Philemon: Christianity in the Real World Part 2
Picking back up where we left off last week with the Apostle Paul having written this very personal letter to his dear brother in the faith Philemon. The necessity of this letter stems back to the situation that this man Philemon finds himself in. A slave of his named Onesimus has fled from him and as we will see in verse 18 has most likely also stolen from him on his way out. But as providence would have it, somehow the Apostle Paul has come across this runaway slave, led him to Christ, and is now requiring him to return home to his master and Paul is likewise calling for Philemon his master to forgive him of his sins against him.
Nothing about this situation is easy for anyone involved. Paul now has to mediate between this master and slave, this slave is having to humble himself and return to his master, and this master is being called by the Apostle Paul himself to forgive.
I didn’t have time to mention it last week but this sin of Onesimus did not just affect these three men either. As we saw in verse 2, Paul doesn’t only address Philemon in this letter but also acknowledges the presence of others in the church as well. There was Apphia who most all assume is Philemon’s wife as well as Archippus who is most likely Philemon’s son who is a minister in this church that is located in Philemon’s house. Why would Paul include Philemon’s family and church in this matter? It’s because a little leaven leavens the whole lump. Onesimus’ departure would have been common knowledge in the church and depending on how Philemon deals with this sin against him the whole church could be stumbled. I think Paul includes Philemon’s family and the rest of the church so that they too will help Philemon in the work of forgiving Onesimus. Depending on the details of how Onesimus actually left, how much money or property he stole, Philemon may have been really struggling to forgive. But thank God that nothing we go through in this life, do we have to go through it alone. The brethren are there to help us through our struggles and Philemon is certainly blessed to have Paul bring in reinforcements to help him through his moment of testing.
Let’s pick back up in verse 8 now where Paul has already done much work of ensuring Philemon that he has nothing but love him. Paul has graciously attempted to put Philemon at ease so that he might readily receive Paul’s request.
8Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to order you to do what is proper, 9yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you—since I am such a person as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus—
As we mentioned in the opening verse of the letter that Paul chose to introduce himself not as he normally does as, “Paul the Apostle of Christ Jesus”, but instead as “Paul the prisoner of Christ Jesus”. Again, Paul’s motive in this was not to put any extra burden upon Philemon that was not actually necessary. This is all a part of Paul’s intentional graciousness. Remember, Paul is not afraid to throw down the trump card that he is an Apostle. He began most of his letters by stating his authority as an Apostle. And what is the Apostolic authority? Paul himself gives us an aspect of it in 1 Corinthians 14:37–38 (Here the church in Corinth was defying Paul’s instructions on things such as the use of the gifts and women’s roles in the church, and Paul’s response to the rebellious faction in the church was) If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment. 38But if anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. In other words, Paul is not afraid to throw down this gauntlet of his authority if necessary but obviously he does not see it as necessary with this brother Philemon whom Paul considers to be a good humble and submissive brother. Instead of just asserting his authority, Paul is leaving the door open for Philemon to do the right thing of his own free will. Notice how Paul explains this in verse 14 ”but without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will.” (Yes the believer has a freed will to do whatever he pleases which will inevitably be what God decreed before the foundation of the world that he would do freely).
Paul point is that he is leaving the door for Philemon to respond in love. Instead of appealing on the highest form of Paul’s authority, his apostolic prerogative, he instead appeals to his humble position as an aged and faithful fellow Christian brother who is in chains for their mutual Lord and Savior. Paul being at this time close to 60 years old appeals not to sentiment but to common Christian love between the brethren.
And for whom exactly is he appealing for?
10I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, 11who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me.
Paul is making an appeal for Onesimus, Paul finally mentioning him by name. And I’m sure that these words about Onesimus would have blown his mind because Philemon, certainly for the first time, is now learning that his rebellious, disobedient, thieving, unbelieving slave has somehow come across the Apostle Paul some 1200 miles away and has been born again through Paul’s preaching of the Gospel just as Philemon himself had been converted by years before. The providence is truly staggering.
