Today we begin a 3-week study of the Book of Philemon, and in this book, we are introduced to three main people: the Apostle Paul is the author of this book. He has established many churches; he is the author of three-fourths of the New Testament. A well-known Christian leader, greatly used by God and respected by people worldwide. He’s writing with Timothy, his apprentice.
The next person is Philemon, he is the one Paul is writing to. He is well known for his love, in fact, his name means Love, Phileo love, a generous and affectionate love; that’s the root word of Philemon. There are a couple more people in his home, and a church meets in his home also.
The next person in this Book is Onesimus. He’s a concern. He is a slave of Philemon, but he has stolen something from Philemon and then ran away to avoid punishment. A thief, a runaway slave: one who lives for himself, doesn’t mind hurting others and is trying to avoid getting caught. In those days there were 3 punishments that could be done to a runaway slave: beating, branding, or execution. We might wonder which one Philemon is going to choose if they ever catch Onesimus.
As we begin a study of this Book, let’s consider a question to get us thinking about why it was written. Let’s say that someone hurt you deeply; maybe they stole something from you, maybe what they stole wasn’t physical, but they have stolen your happiness, stolen years from your life; stolen the purity of your marriage, stolen your ministry; they’ve taken something of value. How do you respond? Do you spend time thinking of how they should be punished? What you’re going to do to them to make them pay? This is what the Book of Philemon was written to address.
So, the runaway slave, Onesimus, was caught and put in prison, and guess who he happened to run into while he was in prison. As it turns out, the Apostle Paul, Himself, was also in prison, not for anything wrong he did, but for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. And Paul led the runaway slave to Jesus, and Onesimus became a believer.
But now comes the problem. Onesimus cannot repay the debt and remove the offense, and is it even possible to restore the relationship? So, let’s read this story, and meet these people. “This letter is from Paul, a prisoner for preaching the Good News about Christ Jesus, and from our brother Timothy. I am writing to Philemon, our beloved co-worker, 2 and to our sister Apphia, and to our fellow soldier Archippus, and to the church that meets in your house. Philemon 1:1-2 (NLT). Apphia might be Philemon’s wife and Archippus his son, and there is a church that meets in their home.
Then Paul gives his normal greeting, “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philemon 1:3). Then: “I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus” Philemon 1:4-5 (NIV). Philemon was known for love, and “they will know we are Christians by our love”. Paul said he had heard about Philemon’s love for “ALL” God’s people. See, Paul is working on behalf of the runaway slave, who is now one of God’s people. And Philemon loves all God’s people.
So where did Philemon get this love? Paul already told us: “I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus” (Philemon 1:5). Love for people and faith in Jesus go hand in hand. Why is that? When you see Jesus willingly go to a cross and wear a crown of thorns and be beaten and bloodied because of His love for you. And you know that His payment was accepted on your behalf because He rose from the dead three days later, and all of this because God loved you. And you believe this message! Well, that love begins to fill your heart. “...God's love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5 (NIV). This word “poured out” means He gushed it all over us and into us, He shed it abroad, and He filled us up with love. Eph 1:15 and Col. 1:4
And then you look at people, and you begin to see the image of the one you love in them. One of my favorite verses: “So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view” 2 Corinthians 5:16 (NLT) This is how you can even love your enemy - you stop seeing them from a worldly perspective, and you see them from the eyes of Christ. So those you might have hated before, now your heart is filled with love for them. “Nicky Cruz was a gang member when a street preacher came along, and Nicky said: “You come near me and I'll kill you!” And the preacher said, “Yeah, you could do that. You could cut me up into a thousand pieces and lay them in the street, and every piece would shout, “I still love you.” So, love for people and faith in Jesus always go hand in hand.
Then Paul prays in verse six, “And I am praying that you will put into action the generosity that comes from your faith as you understand and experience all the good things we have in Christ.” In essence, Paul says, I want you to be generous toward Onesimus. Put into action the generosity that comes from faith in Jesus. He’s reminding Philemon generosity comes from faith in Jesus. Why? Because look what Jesus did. He gave up everything for you: He gave you His body and His blood, and His Spirit, gave you His home in heaven. “You know the generous grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty he could make you rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9 (NLT). All you must do is look at the cross, where Jesus became poor to make you rich, and you’ll want to be like him; to be generous to people.
“Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord's people” (Philemon 1:7). You know what gives people joy and encouragement? When they see love! “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:35 (NIV). Jesus loved us to death and back, and we show that we’re His when we love each other. Paul says, “...your kindness has often refreshed the hearts of God’s people.” Philemon 1:7 (NLT). Many of you here today are Philemon, by your love and kindness you refresh the hearts of people.
And now Paul comes to the reason he is writing. And as we read this, I want you to feel the pathos, the heart of Paul. “Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— 10 that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains”. Philemon 1:8-10 (NIV)
Did you notice the difference between the Old Covenant, the 10-Commandment Law, and the New Covenant gospel? Paul says I could order you, command you to do what’s right. In fact, we could make a church around the Law, where we tell everybody what to do; the only problem is the Old Covenant Law brings death. “The old way, with laws etched in stone, led to death” (2 Corinthians 3:7 NLT). Woe to any church, or family that tries to place its people under Law, it will result in death. We don’t want to be like that. We want to be the church where we see the Love of Jesus poured out on the cross for you. This isn’t the church that says, “measure up”, “you’re not good enough”, “get your act together”; we are the church that invites you to look to Jesus and see that He measured up for you, He made you righteous, He washed you clean, and then He works in your heart by His Spirit to make you like Jesus.
The New Covenant appeals on the basis of love. All Christian instruction on how to live flows out of the love of Jesus for us. I want you to hear God saying to you today: “I could order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love.” I could command you to obey, but instead, I want to show you the cross and appeal to you out of love. To appeal means to “come alongside” someone and ask in a personal way.
So, for the next 2 weeks, we’ll study this appeal Paul makes for the runaway slave, but for now, Jesus is appealing to you: “Come to me, all you who are tired and anxious. I will give you rest. Listen to my words and believe me. I am gentle and humble. I will help you to be at rest in your mind and in your *soul. I do not make life hard for you. It is easy to serve me.” Jesus did the hard work on the cross for you, and now He appeals to you today to come to Him, meaning to listen to His Words and believe Him. Yes, Jesus appeals to you on the basis of His love.
And wait until you see how far Paul is willing to go to save Onesimus.