Lesson Ten: Personal Study of a Personal Letter

In your homework this week you actually had to WORK!  It was challenging for sure to answer questions that kind-of-aren’t-really questions, wasn’t it?  I hope you stuck with it, prayed for wisdom, and came this morning even if you weren’t able to finish.

 

I made the mistake of trying to do the homework and prepping to teach at the same time.  It’s not that you can’t do both, I just found myself getting jumbled and disorganized when trying to put it together.  I praise God this morning for His wisdom – in His Word and in the women he has placed around me who graciously supported me in prayer and encouragement.

 

This morning we are walking together through the book of Philemon.  This book, like the other two we have studied this year, is an epistle – a letter.  It was written by Paul, probably in 62 A.D.  This is roughly the same time as the letters to the Colossians and the Ephesians.  All three letters were delivered by Tychicus and Onesimus.

The letter is addressed to Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus.  Philemon was a wealthy Christian who lived in Colossae.  At some point during Paul’s time at Ephesus, Philemon heard the gospel and was saved.  He later would open his home for a group of Christians to meet there.  Apphia is thought to most likely be his wife, and some commentators think Archippus may have been their son.  Notice here in verse 2 – this may have been a personal letter, but Paul intended it to be read to the other members of the church that met in their home.

 

The occasion for the letter, as you probably discovered in your homework (or already knew) was the return of a runaway bondservant, Onesimus.  Some time before – we don’t know how long it has been – Onesimus ran away from Colossae, probably having stolen money or property from Philemon.  We can assume this because later in the letter Paul offers to pay the debt.   Somehow, through God’s sovereign wisdom and irony, Onesimus came into contact with Paul, and became a believer.  He must have been there with Paul a good while, serving him, learning from him, because as we see in verse 10 and verse 12, he has become very dear to Paul.

 

Paul has seen that this situation needs to be fixed.  Onesimus is a fugitive, and is still legally bound to someone who Paul loves and trusts.  So, he sends him back with this letter.

 

I think it is important to remember that this letter was delivered with the one we have just finished studying.  We don’t know what order they were written in, or what order they were read by Philemon, but contextually this letter does almost provide an opportunity to apply what Colossians teaches to a specific situation.  So as we go through, let’s not fully sever the two letters from each other.

 

Before you started this study, if someone were to ask you what Philemon was about, how would you have answered?  Forgiveness?  Reconciliation?  You wouldn’t have been wrong – and we will touch on those things.  I was very surprised (even though I shouldn’t have been – this is God speaking through Paul, after all!) to find so much more.  As we go through the text this morning, I want us to explore the power of the Gospel to TRANSFORM.  I think there is clear evidence of at least three ways the gospel transforms in this short letter of 25 verses.

 

  1. The gospel can transform ANYONE.
  2. If you are a believer, the gospel has already transformed YOU.
  3. The gospel transforms otherwise normal RELATIONSHIPS.

 

Let’s dig in.  Read with me, starting in verse 1:

 

Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus,

 

Stop there.  Six words in, and we are confronted with one of the most remarkable transformations in Christian history.  Paul, when he was Saul, the Jew’s Jew, the fierce persecutor of Christians, is now the one who is in prison for Christ.

 

Let’s keep going, through verse 7:

 

and Timothy our brother,

To Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.

 

We see here the names of four other people who have been transformed – but we are going to focus on Philemon, because Paul does.  We saw before, Philemon was a wealthy man, probably a Gentile.  He was probably accustomed to being served, having other people worry about pleasing him and meeting his needs.  But here, Paul describes a different person, a transformed man.  Paul is thankful in his prayers because Philemon is loving Jesus, loving the saints, sharing his faith.  The hearts of the saints have been refreshed through him.  No longer characterized by being served, he is know well for serving others, because of his love and faith toward the Lord Jesus.

 

Now jump to verse 10.  We come to the heart of Paul’s appeal – Onesimus.

10 I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. 11 (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.)

 

Paul is testifying to Onesimus’ complete transformation due to his rebirth in Christ.  We don’t know the timing of events in the back-story – whether Onesimus ran before or after Philemon was saved, what the circumstances of Onesimus’ situation were that lead to his bondservice.  What we do know is Paul says he was once useless to Philemon, but is now useful to them both.  We’ll see more about this transformation in a minute, but look ahead at verse 17:

17 So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me.

 

Onesimus’ transformation is so complete that Paul tells Philemon to receive him as he would Paul – as a partner.

 

We see three examples of gospel transformation – examples that prove there is NO ONE too far gone for God to save if he so chooses.  I’m speaking this to myself as much as you: do you ever hesitate – hesitate to share the gospel with someone because “they won’t be interested”?  Their beliefs are too different?  They have messed up and hurt you too much?  They are hopeless?  Onesimus was a thief, a fugitive, a bondservant looking to hide, and God brought him to Paul.  No one – if God chooses to give them the gift of faith – is too far gone for the gospel to transform them.

 

After all – it has transformed YOU, hasn’t it?

 

If you’re here, and you have had your eyes opened by the Holy Spirit to see your rebellion and sin, and your inability to be in a right relationship with your Creator, if you have trusted in the death of Jesus as payment for your sin, chosen repentance (which you can only truly do through the gift of faith), then you have been transformed – you are in Christ!  2 Corinthians 5:17 says you are already a new creation.  Look back at Colossians, chapter 2, verses 9-14:

9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. 11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.

