Have you ever forgiven someone? Have you ever hurt someone and needed forgiveness? Have you ever been hesitant to forgive someone? Is there someone in your life today that you haven’t forgiven? Is there someone today that you need forgiveness from? Have you ever encouraged a friend to forgive and/or help them see their need of forgiveness? If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, then Paul’s letter to Philemon is for you. If you answered “no” to any of these questions, I would wonder if you know any actual people. Philemon is a short letter written from a friend to a friend encouraging the forgiveness of another friend. The heart of this letter is about reconciliation to God and to each other which is at the very heart of the Christian life. In the book of Philemon, God gives us a picture through the apostle Paul, of how real people should deal with real sin and work for real reconciliation for the glory of God.
I pray as we study this letter over the next several weeks you will desire to reconcile with those from whom you need forgiveness, extend forgiveness to those who need it, and, most importantly, you will experience the sweetness of your own forgiveness in Christ Jesus. And it all begins with a friend’s welcome, Philemon 1:1-7,
Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.
Paul begins his letter to his beloved friend Philemon, reminding him of their common faith.
A Common Faith
This is the only time in any of Paul’s letters where he begins with the title, “Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus.” Paul may have wanted to remind Philemon of his chains and what he was risking for the gospel, but he also was writing more as a friend to a friend that his customary servant or apostle title. He was not writing to Philemon commanding his obedience, but as a friend encouraging his obedience. Paul wrote the letter from a Roman prison because one of Philemon’s slaves, Onesimus, ran away from Philemon’s house. Onesimus eventually ran into Paul, whether by accident or intentionally is unclear, and became a believer of Christ. Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon so that they could be reconciled. We will look more at the relationship of Onesimus and Philemon next week, but for today we want to zero in on Paul’s relationship with Philemon.
Philemon came to Christ under Paul’s ministry, most likely in nearby Ephesus. We do not know the specifics of his conversion, but know that he developed a close relationship with Paul, most likely as they labored together for the gospel. Philemon was probably from Colossae and a leader in the church, as the church met in his house. He was probably a successful business man having a house large enough for the church to meet in as well as the ability to own slaves. The impression from the letter was that Philemon was not only a patron of the Lord’s work, but also was actively involved in the mission himself, being labeled as a fellow worker.
Philemon was far more than just one of Paul’s colleagues, but a dear friend. Paul calls Philemon our beloved fellow worker. Beloved means dear one or dear friend. By using beloved Paul is showing his deep affection for Philemon. Philemon and Paul would have been dear friends. There is a great level of intimacy here. Paul also addresses Apphia, a feminine name, most likely Philemon’s wife. Paul is addressing a matter of the home so it would be natural to include her in the correspondence. Archippus is most likely Philemon’s and Apphia’s son. He is probably at least a teenager if not older as he was labeled a fellow soldier and is told in Colossians to fulfill his ministry. Paul is a family friend and addresses his letter to the family, but notice he doesn’t only address it to the family. The end of verse 2, Paul adds a 4
recipient of the letter “and the church in your house.” The implication of the church being addressed was that this personal letter dealing with Philemon and his family would have been read out loud in front of the entire church.
There are several applications that I would like to make from this implication. First, Philemon would have likely recognized the church’s right to take an interest in the affairs of his household and for the church give appropriate guidance. Philemon was probably a leader in the church so how he conducted the affairs of his home were important to the life of the body. The interconnectedness of the church strikes right at the heart of individualism. Philemon knew that how he conducted his personal life would reflect upon the church and the gospel of Christ. Do you view your personal life the same way? Do you invite the church into the important decisions of your life? Where to work, where to live, who to date, what ministries to participate in? Do you delight in the counsel and advice and the influence of the church, or would you rather the body to stay out of your affairs?
A few months ago a friend shared of a couple going through marital problems. I asked if they talked with their pastor and she said, “No. She said that she would never talk to her pastor about that.” Beloved, do not shield your lives from each other. God has designed, as this letter shows, that the church should be intimately involved in your life. We should not get angry when people step into our lives, but rejoice that someone loves us that much. Paul shows Philemon how much he needs the church in his life and in doing so shows us our need as well.
Friend, if you are not already, have you ever considered becoming a member of a local church? Do you realize how important the church is for your soul? God has created us for each other. He says that once we were not a people, but now we are a people. Jesus gave his life as a ransom to purify a people for himself who are zealous for good works. He purchased the church with his own blood. When people do not make the local church a vital part of their lives they may not fully understand what Jesus died for. He did not just die to save you from your sins, but so that you could be the righteousness of God. Jesus died and rose from the dead so that we could live a new life as a part of his resurrected people, the church. Do you realize without connecting yourself to a church and willingly submitting to the teaching of the elders you are hurting yourself? And you are hurting the church. How much stronger would churches be if people laid down their individualism for the corporate community? American individualism may be great for career or image, but it flows against the interdependence of the Christian life. Christian, consider joining a local church, and if you want to talk more about that I would be happy to set up a meeting with you.
