Philemon

For all the commentaries on Philemon that are bound with Colossians, see here. I will just list them here for convenience: Bruce, Harris, Garland, Martin, Melick Muller (bound with Philippians), Vincent (bound with Philippians), Dunn, Lohse, Moule, O’Brien, Wilson, N.T. Wright.

Individual commentaries: Barth/Blanke (the single best), Fitzmyer (almost as good), Felder

Forthcoming commentaries: see on Colossians

Promised Land Threatened

Genesis 21:22-34
Well, you’re finally there. You’ve climbed out of debt; you have grown children who are not as bad as they could be; and things are generally looking up. However, there is just one problem: Everything threatens you. You feel like everyone is against you unless they have sworn an oath in your favor. That is a little bit like what is happening here in Genesis 21.

We know from chapter 20 that Abraham had had run-ins with Abimelech before. Before, it was about Sarah. You will remember that Abraham thought he was going to be so smart and pass off Sarah as his sister. You might remember how disastrously that turned out for Abraham. He nearly lost the promise entirely. However, God was gracious to Abraham. God had prevented Abimelech from touching Sarah. But what was at stake was nothing less than the promised seed, the continuation of the promises that God had made. God had made two major promises to Abraham. One was the land, and the other was the seed. So Abraham had endangered the seed by what he had done with Abimelech. Thi seed, by the way, was nothing less that the continuation of the promise that God had made to Adam. That promise was that there would come a Seed who would crush the head of the serpent. So what Abraham had done in chapter 20 had endangered that promise as well as the specific promise that God had made to Abraham.

But now it is the other promise that is threatened: the promise of the land. God had promised that Abraham would own the Promised Land. Abraham is now dwelling in the promised land itself. We see that from the fact that the place where the oath was confirmed is named “Beersheba,” plainly the same Beersheba that is located in what was later known as the land belonging to Judah. Let’s see how this story plays out.

First we see Abimelech being afraid of Abraham. Why else would he need Phicol, the commander of his army, to be there with him? Abraham is a person to be reckoned with, as we have seen in the incident with the four armies against five, when Lot was captured, and Abraham rescued him. That account is in chapter 14. So Abimelech makes sure that he has backup before dealing with Abraham.

It is very ironic, what Abimelech says to Abraham. He says that God is with him in whatever he does. However, he then immediately asks for Abraham to swear that he will deal with Abimelech in an honorable manner. Abimelech knows from experience, you see, that Abraham cannot be trusted to be completely truthful in all his dealings with Abimelech. How like us, isn’t it? How many of us are not trusted by the world, even though we have a relationship with God! If God is with us in all that we do, does that include our lying, cheating, stealing, greed, and so forth?

Now at this time, Abimelech, though respecting Abraham’s status, was nevertheless superior to Abraham in power. That is why he is the one who does the asking. In verse 23, we see that it is Abimelech who owns the land: Abraham is merely a sojourner. The reason Abimelech wants to ask Abraham to swear this oath is that the situation might change. Abraham is a powerful man, and might soon become more powerful than Abimelech. Therefore, Abimelech wants to secure Abraham’s friendship before Abraham becomes more powerful. Abimelech fears for his own future as personified in his offspring. We see that in verse 23, where Abimelech says “with me, or with my descendants or with my posterity.” The question is, will that relationship between Abimelech be one of “dealing falsely,” or of “dealing kindly?” When we see the world around us, do we think that because those people are not believers, or are not part of our “in” crowd, does that give us the right to deal falsely with them? This is the question that is posed to Abraham. He answers it correctly, and so should we. We should be honest in all our dealings with the world, as well as with those in the body of Christ.

It’s like the pastor who was going to preach on honesty. One week he told the congregation to read Joshua chapter 25 in preparation for next week’s sermon. The next Sunday he came and said, “How many of you read it?” Half the hands in the church were raised. He said, “Great. Now you’re the ones I want to talk to. Joshua has only 24 chapters, and I am especially concerned about you tonight.”

When Fred Phillips, retired public-safety director and police chief of Johnson City, Tenn., was a regular police office, he and his partner pulled over an unlicensed motorist. They asked the man to follow them to the police station, but while en route they spotted a North Carolina vehicle whose license plate and driver matched the description in an all-points bulletin. The officers took off in a high-speed chase, and finally stopped the wanted man’s car. Minutes later, as the felon was being arrested, the unlicensed motorist drove up. “If y’all will just tell me how to get to the station, I’ll wait for you there,” he said. “I’m having a real hard time keeping up with you.”

Now, Jesus Christ told us that we should let our “yes” be “yes,” and our “no” be “no.” We shouldn’t even need to swear an oath so that others will believe what we say. Instead, it should be like this: that person is a Christian, and you can always believe what Christians say. Now, we can’t change how the entire world views Christian honesty. But we shouldn’t even be concerned about that. Instead, we should be concerned about how the world sees each of individually.

But in Abraham’s day, when you wanted to have certainty, you swore an oath of agreement, or covenant. That is what Abraham does in verse 24. But notice how short he is with Abimelech. Probably Abraham was already thinking about the issue of the well. This is the same interview, by the way. Abraham is still talking to Abimelech when Abraham reproves Abimelech. Abraham is thinking this way: “Abimelech has promised that I could sojourn in the land. However, in order for me to live, I need water in this well that I dug. What will Abimelech’s promise mean if I can’t have this water?” So, he reproves Abimelech about this well that Abimelech’s servants have forcefully siezed. Abimelech disavows all knowledge of this event. So Abraham wants a guarantee from Abimelech that the well belongs to Abraham. That is how that city got its name. “Beersheba” means “well of the seven,” or “well of the oath.” The words for “seven” and “oath” in the Hebrews language are so alike, that it is not possible to tell the difference here. Probably it is a pun, since the number seven does occur here with Abraham giving Abimelech seven lambs. But the reason for the seven lambs was so that Abimelech would swear to Abraham, giving him the well. The reason in the text has greater priority, however. Verse 31 says that the main reason was that an oath was sworn there.

Now that they have come to an amicable agreement about the well, Abraham feels that he can stay awhile. That is why he plants this tree. Trees require water and time to grow. Abraham thinks that he can stay here awhile while this tree grows. What is interesting is that he decides to stay here where he thought previously that there was no fear of God in that place. But now, Abraham knows differently. Abimelech has behaved precisely as Psalm 2 directed him to do: “Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.” Abimelech has made peace with God’s anointed one. That means that Abimelech fears God, even though we have no indication that he was a saved man. Do you go further than Abimelech, and make peace with God, and not merely His anointed representative? By that I mean, “Have you made peace with God, and not merely with God’s people?” We cannot confuse the one with the other. They are distinct things.

This is the promise for us. God will grant that people of this world will often make peace with us, who are the Lord’s anointed. Yes, it is true that Christ came to bring a sword. However, it is also true that those upon whom God has given a good dose of common grace (not saving grace) will recognize that it is in their best interests to make peace with the church, even if they do not make peace with God. We can and should be thankful for any kind of peace along those lines.

Ultimately, of course, we should be concerned most about people’s souls, and whether or not they have made peace with God. That is where God’s grace will act. God often uses the lesser peace to bring about the greater peace. More often, the greater peace brings about the lesser peace, but it does go the other way sometimes. We should take advantage of every opportunity.

So then, are we honest with the world? Do we trust in God to give us what we need? Have we made our peace with God? And could we be described as peacemakers?