Philemon was a Christian man living in an unbelieving world. Philemon lived in a world not unlike ours. In many ways, we have advanced. Medicine and technology are much different today from what they were in Philemon’s day. However, the hearts of men and women are much the same.
Working our way through Philemon, we have seen that Jesus and the Gospel unify Christians. In addition, Christians are compelled by love to serve Jesus in the ministry of the Gospel. Today, we are going to see how this same Gospel compels us to put others first for the sake of the Gospel.
First, we see that kingdom values compel us to put others first.
In verses 15 and 16, Paul is speaking to Philemon about his slave, Onesimus, and he says:
15For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.1
Onesimus ran away. This is the human reason behind why he was parted from Philemon for a while. I want you to consider this human reason with me. Onesimus was a slave. Concerning slavery in the Roman Empire, Professor Keith Bradley wrote:
Their role was to provide labour, or to add to their owners' social standing as visible symbols of wealth, or both. Some slaves were treated well, but there were few restraints on their owners' powers, and physical punishment and sexual abuse were common. Owners thought of their slaves as enemies. By definition slavery was a brutal, violent and dehumanising institution, where slaves were seen as akin to animals.2
Rome acquired slaves by her wars and by conquering foreign lands. In the same article quoted above, Professor Bradley says:
In Rome and Italy, in the four centuries between 200 BC and 200 AD, perhaps a quarter or even a third of the population was made up of slaves. Over time millions of men, women, and children lived their lives in a state of legal and social non-existence with no rights of any kind. They were non-persons … and they couldn't own anything, marry, or have legitimate families.3
As slave and slave-owner, a great gulf separated Onesimus and Philemon from the human point of view. As was noted in Professor Bradley’s article, slaves were seen as akin to animals.
Philemon, according to Paul, owed Paul his very soul. We take this to mean that Philemon was converted under Paul’s ministry. For this reason, it is obvious that Philemon was not always a Christian. We do not know what kind of a slave owner Philemon was before he knew Christ. However, we do know that Onesimus ran away. Obviously, Onesimus was not content as a slave. I am not accusing Philemon of abusing Onesimus, but I am saying that slavery was an evil, oppressive institution. Because of the evil, oppressive nature of the institution, there were huge obstacles to be overcome for Onesimus and Philemon to become brothers.
Paul says, “that you could have him back forever.” Another way to translate this would be to say, “that you might possess him forever.” In this statement, Paul plays on the thought of one person possessing another. However, he continues the sentence with the thought, “no longer as a slave…but as a beloved brother.” He is switching the discussion from human or earthly values to Kingdom values.
Paul is not saying it in the same words, but he talking about the practical application of Philippians 2:5-8:
5You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. 6Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. 7Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, 8he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. NLT4
Philemon was being called upon to lay aside his personal interest, profit and property rights in the higher interest of the Gospel, for Kingdom values.
In our day, the obstacles are many. There are cultural obstacles, religious obstacles and social obstacles.
For example, most of us will have only a few opportunities to interact with a Muslim, and then only on a passing basis. However, what is our attitude toward Muslims? Are we willing to overcome the obstacles that exist between us for the sake of the Gospel?
A missionary works for years to overcome obstacles of language, culture, religion and history. This has been the role of the Church since its beginning. The Gospel started among the Jews and spread to almost every language and nation on earth. Someone had to overcome the obstacles of language, culture and religion. Jesus promised that this work would be accomplished. He said, “…I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18, ESV) These gates of hell are the obstacles that humanity and the devil have built, such as slavery, but no such obstacle can stand against the mighty power of the Gospel. Many men and women of God have given their lives in overcoming various obstacles.
The obstacle of slavery was so great that Paul suggests that it was necessary for Onesimus to be separated from Philemon for a while in order that he could receive him back as a brother. The higher value was the eternal soul of Onesimus and gaining him as a brother. Whatever the cost to Philemon, the Kingdom value of the soul of Onesimus was worth more.
