Jason Helopoulos / Mar 26, 2017 / Philemon 1-7
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Sermon Summary / Transcript
Let’s take a few moments to pray before we read God’s word. Father, we are thankful that the word which we have before us this morning was breathed out by you—that this is not a word from men, or curious lines on a page, but a revelation from heaven. We pray that we would hear it as such today—that we would listen closely, with ears that are attuned to hear the voice of our Father. We pray that you would use this word to mold and shape us into the image of Christ our Lord. In his holy name we pray, amen.
This is the holy, inerrant word of God:
Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you. Philemon 1-7
The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
The small book of Philemon is probably just one page long in all of your Bibles. It’s a little gem that’s tucked away in the New Testament. It’s unique, because it’s a very personal, heartfelt, intimate letter from the Apostle Paul to one of his congregants. There’s no other book like it in the Bible but 3 John (where John does the same thing).
I love Philemon because it shows us Paul’s loving, pastoral approach to a very difficult situation. There’s much to learn about tact in this letter. But even more so, I love it because it provides a wonderful example of Christian discipleship, and of what a disciple should look like. We see this in Paul, but (as we’ll see this morning) we also see it in Philemon.
Let me orient us a little bit, as we start this book. Though it says at the beginning that Paul and Timothy are sending the letter, the contents are clearly from Paul. Further, as he says in verse 1, he’s a prisoner in Rome. He’ll repeat that in verse 9, where he says, “I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus…” He’ll do the same thing in the last half of verse 13: “…in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel…”. And yet again, he closes the letter (verse 23) with: “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus…” Paul is underscoring the fact that he’s a prisoner.
Why is he a prisoner? Well, he told us in verse 1: “…for Christ Jesus…” He was imprisoned because he was a Christian—and yet, strikingly, he understands that his ministry still continues, even in prison. He’s confined, but he’s not deterred. It’s a good reminder for us: no matter our circumstances, we can still serve Christ. Whether we are free and going about or in prison; whether we are sick in bed or full of life; ministry does not stop.
As I’ve sat with (usually older) people over my years as a pastor, I’ve often heard the question (usually rhetorical) statement, “I just don’t know why I’m here any longer.” Their spouse or child has died, and they’re ready to go home to glory. But the response is clear: “There is still work to be done. The Lord clearly has kingdom service for you to do.”
Dear Christian, if you’re sitting here today, this is true for you, no matter your age. As Paul said in verse 9, he was an old man. No matter your circumstances (he was in prison!), you’re here because the Lord still has kingdom service for you to do. Paul, as he’s sitting in this Roman prison, continues in ministry by writing this individual letter to Philemon.
Philemon was a leader and member of the church in Colossae. It appears that a disciple by the name of Tychicus and another man by the name of Onesimus (who I’ll talk about momentarily) had just been with the Apostle Paul, and they were journeying from Rome to Colossae with two letters in hand from him. One was this book, which they were to hand directly to Philemon. The other letter was the book of Colossians.
At this time, Christians could not own church buildings. The Roman empire wouldn’t allow it. So, the church in Colossae was divided up into all of these little house churches. As Paul says here at the very beginning, Philemon hosted one of these house churches with Archippus and Apphia. We think Apphia was his wife and Archippus was his son, but we don’t know for certain. Either way, the three of them hosted this church in their house—and out of all of the people in all of these little Colossian house churches, Philemon was the one that received a personal letter from the Apostle Paul.
My two children love to check the mailbox every day, along with Leah. I don’t, because all I ever get is bills, but they do. They like it when something comes in with their name on the front. I think the UPS man gets more love when he pulls into the driveway than I do—not that I’m bitter or anything… But they love to open the boxes and letters and see what’s in them.
I think Philemon must have been somewhat excited. The Apostle Paul wrote specifically to him! But that’s not so odd, because Paul had a very close relationship with Philemon. If you look at verse 19, it appears that Philemon came to faith under Paul’s preaching and ministry. He says, “I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self.” It appears that, as Paul was preaching there in the Lycus valley, Philemon must have heard him and (over the course of that preaching) come to saving faith. So, Paul says, “Look, you even owe me your very life.” They knew each other, and they loved each other.
Paul is effusive in his love for Philemon. In verse 1, he calls him “our beloved fellow worker”. In verse 7 and 20, he calls him “my brother”. And he’s not shy about doling out all kinds of commendation of Philemon (verses 4-7). He loves him. He knows him. They are friends.
