We’re officially crossing off the last book in the Prison Epistles of Paul. We’ve studied Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians, and now Philemon. Next week, we’re going to meet a lady named Ruth. I adore the story of Ruth and I believe it’ll be a time of encouragement and an opportunity to study the Old Testament a bit more. But, until then – let’s get ourselves introduced to Philemon and his slave, Onesimus.
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker— 2 also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home:
- In this prison epistle, Paul writes a letter to Philemon – a wealthy man from Colossae whose home the church met (in the beginning, churches met in homes and not church buildings – something that makes you go “Hmmm…”).
- Apphia was most likely Philemon’s wife, and Archippus his son. The wives typically oversaw the slaves, so this letter was addressed to her, also.
3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
- In Paul’s usual fashion, he speaks of the Siamese Twins of the Bible: grace and peace. We were introduced to these “twins” in Philippians 1 (3 Words That Will Carry You Through Any Season). Grace precedes peace. You cannot experience the unshakeable peace of God without first accepting His gift of grace through Christ Jesus. Make the freeing choice to receive God’s unmerited favor toward you and move onward; be lifted of the burden of “trying to be better.” A legalistic list of Christian to-dos will leave you running on fumes. Trust that His work on this earth, and on the cross, was enough to provide a life that is “exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be the glory” (Ephesians 3:20-21).
4 I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. 6 I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. 7 Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.
- If there’s anything we’ve learned studying Paul’s prison epistles, it’s that he’s a (thankful) prayer warrior! He was in continual conversation with God (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18), and his heart overflowed with the love of Jesus.
- I like how it says, “...your partnership with us in the faith…” If we truly want others to have a deepened understanding of Christ, we must recognize that we need each other. I need you. Your uniqueness; your engagement; and, your words of love. And, you need me. My encouragement; my hard truths; and, my words of love. We need each other because we are all doing life together and there are good things we want to do for the sake of Christ. Will you come along?!
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.
- Even though Paul had the respect and authority to command Philemon to release Onesimus, he chose to appeal to him in love. So much richness in this example – and it’s a lesson I need to hear and apply. I have to work at not telling people what to do; instead, I need to encourage them using Christ’s example and then allow them to make their own decision. That’s tough, especially if they go sideways on a decision that I believe is foolish. But, you know what? God’s grace is enough to cover our missteps. It doesn’t mean we need to make decisions carelessly or not consider consequences; but, it does mean that God can make “all things work for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28) – even when we screw up. I have plenty of ugly screw ups, so I’m thankful for His pretty grace.
- Onesimus’ name means useful in Greek. I’m sure Philemon felt Onesimus was a useless servant; after all, he was his slave and had ran away. Paul states in verse 11 that while Onesimus may have once been useless, he now knows Christ and is transformed. There’s a beautiful parallel in this verse to your story. While you were once a runaway from Christ, He pursued you and drew you in with His kindness. When you laid your life at His feet you became useful to the Kingdom. You are a sacred instrument for His glory – let Him orchestrate a captivating melody using your life.
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.
- Paul could have kept Onesimus, but he knew the right thing to do was to send him back to his owner. It’s tough when the right thing is so hard on the heart. It’s clear from Paul’s use of words that he deeply loved Onesimus, but he knew Philemon owned Onesimus, not him.
- During the Roman Empire, there were tens of thousands of slaves. It was not unusual for a slave to be crucified for escaping. Paul pleads with Philemon to have mercy on Onesimus, as if Philemon were handling Paul’s own heart. May we show the same mercy to others, because we know Christ has lavished us with His own unwarranted mercy.
- Paul wanted Philemon to receive Onesimus not as a slave, but as a brother in the Lord. This reminds me of Jesus’ words in John 15:15, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” I’m so thankful Jesus is a friend of sinners, and I am one of them.
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.
- Paul says, “I’ll pay for Onesimus’ sins.” The only way Paul could extend this depth of love is by receiving and recognizing the agape (unconditional) love Christ showed him on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). Let’s keep reminding ourselves of how much grace and mercy we’ve been shown, and in turn, allow it to pour over into our own relationships.
- I can just hear Paul’s words of inspiration to Philemon. He’s saying, “I know you can do this. I know you will make the right choice because we serve the Lord Jesus Christ together. You and I are partners and we are bound by the eternal blood.” Maybe you need to hear that word for yourself today. Whatever you’re facing to do you can do this. I am certain you will make the God choice because greater is He who is in you than whatever you’re up against today (1 John 4:4). Press in and press on.
22 And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.
23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings.24 And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.
25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
- Every morning God whispers – in same way or another – “make space for Me.” He wants us to ensure we have a prepared room for him, just like Paul encouraged Philemon to prepare a guest room for his visit. How does your room look for Christ? Is there “white space” in your day? Is it clutter-free so God has a place to sit? Is there room in the margins for you to allow Him to pen you notes? He’s worth your time. He’s worth your day. He’s worth your life. Christ died for you. It’s time to live for Him. Amen.