************ Sermon on Philemonv01-03.html ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on February 17, 2019
"Accept as a Dear Brother (1)"
Philemon was a leader of the church of Colosse and a friend of the Apostle Paul. Philemon's slave, Onesimus, stole money from him and ran away to Rome. While he was there he met Paul and became a Christian. When you hear about Onesimus you can't underestimate the power of evangelism.
Paul and Onesimus became convinced that Onesimus had to return to Philemon, making right the wrong of stealing and running away. This may seem strange and wrong to the modern mind -- to return as an escaped slave. The issue before Paul and Onesimus was not, "What is best for us?" Nor, "What is the safest thing to do?" Instead, it was, "What is the right thing to do?" That is character. That is courage. That is the Gospel lived out. So, Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon with the letter in front of us. He begs Philemon to welcome Onesimus as a brother in Christ instead of as a runaway slave. To do that, Philemon needs to forgive Onesimus.
This short letter, along with Ephesians, Colossians, and Philippians are often called the prison letters because they were written the first time Paul was in prison in Rome (about A.D. 59-61).
I Paul the Prisoner
A Paul starts the letter is a most unusual way: "Paul, a prisoner of Christ ..." This is the only time he starts a letter by identifying himself as a prisoner. In every other letter Paul starts by identifying himself as an apostle, a servant of Christ Jesus. He does this to emphasize his calling and his authority which is his way of saying the church needs to listen to the correction and instruction and direction he is giving them. He even starts his personal letters to Timothy and Titus this way because these brothers need to take Paul's calling and authority to carry out the correction and instruction and direction Paul writes to them.
But at the start of Philemon Paul identifies himself as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. Why this change? Why not continue to emphasize his calling and authority? Paul is saying at the outset if he can be a prisoner for the Lord, then surely Philemon can be a brother to Onesimus for the Lord. If Paul can bear the hard task of being in prison, then surely Philemon can bear the easier task of forgiving and loving.
B "Paul, a prisoner of Christ ..." I wonder what the Roman authorities thought of this wording? A prisoner of Christ? As far as they were concerned Paul was their prisoner. He was arrested in Jerusalem and handed over to them. They examined him. They put him in chains. They transported him to Rome when he appealed to Caesar. At this point, Paul was a prisoner but not in prison. Luke writes,
(Acts 28:16, 30) When we got to Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with a soldier to guard him ... (30) For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him.We are being told Paul was under house arrest. Meaning what? Meaning soldiers guarded him. He was under their authority. They controlled his life -- what he did and when he did it. They were there when Paul received visitors. They read over his correspondence. They looked over anything coming in to his house. Paul was their prisoner.
Paul doesn't see it this way at all: "Paul, a prisoner of Christ ..." From his vantage point, he was a prisoner of Christ. He was in prison because Christ put him there, not because Rome put him there. He was in prison because this was the Lord's will. He was in prison to do the Lord's work. So what did he do as a prisoner?
(Acts 28:31) Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.In Ephesians 6 he describes himself as an ambassador of the Gospel in chains. This is why he was a prisoner. Because he preached Christ and in order to preach Christ and by the will of Christ.
Now, by the plan of God something wonderful happened because of Paul's chains. The soldiers heard Paul's preaching. They read Paul's letters. They saw Paul live out the faith. They heard Paul explaining, declaring, and arguing the Kingdom of God. And a number of them believed.
The story doesn't end there. It becomes even more wonderful. Listen to the word of greeting with which Paul ends his letter to the Philippians:
(Phil 4:22) All the saints send you greetings, especially those who belong to Caesar's household.Did you hear that? Some of the believers were members of Caesar's household. Believers in the heart of darkness. Why? How? Because Paul's guards were part of the royal guard, Caesar's guard. When you hear this you see the power of evangelism.
C "Paul, a prisoner of Christ ..." Because he proclaimed the Gospel. In order to proclaim the Gospel. This reminds us that mission work can be dangerous. This reminds us to pray for those who dare to proclaim Christ in prison. I want to highlight Good News Jail and Prison Ministry -- in Muslim Pakistan of all places. But also in the prisons north of town. Those who proclaim the Gospel or lead Bible Studies in such places need our prayers and our support.
I bring this up because February is Mission Emphasis month in Trinity URC. That's why we have all the flags on the stage -- representing our missionaries and the countries in which they are proclaiming the Gospel.
D "Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother." This letter is not from Timothy. So why is Timothy included in the introduction? There are others with Paul; they are mentioned at the end of the letter: Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke. Why doesn't Paul also mention them at the start of this letter? Because Timothy was already being singled out as Paul's successor, as the spiritual leader who takes Paul's place. Paul knows -- or has an inkling -- that he will die as a prisoner for the Lord and he needs to prepare the church to accept Timothy as leader.
II Philemon the Friend and Fellow Worker
A So this letter is from Paul the prisoner. It is written to Philemon. Philemon, as I already said, lived in Colosse -- a small town a little distance away from Ephesus.
Paul was in Ephesus for three years. Not once does Scripture tell us that Paul went to Colosse. So it was probably during Paul's time in Ephesus that Philemon was converted. When you hear this you see why we need to evangelize the nations.
