Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Paul's Letter to Philemon

Today I want to talk of a great story of redemption recorded for all of us in God's Word in an often overlooked book.  Today I want to talk about the man Onesimus and his master Philemon and we this story in the book of Philemon.

The book of Philemon was written by Paul during his first imprisonment to a man Philemon.  What is amazing is that this a personal letter written by Paul to a brother in the Lord regarding one other man.  From the start, it shows to me just how important we are individually to God. 

Onesimus was a slave who belonged to Philemon.  There came a point in time where Onesimus stole some money and ran away from Philemon.  Through some twists and turns that we do not know about, he ended up with Paul in prison.  How amazing is it that God cared so much about a lowly runaway thieving slave that He worked it out for him to be in the very same prison as Paul (who happened to be friends with Philemon).  It is amazing how when someone else does something meant for bad that God works to good, but it is even more amazing how God can sometimes work out what we ourselves mean to evil but work it for our good.  I wouldn't test God on that, but His grace is amazing.  Paul shares the Gospel with Onesimus and in tern he accepts Jesus as Lord and Savior and now Paul is sending him back to Philemon with a letter we have recorded in Scripture for all time.  Today I would like to attempt to take us through that letter.
PAUL, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved friend and fellow laborer, to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Philemon 1-3 NKJV
I love the way Paul begins his letters.  Nowadays, we have a masthead with our names and addresses.  If we are lucky we get a "Re:", but it is certainly not like the epistles of Paul.  With emails and text messages, we have become all about business and the art of letter writing is all but lost.  In Paul's time, letters began with who it was from.  So here we have Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus and Timothy our brother.  Paul was in prison when he wrote this letter.  He was in prison for his ministry of the Gospel so he was quite literally a prisoner of Christ.  Note that he does not say he is a prisoner of Rome, but of Christ.  Paul recognized that his present condition was appointed by God for His purposes.  And of course we know Timothy from Paul's epistles to Timothy.  Apphia was probably Philemon's wife and many believe that Acchippus was Philemon's son.  Acchipus was called by Paul as fellow soldier, meaning he was also active in the ministry of the Gospel.  It is also apparent that Philemon had a church group meeting in his house as Paul greets them as well.  And finally, Paul greets them in the Grace and Peace of God the Father our Lord Jesus Christ.  God is the source of the grace and peace in our lives, and so that should always be acknowledged. 
I thank my God, making mention of you always in my prayers, hearing of your love and faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints, that the sharing of your faith may become effective by the acknowledgment of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus. For we have great joy and consolation in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you, brother. Philemon 4-7 NKJV
What an amazing testimony we have here of Philemon.  Paul, while in prison, is hearing of his love and faith and the good things that he is doing that strengthen that testimony.  Philemon was a man of God, not just in word but in deed.  And his love to the Lord is so great that it is an encouragement to others.  This is also an insight into Paul and his concern for not just the church in general, but for individuals.  We saw earlier that Paul referenced his family and we see here that Paul, even while in prison, keeps himself up the the concerns of individual Christians.  He prays not just for the the church that meets in Philemon's house or the general church at Colossi (where Philemon was from), but even for Philemon individually.  Paul was a man of prayer and his prayers were not filled with his present concerns of being in prison, but for the well-being and good ministry of those doing the work of God outside of prison. 
Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting, yet for love's sake I rather appeal to you—being such a one as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ— I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me. who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me. Philemon 8-11 NKJV
And now Paul is getting to the purpose of his letter.  Note the humility in which he speaks, though.  He can command Philemon as an apostle and as an elder in the church, but instead appeals to him as a brother in the Lord.  He appeals out of love instead of commanding out of authority.  He makes his appeal for Onesimus.  Another amazing truth to this story is that the name Onesimus means "profitable."  God knew from the start how things would turn out, and though while first a slave and then a fugitive and a prisoner, he has finally come to own his name.  Of course, he is not profitable in the worldly sense, but he is profitable for the ministry of God. 
I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel. But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary.  Philemon 12-14 NKJV
The punishment for Onesimus would have been either branding or death.  Paul is appealing for that not to happen.  The amazing thing here is Onesimus and how he is willingly returning knowing what may happen.  Here we see the work of God in the life of Onesimus and how God changed his heart.  He could have ran again, but yet he willingly went to face his accuser.  He willingly went knowing full well what the punishment could be. He went back to confess his sin and accept the worldly punishment for that sin.  God does forgive us our sins, but we also need to remember that many times there are consequences in this life for the things that we have done. 

Paul desired to keep Onesimus with him as he was a blessing to Paul.  Paul, though, did not want to act irresponsibly and not lord it over Philemon so he sent Onesimus back to make that request in person.  Paul, again, could have just used his authority to command Onesimus to stay there, but Paul wanted Philemon to act out of love and not compulsion.  There is no goodness or love is something done out of compulsion.  This is why God does not immediately make us perfect when we come to Christ.  God wants us to choose to love him and that love is shown in obedience and submission.  God wants us to submit to His will willingly and out of our love for Him. 

