From Readers Digest comes this story:
Once upon a time, a mean old mountaineer fell sick and died. There were no funeral directors back in the hills then, and embalming was not yet practiced. So the widow and family dressed the body and placed it in the coffin. As the deceased was being carried
from the house, one pallbearer stumbled, causing the coffin to crash into a gatepost. The knock somehow revived the old mountaineer, who sat up yelling at everyone in sight.
The man lived for over a year and was as mean as ever. Then he got sick and died again. Once more the body was put in the coffin and the pallbearers lifted their burden. As they shuffled by, however, the long-suffering widow lifted her head and said, [Be careful to…”Watch out for that gatepost [this time]!”
Most of us have known difficult people like that. We may not be so bold as to wish that they would die, but we may secretly wish that if that fate would befall them, they would certainly stay that way.
The gospel of Jesus Christ brings together people of diverse backgrounds and personalities, increasing the possibility for disagreements, conflicts and difficult relationships.
We can see that in this short letter to Philemon that we read in its entirety today.
We have three very different people. Paul, a scholarly, zealous Jew and former Pharisee;
Philemon, a wealthy Gentile businessman; and, Onesimus, a runaway slave.
Paul tells us it brings great glory to God when people who would normally be at one another’s throats instead love one another because of the reality of Jesus Christ.
The Book Of Philemon [From the NLT – New Living Translation]
1 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.
3 May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace.
4 I always thank my God when I pray for you, Philemon, 5 because I keep hearing about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all of God’s people. 6 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. 7 Your love has given me much joy and comfort, my brother, for your kindness has often refreshed the hearts of God’s people.
8 That is why I am boldly asking a favor of you. I could demand it in the name of Christ because it is the right thing for you to do. 9 But because of our love, I prefer simply to ask you. Consider this as a request from me-Paul, an old man and now also a prisoner for the sake of Christ Jesus.*
10 I appeal to you to show kindness to my child, Onesimus. I became his father in the faith while here in prison. 11 Onesimus* hasn’t been of much use to you in the past, but now he is very useful to both of us. 12 I am sending him back to you, and with him comes my own heart.
13 I wanted to keep him here with me while I am in these chains for preaching the Good News, and he would have helped me on your behalf. 14 But I didn’t want to do anything without your consent. I wanted you to help because you were willing, not because you were forced. 15 It seems Onesimus ran away* for a little while so that you could have him back forever. 16 He is no longer like a slave to you. He is more than a slave, for he is a beloved brother, especially to me. Now he will mean much more to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.
17 So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it. And I won’t mention that you owe me your very soul!
20 Yes, my brother, please do me this favor* for the Lord’s sake. Give me this encouragement in Christ.
21 I am confident as I write this letter that you will do what I ask and even more! 22 One more thing-please prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that God will answer your prayers and let me return to you soon.
23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you his greetings. 24 So do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my co-workers.
25 May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
Slaves had no protection under Roman law.
J. B. Lightfoot wrote that two or three years before Paul wrote to Philemon, another slave had killed his master, a Roman senator. The law demanded that when this happened, all of the slaves in the household would be executed along with the one who did it …
… and the senator had 400 slaves!
Many people tried to intervene to save them from this unjust treatment. But the
Roman Senate held a special hearing and decided that the law needed to be carried out.
And ultimately all 400 were executed!
So if Paul could persuade Philemon to forgive this slave who had wronged him and, even more, to accept him as a brother in Christ, the very word of it, and thus the very Gospel would spread like a wildfire. This would be unique forgiveness, done in the name of Christ, and so different than the strict penalty of the law.
Again, there was to be no forgiveness for slaves under the law so if Philemon did so, people would scurry about it wonder and amazement asking, “Why did Philemon do it?”
And the answer would come … “Because he follows Jesus, and Jesus taught His followers to forgive and love one another.”
Because under the Jewish law, the penalty for sin was death, but Jesus died and took that penalty on Himself for the forgiveness and salvation of those would believe on Him.
Was Onesimus guilty? We can say pretty securely … yes. Maybe of this offense, but certainly of others. Like you and I, he was a sinner. He deserved to be punished.