Philemon is described as a "dear friend." Upon his conversion the two men became friends. And now Paul is putting the friendship on the line by asking Philemon to be a friend to Onesimus and to welcome him as a brother.
Philemon is also described as a fellow worker. That is, he is someone who also works for the Lord, the Kingdom, the Gospel. He knows firsthand the power of evangelism and of the Gospel.
The end of verse 2 mentions that Philemon has his own home. In verse 22 Paul asks him to prepare a guest room. Slaves and freemen didn't have their own home but wealthy people did. Obviously, Philemon was a wealthy man, a wealthy Christian. Why is this important? Because most of the Christians in the Roman Empire were slaves.
Paul mentions the church that meets in Philemon's home. Church buildings weren't built until the third century. So Christians typically met in homes. There are places in the world today where churches still meet in homes. The home church movement declares there is something sacred about this -- there isn't. It was a questions of economics and space -- the early Christians didn't have church buildings and couldn't afford church buildings. Period. So they met in homes instead, or outside. As a wealthy Christian, Philemon hosted a church in his home.
B Notice who else Paul mentions in the address: "to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier." Most commentators think Paul is writing to a household: to Philemon; his wife, Apphia; and his son, Archippus.
To call Apphia a sister means "sister in Christ" -- so she was also a believer, a friend of Paul, and a co-worker.
As for Archippus, he is called a fellow soldier which means he came alongside Paul in the spiritual battle against the forces of evil, fought valiantly in that war, and is commended for his spiritual life. In Colossians, Archippus is mentioned again:
(Col 4:17) Tell Archippus: "See to it that you complete the work you have received in the Lord."Telling us what? Telling us this young man was in the ministry.
So Paul is writing to a father and mother with a church in their house and a son in the ministry. I want you to get the idea this is a godly little family. Now their faith and godliness is going to be tested by Paul's request to forgive Onesimus and to welcome him as a brother. Will they pass the test? Will they walk the talk? Will they live out the faith?
C Lastly, Paul also addresses "the church that meets in your home." So Paul wants his letter read in the church even though it is a private letter. He wants the letter read so all the church can hold Philemon accountable. He wants the letter read so all the church can see if Philemon lives out his faith. He wants the letter read so all the church can learn a lesson about how to treat a forgiven man as a brother in the Lord.
III Grace and Peace
Verse 3 is Paul's most common greeting: "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (Philemon 1:3). We see a similar greeting in every one of Paul's letters.
"Grace" -- that's the means of salvation. "Peace" -- that's the result of salvation.
We don't think anything about it, but it is significant that Paul says grace and peace come from God the Father AND the Lord Jesus Christ. The joining of God and Christ would be a deplorable blasphemy if Jesus were just a man. To join God and Christ can only be understood as an affirmation that Jesus is God.
IV The Providence of God
A We end with the providence of God.
Onesimus stole money from Philemon and ran away. Probably the money Onesimus stole was used to finance his trip. He ran away all the way to Rome. That was a thousand mile journey overland. The journey could not have been easy. Onesimus, you see, could not walk about openly because there were slave hunters who were paid to hunt down runaway slaves and to return them to their master. Running away was a serious offense in an empire whose economy was based upon slave labor. Onesimus knew what happened to slaves who got caught. Back then the owner of a slave had complete control over his property. He could whip him or torture him at his own pleasure. Some were crucified. Many runaways who were caught were branded on the forehead with an "FUG" -- for FUGITIVE.
Why Rome? Why did Onesimus flee to Rome? At that time Rome was a city approaching a million people in number. Many runaway slaves flocked to the city because it was easy to get lost and to stay hidden in a city that size. So Onesimus wanted to stay lost and stay hidden in the slums of Rome, in the Roman underworld. He was homeless, probably sleeping in back alleys or holes in the ground. Who knows what he did to get food.
B Now, in a city of nearly a million people, this man who wanted to say hidden ended up meeting the Apostle Paul. This could only have happened by the amazing providence of God, the sovereignty of God, the plan of God. Think about it. How else can this happen? Onesimus did not meet Paul because Paul searched him out. That's simply impossible because Paul was under house arrest. Nor did Onesimus take the steps necessary to meet people. That's simply impossible because Onesimus wanted to stay lost and hidden. The answer, the only answer, is the sovereign good pleasure and will of God.
By the way, this is true for everyone who hears and believes the Gospel. It is not because the church searches them out -- though the church is commanded to share the Good News of the Gospel. It is not because they search out the church. When it comes down to it, it is only because of the providence and sovereignty of God.
Paul hints at the sovereignty and providence of God in verse 15. Listen to what he writes:
(Phile 1:15) Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good--Notice the phrase "he was separated." Who does the separating? We know this as a divine passive. It is God Who does the separating. It is God Who is acting behind the scenes. The entire story has divine "fingerprints" all over it.
What will Philemon do to his runaway slave? That's the question. For the sake of Christ and the Gospel will he forgive and welcome him as a brother? We are never told. As we take up the rest of the letter in the weeks to come, we find more of what God expects from Philemon and from you and me as well.
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