Yet this isn’t just a simple letter from a friend. There are special circumstances which have arisen that have called forth its writing. Paul is making an appeal to Philemon in this letter. You see, Philemon had a slave whose name was Onesimus. Onesimus ran away from Philemon—and not only ran away, but apparently stole money or goods as well. That’s how I take verse 18, where Paul says that whatever Onesimus did or owes is to be charged to Paul’s account: “I will repay it…” Onesimus, this runaway slave who had perhaps even stolen from his master, had found his way to Paul.
Being a runaway slave and stealing from your master was no small offense. Laws were very strict in Roman times, because there was much fear that the slaves would rise up in rebellion against the people of the Roman Empire. Our estimates are that 30-40% of the population of Italy at this time were slaves. That’s 2-3 million people.
Just a few decades before this, Spartacus launched his slave rebellion, gathering an army of 70,000 slaves who came out against the Roman Empire. So there was great fear, and the judgments were very strict. The penalties for escaped slaves were high. I read one account of a slave who had risen up and killed his master. The Roman government decided to make an example of him. The master had owned 400 slaves, so they killed all 400, though only one man had done the crime. Fear and retribution were the orders of the day, and Onesimus was one of these runaway slaves.
I don’t want to tackle the issue of slavery in the Bible this morning, because Pastor Kevin just did that a few weeks ago when he was preaching through Exodus. Much of what he said there is applicable here as well. Maybe when we finish this book, we can look at some of that. But I can simply and clearly say this morning that human slavery is evil, not good. Paul is not commending or embracing it in any way. But it was a reality at this time. Onesimus was one of these runaway slaves, and Philemon was a slave-holder.
Here’s where it gets really interesting: Philemon is a Christian—and guess what? Onesimus became one too! At the end of Colossians, Paul made that abundantly clear: “…Onesimus, our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you.” “He is one of you. He has come back as a Christian.” We aren’t sure how Onesimus became a Christian, or how he found his way to Paul in Rome. There are a lot of juicy details that I wish we knew, but we don’t. At the time, slaves would often escape from their masters and make their ways to large cities so that they could blend in with that larger population. It appears that this is what Onesimus was doing.
Maybe he went to Rome because he had heard about the Apostle Paul from Philemon, and so he was seeking him out. Maybe he was already there in Rome, and someone like Epaphras or Tychicus recognized him and brought him to Paul. We don’t really know. However, in some way, he found his way to Paul, who shared the faith with him, leading him to Christ.
Paul has now sent him back to Philemon. You can almost see the scene, can’t you? Onesimus arrives with these two letters in hand. He’s standing before Philemon, maybe even outstretching this very letter, and he says, “You’ve got to read this.” Philemon breaks the seal and begins to read, and Paul is saying, “Take Onesimus back as a brother.” The Bible is better than HBO. That’s made for Hollywood! What’s going to happen? What will Philemon’s response be? Will he believe Paul’s testimony about Onesimus, or will he argue that this is some kind of death row conversion which doesn’t mean anything? Will Onesimus be accepted back as a brother, or will he become fearful and run away again? We don’t know.
It’s an interesting fact of history, though, that when Ignatius (the great bishop of Antioch) was being rounded up in the Roman persecutions 50 years later, being led off to be martyred in Rome—he wrote wonderful letters on his way to Rome to be martyred—we have an account of another bishop coming to meet with him. This bishop was from Ephesus, and he came and prayed with him and ministered to him as he was on his way to his death. Do you know the name of that bishop? Onesimus. There are many historians who speculate that it was the same man. I don’t know, but I can’t wait to find out in heaven.
I want to look at our passage this morning with one idea in mind: gospel grace leads to gospel love, which manifests itself in gospel community. Paul begins this letter with his usual address: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” This is the starting place. Nothing else really matters if this is not the foundation. Everything else flows from the grace of God, and the peace of God that accompanies it. Paul was writing to a brother in the Lord—one who knew the grace and peace of God that is only found in vital union with the Lord Jesus Christ—so that’s how he began his letter.
The book of Colossians would have been distributed and read in the churches of Colossae, so Philemon would have heard that Colossians as well. In Colossians 1, Paul says this: “And you, who were once alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him…” “You were alienated from God, Philemon. You were without hope. You were hostile in mind. You were doing evil deeds. But Christ has reconciled you in his body, by his death, so that he might present you holy and blameless before the throne of God.”
