The ‘Perhaps’-es of Life Under God’s Sovereign Governance

Philemon 1:15 —

“For this perhaps [τάχα] is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever …”

Peter T. O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon, vol. 44, Word Biblical Commentary (1998), 295 —

Paul puts forward this suggestion about God’s purpose modestly with the adverb τάχα (“perhaps,” “possibly,” or “probably”; it usually occurs with ἄν and the optative mood, but in the two NT passages where the word appears, Rom 5:7 and here, the indicative is used without ἄν), since he is not assuming an acquaintance with God’s designs.

N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (2013), 1350–1351 —

For Cicero [beyond worship and prayer], the other two aspects [of religio] were the taking of auguries [omens] and the consultation of ancient oracular texts. Paul did not, of course, use divination, or consult the entrails (or the flight-paths) of birds. He did not expect to be guided, or warned, by a sudden clap of thunder. But he believed that the divinity he invoked guided him, at least when he particularly needed it.

[In Acts] it is noticeable that there are several moments when specific words from the lord give order and direction to Paul’s life, from his conversion itself through to the angelic encouragement he received shortly before the shipwreck. It is equally noticeable that there are several moments when we might have expected such things but none appear. Paul, Silas, and Timothy go wandering off northwards through Asia Minor without knowing quite where they are going. The only guidance, for a while, is negative: they are forbidden to preach here, prevented from going there.

Many of Paul’s decisions about where to go next, and when to move on, seem to have been taken on what we might think of as purely pragmatic or common-sense grounds, not least when he was being physically threatened or attacked and deemed it prudent to leave town in a hurry. If Paul urged his hearers to learn how to think things through, to develop a wise Christian mind, it was something he had had to do himself. Certainly Luke has made no attempt to portray the apostolic mission in terms of constant ‘supernatural’ guidance, though that kind of ‘intervention’ does happen from time to time.

In Paul’s own writings this kind of guidance seems at best oblique. He has long been intending to go to Rome, but things have got in the way. His journeyings have been planned on the basis of his overall understanding of God’s work in and through him, not ad hoc because of particular sudden impulses — even if some might accuse him of such a thing. God would use combinations of circumstances both to encourage him and to nudge him in a particular direction. There might be occasional moments of ‘revelation,’ but these are conspicuously rare.

As often as not, Paul sees the divine hand only in retrospect. For the present, the attempt to discern divine intent carries a ‘maybe’ about with it. Maybe, he writes to Philemon about Onesimus, this is the reason he was separated from you. To believe in providence often means saying ‘perhaps.’

All this might seem to lead to the paradoxical conclusion that Paul was less certain of the divine will, on a day-to-day basis, than his pagan counterparts.

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