Philemon 1 - 25
We are beginning a new series called New Testament Postcards based on the 4 - 1-chapter books in the NT - Philemon, 2 John, 3 John, Jude. Have 2 things in common: They have one chapter and they are the least-read books in the NT. Perhaps because of their length we tend to flip right past them and assume that they don’t have anything important to say to us today. Philemon - only 25 verses tucked between Titus and Hebrews - so short that you’ll never find it by accident.
1. Three Names to Remember
We can sum up the book by mentioning 3 names to remember.
A. Paul - the apostle - author - he is in prison in Rome.
B. Philemon - Christian slaveowner - lives in Colosse - close friend of Paul. Perhaps Paul led him to Christ. The church met in his house - a respected Christian leader.
C. Onesimus - runaway slave - came to Rome where Paul led him to Christ. After Paul led Onesimus to Christ, he stayed in Rome, serving Paul with deep gratitude.
Central issue of this short letter - Paul now has a converted slave on his hands. What should he do? He decides to send Onesimus back to Philemon his master. But Onesimus is now a believer in Christ – he left a rebel and now returns as a brother. Paul wants to make sure Philemon understands what has happened.
An Empire Built on Slavery
Every time the Romans conquered a new province, they added new slaves to the empire. In Paul’s day there were far more slaves than Roman citizens. A rich man could own as many as 10000 slaves. Slavery was so common and so accepted that no one thought seriously to oppose it. Roman law provided little protection for slaves because they were regarded as property, not as people. Owners could mistreat their slaves and even kill them with little or no legal retaliation. Yet Paul sent Onesimus back. Why? Didn’t Paul know that slavery is wrong in the eyes of God? If he knew that, why didn’t he say that? The message of this book has amazing relevance for the problems of our own day.
2. Paul’s Plea to Philemon
This letter is a masterpiece of persuasion. Paul’s appeal is irresistible - v. 1 – 7. He could “pull rank” and order him to receive Onesimus as a Christian brother. But he chose to approach him as a friend and not as a boss – v. 8, 9. Onesimus is in Rome, he is with Paul, and he has become a Christian - v. 10, 11. Paul has decided to send Onesimus back to Philemon - even though he would have preferred to keep him in Rome. Paul trusted in Philemon’s Christian character to do the right thing - v. 12, 13. Paul held Philemon in such high respect that he appealed to his heart of love - v. 14. Paul suggests that God allowed Onesimus to run away so that he would find Paul in Rome and be led to Christ and then be sent back to Philemon—not as a slave but as a Christian brother. We see Paul’s amazing faith in the “invisible hand” of God moving through every part of human history – v. 15 - 17. But what about anything Onesimus may have stolen before he left Colosse? Who will pay those debts? Paul even has an answer for that - he will pay those debts – deals with any objections Philemon may have – v. 18, 19. Having made his appeal, Paul closes with some very positive words of affirmation. He knows that Philemon will welcome Onesimus back and will treat him as a Christian brother – v. 20, 21. There is one final sentence that makes me smile when I read it. Paul intends to visit Philemon - great honour - the great apostle is coming to visit. Also serves as a not-so-subtle motivation to welcome Onesimus kindly - v. 22. So that’s what the little letter of Philemon is all about. Paul pulls out all the stops in just 25 verses. He touches every positive motivation he can use—appealing all the while to love and not to duty. What is it that Paul wants Philemon to do with his returned slave?
A. Forgive him
B. Restore him.
C. Receive him as a brother
Paul is asking Philemon to bring Christian principles into the evil system of slavery. Without attempting to overturn the whole system, he injects Christian grace where previously human selfishness and greed had reigned. We don’t know what happened when Philemon read the letter. Tradition suggests that he freed Onesimus who later became the bishop of Ephesus.
3. Christian Living in a Pagan Culture
This letter seems to speak directly to the modern problem of living as a believing minority in an overwhelmingly pagan culture. Today we wrestle with abortion … gay rights … moral decline … violence … racism … family breakdown … relativism … the exclusion of Christian values from the public schools, the media and our universities. There is a rising tide of intolerance toward those who believe in absolute right and wrong. How should we then live? 5 qualities will serve us well as we operate from a minority position.
Paul nowhere condemns slavery. While he introduced Christian principles into the slave-master relationship, he nowhere ordered Christians to free all their slaves. This may seem lacking in courage. But it is all too easy to judge others without understanding the larger context. Paul was no revolutionary. Paul saw himself as a preacher of the gospel. He knew that the gospel was the power of God for salvation (Romans 1: 16). He believed it could transform the most hardened heart. His letter to Philemon suggests that as the gospel penetrates society, it changes hearts—and that ultimately changes behaviour. In the end, slavery and the gospel cannot coexist together forever. Where the gospel is preached and men are liberated from the chains of sin, they must eventually also be liberated from the chains of slavery as well.
