Study in Philemon. Presentation 01. Useless No Longer Chap 1v1-7. Presentation 01. Introduction.
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Philemon, is one of the first prison epistles. While it is short and personal, it is none the less an important N.T. epistle and the product of true Christian love between one man and another despite the testing nature of the circumstances in which they find themselves. Philemon's home was Colosse: he was a convert of some substance and standing and Paul, a prisoner in Rome freely acknowledges his love for him in the service of the Gospel. Apphia is doubtless his wife
and, it is thought, Archippus
Was his son. From Col. 4v17,
we may conclude that Paul
had already marked out
Archippus to be a leader in
the group of churches
in the area.
Paul’s usual greeting is employed, incorporating the ‘grace’ of the Gospel with ‘peace’ or ‘shalom’ that was the common O.T. greeting. The quality of Paul’s many relationships was developed not by laborious human effort but by fresh intimate communion with God [Ps.91.1]and by drawing endlessly upon the resources of God's grace through Jesus Christ.
When Paul remembered Philemon in his prayers, he saw him first as one who was jointly united with him to Christ, whatever else he may have thought of him. This is a healthy preservative for all of our Christian relationships; keep them under the benevolent shadow of the Lord and the healing of his cross.
Paul thanks God for a full-blooded man, with all that is distinctive about him, good or not so good. Of course he remembers the good first and that is not mere polite social convention. His own experience of God’s grace makes him look for the best in Philemon. This is, of course, how God had treated him! This is the only safe, and also the highest motivation for Christians in their attitudes towards one another: ‘Do, as you have been done to, by God’!
This is the essence of Christian living, and since Jesus came to earth to work that out in human terms, we have no excuse for not seeing it, and doing it. This is involved in ‘walking in his steps’.
When Paul thought of Philemon, the thing that most impressed him was his love of the Lord Jesus and all the saints. It is remarkable that this was the first thing that struck him when he thought of his friend.
It is challenging to ask, what it the first thing that others think about when we come into their mind? Do they see us first as lovers of the Lord Jesus and then as lovers of his followers? It is important to recognise that these two, ‘love’ and ‘faith’ always go together and they are seen as belonging together [Gal.1v5-6b; Col.1v4, 5; 1 Thess.1v3] and ought to be tested by each other.
There is a "love" that is spineless, void of conviction of purposeful action, just as there is a "faith" that is hard, metallic, forbidding and unbending, given to collecting stones of belief and heaping them into a strong tower, an aggressive fortress called truth,
but utterly lacking in compassion. Love and faith must hold hands for each to be authentic. The one acting upon the other to bring grace to fruition? Mellowness and ripe wisdom will be the result, a soul set free from petty selfishness that loses itself in love to Jesus and to others, and then seeing that as its highest good. Paul has begun to lay the foundation for what he intends to say to Philemon about his runaway slave.
Love for Jesus and all the saints will involve sharing our faith actively and acknowledging that every spiritual gift has been given us by Jesus. Verse 6 calls for total commitment based on unstinting provisions of grace. Who could equip himself to forgive and love every ungracious and ungrateful individual opposed to our welfare and work? It is impossible!
But is not merely that God supplies us with energies to accomplish his will, he by the Spirit of Christ changes us from within to see the life of loving, where we die to self, as both desirable and enjoyable, providing the
real joy of living.
Jeremiah, taught that after the Jewish exile a day would come when instead of the Lord appealing to them in terms of an external law, although they had been offered the gift of faith by the Spirit of God [Deut.30v11-14, Rom. 10v5-13], the Lord would write it on their hearts
[Jer.31,31-34], which meant that he would
regenerate them and give them a new character
to love the things which God loves and also the
will to do them. How so? Quite simply, by
imparting the virtues of both the death and
resurrection of Jesus. It is by sharing in his death
and resurrection that the virtues he gained are
transferred to us and become integrally operative in
our lives; which is to say that we want to behave, and
must behave, like Jesus. We are born all over again.
love your neighbour
Paul comes nearer to his purpose of writing in v7. Not only is the love and faith that we are to share with the saints ours as an abiding and inward possession, but Paul has already been at the receiving end of such love from Philemon and derived much joy and comfort from it. In what way since Paul had never been in Collosse [Col.2v1].
It seems that Philemon had been so loving to the saints in the churches around Colosse that this was enough for Paul. Philemon's love had refreshed the saints and he seems to have made no discrimination in his love for believers locally.
Philemon seems to have had a refreshing effect upon believers without any consideration of their class. See how beautifully the Paul is preparing the way for his challenging appeal. We learn how to lay the foundation for an appeal to anyone who, having made real progress in the Christian life, struggles with some difficult, personal challenge. Lay down the facts of the gospel which best introduce the subject, then apply those facts showing how they have already touched the person in question. Then move from the general to their particular difficulty and call for an appropriate response. It is beautifully simple,
and so effective! They see the route to travel!
