You have probably heard the statement, “great things can come in small packages”. It is a certainly true. Let me give you some examples,
- An engagement ring
- A new baby
- A rare stamp, baseball card or other collectable
- A check
- A watch, or other jewelry item
At the end of the New Testament we find some treasures in small packages. There are four letters at the end of your Bible that all are only one chapter long. These books are so short that you don’t even bother mentioning chapter designations but simple refer to the verses. These are the books of Philemon, 2 John, 3 John and Jude. And we will look at these books as we move toward the holidays.
The book of Philemon is a letter from Paul to a man named Philemon. Philemon lived in Colosse and apparently was a prominent member of the church there. It is possible that the church met in the home of Philemon and his wife Apphia. Paul’s letter concerned a runaway slave by the name of Onesimus.
People became slaves for many reasons in Bible days. Some people were born while their parents were slaves, some became salves as a result of war, some became slaves to pay off a debt (either personal or criminal), some took official steps to remain slaves. Some slaves were treated well, others were treated poorly. Though slavery in the Bible’s day was different from the slavery in our country at the time of the Civil War, slaves were still considered to be property, sometimes very valuable and expensive property. One would think that most slaves yearned for freedom.
Apparently, Onesimus felt that way at least. He had run away from Philemon. He most likely stole valuables from his owner that could be sold and then he went to Rome hoping to blend in with the crowd and begin a new life of freedom. Of course he would have to do this always looking over his shoulder.
What Onesimus hadn’t counted on was his encounter with the Apostle Paul. Paul explained the gospel to Onesimus and eventually put his trust in Christ for salvation. He became a follower of Jesus. It appears that Paul mentored Onesimus and the two became good friends. Onesimus was an encouragement to Paul during his imprisonment in Rome. It seems that when Paul discovered that Onesimus was a runaway slave he told Onesimus that he had to return home to Philemon and “make things right”. This letter accompanied Onesimus on his return home. There are several principles that we can draw from this letter. The main message seems to be in verse 6,
I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.
TRUE FAITH IS ACTIVE NOT PASSIVE
Paul is not encouraging Philemon to be a greater evangelist or to witness more frequently. When he urges him to be active in sharing his faith he is encouraging him to translate faith into daily living. I suppose as soon as Philemon read these words he knew a difficult request was soon to follow. It would be like your child coming up to you and saying, “Dad, you love me, right?” or “Dad, do you remember how you tell everyone that they need to be forgiving . . .do you really mean that? “ When a conversation starts with these words it is always a good idea to sit down.
Paul was indeed going to ask Philemon something difficult. He was going to ask him to forgive Onesimus and treat him as a brother in Christ.
Don’t miss the subtle point Paul is making. True Christianity is practical and involves the way we live, the things we do, and the way we relate to each other. It is easier to memorize the promises than to live by them. There are many great promises and commands in scripture that we know but find it difficult to practice. Let me give you some examples,
- Do good to those who hate you (Luke 6:27)
- As far as it is possible, live at peace with all men (Romans 12:18)
- Regard no one from an earthly point of view (2 Cor. 5:16)
- The servant of God must not quarrel but . . . (2 Tim. 2:24)
- Overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:21)
- Children, obey your parents (Eph. 6:1)
- Don’t worry about anything but pray about everything (Phil. 4:6)
- Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church (Eph. 5:25)
We love these teachings, underline them, memorize them and cherish them . . . but we have a hard time practicing them. Have you ever wondered why? Let me give you three suggestions.
First, we enjoy the ways of the world. Nobody says sin isn’t pleasurable. We don’t want to obey God’s commands because we like to argue, we love the juicy tidbits of gossip, we want to get even and enjoy making people “pay” for what they have done to us. We enjoy flexing our muscles, throwing our weight around, and being aggressive. We like sin. Sometimes we don’t want to obey because we want to do what is wrong.
Second, we sometimes don’t obey because we are uncertain how dependable God is. I know it sounds terrible, but . . sometimes we read God’s word and we conclude that He really doesn’t know what He is talking about. You know, “He can’t really mean what He is saying . . . “. Sometimes we hear his promise that if we do what we are supposed to do, He will bless us . . .but we’re not all that sure He can and will deliver on that promise. Sometimes we lack the trust we need.
Third, some things are just difficult. We want to obey but it is really hard. We know that God’s way is right but the pull of what’s wrong seems impossible to control. Sometimes we are just afraid. It’s hard to be pure in a sex-saturated society; it is hard to live simply in a land of consumption; it’s hard to be soft in a push and shove world. It’s hard to wait when we can get it now. We resist some commands because we don’t want to put in the effort.
I don’t know if Philemon had any of these struggles. We don’t know what Philemon did. Tradition says that he did what Paul asked. There is one tradition that says Onesimus went on to be a bishop in the church.
ACTIVE FAITH INVOLVES FUNCTIONING BY A NEW SET OF STANDARDS
Paul was not appealing to Philemon on the basis of being a slave owner. He was not saying all slave owners should act this way. He was appealing to him as a “Christian” slave owner. And this fact makes all the difference in the world. Christians function by a different paradigm or value system. We function by the example and value system set by Jesus.
In Christian circles we believe,
- God’s way is the right way, no matter what the world says
- Love is better than hate
- People are more important than possessions
- Those who receive grace should also extend it to others
- The goal of this life is to prepare for the next life and to bring as many people with us to Heaven as we can.
Paul asked Philemon to do something bold. This was no little thing Paul was asking. He asks this slave owner not only to forgive the offense of the runaway slave, he is asking him to welcome him home as a brother in Christ! This created a dilemma for Philemon. On the one hand, if Philemon simply “forgives” Onesimus and begins to treat him as a brother it might influence other slaves to claim that they have “become Christians” too. They might see a profession of faith as a way of gaining freedom. But on the other hand, if he doesn’t welcome Onesimus it might hurt his ministry and testimony in Colosse. How could Philemon talk about the grace of God available for all people if he would not recognize Onesimus as a brother in Christ?
