Don’t Mess with Onesimus (Philemon)

Today is the first of four devotionals I will put online on the first four Mondays of January in this new year. Apart from next week’s study (where I’ll do a write-up on my own after Peter Frey’s guest sermon on Jude), these will be largely some edited versions of the morning sermon.

This series is called “Nooks and Crannies: One Chapter Wonders” and will cover the four single-chapter books of the NT – Philemon, Jude, 2 John, 3 John. Today, we begin by looking at the letter of Paul to Philemon, with the very cool title of Don’t Mess with Onesimus! 

The primary character featured in the letter is a fellow named Onesimus. Did you remember Onesimus? Is that a new name to you?  Or perhaps you’ve had to dust it off a bit in your mind.  And that is the way it is with these short writings. It is like when you get into the attic in your house to find something you haven’t looked at in a while. And indeed, winter is a good time to check out the nooks and crannies in our attics and see what treasures might be hidden there and forgotten. And we likewise tend to forget the shorter writings of Scripture and the gems of truth they present. So we will spend January of this new year pulling out the four shortest books of the New Testament and mentally dusting them off to see again the great teachings they possess.

Something that I believe many Christians either do not know, or at least do not think about, is that the chapter and verse divisions are not a part of the original writings of Scripture. For example, David in writing his Psalms and Paul in writing his letters did not divide their text in any way. They wrote straight-ahead, in a through-composed sort of way, just like we would write a letter. Some chapter divisions were added in the Middle Ages, with verse divisions not truly being codified until the 1600s.

When we think of the Bible scholars who first brought the Word of God into the English language, the name we first recall is William Tyndale – a man martyred for his faith and work. It was in the late 1630s that his labors contributed to something called the “Great Bible.”  It was “great” in the sense that it was huge!  It was truly a church Bible – for use by clergy on lecterns. And people could come into the church and see and (if they were literate) actually read the Bible in their English language. These Bibles were chained in place so that they could not be stolen… being deemed that valuable!  Clergy would often be heard in those days complaining that the people seemed to come to church more to read the Bible than to hear their sermons!

Does any of this history give you a new sense of thanks for the compact Word of God printed for us, or that we have on our phones and computers?  Christians just 400 years ago – not really that long ago – would have been totally blown away by such resources which simply did not exist in their time, but that they would have so exceedingly valued. We live in a wonderful age.

So why pick out these four books if there are no God-ordained or inspired chapter divisions?  Well, even so, they are probably the four most non-read and overlooked – dare I say “nooks and crannies” – books of the New Testament … and of the entire Bible. Indeed, 3 John is the shortest, followed by 2 John and Philemon. And only Obadiah of the Old Testament is about 20 words shorter than Jude. But especially, we do this, because we want to be a church that does indeed cover the whole Word of God, recognizing as Paul said that “all Scripture is profitable.”

Have you ever needed to implore someone to do something, all the while realizing that it is indeed going to cost them something to make it happen?  Perhaps it is a scenario where you know something is good for them, or perhaps it is simply the right thing to do – though you are not sure they will quite see it the same way as you do?  You hope so, you think so; but you’re not quite sure how they will react when you present it to them. In that you have a high view of them, you expect that it will be well-received, but you can’t quite be positive. So, to make sure that the proper deed will be accomplished, while asking and challenging the person to be responsible and take the high ground position, even with its costs, you finish off your request by saying, “If you won’t pay for it, I will.”

That is what is happening in this personal letter from the Apostle Paul to a fellow named Philemon. This recipient of the letter – an apparently wealthy individual who lived in Colossae and was a part of the church of the Colossians – had a slave named Onesimus who had run away. In the course of God’s sovereignly directed events, Onesimus comes into contact with Paul, is converted to the faith, and is now being sent back to his owner Philemon.

There is not time now to talk about the issue of slavery in the Roman Empire. Understand that it was not exactly like slavery in American history; and in fact, more than half of the ancient population were slaves. Owners and slaves were in the same church together, and Paul did not write to upset these conventions. Though we might picture it more like indentured servitude, it was a crime to run away as Onesimus had done.

