Sermon on Philemon 1, 7-21
Text: Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker,
7 Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.
8 Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9 yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul — an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus — 10 that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.
12 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. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. 15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever — 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.
17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back — not to mention that you owe me your very self. 20 I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.
Every family structure is unique. This is due to various reasons. First, there are different combinations of people in the family. The number of children varies from family to family. Some families have more sons than daughters and vice versa. The number of uncles and aunts will vary. Another factor that changes the family dynamic is the closeness of the people in the family. In some families, the members all live near to each other. In others, they are scattered all over the place. Another thing that changes the family structure is the personalities that are found in the families. You will find some families that are really outgoing, while others are more low-key. Whatever the structure, the one thing that can be said about all of them is that they are a family. As we study God’s Word this morning, we are reminded of another family. We are going to talk about OUR SPIRITUAL FAMILY – MADE, NOT BORN. 1. The Father Makes Us His Children Through The Gospel. 2. The Father Makes Us Brothers And Sisters Through Gospel Encouragement.
The apostle Paul wrote this letter while he was in prison. In our text, he mentions that he was “a prisoner of Christ Jesus” (Verse 9) and “in chains.” (Verse 10) Likely, he was in prison in Rome. Paul wrote this letter to a man by the name of Philemon. We really don’t know anything about him. We do know that he was a member of the church in Colossae, which is in modern-day Turkey. We glean this from the fact that Onesimus, who is the topic of this letter, is mentioned as someone who is accompanying the letter that Paul wrote to that congregation. The reason that Paul wrote the letter was that he was pleading for Onesimus. Onesimus was a slave, who belonged to Philemon. Onesimus had run away from Philemon. He came into contact with Paul in Rome and, after some time, was going back to Philemon. Paul pleads that Philemon would take Onesimus back.
Onesimus had, no doubt, come into contact with Paul when he was doing his missionary work in Colossae. When he ran away to Rome, he heard that Paul was in prison there. Perhaps, he thought that Paul would be able to help him out in some way or another. Onesimus got more help than he bargained for.
We read in verses 10&11, “I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.” We note that Paul refers to Onesimus as his son. What Paul means by this is that Onesimus became a believer during his time with Paul. He had been brought to believe in Jesus as his Savior. This relationship meant all the world to Paul. Not only does he refer to Onesimus as his son, but he also describes him as “my very heart.” (Verse 12) As Paul worked with him and saw his faith begin and start to grow, his affection for him grew. Onesimus became very near and dear to Paul’s heart.
It is interesting to read Paul’s description of Onesimus in verse 11, “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.” In this verse, Paul is making a play on words that is not evident in the English translation. The name “Onesimus” means “useful.” However, when Onesimus was in Philemon’s household, apparently, he was not that useful of a slave. He certainly was useless when he had run away from Philemon. Now that Onesimus had been brought to faith, he was living up to his name. He was useful. He was useful to Paul, as he was there in prison. He would be useful to Philemon as he returned home. Onesimus’ name hadn’t changed, but his status had. He was now a child of God through the gospel proclamation of Paul. He was now part of God’s family.
In a way, we could say that we are all Onesimuses. No, none of us are former runaway slaves. However, we were just as useless, useless to God. By nature, we are all runaways from our God. We don’t always serve him the way that we should. For example, how do we treat those who are in authority over us? Children disobey their parents. We disobey our government if we think we can get away with it. We go just that little bit over the speed limit, when we think that no one is watching. If I don’t mention everything on my tax returns, who’s going to know? At work, we work as much as we must, not as much as we can. The list goes on and on of how we are useless to God because of our sins. In his justice, God could have sent us away from himself to hell for all eternity.
