If you have your bibles, turn with me to the book of Philemon. Our sermon today is on verses 1 through 25 – so, the whole book. There’s no cause for alarm, though: as you will notice, Paul’s letter to Philemon is more like Paul’s Lengthy Text Message To Philemon, so I promise I won’t preach past, like, an hour-and-a-half. Let’s read:
“Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you. Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I 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, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you. Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”
So Paul’s writing this from prison. This is nothing new. More of Paul’s letters than I can count start with some variation of “Hey, it’s Paul. I’m in prison again, but it’s cool.” He’s writing to Philemon – and, if you remember the book of Colossians, Philemon was a member of a “house church” in Colossae, along with Apphia and Archippus. But what’s interesting about this particular book is that he’s writing to someone he directly converted. I enjoy preaching and enjoy having conversations with new believers and long-time believers, but not nearly as much as I enjoy walking through life with people where I got to play some role in bringing them to Christ. Right?
Like, that’s really how evangelism works: You invest in someone by inviting them to share in the joy of knowing Jesus, and then you keep investing in them by walking through life with them and sharing what you’ve learned from your own walk. That’s not always possible – you can only do so much with a dude you witnessed to on a plane who lives three states away – but that’s the general shape of evangelism. Right? It’s not like throwing golf balls through a tennis net and seeing what makes it through – it’s very much the first step in a lifelong process of discipleship.
So it would be a bit like me writing to a guy named Josh, who I met at youth group when I was a senior in high school. I rarely feel some “strong emotional push” to say any particular thing to anyone, ever, but out of nowhere I felt this oppressive sense that I needed to ask Josh if he was “saved.” So I asked Josh if he was saved, and he said, “Yeah, man!” And I thought, “Oh, thank God, I don’t have to evangelize,” and I said, “Tell me about how your got saved, man.” And he said, no joke: “Y’know one time I was with some friends from school, but I don’t know if they were my friends, and they were all gonna go smoke, and I was like, ‘No way, I don’t want any part of that.’” (Pause). And I was like, “…Go on,” and he was like, “That’s it.”
So I walked him through what I actually meant, and he was floored – he’d never heard any of this before, and he’d been coming to our youth group for months, so then I was floored, because he’d been coming to our youth group for months and he’d never heard the gospel. But he kept talking to me, and then by God’s mercy his grandmother moved in with his family, and he started talking to her, too. And a few months later, he got it, and he made the same decision I made years earlier when a guy named Brad decided to walk with me through my unbelief and into my eventual surrender to the Lord.
So preaching is fun, but it’s not quite as satisfying as walking through the process of discipleship with somebody you’ve watched transform by the power of the Holy Spirit. Every time I run into Josh at church or talk to him on the phone or watch him as he takes up some of the same roles I used to fill in the youth group, I’m reminded that the gospel actually changes people – and I think the same kind of thing is at play with Paul: He converted Philemon and he’s invested in his walk with Christ.
And it’s good. Because so much of what goes into discipleship is disappointment and heartbreak. And it has so little to do with how well you counseled them; at your very best, with all the best responses to their ambivalence about God’s laws, and all the most sophisticated answers for their doubts most of the people you invest in are still gonna come to a point where they decide they’ve had enough of this Christianity thing and they’re gonna go their own way and it’ll have nothing to do with you. So you can rest, because the cure for what ails us is the mercy of God.
But so far Paul’s just kind of “setting the ball on the tee” for the bomb he’s about to drop on Philemon. Take a look at vv. 8 through 16:
Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus—I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me). I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I 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, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord.
So Paul has prefaced all of this by reminding Philemon of their relationship. Paul converted Philemon and there’s a very real sense in which Philemon owes Paul his life. We don’t really think about things this way, but Paul was the tool that God used to bring Philemon out of his slavery to sin and into his family. That doesn’t mean that Philemon’s gonna drop everything and become Paul’s bodyguard, or something, but it changes the relationship between them.
We know a handful of things about Onesimus from history, and he’s interesting. Onesimus was Philemon’s slave, which is kind of scandalous in hindsight: by the time the Bible was compiled for the first time at the Synod of Hippo in 393 A.D., slavery was basically dead in those parts of the empire that were under heavy Christian influence. Slavery was so ingrained in the Roman empire that it would have seemed insane to suggest to anyone living at the time of Paul and the apostles that within a few centuries it would be all but nonexistent. But by the late 300s it was dwindling, and fast.
And part of the reason was that the more the gospel of Jesus spread, the more people allowed it to take over every aspect of their lives. And the more people allowed the terms of the gospel to hijack their conscience, the less comfortable they were with owning a human being.
