A Time for Everything

Rebecca Van Noord

Genesis 12–13, Matthew 10, Ecclesiastes 3:1–8

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Eccl 3:1).

The Bible’s most famous poem has inspired writers for generations, yet has not been improved upon. In a few short, simple lines, the Preacher ponders the whole of life: birth, death, weeping, laughing, mourning, dancing, breaking down, and building up. The buoyancy and familiarity of the text could cause us to gloss over the poetic brilliance of “the matter[s] under heaven.” But when we get to “a time to hate” and “a time to kill,” the romance is—well, killed. Are all these emotions and events really ordained by God? The strength of the poem is in contrast and repetition. By laying the seasons side by side, the Preacher effectively captures the span and cycle of human life. He isn’t providing a list of experiences that we should check off our holistic life to-do list. Rather, he is emphasizing an absolute need for reliance on God.

Although evil seems to wield power in our lives and in the lives of those around us, God is present. He is there when we experience delights, and He is present when tragedy and sin overwhelm us. When we experience the death of those we love, send a soldier off to war, or experience hate, we can know that God is still making Himself known to fallen people in a fallen world.

We must pray for the Spirit to help us judge the seasons and respond appropriately to Him—with wisdom, like the Preacher advocates. We can live confidently, because “He has put eternity into man’s heart” (Eccl 3:11). Nothing assures us more of this than His provision of a way out of life’s seasons through His Son.

What season of life are you currently in? How are you helping friends in difficult seasons? How are you celebrating with friends in joyful seasons? How can you bring the good news of Christ to bear in both situations?

This article was originally posted in Connect the Testaments: A One-Year Daily Devotional with Bible Reading Plan.

Shelf Life Book Review: Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes

Matthew James Hamilton

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes
Intervaristy Press, 2012

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In this book, E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien draw from their experiences in cross-cultural communication to help us identify and eradicate cultural blinders that hinder biblical interpretation.

The book is divided into three sections. In “Above the Surface,” the authors describe cultural differences like ethnicity and language. “Just Below the Surface” delves into more subtle distinctions: It examines differences between our individualistic culture and the collective culture of the biblical world, the system of honor or shame versus our own culture of right or wrong, and time and how it plays into our reading of Scripture. In the final section, “Deep Below the Surface,” the authors address ideas that we consider biblical, universal truths, showing that many of these issues are neither universal nor biblical; instead, they can stand in the way of proper interpretation. This book is an excellent tool—eye-opening for any Western Christian, especially those who plan to teach the Bible in non-Western contexts.

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 5 No. 2

You Owe Me Your Very Soul

Perry L. Stepp & Rebecca Van Noord

“And I won’t mention that you owe me your very soul,” Paul says in his letter to Philemon (Phlm 19).

At first glance, Paul’s comment seems like a threat—a rhetorical hand grenade he tosses to pressure Philemon, a church leader in Colossae, to do what he wants. But is that what’s going on?

The Backstory

Philemon is a wealthy Christian who was converted during Paul’s mission work in Colossae. His slave Onesimus runs away, causing Philemon financial loss. During his travels, Onesimus finds Paul and becomes a Christian through his witness. Now, Paul is sending him back to Philemon, along with the letter bearing his master’s name.

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Beyond that, the details are hazy. We don’t know exactly what Onesimus did or even what Paul specifically wants Philemon to do for Onesimus. But we do know that he wants Philemon to relate to Onesimus in a completely different manner.

Bondservant or Brother?

It’s not Onesimus’ theft, flight or conversion that Paul initially addresses—it’s Philemon’s faith and reputation. Paul begins by praising Philemon for his “faith in the Lord Jesus” and “love for all of God’s people” (Phlm 5). From there, he segues to the premise for his upcoming request: “And I am praying that you will put into action the generosity that comes from your faith as you understand and experience all the good things we have in Christ” (Phlm 6).

Paul sets up Philemon to respond obediently. Although he could have commanded Philemon to receive Onesimus, he wants and expects Philemon to respond out of love because of the love that was shown him: “He is no longer like a slave to you. He is more than a slave, for he is a beloved brother, especially to me. Now he will mean much more to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord” (Phlm 16).

Paul removes barriers that might have existed between the two men—class, rank and working relationship. They are both indebted to Christ and both heirs of His promise of salvation and thus brothers. They’ve been adopted (Rom 8:15–16).

They are also brothers in another sense because Paul is their spiritual father. This is Paul’s reason for telling Philemon that he owes him his “very soul” (Phlm 19). This statement comes after Paul’s offer to pay Onesimus’ debt. Paul shows Philemon that, just like Onesimus, Philemon owes Paul a debt—one that precedes and outweighs Onesimus’.

A Community Response

Paul’s requests don’t affect only Philemon and Onesimus. If we read the first verse of the letter, we see that Paul addresses the entire community that met at Philemon’s house. The letter would have been read aloud while the community was present, and the entire church would have overheard Paul make these requests of Philemon, placing pressure on him to follow through. Paul isn’t letting Philemon make his own private decision. He is holding him accountable before the entire community in Colossae. He is essentially saying, “What does Jesus really mean to you? How transformed by the gospel are you?”