It’s clear that Philemon knew this gospel grace by the love that flows from his life. Paul has heard of it. He says in verse 5: “…because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints…” Even as far away as Rome, Paul had heard of Philemon’s great love for all the saints—this way that he manifested his faith and being gripped by the gospel. Maybe he heard it from Epaphras, who the church of Colossae had sent to Paul to deliver some goods to help him in his imprisonment. Maybe, even more interestingly, he heard it from Onesimus: “Philemon loves his brothers and sisters. He abounds in love.”
Verse 5 contains an interesting grammatical construction that I wrestled with a lot this week: “I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints”. Normally, when Paul writes like this, he places faith before love. But here, he places love before faith. I think that his mind is upon the love which Philemon is going to need to show to Onesimus. He has heard of the love that Philemon has toward all the saints, and he knows that you cannot be a purveyor of this love without having been gripped by the gospel of grace and having faith. So immediately, when he thinks of love, he runs to faith. Then, when he thinks of faith, he thinks of faith in God and the Lord Jesus Christ. Then his mind runs back to love for the saints. It’s kind of an A-B-B-A pattern: love, faith, faith in God, love for the saints.
As F.F. Bruce said about this reality, “Love and loyalty to the people of Christ provides visible evidence of love and loyalty to the unseen Christ.” If we’re gripped by the gospel of grace, we will be marked by gospel love toward one another.
I’ve told this story before, but it’s worth telling again. In fact, as I was jotting down some notes this morning, I thought, “I’m going to tell this story every three years, so that I hit every college student that comes through.” I’ve seen this reality. The Lord used it to bring me to saving faith. In college, I was an atheist. I attended a campus ministry for one evening, because I had made a promise to a girl that I would go once. So, to fulfill that promise, I went to this campus ministry (much like SCF). AS I walked in the door, there was a flight of stairs going up to the right and a flight of stairs going down to the left. I chose the flight of stairs going up.
I remember walking up those stairs, and emerging in this giant room full of 80-100 college students. I scanned the room, and (like I had done in high school) I started to put people in categories: “You’re a jock. You’re a geek. You’re an outcast. You’re a prep.” All of these things were going through my mind. But then it hit me all of a sudden: they were mixing with each other and talking to one another. There was a palpable love in the room. I thought, “I’ve never seen anything like this, except within my own family. I’ve never felt love like this.” You know what? I had to keep going back to find out why. Being gripped with gospel grace always leads to gospel love, and that gospel love manifests itself in gospel community, like I saw in that early fall evening in 1995.
Paul points that out in verse 6 with a Greek word that many of you know: “koinonia”, or “community”. He says he thanks God for Philemon’s sharing, or “koinonia,” community, which springs forth from his faith in Christ and his love for his fellow brothers and sisters in the gospel. Paul is commending him. Philemon has been liberal in sharing, driven by love, giving of himself and what he has to the Christian community.
As I tell our new members classes, we live our faith in Christ in community. It’s what we do. Christ saved us to himself and to one another. As I like to say, there’s no Lone Ranger Christianity. There’s not even a Lone Ranger and Tonto Christianity. We need one another. I need you. You need me. We belong to one another. As we’ll sing at the end of this service,
We die alone, for on its own
Each ember loses fire:
Yet joined in one the flame burns on
To give warmth and light, and to inspire. Bryan Leech – “We Are God’s People”
Gospel grace leads to gospel love, which manifests itself in gospel community.
It’s no accident that Christ said, “They will know you by your love to one another.” Isn’t that interesting? There are so many different things that he could have said “They will know you by…” “They will know you by your voting record. They will know you by your dress. They will know you by your affable attitudes.” Yet it’s none of those things. We don’t look alike. We don’t eat alike. We don’t vote alike. We don’t talk alike, as the SCF staff keeps reminding me.
The distinguishing mark of the Christian community is unfettered, abounding, sacrificial, and giving gospel love. Why is it that love is above all of the distinguishing marks of our community? Because God is love! We, of all people, know love unlike anybody else on the face of the earth. “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” We’re recipients of that love. It’s what binds us together. It’s what marks who we are. Thus, it manifests itself in our gospel community.
You can see how Paul is setting the stage for what he’s about to ask Philemon. He’s going to want him to show love, grace, and generosity to this escaped slave (and possibly thief), who is now his brother, united to him in gospel unity. Paul is hopeful. We’ll see that as we return to this text in the weeks ahead. He’s hopeful because Philemon lives in love in this community of grace. Verse 7, where Paul closes this prayer section, is one of my favorite verses in all the scriptures, because it paints the picture of this gospel love and community so demonstrably, and it makes me examine my own life.
