The Unifying Factor
Let me introduce you to some very diverse people.
First, there is Paul. Paul is a Jew. Educated under the top Rabbi of his day, Paul grew up as a Pharisee. Before becoming a Christian, he was the most zealous Pharisee around. He is also educated, so educated that the Roman procurator said to him, “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.” (Acts 26:24)[i] Paul is the equivalent of a PhD of our day.
Then there is Timothy. Timothy is a disciple of Paul. He is the son of a Jewish mother and a Greek father. Forbidden by Mosaic Law, mixed marriages were not accepted by Pharisees. However, this did not stop Paul, the ex-Pharisee, from loving and working with his young protégé.
Next, there is Philemon. Philemon’s name is Greek. Of course, normally Jews like Paul would have nothing to do with Greeks. Philemon lived in Colossae and was well to do, a slave owner. He had a church in his house. His wife was Apphia and his son’s name was Archippus. Philemon was converted under the ministry of Paul and Paul calls him a beloved fellow worker. Tradition has it that he was martyred for his faith.
Colossae had been a leading city in Asia Minor several hundred years before Paul’s day. However, by the first century A.D., Colossae had diminished to a second-rate market town and had been surpassed long before in power and importance by the neighboring towns of Laodicea and Hierapolis. During Paul’s three-year ministry in Ephesus, Epaphras was converted and carried the gospel to Colossae.[ii]
It was in this town of Colossae that Philemon and his family lived and worked. Here is where there is more about Archippus. When Paul wrote to the Church in Colossae, he said:
And say to Archippus, “See that you fulfill the ministry that you have received in the Lord.” (Colossians 4:17)
So, not only was his father a leader in the Church, Archippus had a ministry in the church as well. The word translated “ministry” here is the word “διακονίαν” from which we get our word “deacon.” Some take this to mean that Archippus was a deacon in the church. According to tradition, Archippus was later the bishop of Laodicea.
The final character I wish to introduce to you today is Onesimus. His name means useful. He is a slave. Slavery was common in those days. According to the “Ancient History” website, 1 in 5 people were slaves across the Roman Empire.[iii]
These people were all from different cultural, social and economic backgrounds. They come from different countries, languages, cities and families. They are as diverse as can be and should have nothing in common.
However, we will see that they are the most loving and unified group one could imagine.
There was one unifying factor involved and I want to look at it with you and look at how it worked in each of their lives.
The one unifying factor was Christ or the Gospel.
As diverse and different as these people were, they were unified in purpose. This is the first thing necessary for a mission. A simple definition of “Mission” is: a task or job that someone is given to do.[iv]
What we have in Philemon is a picture or a vignette of people living out the mission in their daily lives. Paul and Timothy were in Rome. Philemon, Apphia and Archippus were in Colossae, and they were all living out the mission. Look at how Paul addresses them. He calls Philemon, “our beloved fellow worker” and he calls Archippus, “our fellow soldier.” They were all workers in the same cause.
Now, as for Paul, he calls himself, “a prisoner for Christ Jesus.”
First of all then, it is important for us as Christians, living in light of our mission, to realize and keep in mind that all of our circumstances can serve and do serve the mission.
Paul was a prisoner of the Roman Empire, persecuted by Jews who hated the mission he was on and the message he preached. The very ones who had crucified the Lord Jesus Christ now sought to have Paul put to death. But, Paul does not consider himself their prisoner. He considers himself Christ’s prisoner. In Philippians 1, writing about his imprisonment he says:
12I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. 14And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.
God is in control of all of our circumstances. Paul rejoiced that his chains served to advance the gospel. They were all workers in the same cause, fellow soldiers in the cause of Christ. Paul set the example by seeing every circumstance as a God given opportunity to advance the gospel. The unifying factor in purpose and circumstances is Christ.
