Philemon Part 4: Confident in Grace

We’ve looked into this letter for 3 weeks now and today as we finish walking through Philemon we’ll focus our attention on Paul’s closing remarks in v21-25. 

Paul is Confident of the Grace of God in Obedience (v21)

v21 says, “Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.” The first thing that ought to rise in your heart after hearing such a sentence is the question, “WHY?” Why is Paul confident that Philemon will not only obey his request and welcome in his runaway slave Onesimus unconditionally and wholeheartedly, but how can Paul be confident that Philemon will do even more than asks? I think, Paul’s confidence is not that he trusts in Philemon to obey him, but rather that he trusts in the work of God’s grace in the heart of His friend Philemon. What I mean by this is plain: Paul is trusting that the grace of God at work in the heart of Philemon will lead to what the grace of God at work in the human heart always leads to – obedience. Paul is so confident in God’s work inside the heart of Philemon that Paul is expecting Philemon to go above and beyond what he is asking him to do. Whether this means that Paul expects Philemon to send Onesimus back to him to continue alongside him in ministry, or that Philemon would free Onesimus from slavery we can’t be sure of. What we can be sure of from this v21 is the one thing we see, Paul is confident that the gospel of grace at work in human heart will lead to obedience.

Does this seem like a hard concept to you – that grace leads to obedience? I think that personally for many years I had trouble with this idea, that placing the two realities of grace and obedience together in unison doesn’t mesh well together, and so for many years I had a sort of false dichotomy at work within my own understanding. From people I’ve talked to this isn’t rare to me but seems to be common experience that we all naturally either want grace or we want obedience, we don’t want them together. We wrongly think that if we’re to live our lives under the banner of God’s grace we shouldn’t be concerned about obedience because God’s grace covers all our sin regardless of how much there is to cover. Or on the other side, we wrongly think that if we’re to live lives of obedience to God’s Word we won’t be concerned with God’s grace because obedience is all about being disciplined enough to do the right thing no matter what and that type of resolve is merely something I can create on my own.

Yet, if we merely hang onto grace we’ll have a deficient view of what the Christian life is supposed to be lived like. When God draws us to Christ He always draws us toward Christ and away from sin. God calls us out of sin, wickedness, and darkness to live new lives by His strength walking in the light, in obedience, and in holiness. Having this false dichotomy at work within us makes us miss the grand reality that when God through the power of the Holy Spirit works His grace into the human heart, obedience to the gospel is always the result. Thus, the realities of grace and obedience should never be separated but always held as they really are – inseparable. Paul is confident to expect such living in the life of his friend Philemon. Remember v8? Paul is asking Philemon to do what the gospel requires him to do. How can he confident that Philemon will actually do this in v21? He trusts in the power of God’s grace at work in the hearts of His people.

Paul is Confident of the Grace of God in Prayer (v22)

See the power of prayer. Paul in v22 states that God, through their prayers, will graciously give him to them. In this we see that our prayers in and of themselves contain no special power, save only for the grace of God working through them. Because of this we have such a special hope in prayer, for by our prayer, things really could change. Not because of anything in us, or that when I pray for you I bank on some kind of pastoral prowess in prayer – no, I have nothing of the kind. Rather, the power and therefore the privilege of prayer is seen not in the person praying, but in the Person being prayed to. Who are we speaking to? God Himself! With God all things are possible, and through prayer we offer up our desires to God, for things agreeable to His will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of His mercies.

There’s something about prayer that doesn’t feel sexy right? I mean if you were to ask 100 churches about how they plan to reach their communities with the gospel, 99 of them would probably respond by giving some sexy ministry philosophy saying “We’ve got this strategy, we’ve got this vision, we’ve got this outreach director, we’ve got a kicking praise band, etc., etc., etc.”

Where is the congregation willing to seek the face of God in prayer? Where are the people who understand that we’re at our strongest when we’re kneeling before our Father?

It’s nothing sexy, or showy, prayer doesn’t really contain much flair, but tell me this – what is more powerful than coming before the throne of God to adore Him and ask Him to give us the cities we live in? We don’t know if Paul was ever released from his chains to visit Philemon to see how things really played out in this situation, but that’s not the point here. The point is that without being told about that they are praying for him, Paul knows this Colossian church is praying for him, and that God by hearing their prayers may move in power and free Paul from his chains. His confidence in the grace of God through prayer is stunning to see, and from seeing it we should be rebuked for our prayerlessness, and freshly give ourselves to the pursuit of God in public and private prayer.

