etching of Paul in prison studying with the slave Onesimus

Onesimus and Perfection

The letter to Philemon is one of the most fascinating books in the New Testament. It’s among the shortest books in the Bible, but it’s incredibly dense in terms of practical applications. It’s also a book that stirs my curiosity; there’s so much unspoken backstory that I really want to understand.  But there’s only one thing I want to focus on right now: Onesimus’s legal status when he was baptized.

Onesimus, Paul, and Roman Law

Onesimus didn’t just break household rules when he fled Philemon’s household. He broke the law. The Roman government was paranoid about the possibility of a slave rebellion, so laws regarding slaves were harsh. Not only was it illegal for a slave to travel any distance without permission from their master, but it was also illegal for slaves to gather in groups, and it was illegal to harbor an escaped slave. A Roman’s civic duty was to immediately turn in any slaves suspected of escape.

It was illegal for Onesimus to be with Paul. That’s important to understand when thinking about the implications of his conversion since it’s obvious that Onesimus was baptized by Paul before he reconciled with Philemon. Verse 10 says, “I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment.” So what does this mean for us when we come to Christ for salvation?

Baptism, Repentance, and Perfection

We often break salvation down into tidy steps: hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized. I don’t think it’s wrong to put repentance before baptism, but I think we need to consider what repentance really means. We often associate repentance with being sinless; nothing could be farther from the truth. Repentance is a process; it doesn’t mean that we have fixed everything. If it did, we could never repent enough before baptism.

Onesimus had not yet fixed his legal status or his relationship with Philemon when Paul baptized him. He was still a fugitive. He was yet to completely correct these sins in his life when baptized, but Paul did not let that stand in the way of salvation. Onesimus was not perfect when baptized, but he did have this: he had repented. He had a plan to set things right.

When you or I come to Christ, we don’t have to have our lives in perfect order. All we need is a heart ready to make things right. We need to repent — meaning we recognize the error in our lives and are willing to change. Onesimus would return to Philemon; with Paul’s support, he would fix his standing with his owner and with the law. But that repentance was a process for him, and it’s a process for us.

If some standard of perfection is holding you back from baptism in Christ, I would invite you to go forward with it despite any shortcomings. Christ wants you to come to Him broken, in need of His grace, and willing to start anew. Baptism is the beginning of your journey, not the end. Wherever you are, take that first step, knowing that Christ will forgive you in your imperfections and that your new family in Christ is there to help you on your journey.

 

Day One

This is a sermon I recently delivered at the Westfield Church of Christ.

Paul’s Moment

In Acts 9, Paul wasn’t planning on his life changing. In fact, it was quite the opposite, for Paul had been traveling to Damascus with one thing in mind – to capture and imprison as many Christians as he could.

Acts 9:1 – 9:

But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

And he said, “Who are you, Lord?”

And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

The road to Damascus became a road to change for Paul, but this was not enough. Sometimes, we refer to these events as the conversion of Saul, but his true conversion did not happen for another three days, and that’s recorded in verses 10 – 19.

Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”

But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.”

But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened.

From this point forward, Paul’s life took an entirely different trajectory. The moment he came out of the waters of baptism, Paul was made new. And he lived like it. He would even write later that his past counted nothing to him compared to his new life in Christ. That day Paul confessed the name of Jesus and submitted to baptism became his Day One moment. It became Day One of a new life.

Introduction

A Day One experience is an event that changes the course of your life forever. It’s a moment when you take control of your own story to take it in new and exciting directions. For Paul, it looked like rejecting all that he had been raised to believe and striking out on a path he had formerly rejected and even persecuted. It was a complete one-eighty.

Esther’s Moment

Another example of a Day One experience happens in Esther.

Ester 4:12 – 16:

Then Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews.  For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”  Then Esther told them to reply to Mordecai,  “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.”

Esther does more than resolve to go to the king. She sees it through. In Esther 7 not only does she reveal the plot against the Jews, but she reveals at last to the king that she herself is a Jew! Then she accuses Haman, the king’s highest officer, of orchestrating the impending genocide. Think of the the risks she took! Think of the consequences that could have befallen her. But she boldly steps into the first day of the rest of her life, and, in so doing, she not only changes her own life forever, but she saves the lives of countless others. Their lives hung on the resolve of one person and her willingness to take the control of her story out of the hands of others.

