We are in the second of our two-week series titled Clean Break: Relationships in the Book of Philemon. This Sunday we'll see how belonging to the family of God changes how we treat people, even those over whom we have authority. Our fellowship with Christ and with other believers changes how we handle conflict.
This message is based on Philemon 12:25.
This is our second week in the book of Philemon, in our series called Clean Break. Last week we did a couple things. First, we saw how slavery was different in the Roman Empire from what we think of. It was not only so widely accepted in that day that it would be hard to imagine their culture without it; but we also saw that it wasn’t racially dived, it was the standard way they handled bankruptcy, it was temporary in nature, and they actually got paid and could have families while they worked off their debt.
Almost every commentary I looked at touched on slavery in the Roman Empire. That issue, and the fact that this book is written to a slave owner, concerning a slave, makes it hard for us to even begin to understand the book if we can’t understand the practice of slavery at that time. We live in a land today where even a statue of Robert E. Lee is offensive. Slavery is one of those unmentionables in our past. And this is a book about a relationship that was formed by slavery. So please try to accept that slavery was done back then, but that it was done very differently than we did it in our past. And don’t let that keep you from understanding the rest of the book.
Second, last week we saw Paul’s firm plea for Philemon to forgive Onesimus, that the two might be reconciled to one another. And we saw that this book can be just as strong a plea for us, that we’ve got to be serious about living at peace with each other. Paul wrote in Romans 12:8, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” If anyone has something against you, try to find reconciliation.
Now I didn’t stress the reality last week that sometimes it’s not possible to reconcile. Sometimes they just aren’t interested. Maybe they’re no longer around. Maybe they’ve moved away and you’ll never see them again, maybe they’ve died. But whether reconciliation is possible or not, forgiveness is. You can forgive them for the hurt they’ve caused you whether they are repentant or not. You can choose to let go of the pain and not hold it against them anymore.
I wasn’t real clear on that last week. So to clarify, God forgives us as we forgive others. He desires that we reconcile our differences, so we need to try. But that might not be possible. Either way, we need to forgive them for the hurt they’ve caused us. And we can forgive whether they’re repentant or not. It doesn’t matter if they even acknowledge their role, you can let it go.
So now that we’ve been brought up to speed, I think there are three main themes in this letter. They are forgiveness, reconciliation, and love. We did a pretty good job at covering the first two last week, so this week I want to turn our attention to looking at Christian love for one another.
And the big idea if you will, what I hope you’ll remember when you leave here this morning, is that our relationship with God changes how we treat people, even those people we might have authority over, whether in the workplace or at home, or at church. Our love for one another changes how we handle forgiveness and reconciliation, that becomes a priority. Our love changes how we handle conflict, we should be genuinely concerned for others. We should be trying to make all conflict healthy conflict, so we can grow stronger and grow closer together.
In verse 6, the NIV that I’m using translates this, “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.” That was the original NIV, they changed it in 2011. In the newer editions they’ve changed it to, “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.” They sound very different, don’t they?
The new fits better with some of the other English translations, and here’s why. Paul used the word koinonia. You’ve heard that word, it’s usually translated as fellowship or community, though it refers to a deep community or brotherhood, kind of an intimate association or group. It was most commonly used to describe two things: marriage, an intimate association between two people, and the church. The early church was a very intimate association, people knew each other very well, they knew everything about each other.
The old translation I read leaves that intimate association out of it. It translates it as sharing, in the phrase sharing your faith. And to us, that has a connotation of evangelism, but Paul is talking about sharing your lives together. Sharing your faith doesn’t capture the meaning of the phrase. The newer translation translates it as partnership, in the phrase, “your partnership with us.” Koinonia could mean a very close partnership, this is better at catching Paul’s intent.
Paul is saying in this letter, even though Onesimus is your slave, he shares in this Koinonia, he is now a close partner, part of the intimate fellowship you share with the believers in your church. He’s an equal. Now love him accordingly.
I want to talk about a couple of the passages in this letter that talk about love. I think the fundamental one is verse 9, “I appeal to you on the basis of love.” Obviously one of the core principals of the Christian faith is that we love each other. That’s the new command Jesus gives us, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). And it’s on the basis of that love for one another that Paul basis his appeal. He’s your brother in Christ, you need to love him.
In the letter you get the feeling that Paul has no doubt that Philemon will accept Onesimus back, because he points out a few times that Philemon is a man of love. He loves like a Christian ought to love. In verse 5 he writes, “I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints.” It’s like he’s saying, of course you’ll welcome Onesimus back with love, you love all the saints.
