals given as complete gift units to the body of Christ. They exist for the sole purpose of equipping the body. These individuals of gift do not do the work, but rather those they equip are intended to do the work. In corporate America it is called, “training the trainer.” There is a subtle but imperative distinction in how one may function as an evangelist, teacher or shepherd when the end goal is to train someone who will function with your gifted capacities and replace you.
This implies, as the apostle Paul patterned, that one may not be in a single locale for indefinite tenure. The ultimate target is train the next generation such that they may have a stability that outlives their trainer. Their maturity will match the maturity that their Head (i.e. Christ) already possesses, rather than the gifted person’s maturity. This wisdom will result in unity embedded into the foundation of love. All of this supersedes these foundational-like gifts.
Eventually, the body learns to function on its own, but there is a clear caveat which requires interactive engagement of each body member as if they were the active joints of a physical body. This perspective has made me realize one very important and humbling truth: It is not about me; it is not about my gift and it is not about my ministry. It has and will always be about the Lord increasing and me decreasing.
Suddenly, my self-estimation gets checked at the door and I humbly confess to you, O Lord, my prideful and blind arrogance that assaults you and your intentions…I am way too much like the disciples…once again you must save your servant for I sink so quickly in the sea of my own self valuation.
Reflections: Colossians 2:11-15
What I find distinctive is the description and outcome of the work of Christ. He begins the paragraph by establishing the meaning of circumcision. Surgically, this amounts to mere removal of redundant anatomical tissue. Spiritually, this is analogous to removal of something from us—our nature bent on sin and lawlessness (i.e. rebellion). The parallel specifics are then given in concrete terms:
- Our deadness
- His life as evidenced in resurrection
- Our uniting with him as if we do whatever he has done
- Thus, we live through and in Him
- Finally, the forgiveness of sins.
The last two points seem codependent concepts. The life we have been bestowed is founded upon release from our indictments. Dismissal of charges is not merely a cover-up, or a bribe, or forgetfulness on the part of God. God would not conduct business that way. He would nail them to the cross thus canceling their sustaining power of accusation.
What was really suspended from the tree: A body, nails, title signage, crown of thorns, wooden blocks. But, there was something else suspended between heaven and earth. No one could see the last one, but God the Judge and Christ the lamb. It was the list of crimes and atrocities against the state of heaven’s throne. Upon such attachment to the cross, the victim on the cross was thought to be guilty of those listed crimes and once the death was expended, then the wrongdoings would be “wiped away.”
What shames me is my continuous ingratitude for this miraculous surgery of soul. I would dare say I am the one mocking in the crowd and hear my voice sneering and jeering at this mysterious man. I can see my arrogant, ungrateful, and clueless soul attacking the plan and the process. Such bankruptcy of my spirit erupts into view by my ability to continuously see the crimes of others. I am exposed by my tireless labor as seeing the indictments of others as debt they owe me, rather than God. I do violence to his axiom: “Their sins and lawless deeds, I will remember no more” (Heb. 10:17). O Lord, what is wrong with me?! Can you fix me?