Paul is Confident of the Grace of God, Just (v25)

v25 is the end of this small letter and in it Paul says, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”

v25 is almost the exact same as the end of Paul’s greeting back in v3. These two verses (v3 and v25) form bookends to this book. The lesson here is that as Paul began with the grace of God, he wants to end with the grace of God and by so doing teach the Colossian Church and teach us, that the Christian life begins and ends with the grace of God. For while the sinner is lost wandering aimless in sin and darkness, God’s grace pursues, chases, grabs, and saves! The same grace that started our salvation in the beginning, sustains our salvation throughout our life, and finally secures our salvation in the end. Grace at the birth, grace in-between, and grace at the close.

We shouldn’t expect Paul to end any different either…grace gripped Philemon, and now if grace is to really get to the ground and make a difference, he must give the grace he received to someone as unworthy as he himself is – Onesimus.

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Philemon Part 3: Rejection & Welcome

Have you ever been rejected?

I mean really, fully, and entirely rejected. Maybe it was by an authority figure, a family member or a close friend. I think at one point or another in life we’ve all been there. My experience has taught me that rejection seems to feel the worst when it comes as a surprise by someone we’d never expect it to come from. There’s a good reason why people describe rejection as being “stabbed in the back” because when you or something you’ve said or something you’ve done is rejected you can almost feel the betrayal (treachery), you can almost see the faces of your peers disregarding you, counting you as useless, and casting you out as worthless and no…longer…welcome. Rejection is something, which sadly, is felt too often inside the Church of Jesus Christ by those who think that in order to be a true Christian you have to look entirely respectable, have it all together, and never break the rules. When I first became a Christian a college I felt this when I stepped into church for the first time in years. I didn’t know what the “rules” as it were and from it many people who’d been believers for years made me feel like I was an outsider.

Think about where we’ve been in Philemon over these past 2 weeks. A runaway slave out on the loose, somehow meeting up with Paul while he’s in prison for preaching the gospel, becomes converted under Paul’s ministry, and heads back home to be reconciled with his master because the gospel demands it. Talk about worry and fear of rejection! The words of v17-20 would have been soothing to Onesimus and are soothing for any sinner who reads these words.

Held within each verse of this passage are two statements. The first statement in each verse is a truth statement, stating a certainty Paul is conveying. The second statement is each verse is an effect statement, stating the effect the truth Paul just stated leads to. Four verses, four pairs of statements, forming Paul’s main appeal to Philemon concerning his slave Onesimus.

v17: Truth Statement

“So if you consider me your partner…” The word for “partner” here in this statement is from the same word in Greek “koinwnos” which is translated in v6 as “sharing your faith.” That this word could be translated as “partner” here in v17 and as “sharing” in v6 means what Paul has in view is more then a mere business contractual relationship, but a unified, team work, co-laborer partnership in the gospel whereby these two men have linked arms sharing the load of the gospel whatever the cost. Certainly Paul would’ve seen Philemon as a partner in the faith, and you can count on it that Philemon saw Paul in this manner too. Paul and Philemon had both been chased down by Christ and redeemed, and through them Jesus was building His Church. They were truly partners, they not only shared their faith with others, but they shared the same faith with each other.

v17: Effect Statement

“…receive him as you would receive me.” Paul has alluded to this very request many times throughout this letter but here in v17 Paul finally makes it known. The fact that Paul and Philemon were partners in gospel ministry naturally leads to a result. The result is that Philemon is to extend the same level of grace he treats Paul with to Onesimus.

Paul is not asking Philemon to merely tolerate Onesimus, like some of us do with each other. Paul asks more of Philemon, not only tolerate him, but receive Onesimus in the same way you’d receive me into your home. You notice what Paul is doing in v17? He’s already has showed that he is not using his apostolic authority by only appealing to Philemon as a friend rather than commanding him to obey, and here Paul lowers himself even more by putting a slave on the same level as himself. This is what it means when Paul says ‘receive him as you would receive me.’ Was this just a nice thing for Paul to do for Onesimus? Sure, but for Paul it was reality. Though Paul is an apostle and Onesimus a slave, they both were once slaves of sin and have both become slaves of Christ through the gospel. How would Philemon receive Paul is he were coming to visit? He would do so with honor, dignity, respect, admiration, and submission because Paul is his Father in Christ. Paul tells Philemon to receive Onesimus in the same exact manner. Here in v17 we learn how far we should go to help sinners who show signs of repentance and acknowledgement of guilt.