If you are not a Christian, I want you to pay particular attention how Paul finishes his customary greeting. It may appear like a simple greeting, but it is filled with two of the most precious words that shape a Christian’s life, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” It is a customary greeting for the day, but grace and peace are deeply profound theological words that shape the Christian life. Friend, if you are not a Christian, please understand why Christians love grace and peace. Grace is the unmerited favor of God. The Bible says we are sinners and have rebelled against God. We all know that we have not lived perfect lives. We have done or said things we regret. Our conscience condemns us. We know we are sinners and deserving of eternal hell because of our sin, a place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. But here is the good news, while we are deserving of hell, God gives us grace through the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus died on the cross to pay for our sins. And after he was dead and buried, God raised him from the dead accepting his sacrifice for sinners. So we bring our sin, our shame, our guilt and regret to God and he gives us grace, unmerited favor. Jesus has made peace for us through his blood on the cross. God gives us grace by making peace. Non-Christian, please know that the grace and peace we have received is also offered to you. All you have to do is confess your sin and turn to Christ. Trust in Jesus as your only hope before God. Friend, the reason this letter is so important is because it speaks about forgiveness and we all need forgiveness. Before we can extend forgiveness, we first must receive forgiveness from God. Are you ready to receive forgiveness?
The former president of World Vision Bob Seiple shares a story of a woman named Mary as she visited in a Lebanon hospital. In the 1980’s, during civil war, Druze militia slaughtered 33 of her Christian relatives in a single day. A young man about 20 came up and said, “Renounce the cross of die.” And Mary said, “I was born a Christian and I will die a Christian.” And he shot her. The bullet passed through her jaw and neck. The soldier then carved a cross on her chest with a knife. The next day they came back and discovered her alive and miraculously brought her to a hospital. Seiple recalls her conversation with Mary who was a quadriplegic asking why would they shoot you one day and try to save your life the next. She said, “Sometimes bad people are taught to do good things.” Seiple responded by asking, “How do you feel about the person who pulled the trigger? Who made you strapped to a wheel chair? A ward of the state? How do you feel about the man?’ She said, “I have forgiven my enemies because Christ has forgiven me. And I am looking for the man who hurt me so I can tell him I forgive him.
” Beloved, when we understand that we have been forgiven by God, how can we not forgive those who sin against us? Forgiven people forgive.
Grace and peace might be a customary greeting, but to a believer they remind us of the common faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ that saves us from hell. Philemon and the church would have treasured those words as Christians do today.
A Common Mission
Paul was in a Roman prison because he was arrested for preaching the gospel. Philemon, a fellow worker, would have known the risks of partnering in the same mission. He opened up his home for the church to meet in his house. His wife and his son were intimately involved in the mission of Christ. It appears that Archippus may even have been given a unique task to be fulfilled separate from the work in Colossae. Paul reminded Philemon of their partnership in recalling how often Paul prays for him in his work. Paul writes, “I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers.” Paul often thanked God for how he was moving in churches. Paul’s focus was to give praise and thanks to God, because he knew that all good and perfect gifts come from above. Paul knew this in his own life for he said, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:20)
The credit for Philemon’s life and faithfulness goes to God. Thanksgiving should be a common part of the Christian life. Thankfulness is one way Christians keep their hearts focused on the gift of God’s salvation. Thankfulness creates humility in the life of the believer. If you struggle with pride, spend more time in prayer thanking God for his work. Your thanksgiving will cultivate humility in your heart. And this is what Paul is trying to get Philemon to remember. Paul is thanking God for how God has changed and transformed Philemon’s heart for the same God who changed him also changed Onesimus. Paul wisely helps Philemon remember that God is the one who desires all the praise and thanksgiving for his life. In a way this is preparing his heart to live on the basis of that thanksgiving.
When Paul prayed, he thanked God for Philemon’s life because Philemon loved the saints and his strong faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Philemon trusted Jesus Christ as His Savior and it was evident to everyone around him. His faith was manifested in love towards others. There is no such thing as faith without love. If people claim to have faith, but do not love the brothers then their faith is dead and futile. The Christian faith should always be expressed in love for others, which is one of the reasons why the church is so important. The natural life will always lend itself toward self-preservation. We naturally look out for our own interests and do things that serve ourselves and our families, but when we come to Christ that changes. Christians primary motivation is no longer self-survival and to care for ourselves, but to love others. The love we have for one another proves that we are disciples of Jesus.
When we are tethered to a specific people in a local church, we are forced to sacrifice our own desires for the body. We give our time every week to one another as we gather in worship. The simple fact of showing up to the gathering is a statement that we care more about each other than we do about ourselves. When we use our gifts to serve the body we show practically that the “us” is more important than the “I.” This was Philemon’s testimony and is the testimony of every faithful believer in Christ. I want people to be more heavily invested in the local church, not only because I want the local church to grow, which I do, but I want Christians to experience more of God.
