Philemon 1-25: The Demands of the Gospel
The Gospel demands all of us. It is something that penetrates our minds and hearts. It changes the way we live, think, spend our finances, raise our children, do marriage, and relate to others. It demolishes social barriers, economic barriers, and ethnic barriers. There is no aspect of the believer that should not be penetrated by the Gospel. All sinful barriers should be broken down in the life of Christ-followers.
Today we are going to take a brief one-week break from our study of Colossians to detour into the book of Philemon. This letter was written around the same time as Colossians during Paul’s second imprisonment and was likely carried by the same letter couriers at the same time. There is significant overlap historically with this letter when compared to Colossians as Philemon played an important role in the church of Colossae.
We will see the effect that the Gospel had on Philemon as we go through this letter, and I pray that we take this personal letter and apply it to our own lives as well. I pray that as we study this short letter today, God prepares our hearts to hear and understand the demands that the Gospel places on our lives.
Let us pray.
Today we are going to discuss three things that the Gospel demands of us. The first is...
I. The Gospel Demands Our Life (1-3)
I. The Gospel Demands Our Life (1-3)
Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, 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.
Paul and Timothy start off this letter by greeting Philemon. As we move forward, we see that the real sender is Paul though. This is a personal letter from Paul to Philemon.
Paul, is in his second imprisonment which is in Rome. This is the imprisonment that we mentioned early in our study of Colossians that ended in Acts 28. It was during this imprisonment that he wrote Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and this letter. I have decided to go over this letter right before we end our study in Colossians because we are going to be introduced to the main subject of this letter - Onesimus - as we close out the book of Colossians.
Note that the greeting includes a fact about Philemon - that he is their beloved fellow worker. After greeting who is probably Philemon’s wife (Apphia -Uh-fee-a) and probably his son Archippus, we see a very important fact shown to us in verse 2. There is a church that meets in his house. This is quite a big deal. Philemon is not only a genuine believer, but he has even opened up his home for the church to meet. And it appears that even his family is all in as Paul refers to Apphia as a sister - usually meaning a sister in Christ and Archippus as a fellow soldier - meaning that he is a warrior for the Gospel.
We can learn a lot from this family, my friends. Philemon, as we will see from this letter in verses 19-20, was likely a convert of Paul’s, possibly while Paul ministered in Ephesus. Paul actually goes so far as to let Philemon know that he owes him even his own self - meaning that without hearing the Gospel preached by Paul, Philemon and his family would be destined for destruction in Hell.
But instead of being destined for eternal torment, Philemon and his family came to a saving knowledge of Christ and gave their entire life over to Christian ministry. They are a great example that the Gospel demands our entire life.
So many people give lip service to Christ but never fully give their life over to Christ.
Those who are true believers are fully dedicated to Christ.
No this doesn’t mean that you have to house a church in order to be saved. But there should be a complete life transformation. Your priorities should be God’s priorities. And Philemon’s family is a wonderful example of just that. Instead of amassing wealth, they are sharing their goods and home with fellow believers. Instead of leveraging his finances and influence for political power, Philemon is using his provisions for the advancement of the Gospel.
In verse 3 Paul ends with one of his intro statements that he repeats throughout most of his letters - Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. He starts and ends most of his letters with the concept of grace. He wants his readers to remember that we are saved by grace through faith - not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9). He wants them to remember the cross of Jesus Christ that poured out the grace we needed for salvation.
Moving forward we see that...
Scripture References: Acts 28, Ephesians 2:8-9
II. The Gospel Demands Our Labor (4-7)
II. The Gospel Demands Our Labor (4-7)
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.
Moving forward we start to see that the Gospel demands our labor. Those who have been changed by the Gospel give their labor and love to both Christ and His people. They obey the first and second greatest commandments (Matthew 22:37-39).
And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Just the thought of Philemon’s loving service to the Lord brings thankfulness to Paul as he recalls the news he has heard regarding the love and faith that Philemon has for Christ and the church.
Philemon is the real deal. He is the opposite of the rich, young ruler that Jesus encountered. After Jesus asked a few of the commandments to this rich, young man we come to this part of the account:
The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
Philemon could have been this guy. He had great wealth and a home big enough to house a gathering of Christians. He had servants and was well known.
Note that Jesus didn’t ask this young wealthy man to work for his salvation. He asked him to be willing to give up everything that hindered him from fully loving and working for God.
