Sharing life with Jesus in the real world (preaching resource for 9/4/22)

This post exegetes the book of Philemon, drawing on multiple sources including commentary from Warren Wiersbe (Bible Expository Commentary) and Peter T. O’Brien (New Bible Commentary). 

"Jesus Teaches the People by the Sea" by Tissot
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Introduction 

Followers of Jesus face great challenges navigating life in the “real world.” The world of our everyday experience expresses Jesus’ creativity, joy and hope (as the old hymn says, “This is my Father’s world”). However, it also expresses the debilitating influence of Satan, sin, and corrupt human systems. The book of Philemon takes a realistic look at these things, and helps us in sharing life with Jesus in the real, everyday world. 

The setting of this short letter is the realm of the Roman Empire in about A.D. 60. The apostle Paul, a prisoner under house arrest in the capital city of Rome, writes to his dear friend Philemon who resides in Asia Minor in the city of Colosse. The focus of Paul’s letter is Philemon’s relationship with Onesimus, who is Philemon’ slave. 

Slavery was a huge part of the “real world” of that day in the Roman Empire (and elsewhere). Apparently Onesimus had wronged (robbed?) Philemon, and now is in Rome where he met Paul. Always the evangelist, Paul led Onesimus to faith in Jesus, then discipled him in the way of Jesus. But now what? Paul seems to indicate that he intends to send Onesimus back to Philemon. But questions remain. Should Onesimus remain Philemon’s slave? Or should Philemon free Onesimus and send him back to serve with Paul in ministry? These are complicated issues, given the nature of Roman legal and economic systems and customs, and the delicate circumstances of the Christian church in the first century. 

Roman law in that era gave slave owners significant rights. It permitted them to execute rebellious slaves. But Philemon and Onesimus are no longer merely master and slave—they are now brothers in Christ, and friends with Paul. If Philemon were to act on that friendship and free Onesimus, what would other masters (and slaves) think? But if Philemon were to punish and retain Onesimus as his slave, how would that affect Philemon’s Christian testimony within the church and out to the community of Colosse? It is to these questions that Paul writes, not to make demands of Philemon, but to entreat him as a brother to become fully a friend, an intercessor and partner with Onesimus and Paul. Doing so will mean sharing life with Jesus in the real world. That’s our calling as well, so let’s listen and learn.

1. Becoming a friend (Philemon 1–7)

1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker, 2 to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4 I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. 6 I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. 7 Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.

Paul had neither founded nor visited the church at Colosse ( seeCol. 1:1–8; 2:1). It’s likely it was planted by Epaphras as a result of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus (Philemon 23). The church is meeting in the home of Philemon and Apphia, his wife. Archippus is perhaps their son. Paul expresses his deep love for these friends, and reminds them that he is a prisoner for Jesus. Timothy is included in this greeting—Paul’s ministry is a “team” operation—he speaks of “fellow workers,” including Philemon. 

Paul had personally led Philemon to faith in Jesus (Philemon 19), and Philemon matured and become a blessing to other Christians (Philemon 7). Paul now tells Philemon that he is praying for him and asking God to make his Christian testimony (“sharing your faith”) effective, so that others will trust in Jesus. He also prays that his friend will gain deeper understanding of all that he has in Jesus, and become, himself, a dear friend to others—and he has Onesimus in mind. The better we know Jesus, and experience his grace, the more we will want to share it with others by becoming their true friends.

Sharing life with Jesus in the real world, means becoming dear friends with others. And it also means…

2. Becoming an intercessor (Philemon 8–16)

Estimates suggest that in Paul’s day there were about 60 million slaves in the Roman Empire. The average slave sold for an amount equivalent to a year and a half  of wages for a common laborer. Educated and skilled slaves sold for as much as 100 times that amount. A master could free a slave, or a slave could buy their freedom if they could raise the money (Acts 22:28). If a slave ran away, the master would register the slave’s name and description with the officials, and the slave would be on the “wanted” list. Any free citizen who found a runaway slave could assume custody and even intercede with the owner. The slave was not automatically returned to the owner, nor automatically sentenced to die. While it is true that some masters were cruel, many were reasonable and humane.

