Philemon: PAUL'S LETTER TO PHILEMON
Philemon is the only example in the New Testament of a letter from Paul written to a private individual.
It is possible that Apphia was Philemon's wife and Archippus his son. Archippus was the leader of the small Colossian church. In all likelihood this family group was the fruit of the ministry of Epaphras who after he was converted during Paul's campaign in Ephesus took the gospel to Colosse.
(B) The way to grow in grace. Vs4to7.
This passage teaches us the way to:
(1) Attract the prayers of godly men and women. Philemon achieved this through his faith in Jesus and his love for his fellow Christians.
I have a list of Christians to pray for. There are elderly saints that I visit with whom I pray before leaving. I am afraid that as I work on this exposition I am far from fit. I have a serious condition of the neck vertebra that makes it increasingly difficult to walk properly. My Christian friends have all assured me of their prayers. I draw strength from their promises of intercession on my behalf.
(2) Appreciate all Jesus has to offer. Paul encourages Philemon to share his faith with others. This will reinforce his belief in all the good things Jesus promises and delivers.
I know from my experience as a teacher that by teaching my subject, Geography, I got to know it better myself.
Secondly, when the evangelist sees others respond to the gospel and their resulting change for the better, it reinforces his own belief in all the benefits Christ brings.
It is wonderful when God uses us to bring others to faith in Jesus. The four or five that have been converted through my ministry are the 'Jewels, precious jewels ... bright gems for His crown'.
(3) Give joy to other Christians. Paul is able to write to Philemon: Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.
It is possible to cheer the hearts of fellow Christians in a variety of meaningful ways: visitation, conversation and hospitality. My mother was a great visitor. She also invited a group of elderly ladies to tea. What a a fuss my mother made of them. How those old ladies loved my mother. Their faces shone in her company.
I have used this illustration before but it is worth using again. Many years ago Terry Harsant and I travelled to West Sussex in a lorry borrowed from Mr Tom Havers. We were going to collect Pioneer Camp equipment at the end of second camp. We expected everything to be ready to load into the lorry. But such was not the case. We spent the best part of the day clearing up, sorting out and loading the lorry. So we left for Suffolk late in the afternoon in a very disgruntled frame of mind. Terry and I were not looking forward to the long drive home to Mr Haver's farm where the camp equipment was stored. We expected to unload the lorry ourselves and put everything safely away.
It was dark when we arrived at our destination. However it was not as dark as our mood. Suddenly everything changed. A group of men from the Grace Baptist Mission camp whose tents were pitched on Tom Haver's meadow were waiting to unload the lorry. Terry and I were escorted to the farmhouse kitchen where a splendid supper awaited us. It was marvellous; we were treated like heroes; it was a blessed time.
When I left Athelington to drive home I was so full of joy that I sang a hymn in thanks to God for all his benefits.
Mr and Mrs Havers were not least among God's benefits. I can remember a wonderful full moon shone as I set off for home - but it did not outshine the superb example of Christian hospitality I had experienced.
(C) Christian discipleship is not easy.
(1) Paul did not find it easy to part with Onesimus. Paul told Philemon that Onesimus was a son to him whilst he was in chains. It appears Paul was instrumental in bringing Onesimus to saving faith in Jesus. The apostle was the spiritual father of Onesimus. So, the young convert was singularly precious to Paul.
Onesimus was also useful to Paul. Paul was limited in what he could do as he was chained to a Roman soldier. I can imagine Onesimus running errands for Paul, shopping for him. He may have kept the house clean where Paul was held prisoner; perhaps he kept Paul clean. I like to think Onesimus was able to read to Paul. I may need a young man like Onesimus if my spinal problem worsens and I become wheelchair bound.
I believe on the evidence of Paul's letter to Philemon, that Onesimus was, indeed, very dear to the apostle. Paul wrote: I am sending him, who is my very heart back to you. v12. It is likely that the elderly evangelist had a great natural affection for the youthful, attentive and responsive Onesimus.
I know how it is. Sometimes a bond like this develops between a school teacher and an outstanding, responsive and admiring pupil.
So Paul chose to suffer loss that others might be blessed. This is what happens in some of the small Grace Baptist Churches. The pastor's children and their friends attend the youth activities and by God's grace are converted. The pastor is greatly encouraged by the little group of young, keen Christians. He loves them and loses them as they leave to attend university never to return permanently to their home church.
