We are spending the next two weeks in a series titled Clean Break. We will be exploring how forgiveness should influence how we treat those over whom we have authority as we extend grace instead of demands. Then we'll begin to unpack how our family in Christ changes how we relate to others in conflict.
This message is based on Philemon 1-11.
This morning we’re starting a new series titled Clean Break. This is a short series, we’ll spend just two weeks here, and while I usually do more topical series, this is a series based on a single book. We’ll be in Philemon both weeks. And this is the first time I’ve ever preached from Philemon, so I’ve kind of enjoyed digging into this book.
To give just a little background here, we didn’t read far enough this morning to see this, but Onesimus was a slave. Verse 15-16 says, “Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good – no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.”
Now we sometimes struggle with mentions of slavery. And we might struggle with this book, knowing that Philemon was a slave-owner, and the book is written about Onesimus, who was a slave. We think of the conditions of the slaves in the south in our history, and it was a pretty bleak, sometimes barbaric time in our history. Slaves were treated harshly, and slavery was almost exclusively racial. But in the Roman Empire, that wasn’t so. There may have been some who were a harsh with their slaves, but that certainly wasn’t the norm.
Tim Keller wrote a book titled Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work. There’s a section that talks about slavery in the Roman Empire, and he points out that are four main differences between the slavery of Jesus’ time, and the slavery in our history. First, I’ve mentioned that our slavery was racial. That wasn’t the case in the Roman Empire. Slaves could come from any nation or race.
Second, slavery was often a form of bankruptcy. We saw last week when the servant couldn’t pay their debt, they were sometimes sold into slavery until they could repay their debt. Slaves were usually paid, or the money they would have been paid applied to their debt. So they were more like employees, only they couldn’t leave until the debt was repaid, or they saved enough to buy themselves out of slavery, which happened fairly often.
Third, slavery was rarely permanent. Slaves would pay off their debt and be released or save enough to buy their freedom. In fact, a commentary I looked at suggested it rarely lasted more than 10 years. And finally, since they were paid, and provided houses, and could have families, a lot of the slaves of the wealthy and government officials lived better than a lot of people.
In the American South, people were kidnapped from their homes in Africa, brought here and sold into slavery, and had no way of ever gaining their freedom. Not to mention they were treated brutally and had no recourse. It was a totally different system in the Roman Empire.
So in light of that, if Onesimus was a household employee of Philemon, would this book have the same connotations for you? If you’re having trouble with this book because of the issue of slavery, understand that he was more like an employee under contract. He couldn’t leave until the terms of the contract was fulfilled, but that’s really a better way to understand what the Roman world called slavery.
Now we don’t know the whole story of what happened here. We can surmise that Onesimus ran away and somehow wronged Philemon. Maybe he wronged him by running away, he was a slave, after all. But a few commentaries suggest that it was probably more than that. Maybe he stole something, maybe he took some money that didn’t belong to him when he ran. We don’t really know.
This letter was written while Paul was in prison in Rome. Somehow, Onesimus came in contact with Paul while Paul was under house arrest in Rome. Onesimus became a trusted friend and provided some things that Paul needed. Paul trusted him, and he became like a son to him. I have to assume that Paul and Onesimus knew each other for some time before Onesimus mentioned his past, that he was a runaway slave who had deeply wronged Philemon.
Paul talks Onesimus into doing the right thing, going back to Philemon and turning himself in, so to speak, and seeking forgiveness. As a Christian who had wronged another, Onesimus had to go to Philemon and try to find reconciliation. Paul writes this letter to kind of provide a cushion. I assume Philemon knew Paul, or at least knew of him.
Verse 7 says, “Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.” It sounds like Paul has first-hand knowledge of Philemon, so Paul is using his influence to try to help. There are three things I want to bring out of our reading this morning as Paul writes this letter.
First, Paul writes to elicit a little compassion. He tells Philemon in verse 9, “I then, as Paul, an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus…” He points out that he’s an old man in prison, maybe Philemon could take pity on him and do what Paul is asking.
Second, Paul mentions Onesimus’ conversion. In verse 10, he writes, “I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains.” Paul brought Onesimus to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. And Onesimus has gone through a change of heart, a very real rebirth, that changed how he lived. He served Paul well while he was prison, but he has to do the right thing and go back now. And when he does, he will serve Philemon well. Paul uses this again in verse 16, asking that Philemon accept him back “as a dear brother. He is very dear to me, but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.”
And there are two more things to keep in mind here, first, remember in the opening comments, that Philemon had a church meet in his home. He addressed this letter, “To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archipus our fellow soldier, and to the church that meets in your home.” So Philemon is a fellow brother in Christ, and certainly a fellow laborer, as he hosts a house church. So he wants to impress upon him that Onesimus isn’t the same as he was, he’s not just a slave anymore, he’s a brother in Christ.
And to impress upon Philemon the change that’s taken place, Paul writes that “formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful to both you and me.” And he’s not referring to the previous usefulness as a slave, he referring to usefulness as a fellow servant of Christ’s. He’s now a believer and he can be helpful in the church.