Many of us stop short because of the obstacles or the cost of overcoming obstacles. The gospel calls us to look at Kingdom values, to set our minds on things above, to lay aside self-interest in favor of kingdom interest and to take up our cross daily and follow Jesus.
Along with Kingdom values we also see our partnership in the Gospel that compels us to put others first.
In verse seventeen, Paul says:
So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. ESV
The root word for “partner” in this verse is the word that is normally translated “fellowship.” It references and draws our minds to our fellowship in the Gospel. The Gospel is the unifying factor among us. It draws us together and makes us one.
In writing to the Philippian Church, Paul references this partnership when he says:
3I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, 4always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, 5because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. (Philippians 1:3-5, ESV)
Jesus, Himself has called us into partnership with Him. In John 15, He says:
14You are my friends if you do what I command. 15I no longer call you slaves, because a master doesn’t confide in his slaves. Now you are my friends, since I have told you everything the Father told me. NLT
As believers, we are tied together by the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. We have a partnership in the Gospel. We are ambassadors for Christ, and Jesus calls us His friends.
We will do many things for friends that we will not do for strangers. When we have worked with others for a number of years, the bonds of friendship grow deep and we become more and more willing to sacrifice on behalf of those we love. In the case of Jesus, as we walk with Him, we grow in partnership or fellowship. He died for us. Is there anything that we would not do for Him? He has promised to never leave us or forsake us. Every day when we get up, He is there. Every night when we go to bed, he is there. He supports us in every battle and difficulty we face. He cares for us when we are weak. He encourages us when we are discouraged. We have a partnership with Him that is closer than a brother. Since Jesus was willing to give all for us, and since He continues to be with us every day, is there anything that we can refuse Him if He asks?
It is based on this partnership that Paul asks Philemon to accept his runaway slave back. Here is a strong call for Philemon to put others first. He is being asked as a partner in Gospel ministry to put others first.
As if Paul has not already made a strong enough appeal, he brings up the money. It is not really about the money though – it is about forgiveness. Paul says:
18If he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19I, PAUL, WRITE THIS WITH MY OWN HAND: I WILL REPAY IT. AND I WON’T MENTION THAT YOU OWE ME YOUR VERY SOUL!
Here is another huge obstacle. Onesimus had wronged Philemon.
When someone has offended us, it makes it difficult to put them first for the sake of the Gospel. This in a sense is what forgiveness is. It is putting others first for the sake of the gospel.
Paul imitates Jesus when he says, “I will repay it.” Jesus taught us to forgive because God has forgiven us. It is the same thing Paul is saying when he says, “And I won’t mention that you owe me your very soul!” (verse 19) The offences of others against us are some of the hardest obstacles to overcome. There were men who fought the Japanese who were never able to overcome the obstacle of their offences against us, and there were others who became missionaries to Japan and lived their lives for those who had sinned against them.
Your neighbor may have sinned against you and they may owe you money. Is this an obstacle to the gospel?
Because of Kingdom values, because of the eternal value of a soul, any price is worth paying. Jesus was willing to lay aside His glory. Paul considered all things but rubbish next to the surpassing value of knowing Christ. Think about what Jesus was willing to pay for you. He willingly gave up His glory. He willingly set aside what was His from eternity and took upon Himself your sin. What are you willing to give up for Him?
The name “Onesimus” means profitable or useful. Paul brings his appeal to a close with the statement:
Yes, my brother, please do me this favor for the Lord’s sake. Give me this encouragement in Christ. (Verse 20, NLT)
The word translated “favor” here is translated “benefit” or “profit” by some other translations. It comes from the same root as the name “Onesimus.” Paul is using a play on words to ask Philemon to be useful for the sake of the Gospel.
What obstacles are standing between you and usefulness to the Gospel? What obstacles are you being called upon to overcome for the sake of the Gospel?
1. Unless otherwise marked Scripture quotations are from The ESV Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version) copyright 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
2. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/romans/slavery_01.shtml. Accessed September 21, 2017.3. Ibid.
4. Scripture quotations marked NLT are from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation. Copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Steam, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.