We just finished going through the Gospel of Mark together, and it took 43 weeks, so for this series I want to do the opposite – I want to do four books in four weeks. Today I want to start a four-week series that I’m calling “summer shorts”, where we are going to go through four of the shortest books in the Bible, each from the New Testament: Philemon, Jude, Second John and Third John. Each of these books is less than a chapter, less than 500 words, in fact.
Now, to call them “books of the bible” is a little misleading. They’re not books, they’re letters. Each one of these letters was sent to their respective churches to address a very specific issue, and I believe that studying them will help and inspire each of us to grow in that respective area. I’m really looking forward to this mini-series and I hope you are too.
Let’s get started by looking at the letter from the Apostle Paul to Philemon – just 335 words long. Before we read it, I want to give you a little background on what is happening here.
This is a letter, written by the Paul while he was a prisoner in Rome (which we’ve talked about before), and was delivered to the same place as his letter to the Colossians. As he sat under house arrest, awaiting trial before Caesar, he wrote letters to some of the churches he visited during his missionary journeys or that had been planted by those churches. There were various motivations, but mostly it was to address issues that had cropped up in the churches – like false teachers, bad theology, church fights, etc. – after he had left.
He had various helpers around him while under house arrest, sometimes people he had brought with him to train further, sometimes people that had tagged along, and others that had sought him out. When they came, they brought him letters from the churches, financial support, and, of course, news about what was happening at the church – which all prompted the letters.
One of the letter carriers was a man named Onesimus, who had a unique story. He was originally from Colossae, but was now in Rome, and had come across Paul’s ministry – and became a Christian. Pretty soon, he and Paul became friends and ministry partners, and as they worked together, Onesimus’ story came out. It turned out that he was a runaway slave, who, in the providence of God, had actually ran away (and stole from) one of the key leaders in the church that Paul had planted in Colossae – a wealthy man named Philemon.
This complicated matters because, under Roman law, a running away and stealing from one’s master was punishable by death. Paul knew that the best thing that could happen would be for Onesimus to go back and make things right with Philemon, but who knew how he would react. Onesimus was scared that Philemon, though a good guy and a Christian, might be angry, or think that he needed to set an example of him to the rest of the people that worked in his household. But returning was the right thing to do, so Paul wrote two letters – one to the church, addressing their theological and practical issues, and one to Philemon himself, addressing the Onesimus problem.
So as we read, picture Onesimus, the runaway slave, walking towards Philemon’s house, letters in hand, then standing before his former master, holding up the letter and having him read these words:
“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.”
Who Was Philemon?
Let’s talk about the main character first, so we can get an idea of what’s happening here. It says that this letter is addressed to a few people: Philemon, Apphia (who is likely Philemon’s wife), and to Archippus (who is probably Philemon’s son and a teacher in the church in Colossians.) This family was the host family for the church in Colossae. Very wealthy, very involved in the church, and very well known in the community.
Paul and Philemon are clearly friends and ministry partners. Paul calls him “beloved” or “very dear” to Him. He’s a man who loved others, had a strong faith, showed generosity and hospitality to many people in his church and community. He was a good, Christian man who shared his faith and his finances with others.
Paul opens with a prayer for his friend Philemon, one of thanks to God for him and all the good memories Paul has of the kind of man he is. Paul, sitting under arrest and awaiting a trial that might cost him his life, had a lot of things on his mind, but Philemon was such a great guy, such a helpful Christian, such a powerful influence for good to so many churches (especially in Colossae) , that he was memorable to Paul. He likely funded some of Paul’s missionary journeys as well as supporting the hurting people of the church in his city.
Paul also says that he “hears” (using the present tense) that Philemon has kept up the good work. Even after Paul moved on, and with all the difficulties of having a big home, a business, and being in ministry, Philemon has continued to be an example of faith and generosity. Verse 7 says that Paul gets much joy and comfort just by thinking about Philemon.
His love for Paul is evident, but it’s more than that. It’s because so many local Christians and missionaries abroad have been “refreshed”, encouraged, had their weight lifted, their work eased, and their hearts filled by Philemon’s generous ministry.
Do you know anyone like that? A good, generous hearted person that, when you start to think of them, you can’t help but smile? I know a few. They’re the people you don’t need to worry about offending because they’re not looking for a problem – their patient and kind. They’ve got your back. They’re the people that you can go to with a problem and you know you’ll get help without strings attached. They’re the people that, when crisis hits, they always seem to be there with an encouraging word and something to ease the struggle. They don’t have a personal agenda, they’re not trying to fix you, they’re just there, helping, loving, giving, and making you feel loved.
