Week 46: Philemon, Hebrews, James

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1 (KJV)

What’s Going On? / When and Where Are We? /  Who’s Who?

Philemon – “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Paul writes this letter to Philemon while he is in prison in Rome. Paul had met Philemon during his third missionary journey. Philemon was one of Paul’s converts and they had apparently worked together and become very close. Philemon, from Colosse, was a slave owner. One of his slaves, Onesimus, had stolen from him and then escaped from Philemon and somehow connected with the imprisoned Paul, who teaches him about Christ and convinces him to return to Philemon even though his crime was punishable by death. He sends this letter with him asking Philimon not only to forgive Onesimus, but to send him back to Paul so that he can help him in his ministry. This letter was probably written at the same time as his letter to Colossians about 60 AD and sent through Tychicus who accompanies Onesimus on their journey. Unfortunately, we don’t know what happened to Onesimus after returning to Philemon. His name is not mentioned after this letter so we don’t know if he was able to return to Paul or what became of him.

Hebrews – The author of this book doesn’t identify himself. Most agree that Paul didn’t write the book of Hebrews although a case could be made for his authorship. It is more likely that someone who worked closely with Paul wrote the letter, perhaps Barnabus, Apollos, or Aquilla. I tend to lean towards Barnabus as being the most likely candidate because he was highly educated and from the tribe of Levi and would have been able to build a solid argument for the Hebrew people to accept Christ as the true Messiah. The letter unfolds in a classic format for rhetoric and the author used his knowledge to lay down a very persuasive case for his audience. The theme of the letter is Christ’s supremacy. Christ is superior to the angels, to Moses, and to Aaron and the line of Levite priests, even the great High Priest. He offers a better covenant, a better sanctuary, and a better sacrifice than any other ever could.

You’ll see references to Melchizedek in chapters 5-7. He was a king in Salem (Jerusalem) who offered a meal to Abram after he rescues Lot in Genesis 14. He is called a priest of God Most High and after the meal he blesses Abram, receives his fair portion of the spoils of the battle, and sends him on his way. We don’t hear anything else about him until we get to Psalm 110:4, which references an order of priests in the name of Melchizedek, who predated the Levite priests by five hundred years and yet was called to act as a priest in addition to his role as king. In Hebrews, the case being made is that there is a line of priests called by God that is superior to the line of Levi. Jesus is the NEW High Priest, not in the line of Levitical priests, but in the line of priests appointed by God Himself. 

He shows how the Hebrew forefathers were saved by their faith and chapter 11 is what I often refer to as “The Parade of Saints” whose faith should be the example for them. The letter is not addressed to a specific person or even a specific place, but to all the Hebrews who were struggling to hold fast to this new theology of Jesus Christ as God’s provision as the perfect sacrifice and the fulfillment of all of His promises. The early Christians were suffering horrible persecution, but for the most part, the Jews were left alone. How easy it would have been to stay safe by rejecting Christianity. But the author compels the readers to stay strong and persevere in their faith. The book of Hebrews paints a picture of Christ in light of Old Testament understanding, where the book of Romans offers the same theology to a people who didn’t have the knowledge or personal history of the Old Testament.

James – We now begin a new section of what is often called “The General Letters.” While the letters before the book of Hebrews were all written by Paul, this new group of letters will bear the name of the author as the book title. James was written by James, the brother of Jesus. He writes about the behaviors of Christians and how they should reflect those of Jesus. Deeds are more important than words, faith should be apparent by our actions, and true wisdom comes only from God.

Weekly Reading Assignment:

  • Monday: Philemon 1
  • Tuesday: Hebrews 1-3
  • Wednesday: Hebrews 4-7
  • Thursday: Hebrews 8-10
  • Friday: Hebrews 11-13
  • Saturday: James 1-5
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