October 21, 2007
The air was cool, warmed by the glow of the fire. We were all sitting around that mesmerizing fire, satisfied by our gourmet meal, sipping coffee or hot chocolate, contemplating the one that got away. A few of our guys had made friends with two guys who were camping close to our city of tents. These two guys responded to an invitation to eat some of our camp side delights. After these guys had consumed their fair share of our food, we invited them to join us in our bible study time. They hung around with obvious discomfort. As each song was sung, they casually made their way to the outer edge of our campsite, seeking to get lost in the shadows. Before the singing had ended and the study had begun, those two guys had drifted off into the dark night back to the comfort of their own campsite. In a matter of minutes, as we were sharing thoughts centered on the truths of Scripture, truths that can save, set free and change your life, those two guys were blaring Jimmy Hendrix from their campsite, as if to say, we have another way to go. Thanks but no thanks.
Now based on the actions that we saw that night, I think it is safe to say that those guys were not believers in Jesus Christ. I am not saying that to be a Christian you had to be at our little Bible study, but I am saying that when someone is a believer in Jesus Christ, you can see it. When anyone decides to follow Jesus Christ, asking him for salvation, trusting him with their eternity, submitting their life to his will, you can see it.
My neighbor is a Cowboys fan. I know he is. I have never talked to him about liking the cowboys. He has never come out and told me that he loves the cowboys. I know it though. Every weekend the cowboys play he has a large cowboy’s flag that he runs up a fifteen foot high flagpole, a cowboys football helmet that he proudly displays on the ground in front of the flagpole, and to top it off, right in the middle of his front yard, he has an ten foot tall inflated cowboy football player who looks as if he run over any car passing by his house. I know that guy likes the cowboys. You can see it.
When someone follows Jesus Christ, you can see it.
I. Characters - I want to introduce you to three people that we will be talking about for the next several weeks.
A. First, there is Paul. Paul was a Pharisee, who formerly sought to exterminate everyone who was seeking to follow Jesus Christ. Then he met Jesus Christ and everything changed. He followed Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, the promised Messiah, the King of kings. He was called by God to go and tell the Gentiles about this great salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Paul, at the time we are looking at, was in prison in Rome. He had a few people with him at the time he wrote this little letter about which we are talking. Timothy, Paul’s true son in the faith, was with him. Epaphras, a Colossian, and traveling companion. Mark, also known as John Mark, this is Barnabas’ cousin, who wrote the gospel known by his name. Aristarchus, a Thessalonian, who later died for the faith. Demas who later deserted Paul because he was in love with this present world. Luke, Paul’s faithful traveling companion, the author of the gospel of Luke and the book of the Acts of the Apostles.
B. The second person is Philemon and his wife, Apphia, along with his son, Archipus. This little family that was residing in Colossae, along with the church that met in their house was the recipient of Paul’s letter.
C. And last but not least is Onesimus. He is the focus of our story today so let’s get right to the story.
II. The story:
A. It could have been a business trip to Ephesus. Philemon, unaware of the life altering events that would soon take place, made his way from his hometown of Colossae to the city of Ephesus. Paul was in Ephesus at the very same time. We don’t know the details. In fact we are just piecing together bits of information to draw some conclusions. Paul may have been speaking and Philemon decided to go and check it out. Paul and Philemon may have met in the marketplace or just passing in the street. However Philemon met Paul, it was through Paul that Philemon met Jesus Christ. Philemon heard the gospel, he believed in Jesus Christ and it changed his life.
B. Back in Colossae, Philemon, now a follower of Jesus Christ, in all probability led his family to Christ and perhaps others. He invited other believers into his own home and a church was born. Philemon was a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. You could see it.
C. We don’t know how long Onesimus was under Philemon’s ownership. Onesimus was Philemon’s slave. Onesimus may have seen the entire transformation in Philemon. At the very least he saw that Philemon was a believer in Jesus, that he followed Christ in all he did. He had almost certainly heard the story of Philemon meeting Paul. I can imagine Philemon telling all his family and all those in his house about this man who introduced him to Jesus, not only changing his life but giving him life.
