Philemon Part 2: From Slave to Brother

Last week we looked into the greeting and first remarks of Paul to Philemon, and saw how much affection and bond of friendship Paul feels towards Philemon. We also saw how in the first 7 verses of this small letter Paul is preparing Philemon to hear the request he is about ask of him. Paul employs a careful and calculated gospel-logic in his appeal, and we can learn much from it.

Now let’s turn our attention to Philemon 8-16

Philemon 8-9

Paul here states clearly that though he could’ve commanded Philemon to obey his command with the power he wields in his God given apostolic ministry, for love’s sake he rather appealed to Philemon and simply asked, as a friend asks for a favor. Remember how Paul began the letter? He didn’t begin with his usual “Paul, apostle of Christ Jesus…” but “Paul, prisoner for Christ Jesus…” Now, there is a place and time for a command and a call to obedience rather than appealing using his apostolic authority. Paul even gives two reasons as to why he could command him. First is that Paul is older than Philemon and second is that Paul is a prisoner of Christ. But by simply asking rather than commanding Paul is making much of the love that should exist between two Christians.

By this example we get a window into the nature of the work of elders. If our work isn’t done with a sense of grace to it, it is done wrongly. Even more, elders of all people must be those who draw disciples with grace rather than dragging them by force. In this manner, leaders worth anything should be those who serve the people graciously rather than those who dominate or stand over and above the people only to look down disdainfully.

And did you notice what it is that elders are to teach the people? Look at v8, “…to do what is required.” Paul is only asking Philemon to do what godliness demands, nothing more. And here yet again we see the pattern for all who minister to others, the only thing we should teach or ask others to do, are those very things required of us to do in the Word of God and nothing else. So hear me closely: if you ever receive instruction from a leader that asks you do something other than what the Bible requires, not only call them on it, but it is your duty to disobey them and obey God instead. But if they plead or ask you to be holy graciously (like Paul’s doing here) and they point you toward the Truth, you should obey them.

Philemon 10-16

v10 Paul says “I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whose Father I became in my imprisonment.” That he became Onesimus’s Father means that God through the ministry of Paul redeemed Onesimus, and that because it was Paul who shared the gospel with him it is fitting that Paul be viewed as his Father in the faith and that Onesimus be viewed as his son in the faith. Pail isn’t implying any opposition between God’s Fatherhood or God’s power to save with his own, rather Paul is seeking to show what God has done to save Onesimus through him. It is also striking and shows the power of God’s work through the proclamation of the gospel that a runaway slave would now have and own the name of ‘son.’

Never forget how strong the gospel is and how easily it re-makes us.

Whatever lie about yourself that you believe, whether you believe that you never measure up, that you’re too fat, too skinny, too tall, too loud, too shy, too young, too old, too much of a failure, etc., when you embrace the gospel what God says about you becomes more real and tangible than what you or others say about you. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1) Also don’t miss how Philemon would’ve heard this because v19 reminds us that Philemon himself was saved by God through Paul’s ministry and therefore he is also a ‘son’ to Paul through the gospel. So all of the sudden, because of gospel-grace, Philemon and Onesimus, master and slave, are equals as brothers in Christ.

v11, “(Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.)” There is a wonderful word play at work here in the original Greek. Paul states that before Onesimus became a Christian he was useless to Philemon, but now that he’s been saved he is useful for Philemon and for Paul. The word play exists here in that Onesimus’ own name literally means ‘useful.’

Thus, by becoming united to Christ by faith and becoming a Christian Onesimus literally becomes what his name means – useful.

Because Onesimus is useful to Paul in his gospel-labor, Paul says in v12-13 that he is sending him back to Philemon even though it would have been a very great help to keep him. Paul doesn’t waste words, when he says in v12 that sending Onesimus back is like sending his very own heart he means that to part with his new ‘son’ in the faith is like parting with his own heart. What language to use here! Have you ever had a brother or sister in Christ so dear to your own heart? They truly are a gift from God, and if you’ve known what that kind of relationship is like, you’ll understand how painful and difficult it is for that relationship to come to and end. v14, “…but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord.” Paul wanted to keep him, but didn’t want to act without the voluntary consent of Philemon. Even here in v14 we get a hint that Paul is asking Philemon something, but he hasn’t quite gotten there yet. What Paul is being implicit about here he will be explicit about in v17-21. That Paul didn’t just do what he wanted to do and would rather have Philemon agree to his request freely is gracious to say the least.