I remember a time, after I was going through the darkest period of my ministry, I discovered a few of these people that make me smile when I think of them. One person stands out in particular. I had recently resigned from my church with nowhere to go, after a very difficult ministry. The government was taking its sweet time in getting us our Employment Insurance, and we were at the end of our money – literally, less than a dollar in the bank. There were no prospects on the horizon and it looked like we were in trouble. It was a tough time for my family.
One day we got a call from a lady who wondered if she could come by and bring us some strawberries. She was a quiet person – someone who never popped up on anyone’s radar. I said, “of course” and she showed up at our house a short while later. She handed me the strawberries and thanked me for letting her bring them over, and then gave me an envelope. After handing me the envelope, she literally ran to her car as fast as she could. I tried to start a conversation with her, but all I could manage was a quick thank-you as she popped into her car and sped away.
We hadn’t told anyone about our financial struggles, but had agreed to trust God for our needs. I gave the strawberries to Anita, and opened the envelope – to find a very generous amount of money – exactly what our family needed until the EI came.
The word that Paul uses in verse 7 is exactly the right word – we were “refreshed.” Her action not only blew our minds, but gave us a huge amount of encouragement at exactly the right time. It showed us the generosity of God and of our fellow believers. It renewed our faith in God and revived our weary souls. It reminded us that we weren’t alone, that God supported our decision to leave, that He would take care of us, and that not all Christians are hypocrites who do more harm than good – which is how we were starting to feel. We were “refreshed.”
Do you know anyone like this? I hope you do. Are you someone like this? I know that some of you are. You are a Philemon, one who brings joy, comfort, love and refreshment to the saints around you because of your willingness to encourage people and be there to ease their burdens. It brings you joy, and brings joy to the ones you help. You show us the heart of God, often when we need to see it the most. And we smile when we think about you.
Remember Who You Are
Was Paul just buttering up Philemon because he was about to ask him something difficult? I don’t think so. It is more likely that Paul was absolutely genuine in his praise and thankfulness – but that Philemon would need a reminder of who he was. He would need a reminder that he was a good, Christian man before Paul moved on.
We all need that kind of reminder sometimes. Sometimes, when we’re feeling low, forgotten, depressed, tempted, angry, afraid, we are presented with something that goes counter to what we believe. Satan’s voice starts to get a little louder, and more seductive. “Why no do that? You deserve it. You’ve been good, so you’ve earned it. No one will know. Why not?” and sometimes, the answer we need to give is that “We’re Christians” and that means something.
We’re not Hindus or Buddhists or Islamic pagans who believe that we just need to do more bad than good. We’re not atheists or agnostics who do things out of pragmatism or self-interest. We are Christians who believe that God is good, His ways are good, His word is good, and we want to be like Him. We are Christians.
We sometimes need to remind ourselves what we believe.
- I believe that sin is wrong.
- I believe I’m not the centre of the universe.
- I believe that God has a law that is to be obeyed.
- I believe that Satan is real, is tempting me, and wants to harm me and the people I love.
- I believe that Jesus is better than anything else.
- This is what I believe and where I’m going to stand.
- I’m committed to God and He’s committed to me.
I think Paul was saying, “Listen, Philemon, I know you possess the love of God in your heart, that you love believers, and that you have a generous heart – but in a moment I’m going to test that. Remember who God has made you to be. Remember who you are.”
On one side was Philemon, on the other was Onesimus – the runaway slave who had fled his position, stolen from his master, and was standing awaiting judgement. I know we’ve all been there, on both sides of this relationship. We’ve all been the offender and the offended. We’ve all been the one who got hurt and the one who did the hurting. We’ve all been the one who took, and the one from whom it was taken. And now the two parties, not friends but master and servant, employer and employee, stand face to face. All the power is in Philemon’s hands because Onesimus has chosen to humble himself and courageously do the right thing.
What needs to happen here is forgiveness and reconciliation, but if pride sneaks in, vengeful feelings take hold, fear rules the day, or Philemon’s or Onesimus’ heart gets hard, it could go very wrong. So now, let’s see how Paul sheds the light of wisdom on this situation. This is where we really start learn from this letter:
1. Forgiveness is a Command
First, when we look at verse 8, we see that forgiveness is a command. Paul starts this part saying, “Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required…”. In other words, Paul had the scriptural authority, pastoral authority, spiritual authority and apostolic authority to command Philemon to do this. That’s an important realization. Forgiving others and pursuing reconciliation in relationships isn’t optional, depending on how we or the other person feels, how long it’s been, or anything else. Forgiveness is commanded.