With that background in mind, note Pilemon 8-16 where Paul intercedes on behalf of Onesimus: 

8 Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9 yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I then, as Paul-- an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus-- 10 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 will be spontaneous and not forced. 15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good-- 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 man and as a brother in the Lord.

We note here that Paul’s intercession with Philemon on behalf of Onesimus focuses on five areas:

a) Philemon’s character (v8)  

Because Philemon was a man known for bringing joy and encouragement to many (see Philemon 7), surely (“therefore”, v8a) he will want to bring encouragement to Paul by receiving Onesimus back—not as a slave but as a Christian brother.

b) Christian love (v9)  

Rather than appealing to his apostolic authority, Paul appeals to Philemon on the basis of love for others. Paul mentions his own circumstances: he is old (about 60 at this time—quite elderly for that era), and now in prison. How could Philemon not respond with compassion? 

c) Onesimus’ conversion (v10)  

Onesimus was no longer just a slave; he was now Paul’s son in the faith and Philemon’s Christian brother. In Jesus, there is “neither slave nor free” (Gal 3:28). This does not mean that his conversion altered Onesimus’ legal position as a slave, or that it canceled his debt to Roman law and thus to his legal master. However, it did mean that Onesimus had a new standing before God and therefore before God’s people, and Philemon had to take this into consideration.

d) Onesimus’ value to Paul (vv11-14)  

The name Onesimus means “profitable,” and  the name Philemon means “one who is kind.” If the slave was expected to live up to his name, then what about the master? Paul loved Onesimus and would have kept him in Rome as a fellow worker, but he did not want to tell Philemon what to do (Philemon 11-14). Voluntary sacrifice and service, motivated by love, is what the Lord wants from his children.

e) God’s providence (vv15-16) 

Paul begins verse 15 with “perhaps” (he is not wanting to be heavy-handed and dogmatic), nonetheless, he makes a telling point: as Christians, we believe that God is soveriegn over even the most difficult experiences of life. God permitted Onesimus to go to Rome that he might meet Paul and become a believer. Onesimus departed so that he could come back. He was gone a short time so that he and his master might be together forever. He left for Rome a slave, but would return to Colosse a brother. How gracious God was to rule and overrule in these circumstances!

By making these five points, Paul tenderly, yet convincingly intercedes with Philemon on Onesimus’ behalf. He wants Philemon to receive and forgive his disobedient slave as a brother in Christ. But it would not be easy for Philemon to do so. If he was too easy on Onesimus, it might influence other slaves to become Christian simply to gain their freedom from a believing master. However, if Philemon was too hard on the man, it might negatively affect Philemon’s Christian testimony and ministry in Colosse. And so Paul offers the perfect solution—a costly one for Paul (he would lose Onesimus’ help), but a price Paul was willing to pay to see two brothers reconciled in love. This is what true intercessors do.

Sharing life with Jesus in the real world means becoming dear friends with others, and also an intercessor for others. And it also means…

3. Becoming a partner (Philemon 17–22)

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. 22 And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers. 

The Greek word translated “partner” is koinonia, which means “to share in common.” Paul volunteered to “partner” with Philemon to help him solve the problem with Onesimus. He made two suggestions: “Receive him as you would receive me,” and “Charge whatever he stole from you to my account.” As Philemon’s “partner,” Paul could not leave Rome and go to Colosse, but he could send Onesimus as his personal representative. “The way you treat Onesimus is the way you treat me,” says the apostle. “He is my very heart” (Philemon 12).

Here we see a “real world” application of the profound doctrine of our union with Jesus. Because we are in union with Jesus, God accepts us as he accepts his own Son. We are “accepted in the Beloved,” is how Paul puts it in Eph. 1:6 (KJV), and we are clothed in Christ's righteousness is how he puts it in 2 Cor. 5:21. God does not accept us because of any merit of our own, but God welcomes us because of Jesus. The word welcome in Philemon 17 means “to receive into one’s family.” If it seems unimaginable that a slave would be welcomed into the master’s family, consider that God has welcomed us into the triune communion of the Father, Son and Spirit! That’s true, loving partnership!

