Saturday, August 13, 2022

Two Lives To Change

Bobservations' Column
Pastor Bob Lawrenz

In last week’s final chapter of Ecclesiastes, we read Solomon’s closing words summarizing twelve chapters of what he had learned during his life and his reign over Israel: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: fear God and keep His commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13, 14)

Every good work, every evil work, every secret thing we have done or attitude of the heart shall be laid next to God’s Word, and judged righteous, or judged as being worthy of God’s judgment. It is therefore no wonder that the Apostle Paul was prompted by the Holy Spirit to write verse 23 of Romans 3.

“For all have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God.”

When our lives are measured against God’s Word, no one will measure up to God’s perfection found in His Word, or in The Living Word, Jesus Christ.

As we open the Epistle of Philemon, we find our own shortcomings. The attitudes and behaviors of two men are scrutinized, and Paul admonishes and corrects both of them. One a rich landowner Philemon, who was converted by the Gospel. The other is a slave, Onesimus, owned by the first man and was also converted by the Gospel.

This Epistle is perhaps the most personal of all the Epistles, for it is written by Paul to a single brother-in-Christ. As we go through this letter, you will have a sense that you are looking over the shoulder of Philemon as he is reading it. The inspiration of the Holy Spirit is evident by its simplicity and its truth to both men of which is speaks.

Onesimus the slave had run away from his master, run from Colossae of Phrygia in western Asia Minor, all the way to Rome. Paul seeks to restore the relationship between these two Christians in an atmosphere of Brotherhood within the Church.

Paul already is aware of how Christian faith taken to heart can change a person, and every relationship they are involved in, even between a master and a slave. Anything withheld from that change, is like everything else in the world, just vanity.

Matthew 7:12 – 
“Therefore all things whatsoever you would that men do unto you, do ye unto them: for this is the law and the prophets.”

Today's Audio Message:
Philemon 1:1-25 - "Two Lives to Change"


The “book” of Philemon is the shortest in the Bible where the apostle Paul offers us a lesson in diplomacy and peacemaking, but that is not the only lesson.

It is basically a one-page letter, written by the Apostle Paul to Philemon, a wealthy merchant and host of the house church in the city of Colossae (modern western Turkey).

The reason for Paul’s letter is a plea for forgiveness on behalf of Philemon’s slave, Onesimus.

Onesimus was a rebellious slave who left Colossae to take refuge in Rome. Although the reason is not made specific, the text implies that Onesimus had stolen a substantial amount of money, and probably used some of it to buy passage to Rome. Onesimus met up with Paul who eventually led him to Jesus, and through this process, Onesimus received a new identity as a brother of Christ. Paul no longer defined him as a fugitive but as one of his spiritual children.

For Philemon, not only was he Onesimus’ master, but he was also a close friend of Paul’s and apparently a model Christian who was holding church gatherings at his home. The crime of Onesimus was heavy. He not only ran away, but he stole money from Philemon. Both the Roman law as well as the Old Testament law gave Philemon the green light to punish Onesimus. But Paul has another idea.

With his diplomatic approach, Paul draws Philemon into accountability with Jesus. Yes, Onesimus had wronged him. Yes, it was a punishable offense. Yes, he had stolen money and left Philemon without a worker in his household. But Philemon was once living in rebellion to Jesus before Paul led him to Christ. So, in a very gentle way, Paul is reminding Philemon that whatever he chooses to do with Onesimus should be in line with what Jesus has done for him.

On top of this, the book of Philemon really highlights the issue of identity. Onesimus should no longer be viewed as a slave. The greater relationship he has to both Paul and Philemon is as a brother in Christ. Philemon’s role as “master” and Onesimus’ role as “slave” were secondary to the identities they shared as children of God.

Paul uses a play on words to emphasize Onesimus’ new status. Onesimus means “useful” in Greek, but of course he became worse than useless when he stole his master’s money and fled to Rome.

Paul writes, “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.”

There is an additional play on words in the original Greek. The specific Greek word for useless is “achrestos”, which is very close to Christos (Christ).

In other words, previously Onesimus was “without Christ,” but now he is “euchrestos”, i.e. “full of Christ”. This type of word play is common in rabbinic writing, of which Paul was a master.

Unlike the other Pauline epistles, which are letters written to a general audience of believers in a specific church, Philemon is personal, written to one individual. One wonders why it became part of the canon of scripture, given its uniqueness.

There are several important themes at play in this letter. The most obvious is the theme of forgiveness.

Philemon was wronged by Onesimus and was probably quite angry with him for his dishonesty and theft. Forgiveness, however, is essential for the restoration of a right relationship between two people. Failing to forgive, hanging on to resentment, has no place in the Christian life. If there is injustice, we should deal with it through prayer and godly action. If there is insult, we should concentrate on who we are in Christ, rather than our feelings. In the course of our work for God, we should expect to face injustices for righteousness sake. God will use every difficult trial for our sanctification as He refines us, and as a testimony to the unbeliever of Christ living in us.

A secondary theme is the role of the spiritual master in relation to a disciple.

Paul reminds Philemon of his authority as a master (“you owe me your very self”), but instead he appeals to him to behave in a Christ-like way, voluntarily doing the right thing.

The most important underlying theme of Philemon, however, is the brotherhood of all believers.

Paul writes, “I am sending him…no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.” I think it’s pretty clear that he entreated Philemon to treat Onesimus as a brother in the Lord, not a piece of property.

In his separate letter to the believers at Colossae, Paul writes, 

“And have put on the new man...Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all. Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another...even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye... And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him.” - See Colossians 3:10-17.

Christianity is a faith which erases ethnicity, social distinctions, employment status, and all other titles and positions. We are all equal in Christ and must treat one another as brothers and sisters.

Finally, the book of Philemon is important because it is a reminder that before our own conversion, we were all like Onesimus — useless to our Lord and Master and slaves to sin. In this sense, Onesimus is a metaphor for us all.

But Christ forgave us everything, and welcomed us as brothers and sisters in the Lord. In Him we are “useful,” to share our faith and work tirelessly for the kingdom of God.

And that, my friends, is why this little “book” is such an important part of our Bible.

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