So Paul writes to implore Philemon to accept him back. Paul speaks of the great benefit he has received during his imprisonment from Onesimus, and he tells the owner that he will now not only have a better worker, he will be welcoming back a brother in Christ.

Paul’s Greeting to Philemon, 1-3 … and you see immediately that it is written to a wider audience than merely Philemon …   

1 – Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker— 2 also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home: 3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

There is one little thing I like about a snow day where I’m stuck at home, and it’s certainly not the snow! I don’t ever need to see snow again; I’ve had quite enough for one lifetime. But while at home with no place to go or schedule to meet, I am able to sit for hours at a time and accomplish things through writing that I don’t generally have the opportunity to get done.

That is a bit what Paul’s life was like as he spent two years in Rome, under guard. We read about it in Acts 28:30 – For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. 31 He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!

During this time, we know that Paul wrote several of his letters to churches and individuals.

And also at this time, Timothy is with him … as he was for the writing of Colossians and 2 Corinthians.

Philemon – the specific recipient of the letter – is probably a wealthy fellow, in that he owned slaves and in that the church met in his home.

Apphia – this is believed to be Philemon’s wife, with Archippus his son … mentioned again in Colossians.

Notice the terms that Paul uses of the folks …

  • Timothy – brother
  • Philemon – dear friend, fellow-worker
  • Apphia – sister
  • Archippus – fellow soldier

In these terms we see relationships on the levels of: family / co-workers, on-the-job pals, teammates / soldiers and fellow warriors  …. And so it is in the church of Christ. And that is how it is, and should be, at places … say … like TSF in Hagerstown!

And then there is the standard greeting of: grace – Greek, Christian word / peace, shalom – Hebrew background.

And this greeting, “to you” is plural … to y’all.  But then it shifts specifically to Philemon …

Paul’s Praise and Thanksgiving for Philemon, 4-7 … There is much for Paul to applaud about the character and life of this wealthy leader within the Colossian church.

4 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. 6 I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. 7 Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.

Paul is thankful for Philemon’s displays of love for the people of the church family … he had opened his home (vs. 2), which may not have been the most popular thing to do in that culture of the Roman world. And he “refreshed them” … a statement suggesting his generosity toward others.

And Paul is thankful for his faith – for his growth in it and partnering with such as Paul himself. How was Paul aware of this?  Because Epaphrus, who was instrumental in founding the church in Colossae, is mentioned later in verse 23 as with Paul when he is writing this letter.

A summary of what Paul is communicating here is something like this: “Philemon – you’ve got a good track record of faithfulness and generosity, so I’ve got great confidence in you as I encourage you to continue life in this way.”  Paul is setting him up … but not “buttering him up” for what is coming next.

Paul’s Plea for Onesimus, 8-16 … You can feel it coming. Now Paul gets to the main purpose for writing this letter …

8 Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9 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. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.

12 I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 13 I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. 15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.

Paul, as an Apostle, had the authority to order Philemon to do the right thing. But Paul desired him to want to do it, not to do it because he had to. So Paul appeals to him on three grounds …

  • Love – as a Christian principle that underlies everything … continuing in what was Philemon’s life pattern.
  • Old Age – Paul here is probably about age 60 (which of course is not very old at all these days, right?). Paul was probably an old 60 … from a time of shorter lifespans; and consider all the sufferings he had endured.
  • Imprisonment – How do you refuse such a request from someone suffering in such a situation?

And then in verse 10, Paul goes to the heart of the matter – that unlike before, Onesimus is now a Christian believer. We don’t know the circumstances of Onesimus in his fugitive status coming upon Paul and finding Christ. But it had happened, and now Paul calls him a “son.”

And verse 11 is really interesting!  It is lost in English. A part of the name Onesimus means “useful.”  So his name was “Useful!”  Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. So Paul is saying that ole Useful is no longer Useless, he really is … USEFUL!

Paul goes on to speak of how Onesimus had become dear to him, and sending him back was like sending away a part of his heart. If Paul were only to be thinking of himself, he would certainly have liked for Onesimus to stay. And Paul wants to yield that prerogative to Philemon, not simply assume it.

