************ Sermon on Philemon 8-25 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on March 3, 2019
"Accept as a Dear Brother (3)"
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 receive Onesimus -- "no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother" (vs 16).
I Slavery in the Roman Empire
A Let's begin by asking why the letter to Philemon is included in the Bible? What is the Spirit's purpose?
The most popular view is that the Spirit put this book in the Bible to attack and tear down the institution of slavery. Receive Onesimus "no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother."
It is true that the seeds of the end of slavery were sown in the Roman Empire by the Christian Gospel and eventually slavery died, just as elsewhere slavery has died when the Christian Gospel came. It certainly was true in America eventually. The Gospel, you see, introduces a new relationship between people, a relationship in which external differences don't matter and we are one in Christ. In Christ there is neither Jew or Greek, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian or Scythian, slave or free, male or female (Gal 3:28; Col 3:11). At the time of Paul, this means people were releasing their slaves.
Paul's purpose, however, was not to end slavery but, rather, to promote the brotherhood of believers in Christ. Jesus and Paul and the other apostles focused on the spiritual gospel rather than the social gospel.
Don't conclude from this the Bible is silent about slavery. Throughout the New Testament slaves are told to be obedient, submissive, loyal, and faithful to their masters no matter how their masters treat them; and, masters are told to love their slaves, treat them rightly and fairly, and without threats. Going even further, the Bible condemns every form of abuse in every social system -- whether it is husband-wife, parent-child, officer-soldier, governor-citizen, or master-slave.
The Bible even uses slavery as a model for Christian living. Slavery is used as a picture of our relationship to God and His Christ in that we are God's servants and slaves.
B While studying for this message I spent some time looking at slavery in the Roman Empire. Slavery was so much a part of the Roman Empire that the whole society and economy were built on it.
Who were the slaves? Some of the slaves were the children of poor people sold to richer neighbors in times of hardship. However, the vast majority of slaves was those people conquered by Roman military expansion. By the time of the New Testament the lack of new territorial conquests dried up this source. To maintain the necessary work force, escaped slaves were hunted down and returned. And, restrictions on freeing slaves were put into place.
Our picture of slavery has mostly been formed by what happened here in America. We have seen movies of slave traders raiding a village, the long journey to America in slave ships, the slave auctions, and the back-breaking labor in the cotton fields. All of it awful beyond words.
By the time of Christ, slavery was changing in the Roman Empire. Slaves had many of the rights of freemen. Slaves were allowed to marry and have children. Slaves could be educated and many were trained in the field of medicine or as teachers. Though it still happened, laws protected slaves from the worst abuses and abusers. Slaves could own property and leave property to their children. Slaves were allowed freedom of religion.
Slavery was changing, but it wasn't changing so much that a slave could steal and run away. Theft is always wrong. And running away is a serious offense in an empire whose economy is based upon slave labor.
II Receive as a Brother
A Onesimus, the runaway slave, is sent back to Philemon with the letter in front of us. Philemon is asked to receive Onesimus not as a slave but as a dear brother.
I want you to imagine you are Philemon. You are in your house reading the short letter from Paul. Standing in front of you is Onesimus, the slave who stole from you and ran away. What a shock to see him standing there! Everything you felt when Onesimus first fled is coming back -- all the anger and hostility and frustration. It is all back. Yet here is the guy right in front of you. Maybe he isn't looking you in the eye, maybe he can't look you in the eye, but he is right there in front of you. You know what you want to do? You want to grab Onesimus, beat him, imprison him, brand him. But your friend Paul asks you -- can you believe this -- he asks you to welcome Onesimus as a dear brother. You are being asked to open up your life and your home and even your heart to Onesimus. Wow. Thanks Paul, for putting me in an impossible situation.
B Welcome as a dear brother. Receive as a dear brother. Let me emphasize that word "brother." Siblings, brothers and sisters, are mentioned often throughout the Old and New Testaments. Some of the most famous are Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1–8); Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25:19–27); Joseph and his eleven brothers (Genesis 37); Moses, Aaron, and Miriam (Numbers 26:59); Peter and Andrew (Matthew 4:18); and Martha, Mary, and Lazarus (John 11:1).
Why does Paul say "as a brother"? The Bible's ideal is that among brothers there is love and forgiveness and kindness and peace. That's what Paul is telling Philemon to show. Because love among brothers should be a natural thing the Bible uses such love as an illustration for love among believers: "Be devoted to one another in brotherly love" (Rom 12:10).
Unfortunately, not all siblings express love for one another. Many of the siblings in the Bible are known for their conflict and even hatred for each other. Cain killed Abel out of jealousy, thereby committing the first murder (Gen 4:3–8). Jacob and Esau were at odds from the time they were in the womb and into adulthood (Gen 25:23; 27). Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt (Gen 37:12–28). Aaron and Miriam were jealous of Moses (Num 12:1ff). Even Martha and Mary’s story contains a disagreement between the sisters (Luke 10:38–42). I know more than one person here has been involved in brotherly conflict too. But, brothers are called to love one another.