And thirdly, he tells Philemon that over the time he’s known Onesimus, he’s developed a strong relationship with him. He talked about how useful he was in Paul’s work, but then in verse 12, which we didn’t read today, but he wrote, “I am sending him – who is my very heart – back to you.” Paul was letting him know that it was breaking his heart to do this, but it was the right thing. Again, maybe looking for some compassion, but also telling Philemon how valuable his assistance, and his friendship for that matter, had become.
So we’ve seen some background on the book. What can we learn from it? Why is it in the bible? What’s the real lesson here for us? Well, for whatever reason, Onesimus and Philemon had a conflict. There was a breakdown in their relationship. And Onesimus ran away, maybe even stole some money from Philemon to make his new life possible. But now there’s a need for reconciliation.
And I want to ask you this morning, have you ever had a conflict with another person? Not just a disagreement about something that might have been uncomfortable for a little while, but an actual conflict that tore apart your relationship? I’m sure you have. I think we all have at one time or another. Is there a relationship that, because of some conflict, is in need of reconciliation? Take just a minute and write their name down on your notes. We’re going to come back to that.
Now what I want you to understand here is that Philemon was a good guy. He was a strong believer who held a house church in his home. He seems like he was gracious and loving to the community, in verse 5 Paul had heard about his faith and love for other believers, people must have been talking about him in positive ways. Verse 7 says he has refreshed the hearts of the saints. He’s a good guy, right?
And even though he owned a slave, who ran away, Paul never mentions that he ever mistreated him, only lifting up Philemon’s faith. He mentions that he is a faithful follower of Jesus. And then Paul appeals to his faith and asks him to extend that to Onesimus. We don’t know that Philemon did anything wrong. We don’t what caused this. From what we can see, Philemon might have been an innocent victim in all of this. You might have been an innocent victim. But there was an unresolved conflict that needed reconciliation. And Paul is trying to help bring about that reconciliation.
Let’s think about this another way. Let’s assume that Onesimus was Philemon’s employee. And as an employee, he does something wrong. And maybe he quits or gets fired. And he burns a bridge with his boss. Maybe he wrongs his reputation or the company’s reputation somehow. He leaves in anger. Storms out and makes a scene.
But let’s say for the sake of the story, that that employee later finds Jesus. His life is changed, he literally becomes the new creation Paul talks about. And he wants to make it right. So he goes back to his employer, the one he wronged, the one he stormed away from, and he asks for his job back. What do think would happen in this situation?
And would it change anything if the employer was a Christian? If his boss actually volunteers at church, even teaches Sunday School? What if the entire community knows this person as a Christian businessman? Does that change how he handles this situation? I think it should, what do you think? I think the bible is clear that we should forgive. I think we saw last week just how clear it is, and how necessary forgiveness is to live a life of faith. So should the employer forgive the employee?
In the 2005 movie, The Interpreter, Nicole Kidman plays Sylvia Bloom, a South African who now works as an interpreter at the United Nations. She overhears an assassination plot, and a US Secret Service agent is assigned to investigate this. There is a scene in the movie where she talks about forgiving a person who had killed a family member. Let’s watch this clip…
Early on in the clip, she said, “everyone who loses someone wants revenge on someone, on God if they can’t find anyone else.” She said, “the only way to end grief is to save a life.” Then she told about the ritual that the African tribe follows. You could let the man drown, and take vengeance, but sped the rest of your life grieving. Or you could save the man and find peace.
And that last line, “Vengeance is a lazy form of grief.” It’s in our nature to want vengeance. But it’s our human nature, our sinful nature. Our spiritual nature recognizes the need to forgive. We can only move on when we forgive. And forgiveness was at the heart of the drowning man trial, isn’t it? If the family could forgive, they could move on. If they couldn’t forgive, if they refused to save the man, they couldn’t move on, they would never be free from their grief.
That’s the choice Philemon has in this book. He could take his grief, his offense, his anger at what Onesimus had done to him, and never forgive. He could hold on to his anger. It’s a choice he has to make. He could choose to hold on to his anger. Or he could choose to let it go. To forgive the one who wronged him. To welcome him back as a fellow brother in Christ and show love to him.
A few minutes ago, I had you write down a name. Someone who wronged you. Someone who did something and now you’re angry. The relationship was destroyed. Maybe they were a believer and should have known better. Maybe they weren’t a believer and had no idea. Maybe they don’t even know how angry this has made you. Maybe that person is in this room today. You see them every Sunday.
Maybe you’re the innocent victim like Philemon was. They were entirely in the wrong. You have no idea why they did what they did. But let me remind you that, just as Jesus doesn’t hold our sins against us anymore, we need to forgive others, too. As Paul appealed to the love that Philemon knew, maybe he’s pleading with you to show that love to the name you wrote down. It’s your choice. But you can never really move on until you choose to forgive. So, can you choose to forgive?