We see in the next passage that not only does Paul ask Philemon to forgive him, but also to pardon him his crimes:
For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no 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.   Philemon 15-16
We also see Paul proclaiming the work of God in the life of Onesimus.  It was no coincidence that Onesimus ended up with Paul in prison.  It was God's purpose from the beginning.  It was God's purpose from before the foundations of the world.  Onesimus meant his actions for evil and selfish gain, but God being full of grace and knowing all things had something different in mind.  What started as crime ended as redemption.  Philemon thought he lost a slave, but instead gained a brother.  God works all things together for good, and this is a perfect example of that.  God turned crime and loss into redemption and gain. 
If then you count me as a partner, receive him as you would me. But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account. I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay—not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides. Philemon 17-19 NKJV
Paul here asks Philemon to receive Onesimus the same way he would receive him.  Paul also offers to have whatever was lost accounted to him.  Paul says he is writing that with his own hand, indicating that Paul is personally interceding on behalf of Onesimus and even offering take take upon himself whatever loss there may have been.  Paul also reminds Philemon that just like to Onesimus, Paul was the one who preached the Gospel to Philemon to his salvation.  Paul is reminding Philemon of the work done on his behalf by God through Paul and the gratitude that he should have. 
Yes, brother, let me have joy from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in the Lord. Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.  Philemon 20-21 NKJV
And now we see Paul the encourager.  Paul has faith in what God has done in the life of Philemon and in Philemon's heart for the Lord.  Paul expresses his confidence that Philemon will do what is requested of him and more.  That again goes back to the testimony of Philemon as a man of God and the reputation earned through his faithfulness.  So, Paul, having faith in the heart of Philemon based on his reputation in the Lord, uses a little salesmanship here reminding Philemon of his heart in the Lord as an assumption that he will act rightly. 
But, meanwhile, also prepare a guest room for me, for I trust that through your prayers I shall be granted to you. Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you, as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow laborers. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.  Philemon 22-25 NKJV
Paul is confident that he will be released from prison and so he is asking Philemon to prepare a place for him.  We know from history that Paul was, in fact, released from this first imprisonment.  Also make note that Paul credits his future release to the prayers of Philemon.  Prayer does have an effect and Paul knew that.  Paul ends his letter where he begins, by wishing the grace of God upon the heart of Philemon. 

Some may wonder why this short personal letter is so important that it is included as part of God's Word.  I hope that today you see why.  While short, it is rich with lessons we can take to heart.  While it is not filled with the doctrinal depths that typify his other letters, we do see real world examples of those same precepts in this letter.  We see what Paul preached being worked in his own life and in the lives of Onesimus and Philemon. 

First we have Paul making note that he is a prisoner of Christ not as a hardship forced on him by the world, but as an opportunity for ministry given to him by God.  We see Paul not bemoaning his circumstances, but doing the work of God no matter where he is.  Paul teaches us to pray without ceasing and we see here Paul continually praying for Philemon along with many others and how Paul has faith that Philemon is praying for him.  Paul taught us the importance of prayer and we see that reflected in his life right here.  Paul taught us that God works everything for good for those that love God and are called according to His purposes.  We see here that Onesimus began as a thieving slave, causing loss and hardship to Philemon, and we see how God intended that for good.  What Onesimus meant for evil and material loss,  God appointed for eternal profit through the salvation of Onesimus and how his story is recorded in God's Word for all eternity.  Paul also teaches us that we were once sinners but were washed and cleansed with the blood of Christ.  We see here Onesimus willingly going back to the one whom he wronged, owning up to his sin as a result of his changed heart in God.  Paul teaches the importance of living a Godly life as a testimony to what God has done in ours and to not discredit God's word.  Here we see Paul knowing the reputation of Philemon that he can trust him to make the right decision.  Paul teaches us to bear one another's burdens.  We see here Paul taking the loss incurred due to Onesimus's sin to his own account, taking that burden off of Onesimus.  Paul teaches to share the grace with others that God has given to us.  We see here Paul pleading that to Philemon in that he is asking him to show grace to Onesimus reminding him of the Gospel and message of grace Paul shared to Philemon.  The Bible teaches us that as Christians we are not to lord our authority over others.  We see here that Paul does not compel Philemon to comply with his wishes, but pleads with him to do so voluntarily.  We see so much of what is taught in the Bible expressed in this short epistle that it should be no wonder that is God's Word for us.

But even more than all of that, we see here a picture of the Gospel.  We have Onesimus who has sinned against Philemon and deserving of death.  We have Paul paying the loss resulting from that sin in place of Onesimus and interceding for Onesimus to Philemon.  This is a perfect picture of what is taught in Hebrews:
Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.  Hebrews 7:25 NKJV
Not that Philemon is God or Paul is Jesus, but as a type we see the ministry of Jesus in action.  Paul takes on the debt of Onesimus as he makes intercession on his behalf to Philemon who by all rights can put Onesimus to death.  Praise God we have Jesus who makes that same intercession for us and also for us took upon Himself the debt owed of us by our sins. 

And one other lesson that amazes me about this letter is just how much God cares for individuals.  Think about it, Onesimus was a lowly slave who turned to crime and became a fugitive then prisoner.  Despite his lowly state in the world and sinful and criminal state in his lifestyle, God saw fit to work the circumstances in his life to end up with of all people Paul the apostle of Jesus Christ in prison.  Not only did God save Onesimus, but he sought after him and worked things in his life to where he would hear the Gospel message, in spite of his sin. I can't help but believe that as a man of God, Philemon was praying for him after he ran away.  I can't help but to believe that what we see here is a result of God answering that prayer in how He worked in the life of Onesimus.  I can't help but to believe that God can and will answer those same prayers of ours for those we know who do not know the Lord.  God will not compel anyone to come to Him, but He will work in their lives so that they hear the message in a way they can understand it.  We also wonder sometimes why it is we pray for our enemies.  Here we have the answer.  Onesimus went from an enemy to a brother and Philemon's loss became gain.  We pray because there is no one that God does not want to come to Him.  We pray because the value of a new brother in the Lord far outweighs any loss we occurred as a result of what may have been done to us.
Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 1 Timothy 2:1-4 NKJV

1 comment:

  1. A good overview of this much neglected letter. Thanks for taking the time to share this with us!