(2) Onesimus would not find it easy to return to Philemon. He would miss Paul! There has never been a greater Christian teacher than Paul.
Perhaps, after four years at university, a youthful convert feels called to return to their home church. It will not be easy to obey the call. The young person has been used to excellent teaching in a big town church and the fellowship of lots of Christians of their own age. A sacrifice is called for! I know what I am writing about because I heeded the call to return to my home church.
Another reason Onesimus might have found it difficult to go back to Philemon and the Colossian church was because a happy outcome depended on Philemon showing grace. Paul is asking Philemon to do him a favour by accepting Onesimus - not so much as returning slave but as a brother in Christ. It is never easy to rely for our well being on grace. We like to think that we deserve men and women's favour!
Finally, by returning to the household of Philemon, Onesimus was likely to lose some of the freedom he gained by running away. Many young people flee their home church for more freedom. They don't want to be tied down. They don't want responsibility. They can't be doing with living up to the expectations of older brethren. It is difficult to persuade such to return to their home church and take responsibility for some of the duties necessary to maintain a fellowship and a witness.
(3) Philemon would not necessarily find it easy to respond appropriately to the returning Onesimus.
Paul was applying pressure on Philemon. He wrote to him: But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favour you do will be spontaneous and not forced. v14.
I think this is a bit rich! Paul made it clear in his letter how he expects Philemon to act. The apostle wanted Philemon to welcome Onesimus back: no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a brother.
We don't always take kindly to being told how to behave towards someone who has treated us badly. It would not be easy for Philemon to accept Onesimus back as a helpful Christian brother after his history of being a particularly useless slave.
Paul, himself, did not find it easy to forgive John Mark for abandoning him and Barnabas on their first missionary journey. The apostle could not accept that, perhaps, Mark had matured and deserved another opportunity. We may be very slow to accept that someone who has hurt us in the past has become, by God's grace, a better person and unlikely to offend in the future.
Philemon might also have had to cope with considerable public disapproval if he acted in the way Paul desired. Slaves who ran away from their masters were usually put to death. Paul is asking Philemon to welcome Onesimus back as a brother. I can imagine how some of his neighbours would accuse him of being soft in the head.
We do not always receive credit for being forgiving and showing grace. The loving father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son did not receive support for his actions from the elder brother. Today there remain some who sneer at the gospel of God's grace. They ask, "Why should great sinners be forgiven just because they say sorry?" This is all too easy. Instead people should take steps to win God's approval. The Pharisees in the time of Jesus believed that their works would save them.
We know what Jesus thought about the Pharisee who prayed in the Temple: "God I thank Thee that I am not like other men, robbers, evil doers, adulterers - or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get."
(D) The ministry of reconciliation.
Paul wrote to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus. He wrote in the hope that Philemon would extend grace to the repentant, returning slave. We have here a picture of Jesus interceding for us before God's throne.
(1) Paul asks Philemon to welcome back Onesimus. He wrote: "Welcome him as you would welcome me." We know that God welcomes believers into his family on behalf of his Son. Believers are actually become joint heirs with Christ. Wonderful!
(2) Paul tells Philemon to charge it to him. If Onesimus owed Philemon anything Paul wrote: "Charge it to me. ..... I will pay it back.
Christians rejoice because Jesus paid God the price of their redemption. Jesus atoned for our sin when he offered himself as a sacrifice at Calvary. God accepted the price Jesus paid as payment in full for all our sins and many failings.
(3) Paul had high expectations of Philemon. He wrote: I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. I write to you, knowing you will do even more than I ask."
Jesus has high hopes of those who follow him. We need to ask ourselves whether we are living up to the expectations of Jesus. Are we a benefit to him? Can Jesus be confident in us? Are we proving a good investment? Can the Lord rely on us doing more than he asks?
In his first epistle to Timothy Paul reminds us of the expectation of Jesus. See 1Tim6v17to19. Are we rich in good deeds? Are we rich and ready to share? Some Christians are. They live up to Christ's expectations and honour Him.
(4) Paul's optimism. He wrote: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers. Paul hoped to visit the saints in Colosse. In this we suspect he was disappointed.
However, Jesus will certainly return to earth in glory. It is something for us to pray for with confidence. A day will come when all the many, many prayers for Jesus' Second Coming will be wonderfully answered.