Saying more, I’d say this is the profound gospel pattern that’s at work within each of us. Rather than coercing us against our will, the gospel transforms us from the inside out so that everything in our hearts wants to obey call of the gospel and be reconciled with those at odds with us. The grace of God is irresistible. Once you see it, and once it takes a hold of you, you won’t turn away from it because everything in your heart will want it.

Lastly, look to the end of our text, v15-16, “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.”

Paul here gives a reason why Onesimus, under the sovereign plan and ordination of God, might have been allowed to run away. Hearing that God may have been behind the departure of his slave would have soothed the heart of Philemon because God intends a good purpose out of a frustrating thing. The reason given in (v15) is that because Philemon lost him for a moment, maybe now he’ll gain him forever. Meaning that Onesimus’ status as a slave is temporary, it will end one day, but Onesimus’ status as a forgiven, adopted, and redeemed member of the family of God through faith in Christ is forever, and that will never end. This changes things for these men. Sure they may be master and slave for a moment in the whole grand scheme of things but for all eternity what will they be? Brothers in Christ; worshipping the King of kings, and basking in His glory forever and ever.

Who would of ever thought this could’ve happened? Onesimus lived in a religious and holy family and by leaving Philemon’s household he deliberately went far from God and from eternal life. Yet God, in His wise and hidden providence, wonderfully directs his fleeing so that he meets the Apostle Paul. The elect of God are sometimes brought to salvation by a method that could not have been believed.

The gospel changes everything, amen?

The Complete Renovation of the Soul

In his book Turning to God: Reclaiming Christian Conversion as Unique, Necessary, and Supernatural David Wells says, “Conversions of all kinds are commonplace in our world today. An alcoholic turns from drink to sobriety. Westerners afflicted with boredom renounce their way of life and seek meaning from Eastern gurus. One person joins a cult and closes the door on his or her prior way of life; another looks for the power hidden within and turns away from institutional religion. Although these ‘conversions’ may be triggered by dramatic crises and result in changed behaviors, they are not conversions in any Christian sense. If they do not have Christ as their cause and object and His service as their result…If they do not involve turning from sin to God, on the basis of Christ’s atoning blood and by means of the Holy Spirit’s work, they cannot be called Christian.”

Perhaps you feel, even in this quote, the disdain our culture thinks of conversion? Conversion in our day conveys a negative image or a moment of forced decision, as if someone were strong-arming you into making a decision you don’t want to make. But I submit that this notion is largely an unfair view of conversion. For example if we were to look in a thesaurus we would find the following synonyms for the word conversion: change, adaptation, alteration, renovation, transfiguration, exchange, and even transformation. Interesting isn’t it? That our cultures view of the word conversion is so negative while the synonyms bring nothing but positive pictures into view. I suppose the negative idea of conversion has crept in from Church history; specifically those moments on both the Roman Catholic and Protestant side of the aisle when conversion was done by coercion. When it was forced either by trial, by inquisition, or by war. These are stains on the history of Christianity and are evidence that the Church is full of fallen men and women. Events like these have long lingered in the mind of man giving us our modern distaste for the idea of conversion.

 

When we come to the Bible we see an entirely refreshing and positive view of conversion. Rather than being seen as coercion we see it as the great work of the Holy Spirit in beginning the Christian life by raising us from spiritual death to spiritual life. It is the moment of transformation, when we become, by the work of the Spirit, something we never thought we would ever be. Conversion in the Christian sense of the word, in the biblical sense of the word is nothing less than a complete renovation of the soul.

Throughout the Scriptures there is one word rises to the top when we discuss conversion. This word in Greek is metamorphuo, which as you can probably guess is where we get the English word metamorphosis. When this Greek word shows up in the New Testament it is usually translated into English as ‘transformation.’ In regards to the transformation of conversion two passages drive this home to us.