Yet, instead of going away sorrowful when he heard the call of the Christ,
Philemon committed all he had to the Gospel - even his family.
He gave his labor and his heart to the moving forward of the Gospel. Philemon was not saved by his good works - he was saved unto good works.
A true saving faith is one that does work. It is one that labors out of a love for Christ through the power of Christ in the believer.
Remember at the beginning of this letter that Paul mentioned a man who is likely Philemon’s son.
Philemon 2 (ESV)
and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house:
Archippus is called a fellow soldier.
We will see in our last sermon in Colossians next week that Archippus is mentioned in Colossians 4:17
And say to Archippus, “See that you fulfill the ministry that you have received in the Lord.”
Philemon, it appears had even encouraged and supported his own son to go all in and labor for the faith. Being referred to as a soldier and being spoken of as having a ministry that was recieved in the Lord, it is very likely that Archippus was either a leader in the church of Colossae or maybe even a missionary sent out by the church.
Pastor Kenny Stidham, the recently retired pastor from Good Shepherd Baptist in Scott Depot, once told me that you can tell a lot about a man or woman by looking at their children.
You see, children watch their parents closely. And by looking at a man or woman’s children, you can tell a lot about the heart of that man or woman in the home. If there is family worship and Bible teaching going on in the home, the children are going to know the Word. If there is discipline going on in the home, then the children are going to be more likely to respond to discipline in public.
We mustn’t go too far with this as it should noted that some children are frankly more difficult than others. Parents are not ultimately responsible for all of the sins of their children nor are children for their parents as we see in Ezekiel 18. But the principle of this fact is most certainly true. Parents who practice during the week what they bring to church on Sunday are more likely to have children who follow in their footsteps.
And Philemon was a man who practiced what he preached. And his son followed in his example.
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.
Moving to verse 6 we see that Paul prays for Philemon’s effectiveness in sharing the Gospel with others as well. He wants to see success in Philemon’s work as a servant for Christ.
Paul understands that no one comes to the Father unless he or she is being drawn by God (John 6:44).
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.
With this truth in mind, Paul understands the necessity of prayer in the ministry of believers.
Prayer is not a cop out or something that we do just to jump through the hoops of trying to be obedient. There is true power in prayer. If we want to see our ministry at CrossPointe blessed and successful, we must cover it with prayer. It is only God that can save souls and grow our fellowship.
For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.
Lastly, in verse 7 Paul reflects on the joy and comfort that he has from the love of his friend Philemon.
He likely recieved this information about the growth and work of Philemon from Epaphras who had let Paul know what was going on at the church in Colossae (Colossians 1:7-8)
just as you learned it from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf and has made known to us your love in the Spirit.
There is something about seeing a person that you have poured into start pouring into others. As a parent, it is such a joy to watch your children start to pour into younger children. And as a minister of the Gospel, Paul found great joy and comfort in seeing Philemon paying it forward.
My friends the Gospel demands our life and our labor… and finally,
Scripture References: Matthew 22:37-39, Matthew 19:20-22, Colossians 4:17, Ezekiel 18, John 6:44, Colossians 1:7-8
III. The Gospel Demands Our Love (8-25)
III. The Gospel Demands Our Love (8-25)
The first 7 verses have shown us a life and a labor changed by the Gospel. We have seen a godly man and his family serving the Lord with their whole hearts and with all of their lives.
But verse 8 starts an abrupt change of conversation. Philemon’s true love for Christ and his fellow man is challenged directly now.
Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.)
We are given close to a bold command that is deferred to an appeal from Paul. Paul maintains a humble approach with Philemon. He realizes that Philemon has the right to reject this appeal. Philemon, as a legal slave-owner and possibly even a Roman citizen, has the right and liberty to see the wrong made right through a legal process that might end in the death or at least imprisonment of Paul’s beloved Onesimus.
Note Paul’s personal appeal here. He refers to Onesimus as his child. Onesimus has become Paul’s spiritual child and he loves him immensely.
Interestingly, Onesimus’ name means useful or profitable. Paul makes a play on words when he ends verse 11 stating that formerly he was useless to you but now he is useful to both you and me. We see Paul let Philemon know that Onesimus is a new man. The one who was named profitable and useful yet was useless and a liability - is now finally worthy of the name he bears.