And that makes sense, right? Because Jesus is the God who came to Moses thousands of years earlier and said “I’m using you to launch a prison break to free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and make them into my people.” And everything that happened over the history of God’s people, from the time of the Exodus and to the founding of this church in the year 1862 and up till now – all of this has been rooted in the fact that God rescued us from slavery and made us his people.
Right? In the days of Moses, Egypt owned our bodies and they thought they owned our souls, and God rescued us from slavery under their harsh imperial rule. But they weren’t the only slave-masters we had. We were slaves to sin in a way that ran even deeper than our slavery to Egypt. We weren’t enjoying his presence and we weren’t obeying the good commands that he gives for our flourishing; we were eager slaves to a harsh slave-master named sin, andunless the Holy Spirit had moved in us so that we threw ourselves on the mercy of God, we would have continued to reject the love of God all the way into eternity;
Right? God is love, that’s the Bible; God wants to be your friend, your “neighbor,” your father – in a way that your human father, or your human mother, couldn’t measure up to no matter how good they were; God wants to be you closest friend, and he will continue to pour his love onto you, but until you’ve thrown yourself onto his mercy, you will remain an eager slave to sin; and when you’re a slave to sin, the love of God makes you sick to your stomach – you know what I’m talking about?
So thousands of years after rescuing us from slavery in Egypt, Jesus came to earth, was born from a virgin – we’re celebrating that next month – and lived as a human, but he lived differently than we did; And that’s important – when Jesus came to earth, he didn’t stop being God, but he did become a real human; he didn’t do life on “cheat mode.” Jesus experienced the same drive toward sin that we experience and he resisted in all the ways that we don’t, and he obeyed in all the ways that we don’t, and he refused to be a slave to sin; so when he was crucified, he didn’t die for his own sins, because he didn’t have any sin to die for. He died for your sin, and my sin. All of it. All of our sin, over all of our lives, was nailed up to the cross with Jesus. He was punished for our sin, and there is no punishment left.
And when Jesus rose up from the grave three days later – we’re celebrating that in about six months – he brought you and me back up from the dead with him, no longer as “slaves to sin” but as free people. We are free with a freedom that isn’t ours. We are free with all the freedom of Jesus Christ. That’s why Paul says in 2nd Corinthians 6:18 that we are “sons and daughters of God” because of Jesus. God rescued us from slavery in Egypt and he rescued us from our slavery to sin in the cross.
And that’s why although slavery has existed for nearly all of human history, it took, like, ten minutes for the early church to just suffocate the Roman slave system in the regions where they had the most influence over culture. Because when this is your religion – when you’re a member of a community that’s been set free from two kinds of slavery – what would your major malfunction have to be if you thought it was perfectly fine to keep owning a human being?
But this was long before all of that. Paul’s writing maybe 30 years after the resurrection of Jesus, so it shouldn’t be surprising that it hadn’t clicked for Philemon yet.
So Onesimus was Philemon’s slave, but he wasn’t a very good slave. His name – Onesimus – technically means “useful.” It’s like when you meet somebody named “Misty,” or “Precious.” Those are adjectives, but they’re also names. So if you met Onesimus, it’d be like “Hey, my name’s Useful.”
But Paul says he was “Useless” to Philemon. And I have a hard time feeling sorry for Philemon on that one – like, if you come complaining to me that your slave isn’t as productive as you’d hoped he would be, I’m just not going to waste any tears over you. That’s not something I’m going to “cry alongside you over.”
So Paul isn’t insulting Onesimus here. There’s nothing wrong with being “useless” as a slave. And apparently Onesimus understood that, because he didn’t hesitate to run away the first chance he got. And since Philemon had been converted by Paul, Onesimus had probably either met him in the past or overheard Philemon talking about him, so he tracked Paul down and begged for his help.
Paul says that while Onesimus was with him in prison, he became a son to him. And it’s easy to miss the significance of that, today: Paul shared the gospel with Onesimus. He’d probably heard it plenty of times before at the church that met in Philemon’s house. But this time he heard from Paul, and something was different – it’s crazy the way that hearing the gospel from someone who isn’t your slave master might make it more persuasive; the gospel probably seems truer when you hear it from somebody who doesn’t legally own you. So Onesimus believes the gospel, and God sets him free from his slavery to sin.
Onesimus was grafted into the family of God, and he became like a son to Paul. Because he had died with Christ; his sin was nailed up to the cross with Jesus; He was resurrected with Jesus, no longer as a slave to sin but as a “beloved son” of God. But there’s more than that. Because this wasn’t just about Onesimus. In Jesus Christ, all of Onesimus’ sin was nailed up to a cross, and all of Philemon’s sin was nailed up to a cross – you see where Paul’s going with this?
A man and his slave were nailed to a cross together in Jesus Christ. And they were resurrected into a new life with Jesus. And that changes your relationship. Because they’re not just a master-and-slave anymore; now they’re brothers in one family; they’re members of one body. And if you found out your brother got sold into slavery, y’know, are you gonna to carry on “business as usual”?