v18: Truth Statement

“If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything…” with the effect statement being “…charge that to my account.” Here we learn that though we don’t know for sure, Onesimus likely stole from Philemon during his flight. This was customary in these days, because slaves were so unreliable and deceitful they often stole from their masters. You may think that Paul is being very generous here and simply is showing us an implication of the gospel by being so gracious. Wrong. Paul is being very generous here, but he is not showing us an implication of the gospel, Paul is showing us the GOSPEL ITSELF by saying “…charge that to my account.” This is language of satisfaction, of a debt being paid in behalf of another who cannot help himself. The glory of v18 is that “…charge that to my account” is not only what Paul says to Philemon in behalf of Onesimus, it is more importantly what Jesus Christ says to God the Father in behalf of sinners. Paul is making satisfaction for the debt of Onesimus and in that action we see a reflection of Christ making satisfaction for our debt on the cross.

This is the glory and the wonder of the cross, that “For our sake God made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” Christ bearing the penalty for our sin, in our place as our substitute, making full atonement on our behalf makes us want to cry out “Guilty, vile, and helpless, we, spotless Lamb of God was He, full atonement can it be?! Yes it can! Yes it can!” In the cross we see the wisdom of God, the love of God, the wrath of God, and the justice of God perfectly interwoven by God for our great good and His great glory. How? John Piper says it like this, “The wisdom of God, has ordained a way for the love of God, to deliver us from the wrath of God, without compromising the justice of God.”

v18: Effect Statement (in v19-20)

“I Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it…” Paul usually wrote his letters to the churches by means of an amanuenses. This means that as Paul spoke someone was there to put his words down on paper. Paul does no such thing here to Philemon, to show again, how personal this letter was. This is Paul’s concluding thought on v18, the debt he see’s present between Philemon and Onesimus he will pay, and you can hold him at his word. How can Paul repay this debt? Isn’t Paul a simple tent-maker who has asked many for financial support in many of his other letters? Well yes, he is just a tent-maker, and yes he has asked for financial support in lots of his other letters. But Paul is able to repay this debt, because Philemon is actually in Paul’s debt. How? The rest of v19 says, “…to say nothing of your owing me even your very own self.” The truth is that Paul will repay, the effect of that statement is a reminder from Paul to Philemon that Philemon is in Paul’s debt for leading him to Christ, therefore, Paul won’t have to pay this debt, rather, Philemon is being encouraged to simply put the debt away, to strike it off the books.

 

v20: Verse 20 ends crystal clear: the truth Paul means to convey is “Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord…” and the effect of that statement is a command from Paul, “…Refresh my heart in Christ.” As Philemon is known to have been refreshing to those in the Colossian church (see v7), Paul similarly wants to be refreshed by Philemon, and if he welcomes home his runaway slave (who is now useful to him again, who is now another brother in Christ and fellow son of Paul), Paul would surely be refreshed. The word for ‘benefit’ in Greek is ‘oninemi’ which is the very word that the name Onesimus comes from, thus Paul’s pun continues in the letter. See the pun? I want to some benefit from you in the Lord, what is the benefit I want? What is the oninemi he wants? Onesimus.

Think for a second, what’s the opposite of rejection? WELCOME! Look at v17. One of the most encouraging implications of this text is just as Philemon was to welcome Onesimus as he would welcome Paul because Paul removed the debt that stood between them, so too God will welcome sinners like us as He would welcome His own Son, because His Son, the Lord Jesus, has removed the debt that stood between us.

Sinner beware. You every reason to fear God’s judgment if you have never turned away from your sin and come to Christ. This is eternal rejection.

Sinner be boldly encouraged. If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead you will be saved. This is eternal welcome.

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?

Philemon Part 1: Refreshed and Refreshing Others

The heart of Paul’s letter to Philemon has to do with the person of Onesimus. He was Philemon’s slave who had somehow wronged his master (v18), fled and through an unknown sequence of events met Paul in prison (v9), was converted (v10), and became a useful partner to Paul in the gospel (v11-13). But Paul knew the existing law in Rome demanded that Paul return the slave Onesimus to his rightful owner Philemon. In this letter Paul pleads with Philemon to receive Onesimus back (v17), to forgive him (v18), to treat him no longer as a slave but a brother (v16), and to return Onesimus back to Paul so he can continue to labor in ministry alongside him (v13, 21). We’ll get to all this soon in the coming posts, but today focus on verses 1-7, which is made up of 2 sections: v1-3 where we see the greeting, and v4-7 where we have Paul’s first remarks.

