Tough Conversations

Posted: March 2, 2009 in Philemon

Philemon 1-7, “Tough Conversations”

Most likely written at the same time as the letters to Ephesians & Colossians, the letter to Philemon is unique in the NT – not only because it’s the shortest letter we have from Paul, but because it’s also the only personal letter we have from Paul.

Although there are other names mentioned, the body of the letter focuses on three people: Paul, Onesimus (a runaway slave), and Philemon (the master from which he had run away). We don’t know many of the details, but the basics are this: Onesimus had been the slave of Philemon – who was a friend of Paul & a leader in his local church. At some point, Onesimus stole either money or property from Philemon & fled to Rome. Due to the providence of God, Onesimus comes in contact with Paul (in prison at the time) who leads him to Christ. Onesimus becomes a friend to Paul & valued partner in the ministry, but there’s still the issue of restoration & reconciliation with his former master. Thus Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon along with this letter, offering to set things right & asking Philemon to forgive his slave & accept him back as a true brother in the Lord.

Sometimes Christians need encouragement to do the right thing – “right” being defined as what the Scripture would have us do. From the world’s perspective, the right thing for Philemon to do would be to punish Onesimus. After all, he had: a legitimate personal hurt – a legal right to punish him – and social superiority in the culture. Add up all this, and he had an abundant right to seek retribution…but ultimately for the Christian, we are under a higher authority – our bodies aren’t our own. All these ‘rights’ are still subservient to the gospel & Christ Jesus!

From Paul’s perspective, he could have made this pretty cut & dry. As an Apostle of the Lord, he had the authority to command Philemon to release Onesimus from his debt of obligations – but in the end, that would only address the action; not the heart. Obviously we are instructed to forgive and love one another – but no one can force us to do so…that’s a work within our own heart. Paul wanted Philemon to want to do the right thing; not to approach it as an obligation…

Beyond the personal request, Paul puts faith into action as we see the gospel demonstrated before our very eyes. A slave has committed grievous sin, but has been confronted with the gospel of Jesus Christ & been saved. Now a representative of Jesus sends the slave back & asks that he would no longer be received as a slave, but as a brother in the Lord. He offers to take responsibility for the sin the slave had formerly committed & make restitution for him. And all of this is done in an atmosphere of love & grace.

That’s the gospel! That’s exactly what happened to each of us who are born-again believers in Jesus Christ. Enslaved to sin & running from its consequences, we encountered our Savior who takes the wages for our sin upon Himself, imputes His righteousness to us in its stead, & gives us a new family where we are all one in the Body of Christ. In a sense, (as Martin Luther said) all of us are Onesimus. 

Why take the 1st few verses separately? Again, this is a very personal letter from Paul. He doesn’t come out blasting commands, but exhorting in love. So how do we go about exhorting one another in matters of the heart? How do we spur one another on to good works without it being based upon guilt or legalism? These are areas in which we need to tread carefully, but boldly in the love of Christ!

The introduction lays the foundation for which Paul is going to ask for mercy for Onesimus. He comes to Philemon: (1) In Jesus Christ, (2) in love, (3) in desire for Philemon’s walk & witness to even further improve…

Philemon 1-11 (NKJV)
1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved friend and fellow laborer,

A. Paul doesn’t approach Philemon as an Apostle, but as a “prisoner of Christ Jesus…” He’s going to get to this more in depth in verse 9 – but it underscores the idea that Paul had the authority to command forgiveness, but he wasn’t exercising it.
__a. Note Paul doesn’t describe himself as a prisoner of Rome, but of Jesus…

B. Timothy is listed as a co-author, but the words are obviously 1st hand from Paul…

C. They approach Philemon not in accusation; but as one who is “beloved”: (“friend” assumed by translators). What’s noteworthy here is that Paul doesn’t lay out any sort of sin he believes Philemon has committed (which he hasn’t), nor even assume that Philemon will respond to Onesimus with less than grace in a lack of love. It’s actually the opposite – to Paul & Timothy, Philemon is the “beloved.”
__a. True agape love believes the best – that’s simply part of its definition. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (4) Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; (5) does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; (6) does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; (7) bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. [] When we believe or assume the worst about someone, then we’re not truly loving them in Christ…

D. They approach Philemon not as an outsider; but as a “fellow laborer”: One compound word in Gk literally meaning “to work with.” We don’t know if Philemon ever traveled on the mission field with Paul – nor do we see him mentioned among other elders or teachers. But one thing’s for sure: Paul saw him as someone whom he worked with in the labor of the gospel.

E. The point? Philemon isn’t some stranger; nor an enemy…he’s a comrade-in-arms. He, Paul, & Timothy are part of the same Body & same family because they’re all in Christ Jesus.