And when you start to walk down that particular path, you start to wonder how you can really justify owning your brother in Christ. And once you start going down that path, you start to wonder why you really thought you could own anybody. And once you start going down that path, you start to wonder how you can sit idly by while millions of your brothers and sisters in Christ are bought and sold throughout the empire. And once you start going down that path, you start to wonder how you can tolerate anybody getting bought and sold by anybody to anybody, anywhere.
But we aren’t there yet. Let’s look at vv. 15 through 25:
For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever,no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
So Paul is so inadvisably confident that Philemon’s gonna do what he’s hinting at that he’s sending Onesimus back to him. Which seems like a bad idea from our standpoint, right? Like, if somebody’s slave runs away and tries to hide out in your home, you should hide them in the cellar and do whatever you’ve gotta do to make sure their master goes home empty handed (or goes home in a casket), right? But he’s sending Onesimus back, and he’s confident that he won’t be punished. Because he illustrates the gospel in the way that he sends Onesimus back: When Onesimus gets back to Philemon’s house, his debts are as good as paid. His wrongs are all erased and whatever Philemon has against him is scattered as far away as the east is from the west.
And if you’re Philemon, and you get a letter from the man who brought you to faith in Jesus Christ that says –
“I’ve taken your slave under my wing. I’ve taken his debts, and I’ll take full responsibility for everything you’ve got against him.. I’m sending him back to you because I know you’ll forgive him just the way the good Lord forgave you in Jesus Christ. And I know you won’t stop at forgiving him. I know you’ll do a heck of a lot more”
– what would you think he’s talking about? I don’t think I have to spell it out. Actually, I don’t have to spell it out, because we know from history that when Onesimus died toward the end of the first century, he wasn’t Philemon’s slave anymore – he was the bishop of Ephesus.
This is the kind of thing that happens when the gospel takes hold of your relationships, when the gospel takes control of your household, or your wallet, or your conscience. I don’t know how long Philemon was a Christian before Paul wrote to him, but it kept taking over his decisions over the course of his whole life, to the point that he started making reckless economic decisions like releasing his slaves.
Because owning a slave was like owning a car. It was the cornerstone of the imperial economy. Setting your slave free would be about like having your car demolished for the sake of the environment – folks would look at you weird. You’d upset your family and concern the neighbors. How would you react if the folks next door said, “I read the latest climate report and just couldn’t justify owning an automobile”? You might admire their willingness to put their money where their mouth is but you’d be concerned about their judgment – it’s Louisburg, North Carolina, how’re they gonna get to work?
That’s how engrained slavery was in the world that Philemon lived in and there’s no version of letting his slave Onesimus go free that doesn’t just wreck his finances. But this is the kind of thing that happens when the gospel takes hold of your decision making. This is what happens when the gospel takes hold of your relationships.
Because when God has rescued you from your slavery to sin, it changes your relationship with your money, with your family, with your enemies, and with yourself. You start to see other people as people in ways you never thought to beforehand. Slowly, it co-opts you and turns your “heart of stone” into a “heart of flesh,” and it makes you see the image of God in everyone you meet.
But if you haven’t thrown yourself on God’s grace, none of this is true about you. You might be nice – you’re probably nicer than I am. You might be generally considerate and polite and self-sacrificing, but there’s still something in you that drives you to want terrible things. You know what I’m talking about. There’s something in you that terrifies you. There’s something deeply crooked in you, like there’s something deeply crooked in me, like there was something deeply crooked in Philemon – and we need something more than old fashioned human decency to deal with that horrifying crookedness. Philemon was a decent man as far as anyone can know, and he still didn’t get that it was not okay to own Onesimus. We need more than common sense, more that old time virtues, more than a good work ethic or a lifetime of philanthropy.
We need that deep crookedness in us healed, and that means you need the same thing Philemon and Onesimus both needed and found through the gospel that Paul preached. Jesus took all of your sin – he took all of that deep crookedness that terrifies you in yourself – and when we nailed him to the cross, he took it to the grave with him. If you’ve thrown yourself on God’s mercy, it doesn’t mean you won’t be tempted by sin, but you’ll be forgiven fully, freely, and forever. And the forgiveness that Jesus bought and paid for on the cross will mold you into the image of Jesus over the rest of your life until one day, you’ll rest in God’s presence, and every crooked thing about you will be made straight.
So throw yourself on the mercy of God, if you haven’t. I’ll be standing at the front as we sing. If you want to be set free from your slavery to sin, if you want every crooked thing about you to be made straight, if you want to become God’s son or daughter, then please: come talk to me. Or, if you’re already God’s friend, and you’d simply like to pray together, come talk to me.