Faithlife Sermons

κοινωνία (pt. 2)

Philemon  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  52:41
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A look at Paul's appeal to Philemon on Onesimus' behalf. A call to forgiveness.

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It seems like a month ago the last time we were together to look at Paul’s letter to Philemon. It seems like a month ago because it was a month ago. So let’s refresh our minds—what’s the deal with this short letter to Philemon?
These are the main characters in the letter of Philemon:
Paul, the imprisoned apostle
Philemon, a wealthy Christian
Onesimus, the runaway slave
We’re not sure of the exact situation or scenario, but we know the basic plot. Paul has planted a church in the town of Colossae and Philemon, among others, are members of the local church there. The church meets in Philemon’s home (v. 2), making Philemon a wealthy man; wealthy enough to own some slaves.
One of these slaves, Onesimus, runs away from Colossae, presumably all the way to Rome, where Paul is in prison.
At some point in his interaction with Paul, Onesimus, the runaway slave becomes a Christian; Onesimus puts his faith and hope in Jesus Christ. Onesimus believes that Jesus died to save even him. And by faith in Christ, Onesimus belongs to God and to the family of God.
It’s a wonderful story that’s repeated again and again throughout the history of the church (not the runaway slave part, but the conversion-to-Christ part). It’s proof that the gospel—the Good News about Jesus Christ—is for every kind of person. May we never forget this, church!
In Christ, there is no distinction. God shows no favoritism, and neither should we. Male or female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile, barbarian or Scythian—the gospel is good news for every type of person.
So, here we have Paul, the imprisoned apostle, and Onesimus, the runaway slave. Paul and Onesimus are in Rome. All the way back home in Colossae, we have Philemon.
And one of the few things we know is this: Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, is no longer with Philemon. Onesimus has scurried off to the big city. Philemon doesn’t know where he went, he just knows that his slave is gone.
We don’t know if Philemon is mad or sad or what. We don’t know what’s going through Philemon’s head, but we can imagine it probably wasn’t a good day when Philemon realized Onesimus was no where to be found.
Philemon, at the very least, is out a good worker. Some think that Onesimus might have stolen something that belonged to Philemon. Who knows why they think that, but they do. There’s nothing mentioned explicitly—but we can safely assume Onesimus running away didn’t please Philemon.
That’s the backstory, such as it is. We don’t know much more than that.
But then Paul, the church-planter God used to start the church that meets in Philemon’s home, writes a letter to his buddy Philemon and to the people who gather in Philemon and Apphia’s home.
Paul writes:
Philemon 1–7 NIV
1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker—2 also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home: 3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4 I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. 6 I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. 7 Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.
Seems pretty standard, right? A typical start to one of Paul’s letters: Intro, salutation/greeting, thanksgiving—a lot like Paul’s other letters.
But Philemon isn’t really very similar to Paul’s other writing, not really. The letter Paul writes to Philemon isn’t dealing with a doctrinal/theological misunderstanding (Romans, Ephesians, Colossians); The letter of Philemon isn’t concerned with the issue of confused morality (1 Corinthians).
The letter of Philemon is dealing with a relational issue.
This short letter is primarily concerned with the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus; between slave owner and slave. Paul is writing to Philemon directly, using mostly singular pronouns—you, referring to Philemon alone.
Paul is concerned with how the situation between Philemon and Onesimus is going to play out within the church, and how this is going to be viewed by those outside the church.
Paul is confident in the power of the Holy Spirit and in the power of the gospel—that the gospel has the power to transform human relationships.
This is exactly what the letter of Philemon illustrates: the transforming power of the gospel to impact human relationships.
The Church is messy; it’s full of messed-up people. Where sinners and scumbags gather, it won’t be neat and tidy. The Church is messy, but the gospel is powerful.
And, as we will see, the gospel is at work in Philemon’s life and Onesimus’ life; the gospel has had its transforming impact on their lives, and so it has radically changed the way they relate to each other.
Starting in verse 8 of Philemon, Paul begins to address the personal situation at hand and makes his appeal to Philemon.
>If you have your Bible (and I hope you do), please turn with me to Philemon. If you are able and willing, stand with me for the reading of God’s Holy Word. Philemon 8-16:
Philemon 8–16 NIV
8 Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9 yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus—10 that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. 12 I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 13 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. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. 15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever—16 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.
May God add His blessing to the reading of His Holy Word!
Paul begins his appeal to Philemon in verse 8 with a connection to what he wrote in the thanksgiving portion of his letter.
The word therefore, whenever we read it, should make us stop and reread the previous few verses.
In this case, if we look back to verses 5-7, we will see what Paul is referencing. Because Philemon is known for [his] love—love that has given Paul great joy and encouragement—love for all [the] holy people and for his faith in the Lord Jesus, and because Philemon has refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people, Paul makes his appeal to Philemon on the basis of love.