Onesimus, whom had previously become nothing more than a bad taste in Philemon’s mouth, was now the spiritual child of the Apostle Paul. It’s amazing. It’s also amazing to think about the reality that Paul who is old and single is still having kids. He is producing spiritual children and raising them up in the faith. That’s good news to think about the fact that we are never too old to keep having children in this sense.
Now in verse 11 Paul is actually making a play on words to describe the new found state of affairs with Onesimus. Onesimus was a very common name given to slaves, it meant “useful”. And Paul goes on to say that this Onesimus who formerly was useless to you meaning he was a pretty worthless slave, is now useful both to you and to me. In other words, Useful, who was actually useless, has become actually useful.
But in what ways has Onesimus become useful to both Philemon and Paul?
First, Onesimus would now be useful to Philemon as a useful slave. Now this tells you something about the kind of grace that the Bible is speaking of when it uses the word grace. Most evangelicals have a very narrow definition or view of the grace of God that saves sinners. Most think simply of the grace of God that justifies the sinner. Too few seem to expect or even believe that the saving grace of God does more than simply justify the sinner but that it actually sanctifies the sinner as well. Because Onesimus has received the saving grace of God, he has also received the grace of God that has as Ezekiel 36 says, it has changed his heart of stone into a heart of flesh and will cause him to be careful to observe God’s ordinances, Onesimus has now received the grace of God that causes him to, as Titus 2 says, instructs him to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously, and godly in the present age. Onesimus has received the grace of God that would enable him to obey even a command of God such as 1 Peter 2:18 Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable. Now it’s not as though Philemon would be an unreasonable master, but even if he was, Onesimus would still by the grace of God be useful to even an unreasonable master. Onesimus has been changed by the grace of God.
But notice that Paul doesn’t only say that Onesimus was now useful to Philemon but Paul says that Philemon was now useful to him as well.
12I have sent him back to you in person
(if you remember, Colossians 4:7-9 told us that Tychicus as well as Onesimus were returning to Colossae with both the letter of Colossians that was addressed to the whole church as well as this personal letter for Philemon. Paul has sent Onesimus back home),
that is, sending my very heart, 13whom I wished to keep with me, so that on your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel; 14but without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will.
Now, I don’t believe that Paul wanted Philemon around to simply clean his wounds where his chains had rubbed him raw or to simply keep his waste basket empty. If you notice, Paul says in v.13 that he wished to keep Onesimus with him, that on your (Philemon’s) behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel. Onesimus was then filling the very role for Paul that Philemon this wealthy and prominent member of his own church in Colossae would have been fulfilling if he was in Rome with Paul which was obviously significant Gospel ministry. (Not of course that cleaning Paul’s wounds and taking out his trash would not be considered Gospel ministry, I would love to have been able to do that for Paul, but his point is that Onesimus was thoroughly productive and helpful in the Gospel work that was going on and would certainly be missed by his leaving for back home.
But as helpful as Onesimus was to him, Paul knew that sending Onesimus back home was the right thing to do. It would be Philemon’s call to do with his slave as he wished and Paul dare not overstep his bounds in keeping Onesimus without Philemon’s consent.
Now I’ve mentioned the amazing providence of God that is seen throughout this situation and here in verse 15 we see Paul himself raising its significance to Philemon as he attempts to explain the “why me? question” that Philemon may be asking himself about all of this trouble that Onesimus has caused him.
15For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, 16no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
Paul is here calling for Philemon to recognize and be comforted by the sovereignty of God overshadowing this entire situation. What Onesimus meant for evil, God meant for good. From a human perspective Philemon assumes that he has been wronged by being robbed of one of his worker and whatever other items Onesimus left with. But from God’s perspective, this was all part of His intricately woven plan to save Onesimus’ soul and to provide for Philemon more than he had before. Before Philemon had an unregenerate, unhappy laborer; now thanks to his difficulty, he has a Spirit filled, thankful and joyful brother in the Lord who will be more than happy to serve him in his work as one working unto the Lord. O ye of little faith Philemon.
