St Louis UBF University Bible Fellowship
7375 Tulane Ave University City, MO 63130, USA
Welcome Onesimus as a Brother in the Lord
Key Verses:1:16-17 “…no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord. So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.”
Philemon is the Apostle Paul’s personal letter to Philemon, who was a leader in the Colossian church. In this letter Paul asked Philemon to pardon Onesimus, who was Philemon’s runaway slave, but was converted to Christianity. In his letter Paul shows his compassion, deep forgiving love for one lost soul, and humility in dealing with co-workers in Christ. Through this passage I ask all of us to remember God’s forgiving love in our lives and to become more active in sharing our faith.
First, Salutation (1-3) Look at verses 1,2. “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home.” Paul introduces himself as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. At that time Paul was in prison in Rome. He was in chains because of the gospel of Jesus Christ. But his imprisonment did not discourage him at all. Rather, he was proud of being a prisoner for the sake of Christ Jesus. Suffering for the Christ was a great honor to Paul. One young leader in our church was rejected numerous time by students during his outreach on campus. He said that it was a privilege for him to experience Jesus’ suffering, who was rejected and despised. To Christians, sufferings for Christ is not misery, but glory. This was why Paul introduced himself as a prisoner of Christ Jesus in the beginning of his letter.
Who was Philemon the recipient of this letter? Paul called him ‘our dear friend and fellow worker.’ (1) Philemon might have become converted to Christianity because of Paul’s teaching. In verse 19 Paul said to Philemon, “you owe me your very self.” Philemon was a spiritual leader in the Colossian Church. He was a rich man who had many slaves under his care. He was also a leader in his house church. Apphia was his wife and Archippus might have been his son. The Colossian church was not established by Paul himself; still, Paul’s influence was great with the church. Philemon’s house church reminds me of St. Louis UBF, a house church ministry in the 21st century.
Second, thanksgiving and prayer (4-7) Look at verses 4,5. “I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints.” Paul was always thankful, even in prison. He thanked God when he remembered Philemon’s faith in Jesus and his generous love for all the saints. Last week, I gave thanks for Peter Pei and his faith in the Lord Jesus in the middle of his personal difficulties and challenges. His overcoming faith despite his weakness encouraged me, and became my thankful topic. Paul also was thankful for Philemon’s generosity to his brothers in the church. He must have used his wealth to meet the needs of the poor and to build up the Christian community. I thank God for all my co-workers who support this ministry financially and spiritually. Jesus said in Matthew 10:42. “And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.”
Look at 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.” I often use this verse to encourage my Bible students to share their testimonies or to share the good news of Jesus with their friends. Indeed, when we participate in sharing our faith, whether by sharing our testimonies or by preaching the gospel, God gives us more understanding about the heart of God and his will for world salvation. God gives us confidence that we are doing good in the sight of God. Paul’s prayer for Philemon was that he might participate more actively in sharing the love of Christ, which has the implication of his plea for clemency for Onesimus. In verse 7, Paul continues, “Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.”
Third, Paul’s plea for Onesimus (8-21) Look at verses 8,9. “Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I then, as Paul-an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus—” At that time Paul had spiritual authority over Philemon as the Great Apostle and as his personal shepherd. Paul could have ordered Philemon to do whatever he wanted without Philemon’s consent. But Paul chose to appeal to Philemon on the basis of love. He even appealed to Philemon’s sympathy for his human situation as an old man and as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. Here we learn Paul’s humility. Paul’s humility came from the love of Jesus Christ. In the past, Paul was a proud and self-righteous man. Out of his pride he persecuted the church of God. Jesus could have crushed Paul as a man crushes a cockroach. But Jesus forgave him and called him to become an apostle. Paul remembered this grace. He was moved by Jesus’ forgiving love. Later his name was changed from Saul, which means “great”, to Paul, which means “small.” There was an honorable judge in Korea. He appealed to one law student to study the Bible. His humility came from the love of Christ Jesus. Jesus humbled himself and appeared as a man. Although he is the Son of God, he served all kinds of wicked sinners like a servant. Finally, he obeyed God on the cross and died for our sins. This was the reason why Paul became the prisoner of Christ Jesus. When we appeal to students for Bible study on the basis of love, I believe that God will move the hearts of many proud and self-righteous students to come to Jesus. Amen.
