************ Sermon on Philemon 4-7 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on February 24, 2019
"Accept as a Dear Brother (2)"
Mission Emphasis Sunday
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 where he hoped to get lost and stay lost among the almost one million inhabitants of the city. By the providence of God, while he was there he met Paul and became a Christian.
Paul and Onesimus became convinced that Onesimus had to return to Philemon, making right the wrong of stealing and running away. So, Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon with the letter in front of us. He begs Philemon to forgive Onesimus and to treat him as a brother in Christ instead of as a runaway slave.
As I said last week, the Bible does not say what happened when Onesimus returned to Philemon, but it is believed that Philemon read Paul's letter, granted the former slave his freedom, and sent Onesimus back to partner with Paul in the work of the Gospel. That certainly was Paul's hope (Philemon 21). This view appears to be supported by historians who have unearthed a letter to Onesimus, the bishop of Ephesus. If this is the same man -- and we don't know for sure -- then by the grace of God, the runaway slave became a leader in the church.
The question before us is why would Paul ask Philemon to do this? And, assuming Philemon did respond this way, why did he? On this Mission Emphasis Sunday we are told it all comes down to sharing the faith, being mission minded, being an effective witness. As Paul writes in our text for this morning: "I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith ..." This is Paul's prayer for Philemon. This is my prayer for this congregation and for the missionaries and missions we support.
I Sharing the Faith
A "I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith ..."
Philemon has the legal right to whip or torture Onesimus, but how effective will be his witness if he does? Philemon has the authority to crucify Onesimus, but if he does this how is he sharing his faith? Philemon has the option to brand Onesimus as a runaway slave, but what impact will this have on the mission of the church in Colosse? What is legal is not the same as what is best for the spread of the Gospel.
And, don't forget, who is watching. The church of Colosse is watching -- remember, Paul wants his letter read to the church as well. There are new Christians in this church. There are unbelieving family members who sit in worship. They are all watching to see how Philemon reacts to his runaway slave. What Philemon says and does will impact each and every one of them. What Philemon says and does will impact the spread of the Gospel in that town. The world is watching to see if Philemon acts the same or differently than it does.
As an aside, new Christians and unbelievers watch us as well. We all live in glass houses. What we do and say, how we act, impacts your witness and my witness and our witness as a church. Does you behavior attract people to the Lord or does it turn them away?
B Paul urges Philemon to forgive and to welcome Onesimus as a brother. The world says something entirely different. The world says to Philemon, "Don't forgive Onesimus. Punish him. Beat him. Brand him. Teach him a lesson he will never forget."
It is fair to say the world cares little about forgiveness. The world pushes people to be unforgiving. It tells us we don't have to forgive. It tells us we have a right to get a pound of flesh, it tells us we can take anyone to court, it tell us we are to make people pay for what they have done to us. Many hit movies celebrate and exalt those who take revenge, who get even, who strike back.
Even counselors, worldly counselors, tell us not to forgive. They say it is not healthy to forgive. They tell people to have a negative attitude towards forgiveness. To nurse their anger. To harbor grudges. To lay blame on the person or persons they think are responsible for the misery in their life -- whether it is spouse, parents, teacher, vice-principal, police officer, or whomever else you care to name.
For a Christian this attitude is unthinkable. Regardless what the issue is, regardless of what the offense is, a failure to forgive is an act of disobedience. We are people who pray, "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors." As evidence of God's grace in us, we are to forgive our neighbors. Period. Jesus tells us that if someone offends us we are to forgive them seventy times seven -- that is, an endless number of times.
Do you know what happens to Christians who are unforgiving? When Christians buy into the mentality of the world? I have seen it over and over again. It makes people prisoners of their past. It produces bitterness , bitterness that occupies their thinking and feeling, bitterness that ends up infecting their entire life, bitterness that robs them of joy. It opens their heart to the presence of Satan and invites demons to come in. It hinders fellowship with God. And, it destroys their witness to the world. That's what Paul is especially concerned about.
C "I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith ..." The words sound so simple but they are so full of meaning when it comes to Philemon and his relationship with Onesimus. "I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith ..."
Is Philemon going to listen to Paul or is he going to listen to the counsel of the world? Is he going accept Onesimus as a brother or will he seek revenge?
Let me tell you: the church's most effective witness to the power of the Gospel is forgiveness, love, brotherhood. Let me also tell you: the church's most ineffective witness to the power of the Gospel is a lack of forgiveness, hatred instead of love, and enmity instead of brotherhood.
Word & Deed missionaries tell the story from India of a local Hindu leader who commanded that a church group was not to be allowed a place of worship in his village. Shortly after this the Hindu leader became paralyzed. Can you guess what the church did in response? They asked if they could visit the leader and pray for him. Every week they came and prayed. Every week. Week after week they came and prayed for their enemy. And the leader and his family were converted.That's what Paul has in mind when he prays Philemon may be active in sharing his faith.