An Unveiling Glory – 2 Corinthians 3:12-18

“Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”

Here Paul is comparing the glory of the Old and New Covenants. To illustrate this comparison he speaks firstly of Moses, who had to put a veil over his face so that the Israelites wouldn’t be terrorized by the glory of God. Paul says even in his day when the Law is read there is still a veil over the hearts of the Israelites. “But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed” (3:16). More so, Paul seems to interrupt his argument with a statement about the freedom that comes into the heart when the Holy Spirit removes the veils and takes up residence within us. But upon further examination Paul isn’t interrupting anything. Paul makes this statement about the Spirit in v17 in order to tell us that the One who does the work of removing this veil over our hearts is the Holy Spirit Himself, and because the Spirit does this, we now have freedom. Freedom from what? Freedom from the Law, freedom from the veil over our eyes, freedom from the veil over our hearts. Freedom from the shadowy nature of the old covenant. Freedom in the crystal clear nature of the new covenant. Freedom to see the glory of God with nothing hindering our sight. Freedom to finally draw near to God without sheer and utter terror.

Then, in what has to be one of the most famous passages of Scripture, Paul summarizes by detailing this Spirit produced metamorphosis and transformation saying that in the New Covenant all those who come to Christ by faith, now, with an unveiled face, behold the glory of the Lord. And from beholding God’s glory we are literally transformed by that glory into another kind of person. Initially this is the moment of conversion, or resurrection, of the new birth. But notice that once God transforms us, that transformation doesn’t end, it continues on progressively from one degree of glory to another. This progressive work of transformation is called sanctification, where God, by exposing us to more of His glory, makes us into His holy image. So the initial moment of transformation in view here is a one time act of God’s free grace on us, and the progressive transformation in view here is the continual work of God’s free grace in us. If there is any doubt in the reader as to who is responsible for this unveiling, transforming, metamorphosing work, Paul makes it clear in v18, “This (all of this grace!) comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

So from this first passage we learn that conversion is a transformative moment, where the Holy Spirit does the work of removing the veil over our hearts so that we can truly behold the glory of God. And from beholding the glory of God, what happens? We are transformed…initially and marvelously and throughout our lives God the Spirit continues to transform us to greater and greater degrees. Notice the end of v18 again, “For this comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” This is why Paul is able to call believers letters written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God in 3:3.

Creating A New Creation – 2 Corinthians 5:14-19

“…we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.”

Here Paul is laying out the ministry of reconciliation all believers have received from God. He died so that those who live would no longer selfishly live for themselves but for the glory of Christ who died and was raised for them in v14-15. Because Christ died that we would live for His glory Paul says he no longer regards those who believe in Christ according to flesh in v16. How then does Paul regard believers? v17 tells us, he regards us as what we truly are – new creations of God. The old has passed, the new has come. How did this happen? v18-19 tell us. All of this is from God, who sent His Son to reconcile us to Himself and then give us the ministry of reconciliation after His resurrection.

This is all good and well but where does the Holy Spirit come into this? Through the theme of creation. Back in Genesis 1 who was hovering over the waters? The Spirit. What then did God do to create all we see today? He spoke His Word by the power of His Spirit into the darkness and created all things. Paul uses this exact argument one chapter earlier to describe how God made new creations out of us at conversion. In 2 Cor. 4:6 he says, “For God, who said ‘Let light shine out darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

Therefore, the meaning of 3:18 and 5:17 is that just as God accomplished creation through His Word and Spirit, so too, God accomplished our conversion by His Word and Spirit too, transforming us and making us new creations.

So…

Yes, change is needed. Yes, change is possible. Yes, we must become new, not just better. Yes, we must know the gospel, believe the gospel, and bank on the gospel. And yes, all of these things, all of this great work of God inside the soul of man that we call conversion, is brought about by living and enduring Word of God.

Our Name Changing God

Johnny Cash’s famous hit, “A Boy Named Sue” pokes fun at the significance of names. Nobody wants a name that makes others laugh at them or that reminds people of a negative historical figure.