I have a morbid fascination walking around in cemeteries. I love to look at gravestones. I get this honestly. My mother also has this fascination, so I think I got it from her. But I love to walk around look at what’s etched on gravestones. Sometimes, it’s just the person’s name and the date of their birth and death, and that’s it. But I really love it when there’s some description.
How do you sum up a person’s entire life in a few words? I love to read what family members (or sometimes even the deceased themselves) have written to go on their gravestone. I think that if Paul was writing an epitaph for his friend, Philemon, it would be verse 7: he knows that “the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.” Isn’t that a delightful description of a Christian? “He loved God’s people well.” I’d like that on my tombstone. That’s what Paul was saying about Philemon.
There is no greater sign of fervent love for God than loving his people well, and Paul says, “I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother…” Why? Because Paul knows that the hearts of the saints—incidentally, “hearts” is actually a very unique word here, speaking of the entire emotional state of the person—“Their entire emotional state has been refreshed through you.”
Some of you are just like that. You know them when you meet them. When you see them in the hallway or outside of church, they just refresh your soul. I love people like that. I want to be more like that—a refreshment to those around me.
Refreshment. That word implies that there’s some kind of depletion—that there’s something lacking. If people need refreshment, it’s because they lost something, or something isn’t there. They’re tired and weary. Refreshment here has the idea of rest. It’s the same word that will be used in the gospels to speak of the times when the disciples need to be away to rest. It’s even the same term that Jesus said in Matthew 11: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” There’s something lacking. There’s a need.
We all have this need, and the gospel community is to provide it. Christ chooses to work through us, by his gospel grace, to give refreshment and rest to one another’s souls, as we extend gospel love to one another. I need it, and so do you. Every single person who walks through those doors needs it. We all have fear within and trials without. We need the refreshment that this gospel community alone is able to provide, by manifesting the love that flows from gospel grace.
One of my favorite Psalms is Psalm 133:
Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes! It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore. Psalm 133
I think about that all the time. We have a pastors meeting here once a month with area pastors, and I often find myself praying that during the prayer time. We had it a couple of weeks ago, with 25 of us in the room, and I found myself praying this Psalm again. How good it is just to be in the midst of people who have been dripped with the gospel of grace and who manifest that gospel love. It’s refreshing. It restores the soul.
Church, the gospel community is to be a little oasis in the desert of this world. Leah and I started attending here over five years ago, and for months and months she would say, “URC is just an oasis.” It delighted this husband’s soul (this pastor too), because that’s what it’s supposed to be: a little refuge; a little place of refreshment. Here is Paul, sending Onesimus back: “Philemon, receive back Onesimus.” Our community is different from that of the world.
Like Noah’s dove going out from the ark, you can fly all over this world, but you’ll nowhere find rest like here. You will not find rest except in the gospel community. It’s an oasis, a momentary way station, a rest stop along the highway of life—a place where you encounter Christ’s love, manifested through and in his people. It’s a community changed and affected by gospel grace. There is refreshment here.
You won’t receive perfect refreshment, because this isn’t heaven, so our expectations must not be too idealistic. In fact, we need to be very patient, quick to forgive, and long-suffering toward one another. That in itself is refreshing, isn’t it? It’s different. It’s not like the world. You shouldn’t have to be perfect to walk in these doors, dwell within these walls, or be be a part of this community. In fact, you won’t be perfect. But people aren’t standing around being critical. We’re quick to forgive and quick to grant grace, because we are recipients of grace.
Think about Philemon here. He wasn’t perfect, despite all of the commendations that Paul gave him. He’s a slave holder. Onesimus, whom Paul is commending to Philemon, isn’t perfect either. He stole from Philemon. I’ll be perfect one day. I look forward to the day when I’ll be perfect in heaven. Frankly, I look forward to the day when you’ll be perfect in heaven too! But it’s not yet. So what do we do? We seek to refresh one another as we live in gospel love, by gospel grace. Church has often been called a hospital for sinners, and so it is. Christ himself is the great Physician, but you and I are called to assist him. We are, as it were, nurses and patients. We assist. We bind wounds. We dispense the means that will restore health. We encourage life. We extend mercy.
