“Philemon: The Gospel Transforms Relationships” (Philemon 1-21)
Today I’m going to preach to you an entire book of the Bible. In fact, you already heard an entire book of the Bible as one of our readings today. Well, almost. You heard 21 out of the 25 verses that make up Paul’s Letter to Philemon. Philemon is one of those little one-chapter books that we have in the Bible. There are five of them: Obadiah in the Old Testament, and Philemon, 2 John, 3 John, and Jude in the New Testament.
Now even though Philemon is a very short epistle, there’s a lot here. This letter from Paul tells us a lot about how Christians deal with each other. It tells us about grace, mercy, kindness, and forgiveness. It is a demonstration of the power of God to restore relationships. And so it has much to speak to us. Yes, Paul’s Letter to Philemon may be a short story, but there’s a lot here about how “The Gospel Transforms Relationships.”
There are three main persons who are featured prominently in this epistle. I’ve already mentioned two of them, namely, Paul and Philemon. The third character in our story is someone by the name of Onesimus. More about him in a little bit. So let’s take each of these three–Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon–and see how the gospel of Christ was changing who they were and how they related to one another.
First, Paul. This is the one we know the most about, of course. How the gospel of Christ changed the direction of his life! Paul, first known as Saul, started out as a violent persecutor of the church. But then the Lord called Paul and converted him. And Paul went from being a persecutor to a preacher, from an enemy of the gospel to an apostle–the greatest preacher, teacher, theologian, and missionary the church has ever known.
The gospel made such a big change in Paul’s life that he himself was willing to be persecuted for the sake of Christ. And so it was that after many years of his missionary journeys and his tireless labors all around the Mediterranean world–so it was that Paul was arrested and taken to Rome to be imprisoned there. That, most likely, is where Paul is writing from when he writes this letter to Philemon–in Rome, under house arrest, for a couple of years sometime around the year 60.
While under house arrest in Rome, Paul was able to receive visitors. And it was during this time that he came in contact with this fellow named Onesimus. Onesimus had come to Rome from Colossae, a city in western Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey. Only Onesimus had not come to Rome on business or on vacation or anything like that. Onesimus was a runaway slave. He had left Colossae and gone far away, all the way to the big city of Rome.
Now when I say Onesimus was a slave, don’t automatically think “Roots” and Kunta Kinte and that sort of thing. In the ancient Greco-Roman world, a slave would not necessarily be a slave for life, and he would not necessarily be harshly mistreated. If a slave proved to be trustworthy, he could be given a good deal of responsibility and eventually win his freedom. However, if a slave disobeyed his master or showed himself to be untrustworthy or ran away and was caught, then it would not go so well for the slave. He could expect to be punished.
Well, as I say, Onesimus was a runaway slave, and somehow Paul got to know him while they both were in Rome. And, wouldn’t you know it, Onesimus became a Christian, through Paul’s influence. This, then, defined the relationship of Paul and Onesimus. Paul became his spiritual father. He regarded Onesimus as his child, his child in Christ, since it was through Paul’s ministry that Onesimus was given the new birth as a Christian. That’s why, in our text, Paul refers to him as “my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment.” And there clearly was a warm personal relationship between the older Paul and the presumably younger Onesimus. Paul came to feel toward Onesimus as a father would toward a son. He calls him “my very heart.”
But now what would become of Onesimus? He was a Christian now, and he had been staying in Rome, but his home was back in Colossae. But how could he go back? He was a runaway slave, remember. What would his master do to him if he came back to town? Well, it just so happens that his master back in Colossae was this other man, Philemon. And Philemon was a Christian. In fact, Philemon was a Christian–surprise–through the ministry of Paul! Paul really got around, didn’t he? He shared the gospel wherever he went. So Paul knew Philemon, the master back in Colossae, and he knew Onesimus, the runaway slave now returning to Colossae. Indeed, Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon, the master from whom he had run away. That’s the reason for this letter. Paul is interceding for Onesimus and appealing to Philemon on his behalf.