Paul knew that Philemon’s response to this matter would affect the entire community. He wants to remind all of them that they are knit together not by their social or legal standing, but by their faith in Christ.

Pick up resources for studying the pastoral letters at Logos.com/PastoralLetters

Biblical references are from the New Living Translation (NLT).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 4 No. 6

Wisdom from a Cactus

Aubry Smith

When my husband and I were newly married, we were given a cactus, which we named Maurice. I had never owned a plant, but the cactus-giver assured me that it would be easy. I carefully avoided novice mistakes, like forgetting to water it, not giving it enough sunlight or allowing the neighborhood strays to claim it as their territory.

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I still killed Maurice. When I lamented that I was somehow less nurturing than a desert, my husband gently voiced a problem I had overlooked. While I had avoided doing the wrong things, I had failed to do some of the right things—researching how much water the cactus needed, bringing it inside during heavy rains, fertilizing the soil and repotting it periodically.

As Christians, we often measure spiritual growth by how successful we are at avoiding sin. Our testimonies proclaim how life with Christ has helped us eliminate sin—from drug use and immorality to cursing and anger issues. Our tales often end there. However, my failure with Maurice serves as an example that it takes more than avoiding sin to grow and thrive in faith.

In his letter to Titus, Paul writes:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works (Titus 2:11–14).

Twice in this passage we find negative and positive actions paired: God’s grace trains us in both renouncing ungodliness and worldly passions (negative) and in living self-controlled, upright and godly lives (positive); Jesus redeems us from lawlessness (negative) and into purity and good works (positive). Jesus saves us from sin, into godliness.

Often, we diligently avoid outward sins—and rightfully so. Sin leads to death and estranges us from God. But how often do we actively seek godly lives and good works? While we avoid sin with our mouths through gossip, lying or unkind words, we are slow to speak encouragement or to voice gratitude.

Such failures are subtle. As “good Christians,” we understand and abide by clear rules like “don’t steal” or “don’t commit adultery.” But commands for goodness, generosity and service seem subjective. Satisfied that we have shunned the evil deeds, we might even give ourselves more leeway when it comes to doing good works—quietly setting them aside as we fill ourselves with the pride of being saint-like.

In Titus 2:1, Paul commands Titus to “teach what accords with sound doctrine,” listing examples like self-controlled speech and temperance to or reverence and kindness. Before instructing Titus on positive or negative actions, he gives the purpose of the good works: “so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (2:10). Our godliness gives credence and attractiveness to doctrine. Conversely, a life of sin skews doctrine and maligns God’s nature.

Paul’s words offer hope. God’s grace trains—a word that brings marathon runners and body builders to mind (Titus 2:12). While training is slow, hard work that requires practice and perseverance, it makes a weak body strong. And just as an athlete would not prepare for an event without a trainer, we are not expected to live upright lives on our own. Paul declares that Jesus Christ is the one who purifies us for these good works. The grace that gave us new life also trains and sustains us through the hard work of godliness.

Biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 4 No. 6

I Did It My Way

John D. Barry

Genesis 10–11; Matthew 9; Ecclesiastes 2:18–26

Frank Sinatra was wrong to do things “his way.” In Gen 11, we see people uniting in building what seems like a great triumph of humanity—until we realize what their work is all about. They’re tired of being distant from God, so they build a structure that will reach the heavens.

“Surely the gods will know and find us now.… Let’s meet our maker,” you can almost hear them say. But the true God, Yahweh, knows their plan and says: “Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech” (Gen 11:7). Because all the people spoke one language, they were dangerous to themselves. In the unity of one world, there is disunity: we choose to assault the God we should serve.

There is an alternative—a unity that God desires: where we serve Him by serving others. Jesus describes how we should act towards one another and towards Him, even teaching us how to pray. With Christ, God has resolved the reason the tower was attempted. Since the Holy Spirit came and brought us comfort (John 16:4–15), the very presence of God is always with us.

Sinatra also said that if a man doesn’t have himself, “then he has naught.” But God wants us to stop focusing on ourselves, building towers, and trying to do things our own way. He wants us to seek Him, and to treat others with the love, respect, and self-sacrifice that Christ gave us. He wants us to do things His way.

What towers are you building? What type of investments should you be making instead?

This article was originally posted in Connect the Testaments: A One-Year Daily Devotional with Bible Reading Plan.


John D. Barry is the CEO and founder of Jesus’ Economy, a nonprofit dedicated to creating jobs and churches in the developing world. To empower the extreme poor, Jesus’ Economy also has an online fair trade shop. John is also the general editor of Faithlife Study Bible and the former editor-in-chief of Bible Study Magazine. Learn more about John’s work with Jesus’ Economy at www.jesuseconomy.org.