Now I haven’t addressed up to this point yet what may be the elephant in the room, and maybe this is as good a place as any to at least mention the reality and place of slavery in all of this. You may be wondering why Paul is sending this slave back to his master rather than calling for Philemon to release all of his slaves and start fighting for abolition.
When we hear the word slavery, we may instinctively reference in our minds the slavery that took place in the Americas until about 150 years ago. But what we must be careful to do is to distinguish between that kind of slavery and the different forms and reasons for the slavery that we see in the Bible that we must deem not only not sinful but even commanded by God at times. It’s precisely these kinds of distinctions that the Bible makes that most antagonists against the Bible are not willing to consider.
1st of all I believe that Paul himself in 1 Timothy 1:10 condemned the kind of slavery that took place in the Americas where people were kidnapped and stolen from their land to be sold into slavery. Paul in 1 Timothy here is discussing a good and proper use of the Law: “The Law is to condemn the lawless, rebellious, the ungodly, sinners…….and kidnappers NASB” (enslavers ESV).
O.T. condemnation as well, Exodus 21:16 condemns the same act “He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death.
There where however a couple of legitimate reasons that God’s people also had slaves throughout the Bible.
Under the Old Covenant, God at times offered a merciful option to the enemies of Israel. They could either die under God’s judgment being poured out through His people Israel, or become Israel’s slaves. Deuteronomy 20:10–11 “When you approach a city to fight against it, you shall offer it terms of peace. 11“If it agrees to make peace with you and opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall become your forced labor and shall serve you. The only person who would have a problem with this kind of slavery would be the person who doesn’t believe that the pagan nations surrounding Israel deserved to be entirely wiped out by God’s judgment against their sins and that slavery was something they didn’t deserve.
There was also what has come to be known as indentured servitude where people were able to sell themselves into slavery to pay off their debts. And if you happened to be an Israelite and found yourself in this situation you were not even to be designated as a slave but were more of hired hand. Leviticus 25:39–40 ‘If a countryman of yours becomes so poor with regard to you that he sells himself to you, you shall not subject him to a slave’s service. 40‘He shall be with you as a hired man, as if he were a sojourner; he shall serve with you until the year of jubilee.
These were some of the variations amongst the Israelites that led to a large percentage of people being classified as slaves just as with the Gentiles as well. It is said that in the first century, about 30-40% of the population of Rome was made up of the slave class. Certainly the legitimate and illegitimate slavery over times becomes so intermingled and grey that many probably could not account for the reasons that their entire family line had been slaves. But as terrible as it was and still is to be a slave (slavery very much still exists in many forms around the world to be sure); there is something of greater concern to the Apostle Paul than ending slavery, and that is the clarity and preservation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Why didn’t Paul write this letter to stir up the church to begin a complete upheaval and eradication of the institution of slavery? As I have said, Paul does condemn unrighteous forms of slavery, but Paul is more concerned about keeping the main thing the main thing, and that is the spread of the Gospel. Paul’s imprisonment did not stop the spread of the Gospel (Phil 1:13) and being a slave does not stop the spread of the Gospel as well. Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:21 that if you are a slave and can obtain your freedom, do it. But that is not the focus of the Gospel. Christ did not die to simply free us from unrighteous earthly masters, He died to free us from our slavery to sin, and we dare not confuse the distinctions between the two.
So in our text here, I trust that if Onesimus’ enslavement by Philemon was of such a kind that it warranted Paul’s rebuke, I have no doubt that Paul would have addressed the issue. Paul was certainly more aware of the circumstances surrounding Philemon’s and Onesimus’ relationship than we could ever be and I’m fine with entrusting myself to his judgment on the issue.