In verse 7, Paul tells him that, “Your love has given me great joy and encouragement.” Paul has felt Philemon’s love, he’s been encouraged by that love. He feels joy thinking about that love. Just based on the love that Philemon shows other believers, he has no doubt Onesimus will be welcomed back as a believer.
One more thought here before we move on. How do we know when someone really loves us? In John 14:15, Jesus tells His disciples how to show their love: “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” We show our love for people by doing what they ask us to do. Even if it sounds a little outlandish, we try to find a way to do it. Remember back to when you were dating, I bet you did anything she wanted, right! Because you loved her, right? I don’t know what happens, maybe that’s the subject of another sermon. But when we love one another, we look for opportunities to do things for them.
Back to Philemon, in verse 21, Paul writes, “Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing you will do even more than I ask.” Because Paul knows of Philemon’s love for the brothers, he is confident in his obedience, he knows he’ll do him this favor.
So we can express our love to others through obedience, we do what they ask. If they need a favor, they know they can rely on us. There are a couple other ways we can show our love for others as well. Matthew 25:34-36 says, “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’”
This is such a powerful verse about showing our love for others. We show them love them by looking after them, providing for them, helping them anyway we can. If they’re hungry or thirsty, we can help. If they are a stranger, or feeling estranged, we can be a friend. If they need material things, we can help. If they are sick, we can look in on them. If they are prison, we can visit. We can be there for them however they might need it. And the real beauty of this verse is that it tells us that when we do these things for others, we do them for Christ Jesus. If you want to serve Jesus, serve whoever needs something.
Now understand what this means. Christians should be known for their love. John 13:35 says, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.” People will know that we love Jesus if we love others. Who are the others? The poor, the naked, the hungry, the homeless. But your neighbors and coworkers are the others, too. The people you sit next to in church are the others, too. Everyone you see should be showed your love. Then people will know that the love of God is real.
And the church should be known for its love, too. Peter Enns did a study to find out what people found was the most difficult thing about remaining faithful. It wasn’t a real formal study, he just asked people on his blog and podcasts, and in his church. He expected to find things like God was distant or seemed absent altogether, or God didn’t answer a prayer the way I wanted, or the violence of God as seen in the Old Testament, or that Science has explained nature differently than the bible, or just how weird a life of Christ would look compared the way of the world.
But what he actually found was that the biggest reason people struggled with their faith had to do with how they were treated by other Christians. In our country, some 80-85% of the population claims to be Christian. But only about 15% actually attend church regularly. If Peter Enns is right, the majority didn’t stop because they were disenchanted with God. They left because they were disenchanted by church. They didn’t feel loved. But folks, we are the church. If they are going to feel loved, they have to feel loved by us.
Jesus said, they will know you are my disciples if you love one another. Love is important. It’s the first of the Fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22. It’s defined in detail in 1 Corinthians 13. And 1 John 4:8 puts it as clearly as anything I’ve seen, “Whoever does not know love does not know God, because God is love.”
Our worldly self doesn’t know this kind of love. But when the Holy Spirit comes into our life and begins the process of transforming us into the image of Christ, one of the first things we learn is how to love like God loves. The early church had this down. They were together every day, they grew close to one another as they grew closer to God.
But over the years church became less about who we are in Christ Jesus and more about something we do on Sunday mornings. It became less about our exclusive identity as a part of the family of God, and all that that entails. And more about a building, a place to do Godly things. But that’s not right. We’ve got to recapture our relationship with Jesus. As He said in Revelation 2:4, “You have forsaken your first love.” We can’t love others as ourselves if we’ve forsaken our first love. Love is the key. Love is so important. We should be so in love with Jesus that it overflows into every other relationship we have.
Philemon could accept Onesimus back because he was a man of love. Could we do something like that? Could we love when everything points against it? Can we love when a brother has wronged us? Love is at the heart of Christianity. Can we truly love?
A side note. This letter doesn’t tell us what happened. And the rest of Scripture is silent on these two. There is a theory that says that Philemon released Onesimus, and that Onesimus returned to Paul and became his helper and ally in the work of the gospel. Ignatius, in his writings, mentions an Onesimus, Bishop of Ephesus some forty or more years later. Could it be the same man?
Perhaps it was. Perhaps that’s why the book of Philemon is in the bible. Because the Bishop of Ephesus insisted it got included with Paul’s letters. Because it tells the story of what God could do in the life of a runaway slave and thief, and how he owes his life to the ministry of Paul and to the Glory of Jesus Christ. It’s amazing what can happen when we’re surrendered to Christ.