No Longer a Slave
November 3oth – Les Kovacs Philemon 1
Observe: Paul’s letter to Philemon is his shortest, and the most personal of his epistles, and was written while he was a prisoner in Rome. He greets Philemon warmly as a dear friend and fellow worker in the church, as well as the other members of the church that meet in his house. He praises Philemon for the loving good works he is doing among the Lord’s people.
Paul then appeals to him on the basis of love to receive back his run-away slave, Onesimus, whose name means “useful”. After running away, somehow, Onesimus had found himself in Rome and came to know Paul, who then led him to know Christ. More than that, Paul grew so fond of him, that he came to regard Onesimus as a son and would have wanted him to remain with him as a helper. But, Paul recognized that the right thing to do was to return him to Philemon. He encouraged Philemon to take him back, not as a slave, but as brother in Christ. Paul even offered to personally make recompense for any debt owed by Onesimus, although he hoped Philemon will excuse it because of his previous service to him. Optimistically, Paul ends his letter by asking Philemon to prepare a guest room for him in hopes of a possible future visit.
Interpret: Even though he was in a Roman jail, Paul nonetheless had considerable freedom to have visitors and guests. Somehow, Onesimus found his way to Paul, and Paul told him about Jesus, and he became a believer. Over time, Paul became his spiritual father, teaching him and loving him as a Christian son. Onesimus learned to love Jesus and received a renewed heart.
As much as Paul wanted this young man to stay with him, he knew that Onesimus should return to Philemon, his owner, and seek forgiveness for running away. This was difficult for him to do, knowing that any slave who ran away could be put to death and Paul certainly didn’t want that to happen to his “son”, Onesimus. Paul had to trust Jesus with Onesimus’ safety. Paul even makes a little word play by saying that although Philemon had considered him “useless”, Onesimus was now “useful” to them both.
Since Philemon was a Christian brother and a leader of the church in Colossae, Paul trusted that Jesus had renewed his heart from being a sinner separated from God to being completely forgiven. And, since Onesimus was also now a Christian, Philemon, the slave owner, and Onesimus, the runaway slave, were Christian brothers.
Notice how Paul says he was in prison and that Onesimus was his spiritual son and a fellow believer. By not ordering Philemon to forgive Onesimus, but rather appealing to his sense of compassion and love that marks the renewed Christian life, Paul made him think about these new circumstances and their changed relationships. That, in turn, allowed Philemon the opportunity to demonstrate his renewed heart in Christ in a practical and meaningful way.
Application: Paul’s basic theme in Philemon is the same as it is in Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”.
This short letter also helps us understand that the calling of the church is not only to speak out against injustice, but to actually live out the justice and peace that Jesus taught. We are to live in relationships of equality, justice, and love regardless of how the broader society says we should relate to each other. We are to share our resources with those in need, and welcome the stranger, whatever status they may hold within the culture.
In his letter, Paul reminded Philemon, and us, that Christ is the renewer of hearts. Christ had renewed Paul’s heart many years earlier on the road to Damascus. Christ had renewed Philemon’s heart when he heard the gospel message and believed. And Christ had renewed Onesimus’ heart in Paul’s jail cell. A renewed heart is grateful for the forgiveness received through God’s grace and wants to be a “grace giver” to others.
Questions: Think about a time when someone wronged you. How long did you stay wounded? What did it take (or would it take) to bring about reconciliation?
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for the renewal of our hearts through faith in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. May we always see your image reflected in our brothers and sisters, and offer them the forgiveness of any perceived wrongs just as you offered us forgiveness of our many wrongs and sins. In the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Song - No Longer Slaves - Zach Williams
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In 2023, each week's blog is a follow-up reflection written by the preceding Sunday’s preacher to dig deeper into the sermon topic and explore engaging discussion questions.