However, we who were useless have become useful. This occurs through the gospel message, which creates faith in our hearts. That gospel message points us to Jesus Christ. It tells us what he did to save us. The gospel begins by showing us that Jesus lived a perfect life. We read of how he was obedient to his parents. We see that he gave the proper respect to the governing authorities. Then, the gospel takes us to a hill outside of Jerusalem and shows us a blood-stained cross. It was on that cross that Jesus paid for every one of our sins. He was punished in our place. He felt the full force of God’s anger so that we would never have to. Then, the gospel tells us that Jesus did not stay dead, but that he rose from the dead three days later. There, the gospel says, is the proof that the Father accepted his Son’s payment for our sins. It is through that gospel proclamation that the Holy Spirit creates faith in our hearts. We have gone from being absolutely useless to God to useful. More than that, we have become his children. We were not born as the children of God, but we have been made his children through the gospel’s proclamation.
Being God’s children affects our relationships with others, especially with other believers. Remember that Paul was writing this letter to Philemon to plead for Onesimus, who had run away from his master. At the time that Paul wrote this letter, the penalties for a runaway slave were severe. For the first time-offender, the captured slave was branded on his forehead and fit with an iron collar. Inscribed on that collar were instructions for his return and an offer of reward. If that slave were to run away again, it could mean flogging and even crucifixion. Philemon would have been within his rights to exact any of these punishments from Onesimus.
However, Paul pleads for his son in the faith. He says in verses 15&16, “Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever — no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.” Paul asks Philemon to receive Onesimus not as a slave, but as a brother, a brother in the faith. Paul appeals to the fact that both Philemon and Onesimus were believers, and then a little further down, he says, “Refresh my heart in Christ.” (Verse 20) Paul reminds Philemon of what Christ had done for him. He forgave that tremendous load of sin that had been committed against him. Now, Philemon was encouraged to forgive Onesimus and take him back. This didn’t mean that Onesimus was no longer a slave. That hadn’t changed. However, since both Philemon and Onesimus were believers, they were also brothers in God’s family. With this gospel encouragement, Paul asks Philemon to receive Onesimus back.
This is a good reminder for us, as well. Our brothers and sisters in the faith will sin against us. They will say and do things that are hurtful to us. Some of these things may cut us very deeply. If you would ask the people around us, they would say that we have the right to get even with them. They would say that we should never take them back. We should never forget what they have done to us. To the world that sounds like the course of action that we should take and have every right to do so.
However, that is not the way that God would have us act. He says in Ephesians 4:32, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” God wants us to forgive others and take them back. We have the motivation for doing so, when it says, “just as in Christ God forgave you.” Think for a moment of the mountain of sins that God has forgiven us. Every single sin that you and I have ever committed has been forgiven. Since God has forgiven that mountain of sins, we find our motivation to forgive the molehill of sins that others have committed against us. We don’t dole out our forgiveness with an eyedropper. Rather, taking our cue from our God, we forgive those who sin against us. It is not the natural thing to do. It is only something we can do because we, ourselves, have been forgiven. As a result of this, we look at other believers as our brothers and sisters.
We have been brought into this family through the proclamation of the gospel. We are encouraged through that same gospel message to regard our fellow believers as our brothers and sisters. We love them and care for them. We rejoice with them when things are going well in their lives. We mourn with them when things are not going so well for them. We encourage each other when things are tough. We pray for each other. We build each other up rather than tear each other down. We do this because they are our brothers and sisters. We are all a part of God’s family.
“It’s what families do.” This phrase could be said when one family member goes out of their way to help another family member. Perhaps, they were moving, and you gave up your weekend to carry boxes. It could be that they were stranded somewhere, and you drove to rescue them. It might be that they were going through a rough patch, and you went there to encourage them. Whatever they needed your help with, you were there. It’s what families do. If that is the case with our earthly families, how much more with our spiritual family. God loved you so much that he sent his Son to be your Savior. He saw to it that you were brought to faith through the working of the Holy Spirit. You are his dear child. Now, as we live with our fellow believers, we see them as God sees them. They, also, are his children. Since that is true, they are our brothers and sisters. May God help us to see each other in this light. Motivated by the gospel, may we treat each other as fellow children of God. We thank God for this family that we have been made a part of. Amen.
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