The Greeting (v1-3)

I think it’s fair to say that in Paul’s greeting to Philemon we see things we’re used to seeing in Paul’s greetings, and we see things we’re not so used to seeing in Paul greetings. We’re used to seeing Paul’s name at the beginning of his letters, this is simply how one wrote letters in the first century. We’re used to seeing Paul include Timothy with himself in greetings, (he does it in 5 of his letters), and he did it here because Philemon had probably met Timothy in Ephesus where Paul was being held in his Roman prison. We’re used to seeing names to whom the letter is addressed in Paul’s greetings, and we’re used to seeing Paul say v3. “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” appears in the greetings of all 13 of his letters, and shows Paul’s affirmation of the deity of Christ by linking the Father with the Son.

We’re not used to Paul addressing letters to individual people. Of all 13 letters only 9 are addressed to churches while the remaining 4 are addressed to 3 different people: Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. v2 shows us Philemon was a personal friend of Paul’s in that Paul calls him a beloved fellow worker, which also means Philemon was a minister of the gospel as well. We see Paul mention “Apphia our sister” and “Archippus our fellow soldier” who very well could be Philemon’s wife and son who also knew Paul well. We actually here of Archippus in Colossians 4:17 where Paul calls him a fellow soldier and encourages him to fulfill the ministry he’s received from the Lord, which shows us that Archippus was undoubtedly one of the leaders in the Colossian church along with Philemon. We’re not used to Paul identifying himself as a prisoner in his greetings. Out of all his letters the only ones where he doesn’t introduce himself as “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus” are Philippians, both letters to the Thessalonians, and here in Philemon. Plus, only here in Philemon do we see Paul identify himself as a prisoner in the greeting. That he does this rather than identifying himself as an apostle is telling and purposeful, and it sets the tone of the whole letter.

By beginning this way the letter immediately feels personal, gentle, and more like a friendly appeal than a letter of full blown apostolic authority. Don’t get me wrong, the letter is still from Paul and Philemon knew that, but Paul is intentionally going out of his way to reduce the feel of ‘command’ here. It also would have reminded Philemon of the severe hardship Paul has had to face in preaching the gospel and in comparison with Paul’s suffering for the gospel the thing Paul is about to ask Philemon to do will seem very small in comparison to what Paul has gone through.

So you see, even in this greeting Paul is already at work, using gospel-logic to prepare Philemon for what he’s about to ask him.

The First Remarks (v4-7)

As Paul concludes his greeting, he begins with his first remarks, and these first remarks are exactly what you’d think they’d be if you were listening to a conversation between close friends as a fly on the wall.

Paul genuinely, warmly, and honestly expresses his affection for this man. Why? Paul’s not just buttering him up in preparation for what he’s about to ask him, no. He gives reasons for this affection in v5 and v7, and Paul prays for Philemon in v4 and v6. Look at reason 1 in v5 = Paul has heard of Philemon’s love and faith toward the Lord Jesus, and Paul has heard of Philemon’s love and faith toward all of the saints. Because of these things Paul says in v4 that every time he remembers Philemon he always thanks God. v7 contains reason 2 = Paul’s heart has received much joy, comfort, and refreshment through Philemon’s love for him and for Christ’s Church. Apparently to Paul, to the Church in Colossae, and to many others Philemon is like water to a thirsty soul, refreshing. Because of this refreshment Paul says in v6 that he prays Philemon’s knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ becomes full through the sharing of His faith. This means that Paul is asking God to refresh the one who has been such a refresher to others. And specifically that God refresh Philemon by making his knowledge of all the good things he has in Christ, full. Paul is asking God to give Philemon more of God. What a prayer!

Now, we cannot read to quickly through v4-7, as if there just mere niceties because if we do so we’ll miss what God means to teach us about Philemon, and we’ll miss what God means to teach us about what happens in our hearts if we truly love Him.