The salvation Esther brings to God’s people is still memorialized in an observance called Purim, as is written in Esther 9:23 – 29:

So the Jews accepted what they had started to do, and what Mordecai had written to them.  For Haman the Agagite, the son of Hammedatha, the enemy of all the Jews, had plotted against the Jews to destroy them, and had cast Pur (that is, cast lots), to crush and to destroy them.  But when it came before the king, he gave orders in writing that his evil plan that he had devised against the Jews should return on his own head, and that he and his sons should be hanged on the gallows.  Therefore they called these days Purim, after the term Pur. Therefore, because of all that was written in this letter, and of what they had faced in this matter, and of what had happened to them,  the Jews firmly obligated themselves and their offspring and all who joined them, that without fail they would keep these two days according to what was written and at the time appointed every year,  that these days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, in every clan, province, and city, and that these days of Purim should never fall into disuse among the Jews, nor should the commemoration of these days cease among their descendants.

That remembrance comes from the selfless and courageous actions of one woman in a day when women were hardly empowered. Esther stands an as example to all of us that one voice can shape great events.

Peter’s Moment

Not all Day One moments are visibly momentous, however. Some are quiet but every bit as powerful. Take Peter as an example in John 21:15 – 19:

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”

Peter  said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”

Jesus  said to him, “Feed my lambs.”  He said to Peter a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

Peter said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.”  He said to Peter the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.  Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.”  (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”

This comes after Jesus appears to the other apostles. This is after Jesus strengthens Thomas’ faith. Think of the pressure on Peter. Yes, Peter runs to the tomb when he learns it is empty. Yes, Peter jumps from the boat when He sees Jesus, but there is still something big between them – the fact that Peter had forcibly denied Jesus in His hour of need. In these verses, Jesus and Peter mend their relationship, and it becomes a Day One moment for Peter.

From this point, Peter will go forward to preach the first gospel message to the assembly at Pentecost. He will be the first to preach to the Gentiles. He will live a life dedicated to Christ, and he will write, near the end of his days in II Peter 3:8 – 9:

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.  The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

Peter could write so confidently of the Lord’s patience for repentance because He was once a recipient of that same patience. To him, that restoration was his Day One moment.

Elements of Day One

These individuals all had three things in common:

  • Each faced a crisis. For Paul and Peter, it was a crisis of faith. For Esther, it was a crisis of impending disaster.
  • Each took control. Esther takes control from Haman. Paul from his past, and Peter from his regret.
  • Each gave control to God. This is the important part. All of these took control, but they didn’t claim total ownership. Instead, each seized control and handed it over to God. They placed their trust in Him.

Your Day One

What will be your Day One moment? II Corinthians 5:16 -17 says:

From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer.  Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.

Being a Christian is all about being new. The day you put Christ on in baptism becomes Day One of a new life, but the challenge is that we must constantly renew ourselves. We all fall. We all slip into – for lack of a better term – oldness of life from time to time. We all face crises that threaten to take control of our lives. It may be a crisis that threatens disaster to chip away at our faith. It might be a spiritual crisis where we come to question what we believe. Whatever it is, the crisis is not the end of the story. Instead, it’s an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to take control from the crisis, purge the old, and become new again.

See I Corinthians 5:6 – 8:

Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?  Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.  Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

Paul is writing this to a congregation at the brink of destruction from within. They are divided. They are facing numerous doctrinal challenges, but no crisis is as great as the fact that they have an example of rampant immorality among their number – and not only do they tolerate that immorality, they are celebrating it.

They seem beyond recovery, yet this is the church Paul would address this way in II Corinthians 1:5 – 7:

For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.  If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer.  Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.

Did you hear that bit: “Our hope for you is unshaken?” This, to the same congregation that had been previously boasting in tolerance of immorality. They faced crisis. They took control away from that crisis, and they gave that control over to God. They emerged from their crisis a better and a stronger church family than when they began. What might have been the end of their story instead became their Day One moment.

Conclusion

That is the challenge to all of us. What will you do when faced with crisis? What will you do with your Day One moment? I challenge you, when things threaten to tear you down, to follow the example we see in Paul, in Esther, and in Peter. Face the crisis, take control away from it, and hand that control over to God. Let it change you for the better and make you new.

