Having just completed a sermon series on Romans, City Community Church’s very own Elder Pang CW delivered a message this past Sunday, October 4, based on the book of Philemon. “We’re going to do sort of like a Bible study today,” he said.
Although only one chapter long, Philemon is loaded with takeaway lessons for the everyday Christian. Unlike all of Paul’s other epistles that we are familiar with, the letter to Philemon is a rare gem that was thankfully preserved for our examination.
In this very personal and intimate letter to Philemon, Elder Pang pointed out that Paul puts to action, “whatever he has preached in principal and theology” in his other letters. “He has now come down to a very personal level, and you can see that he reveals much of himself.”
When we read the Bible, we always ought to do three things: Observe, Interpret, and Apply. So we observe that this is a letter. It’s not just a letter that is written to a general group of people with instructions, but a very personal letter that deals primarily with Philemon. We also learn quite quickly that Paul’s purpose for writing to Philemon concerns someone by the name of Onesimus.
What can we learn from Paul?
We already know that the letter was written by Paul, and we know from the book of Romans that Paul was hoping to go to Rome. However, we also find out from the book of Acts that when Paul finally gets to Rome, he is imprisoned.
When Paul writes to Timothy, he refers to himself as “the apostle.” He then proceeds to give Timothy instruction after instruction. Paul establishes his authority in his address to Timothy. Whatever he says to Timothy is based on what he had himself received from Christ Jesus.
When he writes to Philemon, however, he calls himself a “prisoner for Christ,” and refers to Timothy as his brother—no longer his son, but his equal. Similarly, he is not approaching Philemon as “The Apostle Paul,” but as a peer, or even lower than a peer—a prisoner.
Even though we learn that Philemon is indebted to Paul (having come to faith in Christ through Paul), Paul beseeches rather than commands Philemon do consider his requests.
2) Jesus as a reference point.
Whenever Paul writes a letter, he would make references to himself, i.e., “I am a slave of Christ,” “I am an apostle of Christ,” “ I am a servant of Christ,” “I am a prisoner of Christ,” “I am a free man in Christ.”
What stands out is his consistent attribution to Christ. Christ is the very center of Paul’s life. As far as Paul is concerned, Jesus Christ is a reference point for everything. It doesn’t matter where he is or what situation he is in. He was of the mindset that “If I’m poor, I’m poor for Christ, and if I’m rich, I’m rich for Christ.”
Here is a question we need to ask ourselves: Is Jesus Christ the reference point in your life? Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, is He your reference point? “That’s a question I must ask myself,” Elder Pang said, “and I must confess to you, not all the time!”
Who is Philemon?
From the text in Philemon, we cannot tell where he is from. But if we turn to Colossians, we can draw parallels between Philemon and Colossians and make some solid conclusions.
7 Tychicus will tell you all the news about me. He is a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. 8 I am sending him to you for the express purpose that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts. 9 He is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you. They will tell you everything that is happening here.
From this, scholars believe that the letters to the Colossians and Philemon were sent together to Colossae, which is present-day Turkey, from Paul who was in Rome.
1 Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved fellow worker 2 and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
We also learn from Paul’s greeting to Philemon that he is not just a dear friend to Paul, but a “fellow worker” of the church, which is held in his house. Since the church (quite possibly the same Colossian church that Paul writes to) is held in Philemon’s house, we can also conclude that Philemon is quite well to do. Therefore Philemon was a rich man who loved the Lord and whose home was used for church services.
Who is Onesimus?
10 I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. 11 (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) 12 I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. 13 I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. 15 For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16 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.
(Philemon 1: 10-16)
Since Philemon is rich, it is not surprising that he would have slaves. And based on what we read here, Onesimus is Philemon’s slave who ran away. In those days, a slave was a property that was bought. Slaves had no say. Their masters had full authority over them and had every right to punish slaves who did anything wrong.
We do not know what Onesimus did or why he ran away, but we know that he ran a long way—from Colossae, all the way to Rome. Coincidently, he ran all that way just to meet someone who knew Philemon. “Philemon must have prayed that Onesimus would be found. That is why he ended up with Paul,” Elder Pang said.
What can we learn from Paul’s request to Philemon?
Now that Paul has shared the Gospel with Onesimus and Onesimus has become part of God’s family, Paul writes to Philemon that he is no longer useless, but useful. Once a slave who had no value as far as other people were concerned, Onesimus is now a valuable member of God’s Kingdom—a brother.
1. We have a responsibility to extend grace.
Paul pleads with Philemon that he would voluntarily accept Philemon back into his home and church as an equal. He appeals to Philemon’s love and obedience to God and his responsibility as someone who has received God’s grace to likewise show grace to Philemon.
Sometimes as Christians, we tend to forget that we have expectations to meet. Since we have received grace, we have a responsibility to exercise grace with the people we encounter. We ought to want to do good for God because of the grace we have experienced in Him.
2. We are valuable in Christ
Onesimus increased in value when he went from being a slave to a brother. When we look at how Onesimus went from being a hopeless and useless servant who ran away to become a “faithful and dear brother,” there is hope for us. You have hope because no matter what you think you are, you are of great value because you belong to Christ.
“This is a very important element of the Christian message,” Elder Pang said. “Even though you are very, very insignificant—physically or materially—God will still come down, pick you up, and give you a name.”
Elder Pang concluded that there are many more lessons that can be learned from the book of Philemon and encouraged the congregation to go home, study the book further, and to explore Philemon’s forgiveness for Onesimus.
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