Paul continues his plea……
17If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me. 18But if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account; 19I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand, I will repay it (not to mention to you that you owe to me even your own self as well).
Paul is a good brother. He is in essence making it impossible for Philemon not to forgive. Whatever he stole from you, charge it to my account, I will pay it for him. How did Paul, who was in chains, have money? The same way the ministers of our churches get money, from the faithful giving of the members of the church. Paul was not able to work while in this particular imprisonment, the church must have supported him. Paul says the same goes for us. 1 Timothy 5:17–18 The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. 18For the Scripture says, “YOU SHALL NOT MUZZLE THE OX WHILE HE IS THRESHING,” and “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” If you don’t think preaching and teaching full time is a job that deserves a descent salary, then you should try preparing a couple of hour long teachings a few weeks in a row. Paul labored more than them all for the churches and rightfully earned his money. If you are a member and are benefiting from this church’s teaching than you are obligated to contribute to this church and you should count it a privilege (ex. 2 Cor 8:1-7)
20Yes, brother, let me benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, since I know that you will do even more than what I say.
Paul writes this letter with an assurance that Philemon will do the right thing and will receive his new brother warmly. But even with all of his confidence in Philemon, he still writes the letter none the less. Paul is no legalist, but he does want to ensure this act of obedience is carried out. Whether Philemon was officially an Elder in his church or not, he had a prominent role and position in the church and Paul wanted to ensure Philemon remained above reproach, both for his good, and the good of Onesimus, but ultimately ensuring that the Bride of Christ in this church in Colossae would continue to be spotless for her husband.
Paul wraps up his letter with a few closing details and greetings….
22At the same time also prepare me a lodging, for I hope that through your prayers I will be given to you.
I love this verse because I love to be reminded of Paul’s view of prayer. Paul sees prayer as being an effectual means through which God causes things to happen in this world. Paul sees Philemon’s prayers as being the means through which he will be released from his imprisonment and be able to make the 1200 mile journey back to Colossae for what would assuredly be a sweet time of fellowship between Paul, Onesimus and Philemon. Psalm 133:1 Behold, how good and how pleasant it is For brothers to dwell together in unity!
23Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you, 24as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow workers. 25The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
It is interesting to note that with Mark and Luke being mentioned here we have two thirds of the canon of the NT authorship is accounted for. I just love to see the organic nature of the Scriptures in the Scriptures.
And even in the midst of such godly men was one, Demas, who obviously did not combine his hearing of the word with faith. So much truth surrounded him, so little lasting fruit
Fear above all things being a Demas. Take to heart the inspired words of Paul to forgive. Because as Matthews 6:15 says, if you do not forgive others, your Father in heaven will not forgive your transgressions.
Christianity, God’s religion, is a religion of forgiveness from start to finish. Ephesians 4:32 Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.
It all started with God’s forgiveness of our sins in Christ, and the forgiveness is to continue in our Christ like forgiveness of our brethren.
What is the application of this section of this section of Scripture? Blessed are the peace makers. Paul believes what he wrote in 1 Corinthians, that when one part of the body suffers all of the body suffers. If there was even the possibility that Paul thought that Philemon was not going to receive Onesimus and forgive him, that he had to intervene to ensure there was no root of bitterness being established in Philemon’s heart. Paul was willing as we must be willing to work for the peace of the church. We in this sense need to be like young Timothy whom Paul said was not like the others who were only concerned for their own interests but was of a kindred spirit with Paul, caring for the church of God above himself; and all of this especially in the matter of forgiveness. We who have been forgiven much, must be willing to forgive much.
We have here given to us a very helpful and practical example of how to forgive as well as an illustration of how to approach a brother who needs to forgive. Forgiveness isn’t easy as we all know, and as we see here in Philemon that it is a community effort. We are to help each other along in forgiveness. Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and the good deed of forgiveness (Heb 10:24).