Paul is not suggesting that Philemon ignore the slave’s crimes and forget about the debt Onesimus owed. Rather, Paul offers to pay the debt himself. “Put it on my account—I will repay it!” The language in Philemon 19 reads like a legal promissory note of the time. This was Paul’s assurance to his friend that the debt would be paid in full. That’s true, loving partnership!

Such partnership—such koinonia, such love—is costly; it carries a price. God saves us not by good intentions but by his very costly grace—the sacrificial incarnation, life, death, and continuing intercession of his Son Jesus who remains for us and with us fully God and fully human. God, in the person of the God-man Jesus, receives all of us at his own expense. That is the ultimate, loving partnership.

Philemon 19 suggests that it was Paul who led Philemon to faith in Jesus. Paul uses this special relationship not to shame Philemon, but to encourage him to partner (and thus receive) Onesimus as one who has the same “spiritual father”—Paul (see Philemon 10 and 1 Cor. 4:15).

Conclusion

The Holy Spirit, through Paul, is saying to Philemon (and now to us) that sharing life with Jesus in the real world means becoming dear friends with others, becoming intercessors for others, and becoming partners together with others in ministry with Jesus. To these admonitions, Paul now adds closing greetings from several of his ministry partners, who he calls “fellow workers.”

23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. 24 And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers. 

Paul emphasizes the importance of the partnerships we have in ministry with Jesus by sending greetings to Philemon and his wife (“you” in verse 22 is plural), from…

  • Epaphras, who was probably the pastor of the church where Philemon was a member. He had gone to Rome to assist Paul, and remained in prison with Paul to minister to his needs.
  • Mark, who as a young man failed Paul on his first missionary journey, but now was a key part of Paul’s ministry team (2 Tim. 4:11). 
  • Aristarchus, who was from Thessalonica and had accompanied Paul to Jerusalem and then to Rome. 
  • Demas, who was with Paul now, but later abandoned him (2 Tim. 4:10). 
  • Luke, who Paul referred to as “the beloved physician” (Col. 4:14)—the one who worked tirelessly and selflessly with Paul and went on to write the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts.

Then in verse 25, Paul gives this concluding blessing:

25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

Jesus’ life—which he shares with us as our friend, intercessor and partner—is all about grace. No matter what difficulties we face in the “real world” (even slavery!), we can be assured that Jesus helps us through, and leads us on to experience with and in him his glory—which is the life he shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit—a life that now, in and through Jesus and by the Spirit, includes all of us.

Additional comment  

Why does Paul not call for the abolishment of slavery? Alexander Maclaren answers in his commentary on Colossians (The Expositor’s Bible; Eerdmans, 1940; vol. VI, p. 301): 

“First, the message of Christianity is primarily to individuals, and only secondarily to society. It leaves the units whom it has influenced to influence the mass. Second, it acts on spiritual and moral sentiment, and only afterwards and consequently on deeds or institutions. Third, it hates violence, and trusts wholly to enlightened conscience. So it meddles directly with no political or social arrangements, but lays down principles which will profoundly affect these, and leaves them to soak into the general mind. 

"Had early Christians waged an open crusade against slavery, they would have been crushed by the opposition, and the message of the Gospel would have become confused with a social and political program. Think of how difficult it was for people to overcome slavery in England and America, and those two nations had general education and the Christian religion to help prepare the way. Think also of the struggles in the modern Civil Rights movement even within the church. 

"If the battle for freedom was difficult for us to win in the 19th and 20th centuries, what would the struggle have been like back in the first century? Christians are the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matt. 5:13–16), and their spiritual influence must be felt in society to the glory of God. God used Joseph in Egypt, Esther and Nehemiah in Persia, and Daniel in Babylon; and throughout church history, there have been believers in political offices who have faithfully served the Lord. But Christians in the Roman Empire could not work through local democratic political structures as we can today, so they really had no political power to bring about change. The change had to come from within, even though it took centuries for slavery to end.”