Make it Day One for the rest of your life. Step forward like Esther standing before the king. Put your past in the past and strive for a better future like Paul after the Damascus road. Or humbly repent like Peter with Christ, and trade your regrets for hope. Whatever the challenge before you, know that God wants you to succeed. Know that you have all that you need to make today Day One.

True Conversion

To be converted is to turn away from one thing to deliberately turn toward another. It is a decisive change. To what then were you converted? We preach, “hear, believe, repent, and be baptized,” which is not a bad approach to take. The problem may be, however, that our approach converts people to ideas and teachings rather than to Christ.

Conversion is a familiar term in the New Testament. Acts 15:3, we see Paul and Barnabas telling the brethren of the conversion of the Gentiles. In Matthew 18:3 records Jesus calling on his followers to be converted as little children. In Luke 22:31-32, Jesus speaks of a future conversion of Peter. In Acts 3:19 records Peter and John calling on their audience to repent and be converted.

Conversion to Substitutes

Sometimes, we convert people to the idea of salvation. While this is a gaol, it is not the center of one’s spiritual foundation. Mark 10:17 shows us a man coming to Jesus, seeking salvation. Unfortunately, that concept of salvation was not enough for him to turn from materialism. Also, in Acts 8:13, a sorcerer named Simon hears, believes, repents, and is baptized, but he had not yet truly made a turn from his past to a new life in Christ. Matthew 13:20-22 speaks to those who immediately respond to the message of salvation but whose faith do not endure without a stronger foundation.

We might also be converted to the idea of blessings. We want to become children of God for the good things we feel should come from that conversion. This is exactly what Satan challenges in the beginning of the book of Job, when he accuses that Job will turn away from God should his blessings crumble. In John 6:25-26, Jesus addresses this problem with the crowds, seeing they followed him for the food they ate more than for his message. Do we pray for our daily bread while forgetting to hallow and honor God as the core of our faith? Remember what Paul says in Philippians 4:11-13; contentment comes from God, not from material blessings.

Sometimes, we are converted to the idea of outward appearances – pleasing others, peer or familial pressures, valuing the social aspects. In Matthew 23:3-5, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for this exact motivation, using religion for the perception and respect. This is also the case in Matthew 6:2-4. In Acts 5, Ananias and Sapphira contribute to the church for appearances. II Timothy 4:9 speaks of one who loved this present world, forsaking God’s work. Being members of the right faith, of the right church, having the right stances – these are not the objects of our conversion.

Were You Truly Converted?

Rather than asking, “To what was I converted?” perhaps a better question would be,”Was I really converted in the first place?” In Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus commands his followers to make disciples, to make followers, from the nations. If we are converted to Jesus, we are followers of Him. We do not follow ideas, philosophies, or blessings. We simply follow Him. The only thing that can cleanse us, make us pure, wash us from sins, is Jesus’ sacrificial blood. It takes a deliberate change in our lives to reach that sacrifice. We must sacrifice self, turning away from everything that holds us to this world, so we can reach forward to the next.

lesson by Tim Smelser

The Bible’s Emphasis on Baptism

Often, as we extend an invitation at the conclusion of a lesson, we always includes encouragement to come forward and be baptized. Do we, however, understand the significance of that invitation? We know the New Testament has much to say about baptism, but why does He require the ceremony of baptism when He knows our hearts?

The Significance of Baptism in the New Testament

We place an emphasis on baptism because it is commanded by God. In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus commands the apostles to baptize those who would be His followers, and Mark 16:15-16 records Jesus calling baptism an essential component of salvation. During Pentecost in Acts 2, the apostles put this command into practice when, in verse 38, Peter commands those believers to be baptized. Baptism is repeated time and again in the book of Acts as individuals come to believe on the name of Jesus and obediently submit to Him.

Baptism is important because of the event it symbolizes. In Romans 6:3-11, Paul discussion immersion in water as a burial, symbolizing a spiritual death, burial, and resurrection. Symbolically, we join Jesus’ sacrifice, and we raise up a new person after this death to sin. Colossians 2:12 uses similar language of burial into and raising up from water. It is an act of faith in which we cover ourselves with Christ’s sacrifice. It is a reenactment on His death, burial, and resurrection. It is a spiritual rebirth as Jesus tells Nicodemus in John 3:3, and Titus 3:4-6 calls baptism a washing of regeneration or rebirth. When we are baptized, we die to sin and rise up in a newness of life.