 

  • you have been filled
  • were circumcised
  • having been buried
  • were also raised
  • were dead
  • God made alive
  • having forgiven
  • He set aside
  • He disarmed

 

Note all the past tense forms of those verbs – the old has gone, and the new has come.  Praise God – It’s already done!  When we grasp the gospel and its implications for every area of our lives, when we understand the freedom we already have – we are free to react to our circumstances differently – even radically by the world’s measure.

 

Look at verses 17-21

17 So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. 18 If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

 

Slave owners of the day would be well within their rights, according to the world’s view,  to vindictively punish Onesimus for what he had done.  But because the gospel had already transformed Philemon (and the other Christians that met in his house) they are called to receive him back with grace and love – to let the gospel inform how they view Onesimus, not the circumstances of the moment.

 

And don’t miss what Paul is doing here, promising to take the debt that Onesimus owes on himself – modeling for us, alluding to what Christ has done.  A debt that cannot be paid by the debtor being taken on and paid by one who owes nothing, but is himself owed a debt.

 

None of these reactions are natural, not even Paul’s.  They are only possible because of the gospel and its transforming power.

 

So, as a mother, when my child lies to me, I can move past my hurt, my offense, and point my child to his need for forgiveness from the One he has truly sinned against.

As a wife, when communication is strained for whatever reason with my husband, I can trust Christ to support my weakness and choose to move toward my husband instead of building another wall.

 

When a friend has wronged me and seeks forgiveness, I can pursue reconciliation, even when the world says I am justified to be hurt.

 

And when I’m the one who has hurt a friend, I can pursue reconciliation – whatever the steps are – because I have been reconciled.

 

Because the gospel transforms normal relationships.

 

Verse 13-15

13 I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. 15 For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever,

 

Paul so cared for, and benefitted from Onesimus that he would liked to have kept him in Rome.  However,  he knew that the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon was broken.  It needed to be addressed.  Paul was confident of the gospel’s power to reconcile these two believers to each other – he said as much in verse 21.

Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

 

This does not necessarily mean that Philemon set Onesimus free.  Some have pointed to verse 21 as an implication of such a command on Paul’s part.  I’m not sure we can say that.  Paul does not strike me as a man who operates with subtlety.  I think what we are seeing here is that the gospel doesn’t always – it can, but often doesn’t – change our legal, societal, environmental status.  It does, however, change our spiritual status, and transforms our identity.

 

I am convinced more and more that so many of the issues we struggle with are grounded in an identity crisis.  If we could fully grasp all the ways we are already transformed into a new creation in Christ, we would see the struggles as of our own making.

Verse 15-16

15 For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16 no 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.

 

Onesimus was no longer a bondservant, but more than a bondservant.  He was still a bondservant, but his identity – primarily- was as a beloved brother.  That primary identity informs all other secondary and tertiary identities he may have had.

 

As it does for you and me!

 

A mom with her three kids, all under the age of six, finds out she is pregnant again.  She is overwhelmed.  Faith in Christ doesn’t make her circumstances change – diapers, feeding, morning sickness, all still there.  But because of her faith, she can react with joy instead of despair, trusting that Christ walked with her all along with the first three, and in his sovereignty he has blessed her with another.

 

The woman struggling with infertility still struggles when she has faith.  The gospel does not magically open her womb, but shows her a Savior who meets her in her pain and assures her of His love, comforts her feelings of loss.

 

The widow who is grieving the loss of her husband after a lifetime together is still a widow in Christ.  But her heart is transformed and she finds rest in the God who promises she is never alone.

 

For the woman who suffers from chronic pain or health issues – the gospel does not take the pain away.  The gospel reminds her she has a Savior who understands pain.  The gospel shows her that her pain or health issue does not define her – her identity in Christ does.

 

For the woman whose family is struggling financially – the gospel does not put money in the bank.  The gospel leads her to trust in God’s goodness and provision, and to humbly ask for help when she needs to.

 

When I see, then, that my primary identity is in Christ, and everything else is informed by that, it helps me not only respond to my circumstances in Christ, but gives me eyes to see and love “the other” in Christ.  Comparison is deadly to relationships, especially among women.  What would happen if, instead of me seeing Whitney and what an awesome teacher she is, and how I’ll never measure up to her – I see her as my beloved sister in the Lord?  Instead of trying to be like her, or better than her, I love her for who God has uniquely gifted her to be, and serve her in love?  Or Jen and how giftedly she coordinates baby showers?  Or Stephanie and her wonderful hospitality?

 

Philemon gained back more than a servant, he gained a brother and a partner.  What would you gain if you loved “the other” well?  How might your own transformation look then?

 

Paul was confident of the gospel’s power to transform because he lived it.  I am just as confident because I see it in those God has surrounded me with.  Will you let the Spirit open your eyes, open your mind, open your heart to allow you to understand and live that transformation out in your everyday?  As you go back to your groups, consider these things:  Who am I hesitating to share the gospel with?  Why?  How would understanding my identity as a new creation impact my life moment to moment, day-to-day?

To quote my friend, and fellow teacher, Mary:

What transformed in both Onesimus and Philemon was their identities, and that is why they are free to reconcile not just in a slave/master relationship, but a brotherhood relationship.

What relationships do I need to see through the eyes of the gospel, and what might I need to do today to move towards love or reconciliation if need be?

 

 

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