Paul is counting on the power of the gospel to transform the relationship of Philemon and Onesimus, from that of offended master and punishable slave to now, brother and brother in Christ. Paul writes that he wants Philemon to have Onesimus back, “no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother.” That brotherly bond, in Christ, would transform the relationship of Philemon and Onesimus.
And this transforming power of the gospel also shaped how Paul appeals to Philemon. Paul by rights could have ordered Philemon to do what he says, commanded him, saying: “Hey, I’m an apostle! You have to obey me!” Instead, Paul appeals to Philemon, in a spirit of gentle persuasion, so that Philemon, of his own volition, would let love and forgiveness direct his actions. Paul calls Philemon his brother, and he tells him: “though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you”; and again, “I prefer to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord.”
So we see here in this letter how the gospel transforms relationships: the relationship of Paul to Onesimus, that of spiritual father and child; the relationship of Paul to Philemon, Paul appealing to him as a brother rather than ordering him as a superior; and the hoped-for relationship now of Philemon to Onesimus, brother to brother, not just master to slave.
What empowered those transformed relationships was the gospel of Jesus Christ. And that is the same gospel and the same power that will transform the relationships we have in our lives. How we treat one another in the body of Christ, in the family of God, the church–our lives will be different because we are Christians. It happened in the lives of Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon. And it will happen in our lives, as well.
Love, mercy, grace, forgiveness–these are not just words on a page. These are realities in our lives. These are the ways in which we treat our brothers and sisters in the church. We are a family. We live in close relationship. But we are not without sin. We’re not perfect people. We do hurt one another from time to time. But we also know the reality of forgiveness. We ourselves have received forgiveness, from God. And this is how we learn to forgive one another. We know the importance of restored relationships. For God has restored us back to himself through our Savior Jesus Christ.
And so you can see in the way that Paul writes to Philemon the love and grace that Paul had learned from Christ. It’s demonstrated in how Paul appeals for Onesimus. He intercedes for Onesimus, just as Christ ever lives to make intercession for us. Jesus is our advocate before the Father, like Paul was an advocate for Onesimus. Paul is simply putting into practice the love he learned from Christ.
Likewise, Paul demonstrates a sacrificial love for Onesimus, even offering to cover any debts that Onesimus may owe Philemon. Paul writes: “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.” “Charge it to my account”: Isn’t this just like our Savior, Jesus Christ, who covers all of our debts before God? Yes, Jesus did indeed pay the price we owe, all our debts before God, when he shed his holy precious blood for you and me on the cross. “It is finished!” Jesus cried. “Paid in full!” All of your sins, dear friends–all of the ways in which you have done wrong and offended God and hurt your neighbor–Jesus says of that whole thing, that whole mountain of debt, “Charge it to my account.” And with that debt fully paid, fully forgiven, now you are free, out from under your bondage to sin and death, free to love, free to serve, alive to God, part of his family, which will last forever.
So we see how the love of Christ permeates and transforms how we live toward one another. In his commentary on Philemon, Martin Luther expresses it like this: “This epistle gives us a masterful and tender illustration of Christian love. For here we see how St. Paul takes the part of poor Onesimus and, to the best of his ability, advocates his cause with his master. He acts exactly as if he were himself Onesimus, who had done wrong. Yet he does this not with force or compulsion, as lay within his rights; but he empties himself of his rights in order to compel Philemon also to waive his rights. What Christ has done for us with God the Father, that St Paul does also for Onesimus with Philemon. For Christ emptied himself of his rights and overcame the Father with love and humility, so that the Father had to put away his wrath and rights, and receive us into favor for the sake of Christ, who so earnestly advocates our cause and heartily takes our part. For we are all his Onesimus’s if we believe.”
Yes, the little letter to Philemon gives us a big lesson on how the gospel transforms our relationships. Paul, Onesimus, Philemon–we could just as well write in names from this congregation. For by God’s grace in Christ, the same spirit of mercy and forgiveness is alive in us: the bonds of brotherly love.