II Characteristics of Those Who Share the Gospel
A "I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith ..." Paul is very optimistic that Philemon will listen. I say this because Paul speaks about Philemon in the most positive of terms. Paul commends Philemon for being the kind of man who puts the Gospel first. Paul praises Philemon for being the kind of man who wants nothing to prevent the sharing of the Gospel. Paul is saying, "Philemon, I know you are the kind of man who will forgive and welcome Onesimus for the sake of the Gospel."
How do you think Philemon felt about this praise? Well, how would you feel if someone says to you, "I thank God for your witness"? Wouldn't that encourage you to even greater effort? To be an even better witness?
Now, how or why does Paul know all these good things about Philemon? A couple of reasons. First, the two men know each other. Remember, Philemon was converted through the ministry of Paul (cf Philemon 19). After his conversion he became Paul's "dear friend and fellow worker" (vs 1). Furthermore, Paul says "I hear ..." Literally, "I continue to hear ..." Who does Paul hear from? Paul hears from Epaphras, a leader of the church at Colosse (Col 4:12) who is with Paul as a prisoner in Rome (Philemon 23). Paul hears from Onesimus, the runaway slave. And, he must hear from some of the Christians that meet in Philemon's house. Everyone speaks highly of Philemon.
"I hear ..." "I continue to hear ..." Every time Paul hears something about Philemon it is something positive. So as we look over the letter to Philemon we see not a single word of correction. Nothing is said about Philemon being a hard-driving, demanding, unreasonable master who beats his slaves. Nothing is said about wrong theology. Nothing is said about fights with church members. Nothing is said about marriage problems or other problems in the home. Everything Paul hears about Philemon makes him say thanks to God for this man.
Philemon. What a testament he is to the Gospel. By his entire life he shares his faith. No wonder Paul expects him to forgive and accept Onesimus.
B What specifically does Paul hear? "I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus ..." That's where all witness starts. You can't be a witness unless you believe in Jesus. You can't testify to the Lord unless you also believe in Him. Philemon has faith, saving faith. More literally, he continues to have faith in Jesus; he was a believer, he is a believer, and by the grace of Christ he will continue to be a believer.
"I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus ..." Meaning what exactly? Meaning his is a knowledge and conviction that everything God reveals in His Word is true. Meaning his is a deep-rooted assurance, created in him by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, that, out of sheer grace earned for him by Christ, he too has had his sins forgiven, has been made forever right with God, and has been granted salvation. He trusts in Jesus and continues to trust in Jesus.
"I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus ..." Which also means Philemon has the Spirit and has been born-again by the Spirit. His is new life -- a life of service and holiness and commitment.
"I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus ..." Philemon is a true Christian believer. And, he wants others, he wants others, to also share in this faith.
C What else does Paul hear about Philemon? "I hear about ... your love for all the saints." The word for "love" is the word we all know and appreciate -- the word "agape." Agape love is a love you choose to give. You don't keep agape love. You give agape love. Those with agape love are always giving, caring, sharing, sacrificing of themselves and their time and their gifts and their abilities for the good of others. Agape love is not an emotion. Agape love is not a feeling. Agape love is not something given because the other person is attractive. It is given without thinking of anything in return.
Philemon loves people. And, because he loves people he shares the Gospel with them. He doesn't want anyone to go to hell. He doesn't anyone to die without knowing Christ. Yes, there is a place for soup-kitchens and free medical clinics and food pantries. There is a place for the social gospel. But the best way to love your neighbors is to share the Gospel with them. That's what Philemon was doing. If we love the people in our lives, that's what we do.
III Blessings of Those Who Share the Gospel
A "I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith ..." Now, something wonderful happens to and for Philemon when he does this. Paul writes,
(Philemon 6) I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, [HERE IS THE WONDERFUL THING THAT HAPPENS] so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.This is the first blessing of those who share the Gospel: they have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. What are the good things Philemon has in Christ? You know. You know because we also have them. God has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ (Eph 1:3). In Christ we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins, adoption as sons, holiness, the mystery of God's will, the Holy Spirit, a future inheritance.
Philemon fully understands all of these blessings because he shares his faith. He fully understands and experiences the riches of God's grace because he sees them in the lives of others.
B Look at the last line of our Bible reading for the second blessing of those who share the Gospel. By his witness and love what has Philemon done? He has "refreshed the hearts of the saints." Refreshed is a military term. It is used for an army that takes a march, stops and rests. Philemon brings rest and peace and care and service. He doesn't want to bring trouble and grief and pain and disturbance and heartache. People like Philemon bring "great joy and encouragement." Does this describe you?
We all know the opposite. We all know people who bring trouble and grief and pain and bitterness. People whose absence brings relief. But Philemon is not one of those. His presence is so refreshing that it blesses everybody. His absence causes pain.
Philemon lives out the Gospel that he shares. He lives out the Gospel and brings rest and joy and encouragement to everyone he touches.
"I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith ..." What a prayer for Philemon and for you and me and all the missionaries and missions we support.
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