The love that we experience from the saints in the body of Christ pales in comparison to the love we have experienced from God in Jesus Christ. We are fundamentally always forgiven sinners. Our rebellion and sin was so great that we deserved to pay for it for all eternity, but that great debt we owe was forgiven by God through Christ. When we understand how much we have been forgiven, we will gladly and happily give ourselves in love for others. Jesus gave himself for us so now we give ourselves to one another. Paul prays for Philemon that he will experience the full knowledge of every good thing when he shares his faith. Many Christians read verse 6 and interpret the sharing of faith as a reference to evangelism. And it is true that when we share the faith with non-Christians we are reminded of God’s faithfulness and grace given to us, but I think Paul is not referring to sharing one’s faith with non-Christians here. Paul is focusing on Philemon’s sharing of his faith with other Christians.
The Greek word for sharing here is koinonia, which means “fellowship”. Paul wants the sharing or the fellowship or the participation of his faith among the saints to become effective so that he will experience the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. Paul wants Philemon to experience more of God as he loves the church. Fellowship, koinonia, is a key word in this book. It appears at very specific points in this letter, because the issue Paul is addressing is not sharing of one’s faith with non-believers, but with believers. Paul is primarily concerned with how Philemon will share his faith with his brother Onesimus. He wants the church to have true fellowship so people within the church can more fully experience the love of God in Christ.
Beloved, do you realize how important is the fellowship of the saints? We have been called into the fellowship of Jesus Christ and one another. 1 John 1:6-7, “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus is Son cleanses us from all sin.” Isn’t it interesting that living in an interdependent fellowship with one another helps us walk in the light and cleanses us from sin? I think most Christians underestimate the importance of the local church for their spiritual growth. Many are so focused on their own individual spiritual growth that they forsake the church, and in doing so cripple fellowship with God. When we are walking in the light, walking with Jesus, we have fellowship with God and with one another. This is what Paul wants for Philemon and I want for you.
How are you sharing your faith with the people of Park Baptist Church? How are you loving each other? Are you spending time in prayer together or the study of the word? Are you intentionally using your words to encourage one another? Are you using your gift to serve others? Are you regularly praying and thanking God for members’ faith in Jesus and their love for the saints? The fellowship of the church should not be first thing to cut out of your life when things get busy. The church should be central in your life because it is the primary way you will experience the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.
A Comforting Joy
Paul finishes his friendly welcome to Philemon with a personal note of what Philemon’s live has done for Paul in verse 7, “For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.” Paul was filled with comfort and joy because how Philemon loved others. What a great example Paul gives for us. His primary cause for joy and comfort was not Philemon’s love for him, but in how he has refreshed the saints. You can hear how dear Philemon was to Paul even how he addressed him, as “my brother.”
Paul encourages Philemon before he exhorts him. It is a great example in how we should look how God is moving and growing in someone’s life before we point out what they are lacking. Paul wants to show Philemon the cause for his joy so that Philemon will be spurred on to continue to refresh the hearts of the saints specifically in how he forgives and reconciles with Onesimus. Philemon’s relationship with Onesimus has far-reaching ramifications beyond their personal relationship, but will have an impact with the fellowship, koinonia, of the church and the witness of Christ lived out for the gospel. Paul was reminding Philemon to continue in love so his life would be marked by Christ’s forgiveness.
Friend, do you realize how important forgiveness is? Forgiveness will have ramifications for eternity for yourself and for others. Friend, we will all one day stand before God and the reality of our forgiveness will be all that matters. We may want to pursue many things in this life, but are we pursuing that which will matter most at the end of life? D.A. Carson wrote a book about his dad, an Ordinary Pastor, who was not well known, but well loved by God. He finishes his book writing about his father’s death and the most important thing about his father. He writes,
When Tom Carson (he) died, there were no crowds outside the hospital, no editorial comments in the papers, no announcements on the television, no mention in Parliament, no attention paid by the nation. In his hospital room there was no one by his bedside. There was only the quiet hiss of oxygen, vainly venting because he had stopped breathing and would never need it again.
But on the other side, all the trumpets sounded. Dad won entrance to the only throne-room that matters, not because he was a good man or a great man—he was, after all, a most ordinary pastor—but because he was a forgiven man. And he heard the voice of him whom he longed to hear saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant; enter into the joy of your Lord.
Friend, will you hear the same words? Our entrance into glory is not the basis of great works, but on the forgiveness of a great God. On the day judgement the most important thing will not be your accomplishments, but your forgiveness. Are you forgiven? And if you are forgiven, will you also forgive?
Bloomberg, Craig. Interpreting Parables. Pg 321-322
Caron, D.A. Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor: The life and reflections of Tom Carson.