Especially during this season, I think we need to seek to be a refreshment to each another in this church. We want gospel love to be so manifest in our midst. This is a place of restoration and rest. So, how do you do this? How can you be a refreshment? There are so many ways. For example, write and mail anonymous encouragement notes to people in the congregation. Don’t hesitate to encourage others. For heaven’s sake, Paul did this over and over and over in his letters. I don’t know why we’re so hesitant to encourage people. One of our little covenant children here at URC walked up to me a few weeks ago and handed me a card. I took that card home and opened it up: “Pastor Jason, you are a really, really, really good pastor.” I don’t know if that’s true, but it encouraged me.
Some of you are so good at encouraging people. You can do it through texts. I get them from some of you. That can be a whole ministry. “I’m going to text people encouragement!” Refresh their souls. Remind them of the promises of Scripture. Some of you are so good at writing condolence cards when someone at church loses a loved one. You know how to grieve with those who grieve and mourn with those who mourn. Oh, how we need refreshment when that’s the case!
On Sunday morning, seek to have good, gospel-focused conversations. Stick around. Don’t just walk in and out. Make a point of talking to people who you don’t even know. Find the person who’s standing by themselves, or the visitor, and talk about the sermon. Speak about Christ. Talk about, as Paul says in this passage, every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. Isn’t that the most refreshing of all conversations? You’re speaking about Christ and all of his benefits!
Intentionally love. Philemon was clearly living an intentional life of love. Walk into this building with three or four people in mind to say, “I just want to touch that person this morning and refresh them, encourage them, support them, and help them.” Be willing to go out of your comfort zone. Walk up to someone you don’t know and ask them about their work, their family, and their lives. Get to know them.
When Leah and I were in seminary, there was a Christian couple who invited us over for dinner one night. We sat down and had dinner with them and then we spent the evening talking. We got in the car and were on our way home, and we were both just glowing about what a wonderful evening it was. And suddenly, I said, “Do you know what? I think we spent the whole evening talking about ourselves. That’s why it was a great evening. All they did was ask us questions. They just loved us and wanted to get to know us.” Get to know people and love them.
I know this can be challenging for an introvert, and it won’t look the same for you as for those obnoxious extroverts in the room. But to love people, you have to interact with them. Have a small conversation here or there. Frankly, some of you that are the most refreshing and encouraging to my soul, week in and week out, are the extreme introverts that are engaged with people every Sunday morning—person after person, just doing ministry. They know why they’re here. They come with a servant’s attitude and heart. They probably go home and take a five hour nap, but they serve when they’re here.
Maybe some of you would share your faith. As Paul says here, live in gospel community. Exercise gospel love by gathering in the prayer room behind the sanctuary while the other service is going on. Attend this service, and then (for the second service) go into the prayer room and pray for the people in the service and for the word that’s being preached. Or take a widow out for dinner. Volunteer to watch someone’s kids, to give them a break. That’s a refreshment to the soul! We have a lot of couples who are taking care of aging parents, so come alongside of them and see what you can do to help them. The ways you can serve are truly countless.
But let me be clear: regardless of how it manifests itself, recipients of gospel grace are filled with gospel love, as shown in the gospel community. We are a gift to one another.
Notice in this text that, even as we give, we lose nothing. In fact, we gain. In verse 6 of his prayer, Paul prays that this sharing—this generosity—this true fellowship and community—will be effective in Philemon, “for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.” He prays that through this giving and community, Philemon might know—not just cognitively, but experientially—what good things Christ has given to him. That is, as Philemon shares and engages in community and love, the benefits are actually his. He is led to a deeper understanding and experience of Christ and everything that he gives. What Christian doesn’t want that? The benefit is ours.
We can never out-give God. It’s the same principle that Paul states in 2 Corinthians: he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. When we sow grace, we reap grace. When we sow love, we reap love. That’s going to be the basis of Paul’s plea to Philemon: “You’ve been given such rich gospel grace. You’ve shown that in your gospel love, manifesting itself in the gospel community. Philemon, you have yet another opportunity. It’s a hard circumstance, and it’s not going to be easy, but it’s an opportunity for you, not just for Onesimus.”
Friends, that’s what you have today, and in the weeks and months ahead: an opportunity to live in gospel love in this gospel community. We are all the beneficiaries.
Let’s pray. Our Lord and God, we’re thankful that you are a God of grace. We’re thankful that you have poured out that grace upon your children. We’re grateful that you not only reconcile us to yourself, but to one another, and that you have given us brothers and sisters to walk through this life with and to be a refreshment to our souls. Oh, may URC continue to strive to be even more so in the days ahead, both individually and collectively. To your glory, in Christ’s holy name, amen.
Transcription and editing provided by 10:17 Transcription
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