However, reading Philemon, we see that these people are much more than fellow workers. They are family. Timothy is called “our brother.” Philemon is addressed as beloved and Apphia is called “our sister.” Look at what Paul says in verses 4 and 5:
4I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, 5because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints,
Look at the reference to love and compare it to what Paul says is verse 7. “For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.”
The bonds of our mission run deep.
We said, “It is important for us as Christians, living in light of our mission, to realize and keep it in mind that all of our circumstances can serve and do serve the mission.” It is also important to realize and keep it in mind that no one of us should or can go it alone. Paul was a prisoner, but he had Luke, Timothy, Epaphras, Tychicus, Justus, Mark, Demas and others either with him or delivering messages for him. (Colossians 4) Paul was part of a Christian community that he considered his family. We see this community at work in the exchange of letters, messages and prayers. At the end of Colossians 4, Paul says, “And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea.” (Verse 16) Here, in the exchange of letters and communications between the Laodiceans and the Colossians, we see the tight knit fellowship of the family.
We see the family community in operation as Paul says he derives much joy and comfort from Philemon’s love. We see the family community in operation as Paul says the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through Philemon. We see the family community in operation as Paul boldly tells Philemon to prepare a guest room for him in verse 22.
Jesus set the example. He called His disciples brothers. In Matthew 28:10 He says, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.” Hebrews 2:11 explains to us, “So now Jesus and the ones he makes holy have the same Father. That is why Jesus is not ashamed to call them his brothers and sisters.” (NLT)[v] It is because of Jesus’s example that we know what love is and how to relate to each other as brothers and sisters. We read in 1 John 3:16, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.”
This family community is an essential part of the mission. We belong. We are a part of something big, powerful, world changing, and we are important to this family. The mission is who we are. We are the people of Christ. That is why they call us Christians. When our missionaries are in far off places, they are our flesh and blood serving, on behalf of Christ and on our behalf, our brothers and sisters in Christ who we have yet to meet. In addition, you and I should be no less dedicated to the service of Christ. Every day we get to serve Christ wherever we are, and we have a wonderful family to love, support and encourage us, to walk with us along the way.
The unifying purpose in all our circumstances is Christ. The unifying factor in our relationships is Christ. Christ is the mission. He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) We find a beautiful expression of this truth in Philemon 6. I like the King James Version of this verse:
That the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.
The word “communication” here is an interpretation of the Greek word “κοινωνία” which is usually translated “fellowship.” The idea of verse 6 is closely tied to verse 5 and Paul’s thanksgiving every time he prays for Philemon. The faith and love expressed by Philemon are going to result in the full knowledge of what is in us because of Christ. The knowledge of what is in us because of Christ is effective, life changing and powerful. It breaks down strongholds. It sets prisoners free. It changes us into His image. Let me list a few things that are in us because of Christ.
Because of Christ, we are God’s children.
Because of Christ, we are beloved.
Because of Christ, we have eternal life.
Because of Christ, we have an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven (1 Peter 1:4)
Because of Christ, we have the mind of Christ.
Because of Christ, we have the Holy Spirit of God living within us.
Because of Christ, we have the power of God.
These and so much more are ours because of Christ.
Christ is our mission. Christ is the unifying factor. All true Christians agree that Jesus is Lord. He is risen from the dead and He is Lord. If you find yourself on the outside looking in, then perhaps you do not yet know Jesus. Perhaps divisions and strife among us mean that we do not yet know Him, as we should. Our first job or mission or purpose is to know Him. When we know Him and love Him with all our heart, then we can make disciples, disciples who will know Him and love Him with all their hearts. Philemon actually made disciples as a natural outgrowth of his life because he knew Jesus and loved Jesus with all his heart.
Do you know Jesus?
Do you love Jesus with all your heart?
[i] Scripture quotations are taken 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.
[ii] The NIV Study Bible, copyright 1985 by the Zondervan corporation, pg. 1851
[iv] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mission. Accessed September 1, 2017.
[v] 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.