God’s Curious Relationship With Sin

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That’s a provocative title, and even as I typed it out, it occurred to me that some reading it may get the wrong idea. So let me clarify. God doesn’t sin, nor does He cause anybody to sin. He doesn’t play games like that. And yet, God does have a unique relationship with sin from time to time; a relationship that is nothing like ours. We see it a demonstrated in the Bible a few times, nowhere better than in the life of Joseph. His was an up-and-down life to be sure. Looked at moment-by-moment, it seems as though various sins were propelling Joseph along the course of his life – not his sins but the sins of others. But in hindsight, Joseph was able to write this:

You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. (Genesis 50:20 TNIV)

That’s Joseph talking to his brothers. They were certainly a motley crew. Their father, Jacob, had just died and every brother feared that Joseph, now high up in Egyptian politics, would punish the lot of them because of their sinful treatment of him.

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” (Genesis 50:15 TNIV)

In fact, these guys were so scared of Joseph, they sent a messenger to talk to him instead of going themselves! Gutless wonders to the last of them, and even the message the messenger carried is at least suspicious.

So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father. ” When their message came to him, Joseph wept. (Genesis 50:16, 17 TNIV)

Did Jacob really make such a request? If so, why didn’t he just talk to as Joseph himself before he died? It’s curious to say the least, especially in light of Joseph’s earlier statement of forgiveness. No wonder Joseph wept! After all he had done for his shifty family, they still didn’t trust him!

The suspense must have gotten the better of them, because the brothers eventually did visit him in person.

His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said. (Genesis 50:18 TNIV)

No matter how you interpret this, we see here shades of Joseph’s dream from a lifetime ago:

Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.” (Genesis 37:5 – 7 TNIV)

Joseph’s response to his brothers is nothing if not supernatural, and it brings us to God’s curious relationship with sin:

Joseph threw himself on his father and wept over him and kissed him. You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children. ” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them. (Genesis 50:20, 21 TNIV)

Joseph understood a couple of very deep theological concepts here. First, he knew it was God’s job to judge sin, not his. But second, and most important, Joseph understood God’s sovereignty, perhaps better than anybody of his time. In God’s mysterious purposes, He meant for good what Joseph’s brothers meant for evil. The “good” here didn’t have so much to do with Joseph’s startling rise to power and prominence in Egyptian politics, but rather the “saving of many lives.” These “many lives” included not only the entire Hebrew family, but also all the people who lived in Canaan and Egypt. Joseph saw the big picture, and he realized and he saw that what happened to him was not nearly as important as the greater good that resulted from it. The awful famine threatened the population of the entire region, but thanks to Joseph’s cleverness, farsightedness, and his being “in the right place at the right time,” all the people survived the famine, Egypt flourished, and God’s people were protected and cared for.

Joseph saw and understood what Christians need to see and understand: that God has a curious relationship with sin.

Paul understood it

Joseph saw the “big picture.” Paul also saw the “big picture,” but on a much smaller scale. In this case, it wasn’t so much the salvation of an entire region of the planet, but that of a soul.

Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever—no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord. (Philemon, verses 15, 16 TNIV)

To understand what Paul is getting at here, we need to look at that word “separated.” Who was separated from whom? Paul wrote this letter to a fairly wealthy Christian man called Philemon for two main reasons. The first reason is practical and touches our hearts.

And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers. (Philemon, verse 22 TNIV)

Paul wrote this letter from prison. Scholars are pretty sure it was during his first imprisonment, so it’s entirely likely that when Paul was released, he did in fact visit and stay with this man Philemon. Philemon was probably a businessman, and he lived in a place called Colossae, located in what is known today as Turkey. It was a hustling, bustling, prosperous place in Paul’s day, but nothing is left of Colossae today except ruins. Nothing in this world is permanent!

This man Philemon owned a slave named Onesimus. Slavery was very common in the Roman Empire. It is thought that there were upwards of 60 million slaves at this time throughout the Empire. So Onesimus was just one of many. And as we will see, the reason this slave was “separated” from his master was that he ran away. Paul was being very diplomatic in verses 15 and 16. Technically, the two parties were separated, but they were separated because one of the parties broke the law and took off, probably taking some of his master’s private property with him.

But this letter is not a polemic against slavery. Slavery is the historical background in which it was written only. You may view slavery as sinful, but as we are discovering, God has a curious relationship with sin. But if you view slavery as sinful, then you must certainly allow that Paul being tossed in prison for simply preaching Jesus Christ was also sinful! Yet God was in behind all this sinful activity for the sole purpose of accomplishing His wonderful will.

Philemon was not only a wealthy businessman, he was also a devout Christian, loved by Paul, and the letter was addressed to him and to the church that met in his house. The problem Paul was about to address was both a private one and a public one.

I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. (Philemon, verses 10, 11 TNIV)

This is the crux of the letter. Onesimus, the runaway slave, had been converted by Paul while both of them were in a Roman prison. There’s no such thing as coincidence where believers are involved. This was a divine meeting. Here we see God’s sovereignty at work in the midst of less than desirable circumstances. Sin was all over this story of Philemon and Onesimus and Paul, yet God maneuvered all the sinful circumstances to the point where the slave and apostle were, probably, sharing a cell.

Onesimus became a believer thanks to the testimony of Paul, and now Paul wants to send Onesimus back to Philemon, where he belongs. Apparently the slave was going to be released and, because he was a slave, he had no standing under Roman law – his only chance at survival was for Philemon to take him back.

I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. (Philemon, verse 12 TNIV)

Clearly Paul thought very highly of this one-time slave. The following verse shows just how highly Onesimus was thought of:

I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. (Philemon, verse 13 TNIV)

That’s right. With Onesimus now a brother in the Lord, Paul views him on an equal standing with Philemon, the wealthy businessman! That’s a minor lesson: Jesus Christ is the great equalizer. Rich or poor, all believers are of equal value before the Lord.

And that brings us to verse 15 and God’s curious relationship with sin. Paul noticed it as surely as did Joseph:

Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever… (Philemon, verse 15 TNIV)

The “perhaps” shows what’s in the back of Paul’s mind. Nothing that happened was coincidental. Paul, knowing full well that it was thievery and flight that separated slave from master, attributes their meeting to something – or someone – else. Paul sees, not the sin involved even though he is obviously aware of it – but the Sovereignty of God at work. He’s not 100% sure, but it seemed reasonable to him that God allowed the sinful circumstances surrounding Onesimus and Philemon for the sole purpose of returning the slave to his master a saved man. In Paul’s reasoning, God permitted evil to occur so that the greater good may take place. It’s not that God caused any of this sin to happen, but He, as in the case of Joseph and the brothers, was able to make good come out of it. One Bible scholar notes,

God permits evil and overrules it for the evolution of the greater good.

When it comes to God’s curious relationship with sin, two thing become very clear.

It’s in the big and little things

God’s curious relationship with sin – God’s providence – touches the nations of this world, as demonstrated by the story Joseph, but it also touches the lives individuals, from the wealthiest and most influential to the lowliest of slaves. Onesimus, a thief and a slave, running from his owner and a life he probably hated, couldn’t outrun the presence and providence of God.

It’s never the way it seems

It’s odd that Onesimus, while he was working for Philemon in a Christian household, surrounded by other Christians, should have become so hardened to the grace of God that he would cause his master financial harm and run away! And yet, in pagan Rome, in the cold, damp of a prison cell, he should find a means of grace. God has a habit of doing things in a most unusual way – often in a way completely opposite to way we would.

God’s curious relationship to sin ensures the best for our lives and His ultimate glorification.

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