Paul could have been bold and ordered Philemon, commanded Philemon to do whatever. Paul could have thrown his weight around as an apostle, as an elder, as a church-planter. Instead, Paul appeals to Philemon’s love for God and love for the people of God.
Controlled by love
This is one of the identifying marks of a Christian. In whatever circumstance you might find yourself, no matter who has offended you or hurt you or sinned against you, you, Christian, are meant to be controlled by love.
It’s love that marks out the Christian.
Just a couple weeks ago, I officiated Anthony and Michelle King’s wedding. At their wedding, they asked to have 1 Corinthians 13 read, which I was more than happy to do; it’s a great passage and it certainly speaks to the love which should exist between husband and wife.
I’m assuming there are a handful of other couples here today who had these verses read at their weddings:
1 Corinthians 13:4–8 NIV
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.
This is a great passage for a wedding. And it’s an incredibly important passage in the Christian life, incredibly important for us to consider in light of what we experience within the church.
I know conflict is fairly commonplace within the church. I know because we’re human—often selfish, always sinful—we are going to hurt one another. We are going to offend (hopefully not intentionally). We will tend, more than likely, to look out for ourselves when we should be seeking the other’s best.
What then controls us when we are hurt, when we’re offended, when our brother or sister sins against us?
Does our temper control us? Does our pride? Does our base desire toward revenge control us and our behavior?
Think about what Philemon must be feeling. No doubt, he’s hurt. He’s probably a little angry, maybe a lot angry.
So, Paul, in his pastoral wisdom, reminds Philemon of his love for the Lord and his love for the Lord’s people, and appeals to him on the basis of love.
It’s love that is meant to control Philemon and his actions.
Where Onesimus is concerned, Philemon’s love for Onesimus is that which will cover over a multitude of sins.
Philemon would have received this letter from Paul, possibly delivered to him by the returning Onesimus. And as he read this, that still, small voice would have whispered to his innermost being:
“You love the Lord. You love the Lord’s people. Onesimus is one of the Lord’s people. You love him. Love is patient, love is kind. Love is not easily angered. Love keeps no record of wrongs. Love always perseveres. Love never fails.”
Controlled by love, Compelled by Christ
Paul speaks of himself here in Philemon in a way unlike anywhere else in the Bible. He designates himself a prisoner of Christ Jesus.
Paul uses this phrase in verse 1 and verse 9. Paul knows that he belongs to Christ, and if Paul is in prison, he knows it’s by Christ’s permission.
Paul is a prisoner of Christ Jesus. This works on a couple of levels. Paul is literally in chains because of his faithfulness to and witness of Christ. His faith in Christ landed him in the clink.
But Paul is also metaphorically a prisoner of Christ Jesus.
Paul belongs to Christ. He is not his own; he has been bought at a price. The same goes Philemon. The same goes for all who call themselves Christians.
Most of you know that Meghann’s parents are divorced and have been for somewhere around 21 years. Sadly, there is still a great deal of hurt and hatred, hostility and resentment between them.
Now, I won’t pretend to know or understand all the issues surrounding and involved in their divorce or any other; but it has caused and continues to cause no small level of drama in Meghann’s family.
Meghann’s oldest brother, Matt, went to college with me. At some point, Matt decided that he needed to reestablish contact with his father. I encouraged him to do so, and then promptly got a call from his mom who was outraged at the thought of my approval of such an outlandish and foolish idea.
Likewise, over the last several years, my lovely wife has worked really hard to have and maintain a relationship with her dad. And it’s not been easy. He’s not half the dad she deserves and routinely says terrible things and does very hurtful things to her. Meghann’s mom can’t believe I don’t step-in and put an end to their relationship.
“There comes a time,” she’ll say, “when enough is enough. You just need to cut him off; Meghann needs to be done with him.”
The last time she said this, I said, “You know, Terrie, I don’t disagree. On a personal level, I’d really like to be done with him (like cement boots, swim-with-the-fishes kind of done with him). I’m tired of him hurting my wife. BUT, we are compelled by Christ to love him and forgive him.”
That’s really the only reason for it. If I wasn’t a Christian—compelled by Christ to love and forgive this man over and over and over again—I would likely have nothing to do with him.
But I am a prisoner of Christ Jesus, we are prisoners of Christ Jesus. I don’t get to be done with him. It’s not my choice; I am not my own. I belong to Jesus. He is my Master.
Christ compels us to love and forgive as He has loved us and forgiven us. We love because He first loved us. And we forgive anything done to us, because Jesus has forgiven our unimaginable debt against Him.