C Welcome as a dear brother. Receive as a dear brother. So "you might have been back for good" (vs 15). Philemon lost Onesimus the slave when Onesimus ran away. Over the years even friends can come and go; business and children and aging parents and retirement and travel can take them out of your life. But brothers are always there. They are always part of your life. They are there when families get together. You share significant occasions with them. You eat meals together. You can't disinherit a brother so he is no longer a brother. Welcome as a dear brother, someone who always has a relationship with you. And, of course, brothers in the Lord have an eternal relationship with one another.
III Four Reasons to Welcome
A What Paul was asking Philemon to do was not an easy thing. But it needs to be done for four reasons.
Reason number one: welcome Onesimus as a brother because he has repented. Repented? Where do I see repentance in our Bible reading? It is not stated; it is assumed. Of course Onesimus has repented. I say "of course" because he is there, in front of Philemon. He wouldn't be there if he didn't repent. He went back. Which was a most dangerous and difficult thing to do. He went back to face the man he has wronged, the man who has the power of life and death over him, the man who has the right to punish him. He went back. That's repentance. The word itself might not be said but the deed certainly is being done. Onesimus is showing the fruit of repentance. He went back. As I said, very dangerous. It could have cost him his life. But he did what was right. He seeks to make right the relationship with the man he has wronged.
B Reason number two: welcome Onesimus as a brother because he is a changed man. Paul makes a clever play on words here. The name "Onesimus" means "useful." As a runaway slave Onesimus did not live up to his name. As a runaway slave Onesimus was useless. Listen to verse 11: "Formerly he was useless to you." So Useful Onesimus was Useless. But now that he is a Christian, but now that he has repented, but now that he is a changed man, "he has become useful both to you and to me" (vs 11). So Useless is now Useful.
Paul's experience with a converted Onesimus is that he is useful. Paul says "he could take your place in helping me" (vs 13). It appears that Onesimus helped Paul, ministered to Paul, while Paul was in chains for the Gospel. We aren't told what he did but I can imagine he did some of the necessary household tasks: cooking, cleaning, shopping, sending and receiving messages, delivering letters, and what not. Onesimus is a changed man. Instead of being a runaway slave, he is now a willing slave, a slave and servant of Christ. He is worthy, he is valuable, he is useful.
C Reason number three: welcome Onesimus as a brother because he has proven himself. Listen to Paul's language in verses 12 & 13:
(Philemon 1:12-13) I am sending him--who is my very heart--back to you. (13) I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel.He is my heart. I would have liked to keep him with me. Onesimus has proven himself. He has proven where his heart is. He has proven he can be loved and trusted.
D Reason number four: welcome Onesimus as a brother because the wrong has been paid for.
Let's not forget that a wrong has been done and that wrong needs to be dealt with. When Onesimus ran away he stole from Philemon -- not just the money and possessions he took to fund his life as a fugitive but also his value as a slave. Roman records indicate that the price of a good slave back then was 500 denarii; one denarii was the daily wage of a working man back then; so Onesimus was worth 500 days' wages to Philemon. Furthermore, when Onesimus ran away Philemon had to buy himself another slave and therefore spend another 500 denarii. So Philemon has been defrauded.
Now, the Bible has very straight-forward rules about restitution. Listen to what we read in the book of Numbers:
(Num 5:6-7) When a man or woman wrongs another in any way and so is unfaithful to the LORD, that person is guilty (7) and must confess the sin he has committed. He must make full restitution for his wrong, add one fifth to it and give it all to the person he has wronged.Onesimus has to take the value of what he stole and add 20% and pay that to Philemon. But Onesimus has nothing. Like the Prodigal Son he probably comes back with empty pockets. So how he is going to make restitution?
It would have been right for Philemon to say, "You will pay me back what it cost me to replace you. I will take it out of your wages. You will work overtime and you will restore back to me what you stole when you left." That would be justice and it would not be wrong.
Hang on to your seat because what Paul says next is going to rock you:
(Phile 1:18) If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.Paul offers to make restitution. "I will pay," says Paul. Did Paul have any money? He must have had some because he was renting a house in Rome and paying the cost of running the house. "Put it on my bill." And then in verse 22 he adds, "Prepare a guest room for me." Paul is saying that when he gets there he will settle his account -- including the matter of restitution.
Paul is playing a role here, a marvelous role. He does the same thing for Philemon and Onesimus that Christ Jesus does for God and sinner. Like God, Philemon has been violated and offended. Like sinners, Onesimus has run away and wasted his life. Like Jesus, Paul makes the payment that brings the two sides together in reconciliation and love. Like Christ, Paul takes on the sin and the debt of another. Isn't this marvelous?
Welcome as a brother. Receive as a brother. Forever. This is a picture not only of what Philemon is asked to do. This is a picture of what you and I are called to do as forgiven sinners in Christ.
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