I recently preached a funeral for a deacon in our church with the middle name Adolf, a very popular name before World War II. Now no one names a child Adolf or Judas. This is why expectant mothers and fathers-to-be labor over the name of their progeny. When my wife and I were talking about names for our future children, I liked the name Clark for a boy, after my heroic great uncle, but my wife once babysat a Clark that forever secured in her mind the doctrine of total depravity. Likewise, my wife liked the name Autumn for a girl, but I knew an Autumn who would make you cringe whenever you saw her coming.

Names carry a sense of one’s identity. This is why we name children after godly relatives, heroes of the faith, or that remind us of characteristics we hold dear.

Why God Changes Our Names

Yet in Scripture, we encounter a God who changes the names of His people. Abram became Abraham, Sarai became Sarah, Jacob became Israel, Simon became Peter, and Saul became Paul. When God renames people in Scripture, He is doing several things: He is asserting His sovereign authority over that person’s life, giving that individual a new mission to pursue, identifying a clean break from their former manner of life, and emphasizing a new character they will thereafter possess.

Abraham and Sarah were so renamed because they were to become the father and mother of all who believe. God gave Jacob the new name Israel because He had turned him from a “heal snatcher/cheater” into His blessed servant. Simon carries the idea of instability, while Peter means rock; a name change that identified a dramatic difference after Pentecost. Saul became Paul, a name meaning “small”, because the Lord had humbled His arrogant pride when He knocked him off his high horse on the road to Damascus.

Every Child of God Given A New Name

The resurrected Christ promises a new name for all God’s people in Revelation 2:17, when He states, “To the one who conquers I will give…a new name…that no one knows except the one who receives it.” While a person may go through the legal process of acquiring a new name, the Lord God gives each of His children something much more lasting and significant: an entirely new identity and life purpose. 

For the child of God, this new identity and purpose begins at conversion, where we are transferred from the kingdom of darkness to God’s kingdom and adopted into the family of God. Paul describes the new identity of God’s children at conversion in these famous words found in 2 Cor. 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”

How to Respond to Our New Names

If you are reading this and have never experienced this radical inward transformation known as regeneration or new birth, you must pray for God to make real to you your spiritually dead condition and show you the beauty of Christ’s person and work on the cross. If you are reading this and you have been born again and God has taken out the old heart of stone and replaced it with a new heart that loves His commands, you must rejoice and tremble. The rejoicing part may seem obvious, but we always need reminding of this. 

After the disciples returned from the mission Christ sent them on, they were rejoicing at the authority He had given them to cast out demons, heal the sick, and raise the dead, but Jesus called them to another source of joy. In Luke 10:20, Jesus said, “Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” In the very next verse, Jesus rejoices in the Spirit and dives into spontaneous prayer, praising God for revealing these things to the humble and withholding them from the prideful. 

Have you ever heard the expression that someone’s name was thrown in the mud? Because of our sin, we had dragged our own names through the mud. We have all lived in ways that ruined our name and our identity as God’s image-bearers. We have even blasphemed the holy name of God with our lives of selfishness, anger, bitterness, ingratitude, lust, hate, and gossip. Yet in His astounding grace, God has given us a new name through faith in Christ. At the cross, God poured out all His judgment on our sins on Jesus and by the Spirit has given a new and everlasting name to His redeemed people. Now we must rejoice always that the Gospel was received by us through the Spirit’s gift of faith and repentance. Yet our rejoicing must always involve trembling. It is possible to be connected to Christians and rich theological truths and yet fall away from Christ, proving we never knew genuine salvation. 

In such cases, Peter and Solomon are right when they say, “the dog returns to its own vomit, and the pig, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire” (2 Peter 2:22). The dog was still a dog and the pig still a pig. We must tremble before the Lord, not in a fearful state of uncertainty concerning our salvation, but in a prayerful dependency that acknowledges our desperate need for preserving grace. God has truly saved all who persevere and all who persevere do so by clinging desperately to the cross of Christ. You and I ought never to think that our conversion has secured for us the freedom to go back to wallowing in the mire.

Rejoice that God has given you a new name in Christ and tremble so that you live in a way that verifies this name change.