The clearest place we read this is the words of Jesus right after He teaches the Lord’s Prayer. He says that when we pray, we are to say:
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:9-15)
Without even pausing for a breath, Jesus ties our understanding of the forgiveness we have from God to our willingness to forgive others. The implication is that we cannot say we understand how much we are forgiven, and how deep our sin debt was, if we are unwilling to forgive others. Therefore, Jesus doesn’t beat around the bush, but commands that His people forgive.
The command to forgive is something Paul had to continuously remind his churches about. To the Colossians, Philemon’s church, Paul says, “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” (3:13 NIV) to the Ephesians he says, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (4:32 NIV)
2. Forgiveness From the Heart is a Blessing
But! God doesn’t want us to forgive and seek reconciliation with people merely because we have to. He wants us to want to, because of our love for Him and our love for others. Paul says to Philemon, “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…”
Paul doesn’t want to coerce Philemon’s love for Onesimus. He wants it to be genuine love, motivated by His love for God and for all believers – which he has demonstrated over and over and over in the past. Paul wants the love to be authentic. It is so much better, so much more of a blessing to everyone around, so much richer for both parties, so much more of an act of worship to God, if the forgiveness and reconciliation of the relationship comes not only as an act of the will, but an act of the heart. Love from God, to us, that pours out onto the person that hurt us.
Paul says in verse 14 that he doesn’t want Philemon’s “goodness” (which he spoke so highly of earlier) to merely be motivated out of “compulsion” – whether compelled by obedience, or by Paul’s order, or assumed because Onesimus stayed in Rome – but done with “consent”.
The idea of loving and serving out of compulsion is an interesting point in scripture. When Paul tells the Corinthians to give to help the suffering Christians in Jerusalem he says, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7) It is better if done with love.
When Peter speaks to the elders of the church he says, “…shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you …” (2 Peter 5:2) A leader in the church should not only serve because he feels he has to, but because he wants to. Service, leadership, discipline, preaching, counselling that is motivated by love is far better than that which is motivated by obligation.
I think we all know this deep down. Which is better, the gift given out of love, or the one out of obligation?
- “Here’s your birthday gift. I had to get it because it’s your birthday.”
- “Here’s a rose. I’m supposed to get my wife flowers because I read it in a book somewhere.”
- “C’mon honey, it’s Thursday night. Let’s go to the bedroom and get this over with.”
Everything is better when motivated by love rather than obligation, right?
3. Give Mercy & Grace
Now we move to the next part. Forgiveness is commanded, but what happens after that is situational – it will change depending on the circumstances. Remember, we’re still on Philemon’s side of the ledger and there are a lot of things that he can do to Philemon. Philemon can say, “I forgive you, but the law says I can have you killed or beaten.” There were a number of things that Philemon could do if he wanted. He was well within his rights to take his “pound of flesh” (literally and figuratively), but Paul doesn’t want that.
What would make Paul, and God, happiest, would be to see amazing grace. We all know this feeling right? A person comes to us, admits they are wrong, and we know we have to forgive them – but what about after that? Now they’re on our turf! They’ve admitted they’re wrong! They’ve opened themselves up for anything! And the temptation is to strike, right? Hurt them as much as they hurt us. Make them pay. How sorry are you really? Maybe we can get them to jump through some hoops for our pleasure. Maybe we can get them to publically humiliate themselves. Maybe we can just keep this in our back pocket and jab them with it whenever we want to. After all, it’s our right! We were the offended people!
Paul points out that even though Onesimus made a lot of mistakes, has shown remarkable growth as a Christian and is truly repentant. Yes, he was once a “useless” person, no good to anyone, but now that he’s given his heart to Jesus, he’s “useful”! His repentance is genuine, his heart is right with God, he wants to be right with you, and he has demonstrated that he wants to make it right. Honour him and what God is doing in Him by NOT exacting your right to discipline him or taking what you are due. This is an appeal to grace and mercy.
We don’t have to punish before we can forgive. All over scripture we are told to treat our enemies well – how much more-so a believer who comes to us repentant and in need of forgiveness! If the person is a Christian, then Jesus was punished for that sin. We need not add to it. Let’s not answer repentance and humility with more pain, but with grace.
4. Never Assume
Verses 13 and 14 are an interesting section because they make the point that Paul didn’t want to assume that Philemon would do the right thing. Paul didn’t want to order him, nor did he want to merely assume that Philemon would forgive Onesimus. If Paul would have kept Onesimus with him in Rome, that would have been assuming. No, reconciliation had to happen face to face. It needed to come from Philemon to Onesimus.
We should never assume anything when it comes to forgiveness and reconciliation. We need to work it through. Yes, sometimes its awkward, often risky, usually emotional, and definitely challenging, but it should never be assumed that all is right with the world. I’ve really learned the lesson about dealing with things quickly, even willing to ask the embarrassing questions like, “So, are we ok? Have I done anything to offend you? Have you forgiven me?” Sure, it’s a little hard, but it’s scriptural. Jesus says,
“…if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser…” (Matthew 5:23-25)
Ephesians 4:26 says,
“…do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.”