D. Onesimus clearly did not like his lot in life, no matter how good life was under the godliness of Philemon, he wanted to be free. He knew the punishment for running away could be very severe – if caught. He could have his legs and arms burned with hot irons, his forehead could be branded so everyone would know he had tried to runaway. An owner of a slave could legally do just about anything to punish a runaway slave. That didn’t matter. Freedom, just the chance at freedom, would be worth the risk of life for Onesimus. He carefully made his plans and the day came and everything fell into place perfectly – as if someone else was controlling the circumstances altogether. He made it. He was free. If hiding and running scared for your life is freedom. Onesimus most likely stole money or goods from Philemon that provided for his travel. Amazingly he made it all the way to Rome, a place he could get lost in the crowd and find a new life. Little did he know what a new life would really mean. God knew.
E. It is simply amazing how God works. Paul was in Ephesus when Philemon came to town and Philemon met Jesus Christ. Paul is now in Rome when Onesimus comes to town. Again, we have not been given the details but we can seek to fill in some blanks. I can imagine that this new life of so called freedom wasn’t all Onesimus had thought it would be. Looking over his shoulder, wondering if he will be recognized or found by someone that has connections back in Colossae. Whatever had happened in Rome, one thing is certain. Onesimus hadn’t found what he was looking for. He didn’t find his answers. He was desperate. Somehow he heard that the same Paul that Philemon had talked so much about, the same Paul that helped Philemon become alive, was in Rome. Onesimus was willing to put himself in potential danger of being captured as a runaway slave by going to see Paul in prison. He went anyway. I wonder how many times he visited with Paul before he accepted Christ. I would love to have heard those first conversations between them. Paul talking with a runaway slave looking to be free. I wonder if Paul told Onesimus Jesus’ words, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Whatever transpired between them, this we know: Paul shared the gospel with Onesimus and Onesimus found true freedom. He found Jesus Christ, the Savior and Redeemer. He found forgiveness of his sins. He found the promise of eternal life. He found hope, joy, peace, life, the life he was looking for when he ran away. He was now free.
F. Onesimus believed in Jesus Christ and you could see it. A man, who formerly was useless, who didn’t want to serve anyone anymore, only thinking of himself and running away from Philemon, now was regularly serving Paul in prison and daily growing in Christ. I wonder how Paul brought it up. Maybe Onesimus was the first to say something. He was a runaway slave. Under their laws, he was a criminal. He had stolen from Philemon and done other things that Philemon could have considered wicked. Even though we can’t completely understand their world, we can understand that what Onesimus had done needed to be fixed. The things he had done wrong to Philemon, what he had stolen from him, all the wrongs needed to be made right. You see when you follow Jesus Christ, you find real freedom and real life and it becomes very obvious that you follow the King of Righteousness. You want to make wrongs right, to show the love of Christ and to demonstrate the goodness of God in all you do, because you have been saved. Onesimus was saved and you could see it.
G. Onesimus knew that Philemon could have him punished. He knew that torturous punishment might await him. He knew that he could spend the rest of his life in slavery. But he also knew that running away from slavery was not his answer. He knew that avoiding difficulty and recapture was not his freedom. He had found life in Christ and nothing could change that, not beatings, burnings with red hot irons, not slavery in the harshest conditions. He was free, truly free in Jesus Christ and that meant he could walk into the unknown and return to Philemon to make wrongs right, for the sake of Christ.
H. Onesimus wouldn’t let anyone go before him with a letter. He carried it himself. He owned it like a man. Can you imagine the challenge of showing back up in Colossae? I don’t know if they had wanted posters back then or not but he was a wanted man. Can you imagine? He walked into Philemon’s house and gave Paul’s letter to Philemon and left his life in God’s hands. He was free, no matter what happened. He had found salvation in Jesus Christ, and you could see it.