What did Paul appeal to Philemon? Look at verse 10. “I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.” Paul’s plea was for the clemency of Onesimus, who was a runaway slave from Philemon, but now had became a converted Christian and a good assistant to Paul. The name ‘Onesimus’ means ‘useful’. But Onesimus took some money from his master Philemon and ran away to Rome. At Rome, however, he met Paul and was converted to Christianity. After he was converted, Onesismus became very useful to Paul and for the work of God. Paul even called him, “my son.” Paul became Onesismus’ spiritual father and mentor. Onesimus’ conversion must have been a great encouragement to Paul and to his ministry. When we heard Michael’s testimony last Friday at the Bible Symposium, we were greatly encouraged by the work of God in Michael’s life. The work of conversion, the work of salvation always encourages us and gives us hope for the future of God’s ministry and for the future of this nation.
We also learn about the power of the gospel, which can change a useless fugitive slave into a useful servant of Christ Jesus. Later, Onesimus became a bishop of the Ephesian Church next to Timothy. We despair when we look at the current spiritual condition of young people and their situation in this country. Last week, Rev. Billy Graham celebrated his 95th birthday. He said in his message, “I have wept for America. Our country is in great need of a spiritual awakening. There have been times that I've wept as I've gone from city to city and I've seen how far people have wandered from God.” We cannot but weep together with Rev. Graham when we look at the godless atmosphere in America. But we will not give up on this nation. We refuse to just sit down and weep because we believe the power of the gospel, which can change America into a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. We’ll keep on praying because we believe the power of the gospel, which can change useless slaves into a kingdom of priests and holy nations. Michael often said that his life was one miracle after another. The living God loves him and molds him for his good purpose. I never expected to become a preacher or pastor. But the gospel changed me from a slave of selfishness and lust into a shepherd and a missionary for students on campus. This is the power of the gospel. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 1:18, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Amen. Jesus will change us as he changed water into wine.
Now Paul, as the shepherd and spiritual father of Onesimus, wanted to send Onesimus back to Philemon. Look at verses 12,13. “I am sending him-who is my very heart-back to you. I would like to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel.” Onesimus was really useful to Paul. Paul even called him Onesimus, who is my very heart. Paul wanted to keep him to the end. It was good and necessary for Onesimus to stay with Paul, who was in prison. But Paul was not selfish or self-centered. He was sending Onesimus back to Philemon, who was his former master.
So why did Paul send Onesimus back to Philemon? Look at verses 14-16. “But I did not want to do anything without your consent so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good- no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.” Paul was going to send Onesimus back to Philemon for their reconciliation. Reconciliation is the restoration of friendly relationship. Christ Jesus reconciled between God and sinners. By shedding his precious blood, he became a sacrifice of atonement for our reconciliation with God. Paul was an enemy of Christ by persecuting Christians. He deserved to be punished by the holy God. But Christ died for Paul’s sin and reconciled between God and Paul. The enemy of God, Paul, became a friend of Jesus because of Jesus, who loved him and died for him. Now Paul wanted to play a role as a mediator between Philemon and Onesimus. But Paul did not want to force Philemon to accept Onesimus. Paul appealed for Philemon’s spontaneous and willingness on the basis of love. Paul also helped Philemon to see the case of Onesimus from God’s point of view. He said in verse 15. “Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good…” From a human point of view, Onesimus took Philemon’s money and ran away. But from God’s point of view, God sent the useless Onesimus to Paul for his conversion and spiritual discipline so that he could come back to Philemon as a useful helper and good co-worker. So Paul continues in verse 16, “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.”
Paul’s appeal for Onesimus was not only for clemency but also for emancipation. Paul urges Philemon to accept Onesimus as a dear brother. In verse 16 Paul repeated the word ‘dear’ three times. It was not easy for Philemon to accept his runaway slave Onesimus as a dear brother. But as long as Philemon had an old grudge against Onesimus, and Onesimus had guilty feelings and fear of punishment from Philemon, they could not have a healthy relationship in Christ. Paul encouraged Philemon to overcome his sorry feelings and love Onesimus all the more as a dear brother in Christ. Sometimes we must overcome our feelings in order to practice the love of Christ. We must overcome our prejudice, exclusiveness, favoritism, and even racism. In the book of Charles Sheldon “In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do?” a church pastor did not welcome a homeless man who visited his church because of his poor outward appearance and low social position. Soon, the homeless man died. The pastor’s heart was troubled, and he deeply repented of his sins, and all his church members followed him for a great spiritual revival movement.