What does this teach us? We must be patient when working for social change. Do what you can when you can but don’t lose heart. We must remember the words of Galatians 6: 9, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” God’s timetable and ours are not necessarily the same.
Paul could have commanded Philemon to obey, but he didn’t. He appealed to the higher motive of love. Sometimes in our zeal for God we lose our sense of balance—saying and do things in anger and frustration that we later regret. Sometimes we talk about “persecution” when we are really suffering because of an uncontrolled temper.
Proverbs 25: 15 - “through patience a ruler can be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone.” Patience means waiting till the right moment to speak your mind. Timing is everything. If you embarrass someone publicly, they aren’t likely to respond favourably. So before you speak, take your time. Think. Pray. Ask God to give you an open door. When it comes, then use a gentle tongue. Here is the picture of a hardened bone being softened bit by bit by the touch of a gentle tongue. It won’t happen quickly, but in most cases gentleness accomplishes far more than threats or intimidation.
This plea for tact is nothing more than that we “speak the truth in love.” Jesus did it, and is remembered today as the supreme embodiment of love. Yet no one ever spoke the truth like he did. He wasn’t afraid to speak truth to challenge the rulers of his day. When necessary he didn’t hesitate to take a whip and clean out the temple—which doesn’t sound like a very tactful thing to do. But he did it, and since he was the Son of God it must have been the right thing to do.
Tact is the ability to say the right thing at the right time in the right way without saying anything you didn’t want to say and that didn’t need to be said. A tactful person seeks to find a private place and a fitting moment. It means you refuse to dump all your frustrations on another person. You say what needs to be said in the quickest, kindest, most direct way possible. Then you move on.
C. Personal Appeal
Sometimes we give up too soon when something much more low-key is need. I’m thinking of a letter, a phone call, lunch together, a brief word of encouragement, a challenge to the downhearted, going out of our way to intercede for those in need. That’s what Paul did for Onesimus. He got involved, he took a chance, and he made a personal appeal to Philemon.
We have so many excuses for non-involvement: “I don’t want to get involved.” “Things will never change.” “The world is going to the hell.” “I’ll lose my reputation if I get involved. People may misunderstand. I might lose my promotion or even my job. What will my friends think?” The only thing that matters is, what does God think? Paul was in prison, chained to Roman guards, on trial for his life. But he found the time and the energy and the strength to help a young man in need. That’s the power of a personal appeal.
D. Individual Example
Consider what Paul the prisoner did: He led Onesimus to Christ—you can do that. He risked a friendship to help a new believer–you can do that. He took a stand in a small way—you can do that. He applied the gospel to a personal need—you can do that. He saw God’s hand at work and gave God all the credit—you can do that. He personally intervened to help someone in need-you can do that. He offered to pay the debt Onesimus owed—you can do that. He didn’t complain about an unjust system and how unfairly he was imprisoned and he didn’t focus on anything but the problem at hand—you can do that. He didn’t try to be a hero and change the world. He just tried to help out wherever he could—you can do that. Paul didn’t do anything unusual, strange or extraordinary. He simply did what any Christian should do—and could do. That’s the power of individual example.
Someone might criticise Paul - “Paul, there are millions of slaves in the Roman empire and Onesimus is only one. Why bother with him? Let him live with you in Rome and don’t worry about Philemon. It won’t make a difference anyway.” In some ways, that does sound persuasive—especially when we live in a world where evil abounds and there are days when goodness seems in short supply. But you have start somewhere. Perhaps you’ve read this little poem:
I am only one man. But I am one.
I cannot do everything. But I can do something.
What I can do, I ought to do. What I ought to do,
By the grace of God, I will do.
Love God and the Person in Front of You
When you feel overwhelmed by the problems around you, remember what Paul did in Rome. Start where you are and make a difference there. If you can’t save the whole world, then start with the person you can save. Help him, and then move on from there.
Put That On My Account
Did you see the gospel in Philemon? Paul tells Philemon that if Onesimus owes him anything, “put that on my account.” What an illustration of substitutionary atonement. What Onesimus owed, Paul volunteered to pay. When Paul paid the debt, Philemon would be satisfied and Onesimus would be free of any obligation. This is the gospel in human terms. All of us were Onesimus. We were slaves to sin, chained to evil, continually running away from God. But Jesus went to the Cross, paid the price for our sins, so that God’s justice was satisfied once and for all.
All that is left for us is to accept the work of Christ on our behalf. Here is a wonderful word for Christians to remember. When the devil rises to accuse us, Jesus says, “Put that on my account.” When the world points out our faults, Jesus says, “Put that on my account.” When our friends point out our many failures and our enemies gloat over our mistakes, and when our own conscience condemns us, when in short we feel like the biggest sinners in the world, Jesus stands before the Father, raises his pierced hands and declares, “Put that on my account.”
We can see how the gospel touches every situation of life. We were once slaves but through Jesus Christ we have been set free. What do we do now? Love God and the person in front of you. That’s an excellent for all of us to begin.