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Friendship is a Sheltering Tree

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            We all know the value of having a good friend. We all know how if feels to be called upon by a friend of ours. Because of that, I wonder just how we would describe “friendship?”

Listen to how others defined friendship.


Mart Twain said,

The proper function of a friend is to side with you when you are in the wrong. Nearly anybody will side with you when you are in the right.

Aristotle the Greek philosopher said,

A true friend is one soul in two bodies.

Dwight D. Eisenhower said,

If you want a friend in politics then get a dog. That’s why I have two.

But I personally like this one from about 174 years ago by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He said: 

Flowers are lovely;

Love is flower-like;
But friendship is a sheltering tree;[1]

What an image --- a sheltering tree! Can you remember the last time you were walking in the woods and it was just steaming hot! Maybe in July after a midday rain. The sun bearing down on you; and you thought, “if I could just find some shade, I could bear this heat” and then you found it, under a nearby sheltering tree. Maybe that happened to our poet, I don’t know, but I sure get the idea. Oh to find a friend where you can relax and find refuge under their sheltering shade? To find someone that takes the heat off of you; who helps you cool your temptation before you say or do something, you might regret. That’s a good description of what friendship should be like; protective, healing, strengthening.

 That is what we are going to talk about tonight. When we notice the last person connected in this postcard of a letter; we find ourselves sitting under the shade of the Apostle Paul.

Paul wrote many letters; yet out of all the ones we have of him; four letters were written to persons instead of churches. There was Timothy; he received two personal letters. He was Paul’s protégé; young up coming Preacher/Pastor; who was very dear to Paul. He needed Paul’s wisdom and guidance, so Paul wrote to him; twice. There was also Titus; another young pastor that must have caught Paul’s personal attention; somehow because Paul wrote to Titus once, giving instructions.  And then there is this letter; written not even to the pastor or preacher, but simply written to an friend, named Philemon.   

Paul writes because he’s a friend to Philemon maybe of many years and he’s probably one of the newest friends that Onesimus has come to make. But whatever the case, both of these men are under his shade of friendship and Paul sets forth an example of what should be true of all of us; if we consider ourselves someone else’s friend.  

 We throw around that word friendship so much in our culture today without even thinking what it really means or would look like to truly be someone’s friend.   

Paul is the example of a true friend. A true friend not only tells you what you would like to hear; but want you need to hear from time to time. That’s exactly where Paul’s test of faith was.   

Philemon, as the wronged Christian; was tested in his faith to see if he could deny himself what he had every legal right too.

Onesimus, as the new Christian; was tested to see if his faith was sincere and true; by retuning back to face whatever consequences.

Paul, as the older, maturer, Christian; was tested in his faith; as to whether get involved as a friend in this matter or just remain disconnected from them both. Just how sheltering was friendship? Just how far was he willing to go, to stand in that place Christ would stand in; if he was there between these two? Just how much of a friend does Paul want to be?

Nothing tries our faith outside of ourlives more than parenting and having friends. We can understand parenting but why Friends? Because they don’t have too come back, they aren’t related. They could walk away and be gone literally forever if push comes to shove.

If our friendship is going to shade anyone then it will require faith on our part when it is needed.

I.  Paul told Onesimus what he needed to hear; to return and get things right with his master Philemon. 

Have you found yourself telling somebody something that you knew ahead of time they didn’t want to hear? Challenging isn’t it? What a challenge lay ahead of Paul; trying to convince this slave that it was God’s will for him to remain a slave and then on top of that be willing to face the music for running away.

I think it is pretty safe to say that Paul realized that slavery was not right. He preached and wrote about the slavery to sin that we all were in before salvation; so much that I would guess that every time he saw a real slave in his day; that it must have reminded him of himself. Slavery was not right; but yet it was just how the world was in that day.

Some think that Paul was doing wrong here by sending Onesimus back. What would you have done, if you were in Paul’s shoes? Would you have harbored a runaway slave; literally stealing another person’s property of that day.

What Paul is doing; is what we must do when we are faced with unjust laws; yet that are still laws.

The bible says this about laws of the land. 1 Pet 2:13-14 Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme;

Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.  There’s other verses but hat sums in up good.