The implication of both of these is that we need to take the time and make the effort to seek forgiveness and reconciliation, or we leave Satan the occasion to do more harm. We all know what it’s like to go through a night of uncertainty after a fight with someone. Do they still love us? Are we still friends? What happens now? Why did I say that? What can I do? Maybe it’s too late.
Dealing with it soon stops bitterness from taking hold and keeps our connection to God and others strong. So we must deal with it quickly and face to face. Onesimus had to travel 2000 kilometers to get from Rome to Colossae to be face to face with Philemon. We ought to follow his example and be willing to do the hard work of meeting with people to make sure we are forgiven and reconciled.
5. God Can Use This Too
Verses 15 and 16 are probably my favourite of the letter. They say,
“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.”
In other words God has a plan and can use this too. Even though this was a difficult situation, and even though Onesimus was wrong, God is still sovereign over all things and can use this for His glory and the benefit of His people.
He almost seems to be saying, “Maybe this was God’s plan all along. Maybe this is the only way you would be able to see Onesimus as more than your servant or slave, but able to see him as a fellow human being, a brother in the Lord. Maybe this is part of God’s plan to finally break down the walls between masters and slaves, owners and servants, upper class and lower class, and bring unity to your home, your church, and your nation. Maybe God is setting you up as an example to follow so that more people will put away their prejudice and embrace their fellow man – no matter what class they are – as brothers and sisters in Christ. God has a plan, Philemon, and this could be the beginning of something beautiful – and you’re on the forefront of it! So… don’t get in the way!”
When our hearts are soft and our grace is abundant, God can use us to do amazing things. Paul was willing to risk his friendship Philemon because he knew that God could do something much bigger, if they could get this right. That’s big picture thinking on Paul’s part, and he invites Philemon, and the rest of us, to join him in trying to see past our arguments, hurts, and relationship issues to the bigger, gospel picture. The one that shows the whole world that we are people of love, forgiveness and acceptance; and nothing does that better than when people see forgiveness and restoration among our relationships.
6. Reconciliation Means Putting Things Right
Let’s end in verses 17-20. The final part of this section of Paul’s letter to Philemon reminds us that there are still some things that need to be put right. Onesimus did steal from Philemon, after all, and that needed to be paid back.
We spent a lot of time talking about Philemon. Paul wanted Philemon to come to the Onesimus with a generous, gracious, open and loving heart. On the other side was Onesimus, who needed to come with a repentant heart, willing to pay back what he owed. Now, that was probably extremely difficult. He was a slave, therefore probably broke, especially after traveling from Rome to Colossae. The only person that had any money in this relationship was Philemon. But that doesn’t mean Onesimus didn’t need to try. The right thing to do would have been for Onesimus to have tried to pay it back, whatever that meant, because making it right, paying it back, fixing what was broke, and doing whatever it takes to repair the damage, is an important part of asking forgiveness.
“If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.” (vs 18)
What Paul does here, in light of the situation, is what Jesus does for us – Paul asks to take Onesimus’ sin onto his own shoulders. Just as Jesus was the propitiation, the payment, for our sins when God charged our sins to Jesus’ account, so Paul wanted Onesimus’ theft charged to Paul’s account.
There’s a great line in vs 19 where Paul says, “I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self.” It’s a great line because it reminds Philemon that he was converted to Christ, and learned about salvation through Jesus from Paul’s ministry. Therefore Philemon “owed” Paul something much greater than whatever Onesimus stole – his eternal life.
Don’t take that too far, as though Paul was saying that he was really Philemon’s saviour. No, it’s more a reminder of the thing we all need to remember when it comes to forgiveness and reconciliation: That we are all sinners, that we were all damned and headed to hell, until someone told us about Jesus and we were saved by grace. Understanding that grace, how much it cost to save us, and remembering Jesus’ death on the cross for our sake, makes the sins of others seem very small in comparison. Paul knows that it is so much easier to forgive people when we look at them in the light of eternity and with our eyes fixed on the cross of Jesus Christ and His gospel. It puts everything into perspective. That’s what Paul wanted to do with Philemon.
We end where we ought to: on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. How can we forgive? Because of Jesus. How can we confront? Because of Jesus. How can we have the strength to take the long, difficult walk towards someone we need to forgive, or ask forgiveness from? Because of Jesus.
Let’s remember Philemon and Onesimus’ example, but even more, the example and love of Jesus Christ who paid the penalty for our sins so we might be reconciled to God.