There are two implications for us here:

You cannot claim to truly love Christ if you have no love for His Church

This is precisely what Paul sees in Philemon’s heart, and what prompts Paul to thank God for His work in and through this man in v4-5. Christ and His Church are separate things and they are the same thing. They are separate things in that love for Christ and love for Christ’s Church are different loves. They are the same thing in that love for Christ leads to a deeper love for Christ’s Church. The principle at work here is this: the more you seek to love Christ the more you’ll find your heart beginning to love the very things that Christ loves. What does Christ love the most? His glory. What is the primary means Christ employs to display His glory among the nations? His Church. Therefore the more one grows in love for Christ, the more one will naturally grow in love for His Church. More so, Christ and His Church are intimately connected so that if you turn away from one you inevitably turn away from the other. God placed this twofold love in the heart of Philemon, and Paul loved it, and thanked God for it.

Has God placed it in you? What do you feel about the Church? Do you feel a love, respect, yearning, and desire to be in it and used by God so it grows more and comes to bring a lasting influence on the cities we live in? Or, do you feel somewhat neutral or disinterested in the Church? Are you just putting on a face and going through the motions, faking your Christianity before the eyes of the world? Philemon’s love for Christ and love for Christ’s Church shows us the normal pattern for all believers. If we truly love Him we’ll truly love His people.

The normal pattern for all believers is to be laboring within the Church

v6-7 show how Philemon was not only a spectator, attender, and member of the Church, but that he was involved in the lives of the people, being used by God to refresh His people. This is the normal pattern for all believers. I want to say something here that may catch you off guard. I once heard Mark Dever say, “If you aren’t helping others follow Jesus, I don’t know what you mean when you say you’re following Jesus.” Do you think Church is just about what you can get out of it? Is it just about how myself and the other elders, or the worship team, or the Bible studies cater to your needs? Is it just what we can offer your kids? I hope not. If you’re here and not seeking to help others follow Jesus, you’re nothing more than a barnacle on the bottom of the boat. If you’re a barnacle don’t be afraid you’ll still be loved for sure, but you can be sure of this – the Christians around you won’t let you settle for something less than Biblical reality, and because of that they’ll keep pressing into you in as many ways as they can think to get you moved from a barnacle on the bottom of the boat just along for the ride to a worker on deck.

In these 7 verses it is crystal clear that Philemon’s life has been radically changed because of the gospel. He now exists to serve His master, the Lord Jesus, by ministering to others. This is what the gospel does. Philemon’s not refreshing in and of himself. You or I are not refreshing in and of ourselves. The thing refreshing about Philemon is the gospel, flowing into him, and flowing through him to others.

May God do such a work in us.

May God Make You a Refresher

The last implication held out for us in Philemon 1-7 is this:

2) Philemon’s life doesn’t only show us that if we’re true we should have a love for Christ and His Church.  Philemon’s life shows us more.  Philemon’s life shows us the normal pattern for all believers is to be laboring within the Church.

v6-7 show how Philemon was not only a spectator, attendee, and member of the Church, but that he was involved in the lives of the people, being used by God to refresh His people.  This is the normal pattern for all believers.  I want to say something here that may catch you off guard: “If you aren’t helping others follow Jesus, I don’t know what you mean when you say you’re following Jesus.” (Mark Dever)

I mean, why do you go to Church?  Do you think Church is just about what you can get out of it?  Is it just about how myself and the other elders, or the worship team, or the Bible studies cater to your needs?  Is it just what we can offer your kids? I hope not.  If you’re here and not seeking to help others follow Jesus, you’re nothing more than a barnacle on the bottom of the church boat.  If you’re a barnacle don’t be afraid we’ll all still love you for sure, but you can be sure of this – we won’t let you settle for something less than Biblical reality, and because of that we’ll keep pressing into you in as many ways as we can think to get you moved from a barnacle on the bottom of the boat just along for the ride to a worker on deck.

I want all those in my church (and all those in every true church) to be like water to a weary hiker, to be a refreshment to others.  That’s how a congregation thrives and how a congregation reaches a city, by asking God to make us a refreshment to the community He’s placed us in.

You can see the temptation here right? In yearning to be a refreshment to our city many churches have watered down the gospel, gotten rid of Church discipline, and put the Bible out of plain sight, and by so doing they’ve have lost the very thing which God intends to refresh the world with – Himself, His Truth, His Word.  Could we be a people who are relevant to our community not be removing the Bible but by remembering the Truth that God has been building His Church with for ages?