I.e. we are to obey the laws of the land.  Paul knows that slavery is wrong; Paul also knows that if helps this run away slave he is breaking the law, doing wrong again. Have you ever heard that old saying; two wrongs don’t make a right? That’s true. Bob Jones Senior once said like this; Don’t ever do wrong; to get a chance to do right! 

Paul isn’t going to do that; he knows the law; he also knows that it’s probably not the funniest thing in the world to be the slave of someone else but he sends Onesimus back to Philemon anyway. 

Paul knows this. That if slaves or any other class of people of that day use the gospel as their reason to further some social legalization or even lead open rebellion; that the gospel has no chance (humanly speaking) at all; it will be stopped with forced.

Paul is doing this rather. Those slaves like Onesimus that become saved; many did in that day; his word from the lord is that they remain slaves. But they be the best slaves they can for their masters. Listen to what the bibles says about slaves;

Eph 6:5-7 Servants,(slaves)be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ;

Col 3:22 Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God:


1Tim 6:1 Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honour, that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed.

Tit 2:9 Exhort servants to be obedient unto their own masters, and to please them well in all things; not answering again;

1 Pet 2:18 Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward.

All this godly counsel was given to undermine the foundation of slavery. Once the foundation gives, then the struction will come down!

Paul knows what the mind of the Lord is. This is going to be hard to swallow; so he by faith tells his new friend Onesimus don’t runaway any more; that’s not the God honoring thing, but go back and be a slave not only to Philemon but to Christ! Here again; God doesn’t deliver someone out of a situation; but provides deliverence through it!

All this comes from Paul as Onesimus’s friend.

II. Paul asks Philemon to consider something greater than his own interests; the interests of the Gospel.

Paul is writing not so much with the backing of his apostleship as he is with the backing of his friendship. He lays aside his testimony of having seen our risen Lord and been called by name from him; to pick up the common thread of friendship that connects him closely to Philemon.

Compared to his other letters, Paul in this letter is very disarming.

A. Paul’s attitude.

He doesn’t come off as an Apostle but as friend! V8 “Wherefore, though I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee that which is convenient” means i.e. Paul is saying I could command you to do what is required, but he doesn’t, because Paul wants Philemon to do what is right because of love rather than Duty.

B. Paul’s Pun   v10-11

I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds:

Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me:

Onesimus means “useful”. Though he had formerly been ‘useless’ to his master, he now has become truly ‘useful’ to Philemon as a Christian brother (Philem. 11) — a wordplay on his name. [2]

            Even Paul uses humor when it suits his purpose.

            C. Paul’s Intention  v12-14

Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels:

Whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel:

But without thy mind would I do nothing; that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly.

Paul said I would have kept him here with me and used him in the ministry. Here’s where Paul wanted to get at. Paul is saying that because of the interests of Gospel, I could have used him. When it comes to the gospel; Onesimus has real value now, true usefulness now; you have got to realize that Philemon.

Paul wanted Philemon to realize this and lend Onesimus out of a willing spirit not from a “if I have too” type spirit.  


            Paul says all this; that Philemon might see the bigger picture; that this bad situation has been turned around by God to bring Onesimus not only to salvation but to being used by God. That was the sliver lining to this dark cloud.

            We have to realize along with Philemon that God is working through our lives and tuff situations that the interests of the Gospel be widened and made stronger! But all that happens through ourlives; just like Philemon!

God not only wants us to have a life; but he wants us to have rewards in heaven from being used of Him while the interests of the gospel goes forth like never before! I know what you do in life is important to you; but don’t be so one-sided that you fail to see God trying to work through your life and problems that you face.

We all have our “own business” to take care of; but don’t forget that we should also be about the father’s business as well. Sometimes the two, blend into one situation, one opportunity.

What a friend Paul was? Paul was trying to help Philemon see the bigger picture; the spiritual side of this all to God’s glory and his blessing.


Friendship was a sheltering tree. Paul’s friendship was true and real. Friends not only accept one another; but a real Christian friend helps you change for the better. And there really is no better than being what God desires and wants for us to be!

We all could use a friend like Paul. Or I should rather say, we all should try to be a friend like Paul! 



[1] Youth and Age, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

[2]Achtemeier, P. J., Harper & Row, P., & Society of Biblical Literature. (1985). Harper's Bible dictionary. Includes index. (1st ed.). San Francisco: Harper & Row.

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