2 to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:

A. Apphia: only mention of her in the NT…most likely Philemon’s wife.

B. Archippus: We can assume from the inclusion with Apphia that Archippus is Philemon’s son – but more than that, he’s also a “fellow soldier” in ministry with Paul & Timothy. He’s likely the pastor of the church there (Col 4:17)

C. House churches were common… Possibly an indication of Philemon’s wealth…

3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

A. Standard greeting from Paul…actually the exact same wording as the greeting to Colossians… What does he actually say here?
__a. “Grace”: This was the standard Greek greeting of the day, but it obviously carries grand theological significance in Christ. How so? Because without the grace of the Lord Jesus at the Cross, none of us would have a reason to greet one another to begin with! Our relationship as the Church of Christ begins 1st and foremost in the grace of Christ… “Grace” is the kindness of God showered down upon us because of His work to forgive us our sin. We deserved His everlasting judgment – He gave us the opportunity to repent through His mercy – He gives us the means of repentance through His grace.
__b. “Peace”: Standard Hebrew (shalom) greeting & essential to Paul’s standard opening because these two words express the core of the gospel message. Through the grace of God, we now have peace with God. We don’t often understand that in our sin, we are truly enemies of God. (We’ve rebelled…) Does God still love us before we come to Christ? Sure – but we’re still under the sentence of His wrath as His enemies. He desires us to be saved, but He still must satisfy His justice… That’s where grace comes in. Because of the work of Jesus at the cross & resurrection, the punishment for our sin has already been meted out & done away with. Now through the grace of Christ, we are actually at peace with God & have the freedom to glorify Him.
____i. Because we have peace with God, we also can now have peace with one another…Jesus himself IS our peace (Eph 2:14).
__c. Where do grace & peace originate? God! “God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ…” Two parts of the Tri-Une Godhead…fully equal in power & essence though distinct in their Persons. Jesus is no less God than the Father as both grace & peace find their source in Him. …

B. Beyond just a standard greeting, why is this important for Paul to reiterate? After all, Philemon obviously knew him well – he would have understood grace & peace well enough…not to mention he would have just have heard the same greeting given in the letter to the Colossians. Everything Paul is going to ask of Philemon is based upon the Person and work of Jesus Christ… Think of it this way: (1) What gave Paul the opportunity to approach Philemon at all? Because they were both saved by Christ. (2) What gives Paul the reason to seek forgiveness for Onesimus? Because all three of them had already been forgiven by Jesus. (3) What’s Philemon’s example of showing grace? The grace he’d already received in Christ.
__a. Here’s the point: we will inevitably have challenging times when we need to approach someone else about an uncomfortable situation. Maybe it’s some way they sinned against us in the past – maybe you see something in their life that they don’t see that’s dangerous – maybe you need to break tragic news to a friend. If we’re not approaching that person first & foremost in Christ, then everything else is for naught! One thing that needs to be loud & clear is that “it’s not about us!” It’s not about what WE think is right – it’s not about what WE believe is good for them – it’s about Jesus, and what HE thinks is right. Both we and the brother/sister we’re talking to are under His authority & we need to keep in mind we’re approaching one of His servants & it’s to Christ that they are going to stand or fall (Rom 14:4). So we proceed truthfully according to His word, but always humbly in His love.

4 I thank my God, making mention of you always in my prayers,

A. Paul’s relationship with Philemon wasn’t one-sided – i.e. he wasn’t asking Philemon to do all the work here. He prayed for Philemon & thanked God for him often. IOW, he knew what Philemon was going through (or what he was about to go through regarding Onesimus) and was able to go before the throne of grace on behalf of his friend.
__a. What a privilege it is to pray for one another! Whether we can intercede for each other with great detail – or just give a brief mention of thanks, it’s simply a glorious honor. How privileged would you be to have your name come up in thanks in a meeting of the President? How much more of a privilege is it to go before the King of King on behalf of our brothers & sisters in Christ?

B. As an aside – from his epistles, it’s obvious that Paul was a man of prayer. He saw the value of prayer & engaged in it constantly… …

5 hearing of your love and faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints,

A. Why did Paul thank God for Philemon in his prayers? Because Paul knew Philemon well enough to know his character & walk with Christ. Philemon had a history and a reputation of demonstrating love toward the Lord Jesus & the Church. His faith was put into action through his love for them (which in the context of the letter, surely ought to include Onesimus as well).
__a. Is it important that we love the saints of God? Why not just love Christ Himself? Because he who loves Jesus will love those whom Jesus saved – the two simply cannot be separated. 1 John 5:1-2 (1) Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves Him who begot also loves him who is begotten of Him. (2) By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments. [] Too many people (& many professing Christians) think we can love Jesus but not the church…impossible! We cannot have one without the other. If we hate those whom Christ has truly redeemed, then we cannot say we love the Redeemer. That’s not to say we love everything people do in the name of Christ – but if we find ourselves growing cynical towards His people, it ought to be a wake-up call.

B. What a great testimony about Philemon! How great it would be for the news of our love for the Lord Jesus & His church to spread to the people around us! That’s a great thing to be known for… [] That American evangelicalism as a whole is known for it’s political preferences & pastoral scandals more than it’s love for Christ is terrible. May God give us a heart to love as He would have us to love!

6 that the sharing of your faith may become effective by the acknowledgment of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.