III. Salvation – Conversion
A. Listen to the portion of the letter that Paul wrote to Philemon about Onesimus. Verses 10-16, I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. 11(Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) 12I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. 13I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will. 15For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. ESV
B. When anyone decides to follow Jesus Christ, it cannot be hidden. When someone believes in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, you will know it. When a person is saved from death and given life, when their sins are forgiven, when joy becomes real, when hope fills their soul, you can see it. Trusting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior changes your life. Trusting in Jesus Christ is not called conversion for no reason. When we trust Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, everything is made brand new. We are new persons with real life and real freedom. There is no such thing as a salvation that can’t be seen. There is no such thing as following Jesus Christ and staying the same as before you believed. If Onesimus had disappeared into the crowd in Rome, never to see Philemon or Paul again, leaving behind the way of following Christ, none would say he believed in Jesus. If nothing changed in Onesimus’ life, if nothing looked like Jesus about his life, if everything just continued the same, Paul would never have called him his very heart, his own child in the faith. But Onesimus did accept Jesus Christ as Savior. He was converted. He was changed. This useless man was made useful. This dead man was made alive. He was set free for eternity.
C. The gospel – The message that Onesimus embraced was the simple message of the gospel. Maybe it sounded something like this: Onesimus, you are a sinner, just like me and everyone else in the world. We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And we all have earned a wage for our works of sin and that wage is death. The freedom you are looking for is coming from your heart that is trapped in the death that sin brings. There is no earthly freedom that can answer the cry of your heart. You can run away from slavery to Philemon but you cannot run away from slavery to sin and death. You are trapped just like I was before I met Jesus Christ. One time I was in jail in Philippi and I was praying and praising God for life and joy even in those circumstances. No one could take my life away because Jesus Christ has given me life in Himself. That night God broke off the chains and opened all the doors of the prison by an earthquake. What do you think all those other prisoners did when the doors were open and the chains off? You would think that they would have run into freedom. They didn’t. They saw the freedom that comes from Jesus and they stayed. They stayed because of the message of freedom that I shared about Jesus. Even the jailer and all his family were saved because none of us ran. Jesus Christ is your freedom. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came to the earth and lived a perfect life, without sin. He came so that everyone who is trapped in sin could be set free. He purchased freedom by dying on the cross for my sins and yours. He died for our sins so that we could be forgiven, so that we could know God and receive eternal life from Him. He died for our sins and rose again from the dead so that sin and death were overcome and anyone who trusts in Jesus could be forgiven, saved, set free for eternity. Onesimus, would you like to follow Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior? Just as Onesimus’ answer to that question changed his life forever, so will your answer.
D. If you have believed in Jesus Christ, then I should not need to ask the question, “Can people see that you believe?” I should not need to ask the question because if you follow Jesus Christ, your life will show it. Instead of asking that question, rather, on the basis of Onesimus’ life and witness, I hope that we are all challenged to follow Jesus because that is the only way to life and freedom. If you follow Him, everyone will see it. Jesus is our life and freedom and we are only free when we are following Jesus Christ. Cast your life into his care and follow Him.
A. On the way to Rome, before Onesimus met Paul, Paul was in a ship and an incredible storm hit. For two weeks the crew of the ship fought this storm. They feared that they would not only lose their ship but they would also lose their lives. Paul came to the men of the ship, 276 of them, and told them not to lose heart because none of them would need to die in this storm. He said that an angel of the God to whom he belonged and worshipped would deliver them all. He told them that the ship must run aground on an island. He was told that he would go to Rome and he would not die in that storm. Paul had to go to Rome. Wow. God is amazing. Later during the storm, several of the sailors were seeking to escape from the ship, to be free of the ship that would surely become their grave, and Paul said to the soldiers in charge, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” Those soldiers cut the ropes to those life boats and set them loose into the sea. They cut off every way of escape. They took the ultimate step of faith. They cut all ways of retreat. They were all in. There was no turning back. They followed completely. They didn’t have an out if things didn’t work out. It was life or death. They believed in what Paul said and it showed. And when the storm subsided, the ship was completely broken into pieces but every man had floated or swam to the island that Paul told them about. Every one of them was saved and alive – only because they believed.
B. If you want to be free, if you want to be alive, if you want to be saved, cut the life boats that you hold on to, let go of everything and anything that is keeping you from whole-heartedly following Jesus Christ and follow Him. Not only will everyone be able to see that Jesus has given you life, but you will be alive, truly free. There is nothing like following Jesus Christ. And like Onesimus, everyone who follows Jesus Christ becomes this same message. Life, freedom, joy and hope are only found in following Jesus Christ. Follow Christ and you will be set free and the world will see Jesus Christ.