Paul now boldly takes the highest authoritative ground in v8-9and then relinquishes it in favour of a loving appeal on the ground of his own seniority and captivity. He makes his appeal not as a mighty apostle, but as an aged prisoner. This is not a piece of unfair emotional string pulling! For without emotion we are cold and detached. The Christian church is not a business to be run, but a family to be nurtured. It is nurtured by love. Anyone who has seen families and larger communities run along the lines of "love" will know that nothing works quite so efficiently, because all the highest motives are in operation.
While Paul often takes the high ground of
his apostolic authority, there is even higher ground - the appeal of love. He is not seeking to coerce Philemon, using his age or prison circumstances. He makes his appeal on the ground of that same love that he has for all the believers in Colosse, including Philemon and his family - and also Philemon's runaway slave, Onesimus. All of us, at some time or another have to make special pleas; what ground should we stand on? Surely the one that has the greatest element of love in it is bound to work best. It may be hardest, but
the test is the result. Love works wonders!
Paul calls Onesimus, a full-grown man, and fugitive slave, his ‘child’. By doing do Paul is striking a bold blow against the devaluation of human life involved in slavery. Philemon might have thought, “By calling that rascal 'his child’ is a bit rich!” But Paul has just begun; the name, ‘Onesimus’ means ‘useful’. And Paul says he fathered this child, ‘Useful’, during his imprisonment. And this ‘child’ is presented as if perfectly respectable, whereas the father is a prisoner of imperial Rome and that is far from respectable! And so, if there are elements of the allegedly respectable about both Onesimus and Paul, there are also elements that are more than suspect.
Now the boldness of Paul in presenting the situation as he does is bound to have churned up the master's mind and make him think deep thoughts about who is respectable, and who not. His runaway slave is presented to him by an eminent, Christian apostle as a valued brother.
Paul has indicated that a heinous sinner has become an entirely new person with a completely new parentage, both human and divine. Paul would not do so, until he saw signs of the new birth in his new-born child. In such circumstances what can we do but think radically?
Paul explains to Philemon in v11-12 how at last Onesimus has begun to live up to his name. An absent slave was no use to Philemon, and as long as he bore the name ‘Useful’it was a glaring misnomer. But now that he is transformed by God’s grace he is useful to Paul in Rome, but also to Philemon! How? Because, Paul was sending him back. Philemon could see the change for himself. Philemon, would have the opportunity to test the reality of Paul’s claim. Onesimus stood before him, first to express his sorrow for all the wrong he had done, and secondly to ask for forgiveness, and place himself under Philemon’s authority again.
But that is not all: Paul is not only sending back the converted slave to seek forgiveness, but by so doing he is tearing out his own heart - for ‘heart’ read ‘the seat of all feeling and affection’. This is how much the Onesimus has come to mean to Paul - not merely an attendant, but as his own child.
What tender-hearted parent would send away
their dear child thus tearing their hearts out?
Poor Philemon! Before reading these lines
this very person would be standing
before him like the prodigal trying to
mouth his confession and apology.
Talk about heaping coals of fire upon
the head of another - and coals of love.
Nothing burns so painfully!
Paul now tells Philemon what he wants. He would have liked to have kept Onesimusso that he could minister to him on behalf of Philemon during his imprisonment. A little touch of apostolic authority, shows itself in his appeal. Paul is saying, “Philemon, although I want these negotiations to be conducted in a loving, familial manner, there is something you must not forget”.
Paul makes it plain that he could make use of his apostolic authority, but he chooses a higher route, just as Jesus coming to us as a humble child was more effective than if he had come as a glorious King.
Had Paul stood on the ground of apostolic authority, and said that his wish to keep
Onesimuswas appropriate since it gave
Philemon an opportunity to minister to him in
the Gospel. A Gospel that had been brought to Philemon and the whole province of Asia in the first place, by Paul.
If there is any obligation, it is first to the one who brought them the Gospel! For the bearer of the good news puts the person receiving it under a perpetual obligation. Of course, that must not be used for purposes of coercive blackmail –
although sometimes, sadly that has been the case.
One converted under a certain ministry and minister may in the fullness of time seek deeper instruction and so move on elsewhere, but it should be done in grace. It should be done kindly and openly, and in gratitude of the blessing previously received.
Paul was the means by which the Gospel came to Philemon and his household; now Paul is in need of help and care in prison, why shouldn’t his convert Philemon return the blessing, if he can do so personally, or through his slave? It is the mutuality of our fellowship in the Gospel which helps to build the church and destroys every form of hierarchy. Hallelujah!