Philemon can’t function by the world’s standards. Those were simple. If a slave runs away, bring him back and make sure he never wants to run away again. The world says Onesimus stole from Philemon and he must be punished. But Philemon is not your normal slave owner. He is a Christian. The rules, values and standards have changed.
I think Paul understood the dilemma facing Philemon. Paul offers Philemon an “out”. He offers to pay the debt of the runaway slave. He offers to “vouch” for Onesimus. Onesimus was not just saying he was a Christian, Paul was saying it. The same Paul who also led Philemon to faith.
Let’s face it, every time we are at one of those faith-stretching decisions in life we struggle with the competing value systems
- Do you risk trusting the spouse who cheated on you?
- Do you forgive the one who slandered you?
- Can you be kind to the one who treated you unfairly?
- Will you wait on God’s timing when we have the opportunity to take a shortcut?
- Will you strike back when we have the opportunity to “get even”?
- Can you resist cheating those (including the government) who we feel have cheated us?
These are tough questions. God asks us to do what is right, not what is popular. A Christian who says, “but everybody else is doing it….” Will receive the response, “You are not like everyone else, you are a child of the King.”
ACTIVE FAITH LEADS TO GROWTH AND INCREASED UNDERSTANDING
Go back to verse six again, “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.” Paul says growth in understanding comes as a result of living out our faith. When we dare to trust God in the every day decisions of life, we discover His faithfulness and we see His greatness. We come to know him by experience.
Let me illustrate. Have you ever tried to explain parenthood to someone who has never experienced it? It is impossible to understand until you experience it. I can only imagine how difficult it is to be elderly (but it is getting easier to imagine). The end of your life is around the corner and you are trapped in a body that is rebelling against you. We can’t understand until we have been there. It is impossible to explain to someone what it is like to bury a child. You can’t understand unless you experience that heartache. It is difficult to explain to other people the exhilaration of public speaking to people who have never done it. I imagine it is tough to explain to someone like me what it is like to look at a finished building project with satisfaction and pride or what it is like to see the corn or beans as they are harvested.
We can talk about God endlessly. We can speculate, theologize and sound very pious doing so. However, the only way to truly know and enjoy the Lord is to begin to live the life we say we believe. The only way to “taste and see that the Lord is good” is to “taste and see”. As we dare to take those first steps of faith, we begin to understand God’s greatness and the joy of following Him. There is no other way.
LESSONS FROM PHILEMON
There are Consequences to the Choices of Life
When Onesimus came to faith, when he became a child of God it did not erase his past. He couldn’t just continue life as a runaway slave . . . he had to face what he did. He had to come clean. There was the issue of restitution. Paul would have liked Onesimus to remain with him . . .he had been a big help. However, he had to go home first. He needed to make things right with Philemon.
It would be nice if our pasts just disappeared when we came to Christ. We are forgiven the eternal consequences of our sin but the earthly effects remain. Part of getting free of sin is facing the consequences of the past squarely.
- Return or replace what was stolen
- Confess to a lie we told
- Apologize to a person we hurt
- Go to jail for a crime we committed
- Pay back a debt we owe
- Get counseling for a behavior that hurts those we love
It’s not easy to make restitution where possible. But that is the right thing to do.
We All Have Needed Forgiveness for Something
I would think that every one of us has been in the shoes of Onesimus at one time or another. We have done things that we regret, are ashamed of, and hope no one ever learns about. Maybe you have
- Stolen from another
- Been unfaithful to your spouse
- Sabotaged a person’s career by your words
- Peddled addictive substances
- Dabbled in the occult
- Been convicted of a crime
- Been abusive in a relationship
- Destroyed someone’s property
- Made a promise you had no intention of keeping
- Were responsible for someone’s injury or death
- Made fun of someone who was vulnerable
I wonder if Onesimus ever wondered if he was beyond the scope of God’s forgiveness. I wonder how long it took before he dared to believe that God could love him as he was, warts and all. I wonder how long it was before he told Paul about his past. I wonder how long it took before he believed that he really had been forgiven.
You may be in that same position. Maybe you have some deep secrets that you feel will keep you from Heaven. But, my friend, the gospel tells us that “ANYONE” who comes to him will be welcomed into his presence if they admit their sin and cling to Christ’s work on their behalf.
This doesn’t mean there are no consequences for behavior. We have already pointed out that we must face our past. We cannot continue the same destructive patterns. Sometimes we will even have to ask for help. But, you can be forgiven. You can have a new beginning. You too can become a servant of God instead of a slave to your failures.
His arms are open but you must come to Him. He is willing but you must receive Him. You have to dare to believe that you can be made new because of what Christ has done for you.
God Wants us to Extend the Same Grace We Have Received
Just like most of us have been in the shoes of Onesimus, we also have been and very likely are in the shoes of Philemon. That’s what makes this book so practical and appropriate.
There is a good chance that you are facing a situation where you are being asked to
- Extend a hand
- Start again
None of use wants to be vulnerable. No one wants to condone the wrong that another has done. But the Bible is clear. We are to relate to others in the same way we have been received. We are to love as we have been loved. We are to extend grace to others in the same way that it has been extended to us. And when we do this, when we dare to act with grace, we show that we understand the magnitude of what God has done for us. We show that we understand the nature of our sin. We show that we are grateful. We show that we believe.
- Make a phone call
- Extend a hand
- Write a letter
- Make a visit
Maybe this is the day that you need to put your faith in action so that you can know, understand and enjoy the Lord on a whole new level.