But Paul also realizes that Onesimus left quite a bad taste in Philemon’s mouth from his previous experience with him. Lets read further into this account to understand more deeply what is going on.
I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. 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, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord.
For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 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.
Before recalling the sin of Onesimus, Paul pleads even further for Onesimus and calls him his very heart. He wanted nothing more than to keep his beloved child in the faith but knows that Onesimus needs to right the wrong that he has done to Philemon.
At last, we are given more detail here into the situation. Onesimus is a runaway slave from Philemon.
We are not sure of the details of Onesimus’ departing. But it is obvious that he fled against the knowledge and will of Philemon. Many commentators assert that Onesimus may have even stolen some money before he left because Paul asks later that any debt Philemon is owed by Onesimus be charged to Paul’s account.
So this really makes Paul’s request even more outlandish!
Look at verse 16 again:
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.
It is bold enough that Paul has asked Philemon to withhold any punishment from Onesimus, but he steps up his request greatly when he asks Philemon to treat him not as a bondservant or slave - but instead as a brother. Many commentators speculate that Paul encouraged Philemon to move forward and even emancipate Onesimus for the sake of the church. If you recall, I mentioned in my sermon entitled “Biblical Workplace” that although Paul did not come right out and condemn slavery, he, along with other New Testament writers, provided the many seeds that grew into the abolitionist movement. Here is one such a seed!
Moving forward even further, Paul ends this section with verses 17-22:
So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.
Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.
Paul ends this letter with a sacrificial call to Philemon. As we mentioned a few moments ago, he asks that any debt that Onesimus has to Philemon - to credit it to his own account. He is willing to put up whatever payment is necessary on behalf of Philemon. This is definitely putting your money where your mouth is! Paul loves Onesimus enough to pay his debts. This must speak volumes to his friend Philemon as he reads this letter.
In verse 21, Paul shows his confidence in the integrity and spiritual walk of his friend Philemon. He knows Philemon will not only do what is right - but will go above and beyond what is required and requested. Again, likely even encouraging the emancipation of Onesimus.
Lastly, Paul hopes that he will be released from prison and allowed to visit Philemon, his dear friend, before his time on earth is through.
As we seek to understand this final point regarding love, we come to the main theme of this letter - forgiveness.
The Gospel demands our love by demanding our forgiveness.
You see, Philemon had every right to punish Philemon. He could have possibly even had Philemon executed. But the Gospel demanded Philemon to choose love instead of revenge.
Sometimes in life, we may have the liberty to really punish someone. We may have every justification to right a wrong. We might have every right to avenge what has happened to us. But the Gospel demands a higher calling. It demands our love in the form of forgiveness.
This final aspect of showing our love through forgiveness of others is the main theme of this letter.
My friends, forgiveness is a requirement of the Gospel.
Jesus gives us a very difficult command in the book of Matthew.
but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Philemon was commanded to forgive Onesimus. We do need to clarify that forgiveness does not mean that consequences are always removed. Philemon did have the right to legally prosecute Onesimus. And in some cases, the consequences of sin need to be carried out. However, here we have a man who is a new man. He is now born again. He is a changed man. And Paul encourages grace, love, and forgiveness to be extended.
We do not have a historical record of how this situation ended. But we can be assured that it likely ended in forgiveness and reconciliation of Philemon and Onesimus as this letter was copied and circulated in the early church and quickly became a part of the canon of Scripture. We can be confident that Philemon responded favorably to Paul’s appeal and that the man and his former bondservant were united and reconciled through Christ.
The Gospel demands our love - it demands our love in the form of forgiveness.
Scripture References: Matthew 6:15
Paul ends this letter mentioning some other men who gave their life, labor and love for Christ.
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
These fellow workers gave up their liberty of doing what they pleased for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We will go into more detail next week as these and more are included in our concluding study of Colossians - but take from this final Scripture that the Gospel demands your life, your labor, and your love.
I pray that as you have heard this account which highlights the demands of the Gospel, that you reflect on your own life and search your heart to see if you have fully given your life, labor, and love to Christ and the work of spreading the Gospel.
May we be a people who are all in when it comes to Christ and His Gospel.
Let us pray.
If you would like to learn more about salvation through Jesus Christ or want to obey Jesus by obeying the first commandment of a believer in going through the waters of baptism - please let me know.
Have a blessed week.