A. Is Paul talking about evangelism here? Yes & no. He’s not talking about sharing his faith in the same way we do. “Sharing” = κοινωνία (held in common)…speaking more of the fellowship Philemon has with other believers (and thus now with Onesimus as a new believer in Christ). Ultimately, Paul’s prayers for Philemon are for him to exercise his faith toward the Lord Jesus & all the saints (vs 5) – and that this exercise would indeed be effective.
__a. In the end, when this takes place, it IS evangelistic. John 13:34-35 (34) A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. (35) By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” []

B. What does Paul mean by the sharing (fellowship/koinonia) of his faith becoming “effective”? Gk ἐνεργής (~energy) = “to be at work/active.” (Not to make something more effective, but to be effective in the 1st place…) Basically, Paul’s saying, “Philemon, you’ve been really active in demonstrating your love for the saints & you’ve been putting your faith to work. I’m praying that you would truly experience the koinonia fellowship of Christ when you do this.”

C. How does the sharing of our faith actually become effective? “by the acknowledgment of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.” IOW, as Philemon matures & grows in his faith & he begins to understand the work, grace, and person of the Son of God. “Acknowledgment” is more than just noticing something in passing (our common usage) – this speaks of a “full knowledge” or “precise knowledge”. (NET) “I pray that the faith you share with us may deepen your understanding of every blessing that belongs to you in Christ.”
__a. The Lord Jesus Christ has done an absolutely incredible work in each one of our lives as believers! As He showers His grace upon us, He substitutes Himself for our sin – imputes to us His righteousness – gives us a right standing before God Almighty & peace with Him – gives us new life through the Holy Spirit – seals us for eternal life by the same Holy Spirit – shares His inheritance with us so that we are co-heirs with Him for all eternity…and more! We have truly been blessed with every spiritual blessing in Christ Jesus (Eph 1:3). So why wait till eternity to begin to understand that? How much more could we rejoice in our salvation when we walk in faith, grow in that understanding, fellowship in love with fellow believers & share the gospel with those who are lost!
__b. When we minister to others, often we find that we are the ones ministered to. For Philemon, he had an opportunity to show grace and forgiveness to Onesimus – and ultimately that would just make him more grateful for the grace and forgiveness shown him. The same principle applies to us: when we share the gospel with others, we’re grateful for the gospel we received – when we demonstrate compassion for others, we understand a small part of the compassion our Lord showed us, etc.
__c. This is what Paul desired for Philemon. Paul had little to gain from Onesimus’ forgiveness (other than joy) – but he saw here an opportunity for both men to mature in their faith. For Onesimus to own up to his mistakes of the past & go seek reconciliation – & for Philemon to exercise grace & forgiveness.

7 For we have great joy and consolation in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you, brother.

A. Not only did other people partake in the koinonia fellowship of Philemon’s love & faith; Paul did as well! Philemon’s past actions and love gave Paul a reason to rejoice as he saw the church being the church & maturing in Christ. “consolation” could be translated “comfort” or “encouragement” & it’s easy to imagine how this kind of news would have comforted Paul in his Roman prison cell.
__a. Never underestimate the value of a praise report! It could be exactly the thing needed to bring comfort to someone else who’s been struggling…

B. Ultimately, Paul is presenting one more opportunity for someone within the church to have their heart refreshed by Philemon… That’s good for Philemon – that’s good for the Church – and that brings glory to God!

On one hand, it’d be easy to look at this & say, “Look how Paul’s manipulating Philemon – buttering him up for the favor that he’s about to ask!” Not only would that be completely cynical; it’d be wrong. This is exactly a model for how we’re supposed to approach one another in the Body. There are going to be some tough encounters & conversations that we’re going to have to have with one another… Many times, these tough encounters never take place when they should because people are afraid of ‘the confrontation’ & issues become worse & worse till they boil over. What could have been handled early on in love becomes a shouting match or worse…

So what’s the basis on which we are to have these tough conversations?
A. It must be based upon Christ… First & foremost! When we are approaching a fellow Christian, we’re approaching another member of Christ’s Bride – one of His servants.
B. It must be based upon love for one another… Paul had a brotherly affection for Philemon (which is very important!), but he also loved Philemon in a true agape love & demonstrated it by believing the best & seeking the best for him.
C. It ought to be based upon a desire for that person to grow in their faith & walk with God… Paul saw an opportunity for Philemon to grow in his understanding of grace & a chance for him to be a ministry to even more people & thus glorify God. When we have these conversations, it ought to be for their benefit; not ours.

Basically – it’s based upon Christ. His agape love for us & our agape love for one another… Maybe there’s a conversation you’ve been putting off due to fear or it’s ‘uncomfortableness’ – don’t put it off. Deal with the fear – double-check what you think you see in the Bible – and then proceed in humility, love, and grace. … Maybe you’re the one that needs to be approached – we don’t know how Philemon received this letter from Paul, but most scholars assume it was received well & perhaps he gave Onesimus his freedom. But if you’re approached in love, receive it in love…even if you don’t agree with the person, praise God that He put you on their heart. And even if it’s not handled well – don’t check your faith at the door.

  1. Nonnie says:

    Praying for you, Corey.

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