This letter to Philemon is getting all up in my business, invading my personal space, and self-righteousness.
I’ve been that Christian who secretly refused to forgive another Christian for something that happened long ago. And it was only when a good friend of mine said, “You know, Barrett…you’re going to have to forgive him. You know that, right?” that I actually repented and forgave the one who offended me. I’ve been there, secretly harboring unforgiveness.
As pastor, I’ve seen and heard all manner of unforgiveness.
There are some people here in Rich Hill who refuse to be a part of this church or any church because of something done to them 30 years ago by someone who’s been dead for 20 years.
They can’t forgive them for something that happened way back when; they’re choking to death on their own unforgiveness. They’ve told me their stories. They almost wear their refusal to forgive like a badge of honor. And I fear they will carry that unforgiveness with them for the rest of their lives and to the grave.
My in-laws are not the only believers I know who have a deep and abiding hatred stored up for another person, for another believer. It’s common. I see it. I know it. Some of the tension between believers is so thick you can cut it with a knife.
The letter to Philemon slams on the brakes and causes us to ask the questions: “What controls me? Who compels me to act?”
Am I controlled by love or by hatred? (that’s what unforgiveness is, you know. Unforgiveness is hatred).
Am I compelled to act the way I am by Christ or by my own selfishness, by Christ or by Satan?
Paul makes it clear that the Christian is
Controlled by love, Compelled by Christ, a Child of God
As Paul is writing to Philemon, he refers to Onesimus as his son (v. 10). I think you all are perfectly intelligent, highly sensible people. So you probably don’t need me to tell you that Onesimus is not actually Paul’s son. Onesimus is not Paul’s offspring, at least not biologically speaking.
But this does give us a bit of a sketch of Onesimus’ spiritual life. Paul says in verse 10 that Onesimus became his son while he was in chains. That is, Onesimus came to faith while Paul was in prison.
If Onesimus is Paul’s son in the faith, and Philemon is Paul’s son in the faith (which he would be; remember, Paul planted the church in Colossae, the church that meets in Philemon’s home. Philemon is almost certainly a Christian thanks to Paul’s ministry)—if both Onesimus and Philemon are Paul’s spiritual children, that makes them…brothers. Brothers gotta hug!
Seriously, though, this is a major truth. Onesimus left Philemon as a slave. And now, Onesimus is returning to Philemon (v. 16), no longer a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother…a brother in the Lord.
Philemon isn’t, then, just dealing with an errant worker. He’s not dealing with a mere runaway slave. Philemon is dealing with Onesimus as a brother, relating to him as a brother—a dear brother in the Lord.
And boy does that change the way in which Philemon is going to relate to Onesimus! Well, it should and it shall.
Does your family ever drive you batty? It’s okay, you don’t have to say anything, especially if they’re sitting right next to you. You don’t have to say anything; I know that your family gets on your nerves (some more than others, you know who you are).
But does that mean you’re going to disown or disinherit your family, just because they drive you crazy? Because they hurt you or upset you or offend you?
So it is with your spiritual family. They will likely drive you crazy or hurt you or offend you. But they’re family (and truth be told, you share a deeper, more permanent connection with your spiritual family than you do your biological family).
Philemon and Onesimus are knit-together in the family of God, and that forever changes how they will relate to one another.
>Paul’s appeal to Philemon goes something like this:
As one controlled by love, compelled by Christ, as a child of God, do what you ought to do, do what is required, do what is fitting.
And what might that be? What should Philemon ought to do? What is fitting for Philemon to do?
FORGIVE. We imitate Christ. We respond in love—at all times.
You see, before Philemon is anything else, he is a Christian. He’s a Christian—saved by faith in Jesus, transformed by the gospel—and this has an effect on his relationships with others.
Here’s the big picture: Your relationship with Jesus should be transforming your relationships with those around you.
Before you’re a parent or a spouse or a teacher or business-owner or employee or nurse or student—before you are anything else, you are a Christian.
And, just like Philemon, your relationship with Jesus should be transforming the way you relate to those around you.
Your relationship with Jesus ought to have an impact on you, a transforming impact. Your relationship with Jesus should alter the way you interact with the people you come into contact with.
Your relationship with Jesus should be transforming your relationships with those around you.
Philemon’s relationship with Jesus transforms his relationship with Onesimus.
Jesus, the Crucified and Risen Savior, forever transformed our relationship with God. He reconciled us to God and made us ministers of reconciliation.
Jesus transforms the way we relate to and deal with those around us: we love and forgive, especially those within the household of God.
In big ways and small ways, the gospel has the power to transform our relationships. The vertical affects the horizontal. Your relationship with Jesus should be transforming your relationships with those around you.
Controlled by love, compelled by Christ, as a child of God...
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