But Paul says, charge his offenses to me and forgive him in the name of Christ.
Just as Christ took my sins and put them on His account, so I do so for my brother, Onesimus.
As fellow brothers in Christ he urged Philemon to do the same.
There was no looking at race, no looking at social standing, no looking at gender, no talk of free versus slave. In Christ, all are brothers and sisters. Christ sees us that way, so how can we do otherwise.
That’s why Paul not only addressed this letter to Philemon, but also Apphia (probably Philemon’s wife), and Archippus (who was perhaps the equivalent of the pastor of this gathering and maybe also their son), and the entire church that gathered in their home.
Paul included all of them because the matter of forgiving Onesimus and accepting him as a brother in Christ is a major Christian testimony. It was an opportunity for God to be glorified and for the gospel to spread in that city, at that time.
God’s grace was at the center of Paul’s life. It summed up everything about how he related to God and to others. If we have been shown grace, and Paul certainly had, then we need to show grace to others.
Philemon may have thought, “Onesimus doesn’t deserve forgiveness!”
Paul would respond … Precisely! Grace is always undeserved. We should never forget that!
Martin Luther said, “All of us were God’s Onesimus.” We are slaves. We merit nothing. We have done things that are wrong. We stand before a God who is righteous and holy, and yet the Lord Jesus says, “If he has done anything wrong, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I will pay it.” He did, He has, on Calvary.
A woman who had a long-standing grudge against her sister was describing her plan for revenge. “I’ve kept a list of every mean thing she has ever done to me,” the woman explained. “I keep it in my safe deposit box with instructions that it be given to my sister when I die.” When someone suggested that she was being bitter, the woman denied it. “I’m not bitter,” she declared. “I just want her to know what she has done.”
Although we may not be as careful about keeping accounts of what others have done to us, most of us do keep a mental list of the offenses we have suffered. Although we know we should forgive, it’s not always easy. We know that the offenses we have suffered are painful and real and so we are reluctant to let others “get away with it.”
The feeling that a debt is owed when others hurt us is real but keep this in mind, true biblical forgiveness is not saying that the offense that has been committed is “nothing.”
There should always be an honest attempt to make our grievances clear with each other and make some level of amends.
But if do we keep track, we should look closely at the ledger books and honestly calculate the debt. How does the price we pay to forgive others truly compare to the price paid by Christ to forgive us?
Is it even close? Are we not convicted by this to at least attempt to show the same “kind” of mercy to others as Christ has shown us even though we know we certainly cannot show as “much”?
Only Christ has paid or sin in full. He took them on himself. It is finished.
Booker T. Washington wrote:
“The most trying ordeal that I was forced to endure as a slave boy . . . was the wearing of a flax shirt. . . . That part of the flax from which our clothing was made was . . . the cheapest and roughest part. I can scarcely imagine any torture . . . that is equal to that caused by putting on a new flax shirt for the first time. But I had no choice. . . . My brother, John, who is several years older than I am, performed one of the most generous acts that I ever heard of one slave relative doing for another. On several occasions when I was being forced to wear a new flax shirt, he generously agreed to . . . wear it for several days, till it was ‘broken in.'”
Christ took our pain, our suffering, our guilt, our sin, our burden onto Himself. It is finished, but we must accept that and receive it. When we do we cannot help but feel convicted to forgive those who have transgressed against us.
You can almost hear the Christ pleading with us all from the cross, “Father, all these people are runaway slaves from your grace and your mercy and your love. They have stolen from you and have not understood your love. They have trampled it and wasted it and mocked it. But now they may come into a personal relationship with me, so
Father do not judge then for their sins. It is finished. If there is any judgment, charge that to my account for they are now my sons, my friends, my family.”
The name Onesimus means “useless”. It was true for him, it’s true for us.
We think we are useful but we’re useless without Jesus Christ. We think we are profitable people but we languish and waste our lives because we do not understand who He is.
Onesimus had wronged Philemon, he had. He had betrayed his master’s trust, despised his master’s goodness, and stolen his master’s goods.