While we don’t have all the details here in these 7 verses it is crystal clear that Philemon’s life has been radically changed because of the gospel.  He now exists to serve His master, the Lord Jesus, by ministering to others.  This is what the gospel does.  Philemon’s not refreshing in and of himself.  You or I are not refreshing in and of ourselves.  The thing refreshing about Philemon is the gospel, flowing into us, and flowing through us to others.

May God do such a work among us in our cities.

Loving God = Loving His People

There are two implications from the past three days of study in Philemon:

1) You cannot claim to truly love Christ if you have no love for His Church.

This is precisely what Paul sees in Philemon’s heart, and what prompts Paul to thank God for His work in and through this man in v4-5.  Christ and His Church are separate things and they are the same thing.  They are separate things in that love for Christ and love for Christ’s Church are different loves.  They are the same thing in that love for Christ leads to a deeper love for Christ’s Church.  The principle at work here is this: the more you seek to love Christ the more you’ll find your heart beginning to love the very things that Christ loves.  What does Christ love the most?  His glory.  What is the primary means Christ employs to display His glory among the nations?  His Church.  Therefore the more one grows in love for Christ, the more one will naturally grow in love for His Church.

More so, Christ and His Church are intimately connected so that if you turn away from one you inevitably turn away from the other.  C.S. Lewis said, “If God is your Father, the Church shall be your Mother.”  God placed this twofold love in the heart of Philemon, and Paul loved it, and thanked God for it.

Has God placed it in you?  What do you feel about the Church?  Do you feel a love, respect, yearning, and desire to be in it and used by God so it grows more and comes to bring a lasting influence on the cities we live in?  Or, do you feel somewhat neutral or disinterested in the Church?  Are you just putting on a face and going through the motions, faking your Christianity before the eyes of the world?

Philemon’s love for Christ and love for Christ’s Church shows us the normal pattern for all believers.  If we truly love Him we’ll truly love His people.

God Gives Us More of God

As Paul concludes his greeting in Philemon v4-7, he begins with his first remarks, and these first remarks are exactly what you’d think they’d be if you were listening to a conversation between close friends as a fly on the wall.

In these first remarks Paul genuinely, warmly, and honestly expresses his affection for this man.  Let’s ask a question at this point.  Why does he express such emotion?  Is Paul just buttering him up in preparation for what he’s about to ask him?  Surely not.  Then what does Paul see in Philemon that is so worthy of praise?

Paul gives reasons in v5 and v7, and Paul prays for Philemon in v4 and v6. Look at reason 1 in v5 = Paul has heard of Philemon’s love and faith toward the Lord Jesus, and Paul has heard of Philemon’s love and faith toward all of the saints.  Because of these things Paul says in v4 that every time he remembers Philemon he always thanks God. v7 contains reason 2 = Paul’s heart has received much joy, comfort, and refreshment through Philemon’s love for him and for Christ’s Church.  Apparently to Paul, to the Church in Colossae, and to many others Philemon is like water to a thirsty soul, refreshing. Because of this refreshment Paul says in v6 that he prays Philemon’s knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ becomes full through the sharing of His faith.  This means that Paul is asking God to refresh the one who has been such a refresher to others.  And specifically that God refresh Philemon by making his knowledge of all the good things he has in Christ, full.

Paul is asking God to give Philemon more of God.  What a prayer!  Can I say that this is what I want you guys to be praying this very thing for me?  That God would use me to refresh your hearts, and by so doing God would refresh mine?  I pray for it, and I would ask you join me in this too.

Now, we cannot read to quickly through v4-7, as if there just mere niceties because if we do so we’ll miss what God means to teach us about Philemon, and we’ll miss what God means to teach us about what happens in our hearts if we truly love Him…stay tuned.

Philemon’s Greeting & Gospel Logic

I think it’s fair to say that in Paul’s greeting to Philemon we see things we’re used to seeing in Paul’s greetings, and we see things we’re not so used to seeing in Paul greetings.

We’re used to seeing Paul’s name at the beginning of his letters, this is simply how one wrote letters in the first century.  We’re used to seeing Paul include Timothy with himself in greetings, (he does it in 5 of his letters), and he did it here because Philemon had probably met Timothy in Ephesus where Paul was being held in his Roman prison.  We’re used to seeing names to whom the letter is addressed in Paul’s greetings, and we’re used to seeing Paul say v3. “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” appears in the greetings of all 13 of his letters, and shows Paul’s affirmation of the deity of Christ by linking the Father with the Son.