We emphasize baptism because of the job it accomplishes. It washes away sin according to Acts 2:38 and 22:16. Colossians 2:12 and Galatians 3:27 claim baptism clothes us in Christ. We are put into Christ when we enter into baptism, and God then adds us to His kingdom based on Acts 2:47. Finally, baptism saves. I Peter 3:20-22 draws a parallel between the souls on the ark being saved through water and the salvation found in the water of baptism. Baptism is a washing of our souls resulting from our conscientious obedience to God.

Conclusion

Peter, Paul, Jesus – all these proclaim the saving power of baptism. As grace, faith, and love all play roles in our salvation, so does obedience. James 2 encourages us to be willing to act upon the faith we have. In verse 19, James commends his audience for believing in God and affirms that even demons hold a belief in God. The difference comes through obedience. Romans 6 reminds us that baptism is significant t our lives as Christians. Once we die to sin, we should no longer live in it. We should let it change us into someone new, someone who now follows the footsteps of Christ. Instead of sin reigning in our bodies, Christ now reigns in us.

lesson by Tim Smelser

Simply Baptism

Through many of Paul’s writings, he encourages us to be filled with the Spirit and grace. In Titus 3:3-8 speaks to the state we were once in before God interceded for us in kindness. He calls us to good deeds that reflect the qualities of our Savior after being washed in the renewal of the Spirit. This mercy is not extended to us based on our good works. Rather, we engage in good works because of the mercy extended to us.

Baptism plays a key role in these elements of washing, of grace, and of the Spirit. Our spiritual renewal is not about us. It’s about God and about what we can do for and share with others. We return to these topics time and again to remind ourselves of who we should be and encourage each other in Christ.

Baptism’s Works in Us

When we are baptized, many of us express a belief in Christ and in His forgiving power. Moreover, it is a time when we are making a true commitment to God. We may not understand all that this commitment means. We may still have had sins we struggled with. Our scriptural knowledge was probably more incomplete than it is today. However, it is a time when we pledge ourselves to that fight of faith. Regardless of how we get there, baptism commits us to God. It is a loving response to His sacrifice for us.

In Titus, the idea of baptism as a renewal and a regeneration. It is not baptism alone. It is not the Spirit alone. The two work together in this process. I Corinthians 12:13 and John 3:3-6 are other passages that tie baptism and the Spirit together. We are born again in baptism, and the Spirit then begins to work in our lives, renewing us and bringing us closer to God. It is a call to a new birth, to a new life.

Ezekiel 36:25-29 uses illustrations that should sound familiar to New Testament Christians. He speaks of salvation and cleansing in water, of cleansing their hearts, of putting His Spirit into them. Acts 22:12-16 records Paul recounting his own baptism experience, in which Ananias calls on Paul to wash his sins away in baptism. Acts 2:37-38 records Peter calling the crowds to baptism for forgiveness and for the Spirit.

Galatians 3:27 describes being baptized into Christ clothes oneself in Christ and spiritually removes all demographics that separate us in the secular world. In the Old Testament, the custom of circumcision discriminated between factors such as race and gender. In contrast, baptism washes away status. Where the former divided, the new unites. It brings us together under one relationship and one purpose.

Creating Barriers to Baptism

There are many things that might prevent any of us from taking the step of baptism. Baptism is such a simple concept, but overanalyzing the topic has created hang-ups for many today. As we look over the New Testament, baptism is not portrayed as a complicated topic.

Furthermore, adding requirements to baptism can impede others. Looking at Acts 2:38, Peter invites the people to baptism based on their simple knowledge that they needed Christ. This follows through with the Ethiopian Eunuch, the Philippian jailer, and many other examples. There is no evidence of spiritual surveys, questioning of motives, or any other thing that impedes the convert or invalidates their actions.

Conclusion

Baptism is a regeneration and a renewal that closes the gap between God and us. It is our loving response to God’s mercy, and it unites us as one family in God. However, baptism is not our destination as Christians. It is not the end of the road. It is the beginning. It opens the way to Heaven, and it sets us on the road to Christ. It is our first step in obeying His gospel and living a life reflecting Christ. God has provided us a great gift in His grace, and baptism is merely our acceptance of that gift and a commitment to a life for Him.

lesson by Ben Lanius