Paul appealed Philemon to welcome Onesimus not only as a freed slave, but also a partner, a co-worker in Christ. Look at verse 17. “So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.” There was a young man in a Chicago church. His pastor taught him the Bible and encouraged him to be a man of God. The pastor had compassion on him because no girls wanted to marry him because of his unfavorable outward appearance. The pastor helped him to lose his weight and to finish his college degree. But this young man sued the pastor for the sake of money. He wanted to make money for his marriage. But in court the judge dismissed the case, and the young man gained nothing. This young man’s name was forgotten for a long time - more than fifteen years. Later this young man went to jail because of other crimes. In prison he met Jesus personally. He was converted to Christianity. He remembered all the sins and wrongdoings he had done before against his pastor and God’s people, and repented with many tears. When he came back to his church for pardon, no one dared to welcome him or believe his new life. I did not believe him, either. But one church elder accepted him, welcomed him, and taught him the Bible. The young man’s heart was moved by Jesus’ forgiving love. Soon he decided to give his life to Christ as a missionary. Last year God sent him to Indonesia as a missionary. Praise the Lord!
Paul’s love for Onesimus was not confined to his appeal for pardon. He was willing to repay all the debts of Onesimus which were owed to Philemon in the place of Onesimus. Look at verses 18,19. “If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I , Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back- not to mention that you owe me your very self.” We don’t know how much Onesimus owed to Philemon, but Paul promised to repay in behalf of Onesimus. Paul reminds us of the good Samaritan in Luke 10, who took care of an abandoned wounded traveler, and took him to an inn and promised to pay the innkeeper all the extra expenses for the sick traveler. (Lk 10:30-36) Paul promised to do so on the basis of the love of Christ. What Paul owed to Christ Jesus was immeasurable. The Bible says that the penalty of sin is death. (Ro 6:23a) The penalty of Paul’s sin is death. But, Jesus paid off the penalty of Paul through his death. Jesus paid it in full by his blood on the cross. Paul owed Jesus for his life. We also owe all to Jesus as Paul did. I owe my life to Jesus, who died to pay the penalty of my sins. I am a debtor to Jesus because of his death. Not only I but all of us owe all to Jesus. Paying what Onesimus owed to Philemon was not worth comparing with what Paul owed to Jesus. So Paul was willing to pay whatever Onesimus owed to Philemon. Paul meant, “I will repay it. Charge it to the bank of heaven.”
We are all like Onesimus in the sight of God in one way or another. We were runaway slaves like Onesimus. God made us and provided everything for our happiness, but we took it for granted and ran away from God. We wasted time and money, and abused our body by doing many foolish things. The penalty of our wrongdoings, our rebellion, pride, and selfishness, is death. But God so loved us that he gave his One and Only Son Jesus and let him die on the cross for the sins of the world. Only by God’s grace are we saved. Only by God’s mercy are we free from his punishment. We were purchased with the blood of Jesus and became free men. We must remember Jesus Christ who died in our place and give thanks to him always.
Look at verses 20,21. “I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.” Paul believed that Philemon would obey Paul and do even more than he asked. Philemon must have supported Onesimus fully until Onesimus became a bishop of the Ephesus Church. We have learned about the beautiful love and trust relationship between Paul and Philemon.
In verse 22 Paul gave him an additional request. “And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.” Verses 23,24 is Paul’s personal greeting and benediction. He finishes his letter with God’s blessing, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” Today we learned about Paul’s shepherd heart for one lost soul, Onesimus, and his humility in the process of appealing for his reconciliation with Philemon. We learned about Christ’s forgiving love and his transforming power. The love of Christ has the power to change a useless slave into a useful spiritual hero. The love of Christ has power to change America into a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Amen.
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