And then in verses 15 and 16, Paul reflects upon the overall sovereign plan of God. As with many things that go awry, we find out later that what appeared to be a sad loss was actually, in God’s plan, a way for great gain. Now, Philemon could have Onesimus back, not merely as a useful worker, but so much better than that – as a brother in Christ!!  One in the flesh, and one in the Lord!

In essence, what Paul says to Philemon is, “Don’t mess with Onesimus!”

Paul’s Promise to Philemon, 17-21 … And we see right away here that Paul viewed Onesimus as a partner in ministry, just as he presumed Philemon would see Paul …  

17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.  So, all three of them were partners! 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. 20 I do wish, brother, that I may have 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 ask.

This is my favorite part of this letter, as it presents a beautiful picture that is so much more than just the material stuff and currency of this world. Paul says he’ll pay any debts owed by Onesimus, and Philemon could see by Paul’s unique handwriting that it was certainly he who was penning these words.

And a couple other zingers are thrown in here:  a) Philemon owed his own spiritual life and eternal salvation to the ministry of Paul, and … b) Philemon wasn’t there to help Paul, but a way he could help that would mean so much is if he would take these matters to heart and to receive Onesimus back openly and warmly.

And Paul expresses his confidence in Philemon to exceed these hopes and requests.

But here is the great picture we should see in these verses. This is an example of the theological doctrine of imputation – the placing of a debt to another’s account, and the consequent transfer of credit that frees the person from the pending execution if the debt is not paid.

The death debt of our sin had been transferred previously from our account to that of Christ, who paid that debt with the shedding of blood on the cross. Therefore, we have a new identity by being “in Christ”. And we have Christ’s righteousness transferred back to our account which gives us a standing as God’s children.

Again, we call this “imputation.”  It is the credit that we need that we cannot get by our deeds. It is what the gospel is all about. And I think it is one of the best and clearest illustrations of what constitutes salvation.

Paul’s Personal Words to Philemon and the Colossians, 22-25 … As is typical in Paul’s letters, or anyone’s letters, there are some final words …

22 And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.

23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. 24 And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.

25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

Paul rightly anticipated that he was soon going to be released from his home arrest situation and would be able to see them again.

So what are the takeaway points of this little letter from the New Testament nooks and crannies?  Two main things …

1 – The pervasive nature of mutual caring and support for one another in the body of Christ.

This letter is filled, from beginning to end, with admonitions and thanks for the mutual support that is to be found in “Team Jesus / Team Church.”  This is the way it should be, both within the walls of the immediate family gathered, to concern for those who serve and who suffer far from us.

So it is our calling to …

… pray for and practically support others in the church family as they go through times of struggle, physically or otherwise.

… pray for and practically support those who take the gospel message to the corners of the earth – as we have relationships with people and churches who are literally 11-12 time zones away!

… care for a new, Christian, refugee immigrant family now a part of our church, coming to us from Ethiopia and having profound needs of getting established in a foreign culture and context.

… make space in our lives and schedules for ministries like REACH, Hagerstown Area Pregnancy Center, FCA, Young Life, Cedar Ridge, CEF Good News Club … we want to see people’s needs met both practically and spiritually.

The second takeaway …

2 – The reason we care for each other and give to each other is because we have been cared for and have received incredible grace in our account.

Yes, what we have is “imputed righteousness” … the greatest, most necessary gift ever – and one that could never be earned.

“While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” – Romans 5:8

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” – 2 Corinthians 8:9

And because of our imputed righteousness and our new standing as children of God, Satan is not able to accuse us; and is not ultimately able to mess with us!


This entry was posted in Nooks and Crannies and tagged , by Randy Buchman. Bookmark the permalink.

About Randy Buchman

I live in Western Maryland, and among my too many pursuits and hobbies, I regularly feed multiple hungry blogs. I played college baseball, coached championship cross country teams at Williamsport (MD) High School, and have been a sportswriter for various publications and online venues. My main profession is as the lead pastor of a church in Hagerstown called Tri-State Fellowship. And I'm active in Civil War history and work/serve at Antietam National Battlefield with the Antietam Battlefield Guides organization. Occasionally I sleep.

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