But isn’t that exactly what we all do as slaves of Christ. Do we not betray our master’s trust, despise our master’s goodness, and steal our master’s goods?
We are His bond-servants in eternity, yet with grieve Him in thought, word and deed and then think we can run away and hide. Not to worry my child, come back and I will receive you again. The debt has been paid.
Isaiah Chapter 53:11
11 When he sees all that is accomplished by his anguish, he will be satisfied.
And because of his experience, my righteous servant will make it possible
for many to be counted righteous, for he will bear all their sins.
Only His account, my friends, are we saved.
What is it that Paul wants Philemon to do with his returned slave?
Do as Christ has done for Paul.
1. Forgive him
2. Restore him
3. Receive him as a brother
We don’t know what happened when Philemon read the letter. The New Testament never tells us the rest of the story. However, tradition suggests that he freed Onesimus who later became the bishop of Ephesus. However it turned out, the outcome is in God’s hands. What’s in our power is to extend the love of Christ in difficult situations and dark places. To show that Christ is the light of the world, that there is hope on His account, and tell people of that hope. Paul injected himself into this situation to testify to the Good News. He could have made excuses for not getting involved, but he didn’t, he put himself out there and argued the case for Christ.
So that’s our excuse today?
*We say, “The world is going to the devil.”
No, my friends, it’s already gone to the devil a long time ago, but Jesus defeated the devil when he rose from the dead. He can only defeat you if you don’t have Jesus.
*We say, “I’ll lose my reputation if I get involved. People may misunderstand. I might alienate people. I’ll have problems with my family. What will people think?”
The only thing that matters is, what does God think?
*We say, “I don’t have time to get involved. I’m too busy already.”
If you’re too busy to lend a helping hand to hurting people, of offer forgiveness then something may painfully wrong with our priorities. Ask yourself “Why am I too busy to follow Jesus anyway?”
*We say, “What if I get involved and fail?”
That might happen. We are just to be faithful and leave the results up to God. The results are not up to us. We’re not in control of people’s free will. But without getting involved, without sharing Christ love with those who desperately need it, there is no hope for the lost and the suffering.
Paul was in prison, chained to Roman guards, on trial for his life. But he found the time and the energy and the strength to help a young man in need. He made it a priority to express the love of Christ whenever and however he could.
He knew that Christ did the heavy lifting on the Cross but then he sent us out to the whole world. In his act of Christ like compassion we see from this letter that Paul did some real and tangible things, that we can do too.
*He led a non-believer to Christ-
*He risked a friendship to help a new believer-
*He took a stand in a small way-
*He helped to apply the gospel to someone’s life-
*He saw God’s hand at work and gave God all the credit-
*He personally intervened to help someone in need-
*He offered to pay a debt that was owed-
*He didn’t complain about an unjust system and about how he was unfairly imprisoned and he didn’t focus on anything but the problem at hand-
*He didn’t try to be a hero and change the world. He left that to Jesus. He just tried to help out wherever he could-
And we can do that.
Paul didn’t do anything unusual, strange or extraordinary. He simply did what any follower of Christ should do-and could do.
Some would argue:
I am only one man or woman. I cannot do everything.
But think of this:
You are only one man or woman. You cannot do everything. But you can do something, by the grace of God.
If you’ve seen the film Schindler List, at the end of the film, Oskar Schindler is filled with remorse that he saved so few people. “But you saved 1100”, he is reminded.
“Yet I could have saved more”, he cries.
Knowing his pain, the Jewish survivors present him with a gold ring inscribed with a saying from the Talmud: “He who saves one life saves the whole world.”
We must remember this too!
Remember, Jesus came for YOU, personally. He came to save YOU, personally.
He waits patiently in case just one more would come to him in faith, that no one should be lost.
One person, acting in His name, forgiving as they have been forgiven, getting involved, and taking a risk, makes a difference. God’s kingdom comes from Onesimus and people like you and I, slaves of Christ, one person, one prayer, one act at a time.
On His account, not ours we are saved. For His account, we live for Him and through Him.
©2010 Timothy Henry