We’re not used to Paul addressing letters to individual people.

Of all 13 letters only 9 are addressed to churches while the remaining 4 are addressed to 3 different people: Timothy (received 2), Titus, and Philemon. v2 shows us Philemon was a personal friend of Paul’s in that Paul calls him a beloved fellow worker, which also means Philemon was a minister of the gospel as well.  We see Paul mention “Apphia our sister” and “Archippus our fellow soldier” who very well could be Philemon’s wife and son who also knew Paul well.  We actually hear of Archippus in Colossians 4:17 where Paul calls him a fellow soldier and encourages him to fulfill the ministry he’s received from the Lord, which shows us that Archippus was undoubtedly one of the leaders in the Colossian church along with Philemon.

We’re not used to Paul identifying himself as a prisoner in his greetings.  Out of all his letters the only ones where he doesn’t introduce himself as “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus” are Philippians, both letters to the Thessalonians, and here in Philemon.  Plus, only here in Philemon do we see Paul identify himself as a prisoner in the greeting.  That he does this rather than identifying himself as an apostle is telling and purposeful, and it sets the tone of the whole letter.  By beginning this way the letter immediately feels personal, gentle, and more like a friendly appeal than a letter of full-blown apostolic authority.  Don’t get me wrong, the letter is still from Paul and Philemon knew that, but Paul is intentionally going out of his way to reduce the feel of ‘command’ here.  It also would have reminded Philemon of the severe hardship Paul has had to face in preaching the gospel and in comparison with Paul’s suffering for the gospel the thing Paul is about to ask Philemon to do will seem very small in comparison to what Paul has gone through.

So you see, even in this greeting Paul is already at work, using gospel-logic to prepare Philemon for what he’s about to ask him.

Philemon & Polar Opposites

Who are some of the most polar opposite people on the planet?  So polar opposite that they not only wouldn’t normally have anything to do with the other, but would actively go out of their way to stay away from each other.  Anyone come to mind when you think of that?  I thought of one such group: Osama Bin Laden, Hillary Clinton, and a doomsday prepper.  I cannot help think of three more different people.  If they walked into a room together the odds are pretty good that only one of them would walk out.  In all the instances we’ve mentioned what would it take for these people to become close enough to call each other family?  AN ACT OF GOD!

Keep this in mind, because as we turn to our new blog series going through Paul’s letter to Philemon we encounter another polar opposites pair.  Paul (a once proud Pharisee), Philemon (a wealthy landowner), and Onesimus (a poor slave).  What happens when these three very different men with three very different positions in life come face to face with the gospel of grace?  They are radically re-oriented and forever changed by the same gospel.  They are changed so much that they begin to see each other not as enemies, but as brothers.

The letter to Philemon teaches us what happens when the grace of God grips a heart.  Or to say it another way: when God gives grace to a sinful human being, that human being doesn’t remain the same, they change.  What causes that change?  The grace of God.  What does that change look like in the person’s life?  It looks like Grace on the Ground.  It changes things, it re-orients thing, it transforms everything about us.

Here are some basic facts about Paul’s letter to Philemon

a) Paul wrote this letter while he was in a Roman prison around AD 58-62.

b) Philemon is the shortest (only containing 335 words in the original Greek) and most personal of all Paul’s letters.

c) Philemon was a wealthy gentile landowner who lived in Colossae and became a believer through Paul’s ministry. He also was a leader of the Colossian church which, according to v2, met in his house.

d) Paul probably sent Philemon this small letter and the larger letter to the whole Colossian Church at the same time.

e) The 3 central figures of this letter are: Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus.

The heart of the letter has to do with the person of Onesimus, Philemon’s slave who had somehow wronged his master (v18), fled and through an unknown sequence of events met Paul in prison (v9), was converted (v10), and became a useful partner to Paul in the gospel (v11-13).  But as Paul knew, the existing law in Rome demanded that Paul return the slave Onesimus to his rightful owner Philemon.  In this letter Paul pleads with Philemon to receive Onesimus back (v17), to forgive him (v18), to treat him no longer as a slave but a brother (v16), and to return Onesimus back to Paul so he can continue to labor in ministry alongside him (v13, 21).

We’ll get to all this soon in the coming weeks…