Gospel

An Exemplary Hope

How do you handle death? Everyone deals with death differently. According to Mental Health America, they provide a list of emotions that one feels when encountering the death of a loved one: denial, disbelief, confusion, shock, sadness, yearning, anger, humiliation, despair and guilt[1]. As one has encountered death often, the list is extensive, but not complete. They also provide a list for those to help others with the grieving process: share the sorrow, don’t offer false comfort, offer practical help, and be patient. Again, they provide a very helpful list, but it is not complete. The one thing that is missing from both lists is hope.

Death and hope are not naturally placed together, but for the Christian they are inseparable. We are called to hope in the face of death and we are called to help others hope as they face death of those they love. Churches are places of hope. We are called to be a hopeful people. Even in the worse moments of life, Christians are called to hope. And the hope of Christians by no means lessens the pain of death. All death is awful. Death is sign of the curse and consequence of human rebellion. Romans 5:12, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” Death is a constant reminder of the curse. We will face death, but how will we face death as church?

An exemplary church lives with an exemplary hope. We want to have hope always on our lips for we have been born again to the living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading in heaven (1 Peter 1:3). We will not escape death as a church. And we truly love one another, we will experience deep sadness when we face death as a congregation, but we must face that sadness with hope.

Hopeful Grieving

The Thessalonians were a young church and they believed in the resurrection. Remember back to 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10, “For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” They waiting for their deliverance on the return of Jesus Christ, but there were some people that were concerned about those who died before Jesus returned. Paul writes to give the church hope, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” (1 Thess. 4:13)

Jesus redefined death for his followers. Jairus’ daughter was sick and near death and he asked Jesus to come and heal her. When Jesus and Jairus arrived at the house, they told them that she was dead, but Jesus said, “Do not weep, for she is not dead but sleeping.” (Luke 8:52) And taking her by the hand he called, “Child, arise,” and her spirit returned and she was restored to her parents. Death for Christians was redefined as sleep for those who go to sleep will one day wake up. Paul is teaching these young Christians how they should think about death. Those who die in Christ are not dead, but are asleep.

Paul does not say that Christians shouldn’t grieve, but should grieve entirely different than the world. We look at death through the knowledge of Christ. We have facts. We believe in specific knowledge of the future. 1 Thessalonians 4:14, “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” The facts that Christians believe is that Jesus lived in history and died in history and was raised in history. They did not believe in a spiritual resurrection, but a bodily resurrection. And the fact that Jesus body was raised is a sign that our bodies will be raised as well. This is a central theme in the New Testament.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:5)

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Romans 8:29)

For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:21-23)

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:8-11)

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)

Christians always live in the hope of the resurrection. Do you believe this?

By saying that believers live in the hope of the resurrection, Paul is also saying that those who do not believe in Jesus have no hope in death. There is a resurrection promised for everyone. Jesus says in John 5,

Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment. (John 5:25-29)

What will happen when you die? You will experience a resurrection, but what kind of resurrection will you experience? If you were to die today, how confident would you be that you would experience the resurrection of life 50%, 85%, or 100%?

I have done a lot of funerals where the family had certainty that their loved one was a believer in Christ through their word and deed. And I have done others, when the family did not have confidence in their loved one’s faith. The family did not have hope. It is a completely different kind of grief. They are not comforted with truth, but come face to face with the reality of death without God. Atheists comfort themselves about the prospect of death by believing that they cease to exist or that they become part of the earth and the circle life. Although they may look for comfort elsewhere, the reality is that in death they will meet God and answer for their sin alone. And to stand in death alone without Jesus means they will be put in Hell.

Hell is not something that is often mentioned in general yet alone mentioned during death. There is no hope for those who do not have Christ, because they will have to face God themselves. When we try to erase Hell, we darken our understanding of God’s power. Hebrews 10:31, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” God is so glorious and so holy that any sin against His name deserves to be punished severely. Great American Theologian Jonathan Edwards writes,

Rebellion against God’s authority and contempt of his majesty, which every sin contains, is an infinite evil, because it has that infinite aggravation of being against an infinitely excellent and glorious majesty and most absolute authority. A sin against a more excellent being is doubtless great than against a less excellent; and therefore, sins against one infinite in majesty, authority and excellency must be infinite in aggravation, and so deserves not a finite, but an infinite punishment, which can be only by its being infinite in duration.[2]

A crime against an infinite being deserves infinite punishment. So an exemplary church must believe in an exemplary hope, but also must believe in a total lack of hope for those who do not have Christ. This is the Christian message.

And when we understand how horrific the punishment of hell truly is, we only can then understand how glorious the hope we have in Christ. We cannot have one without the other. Beloved, since we believe Jesus died and rose again, even so, with Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. Death may be hard, but we bear it with hope. We must face death as a community with a hopeful grieving.

Hopeful Gazing

When will this glorious hope be finally realized? On the day of our Lord’s return. We keep our hopeful gaze on his coming. We long for our Lord’s return. We, ourselves who have the firstfruits of the Spirit of God, grown inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. Romans 8:24-25, “For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” And what do we wait for? Paul declares it to us by a word from the Lord. 1 Thessalonians 4:15-16, “For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. (1 Thessalonians 4:15-16) We wait for the blessed hope the appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.

Paul mentions the Parousia or The Coming of Jesus Christ four separate times in this letter (1 Thess. 2:19, 3:13, 4:15, 5:23). The coming of Christ was meant as an encouragement for the Thessalonians to stand firm in the face of persecution. And here Paul uses the coming of Christ to comfort his brothers and sisters who have seen dear friends fall asleep in Christ. There is no need to worry about those who have fallen asleep for their resurrection will precede those who are left until the end. Those who are asleep will be the first in the resurrection. The church should be comforted because those who have died will not miss anything. Paul does not explain in this letter where Christians are in the intermediate state between their physical death and the physical resurrection. We must focus on what Paul does say rather than on what he doesn’t.

Paul uses three prepositional phrases describing the Lord coming, “a cry of command, a voice of an archangel and the sound of the trumpet of God.” Scholars debate on the exact nature of how these are connected, but most see them as connected to calling the dead in Christ to their resurrection. Christ descended from heaven issuing a cry of command through the voice of an archangel and the sound of the trumpet of God. Therefore Christ calls the dead via the archangel and the trumpet. The trumpet is a common symbol throughout the Old Testament to inaugurate the Last Day (cf. Ex. 19:16, 19; Is. 27:13; Joel 2:1; Zp. 1:14–16; Zc. 9:14).[3] The trumpet calling the dead to life is also consistent with 1 Corinthians 15,

Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. (1 Corinthians 15:51-53)

This promise of an imperishable body is only for those who are dead in Christ. “In Christ” being an abbreviated way of defining believers.

Do not lose the intent of the passage. Paul speaks about the coming of the Lord as an encouragement for the church. It was not written to garner debate and disagreement about the timing of the Last Day, but to encourage the saints to press on even in death because one day God is going to come again. We all may differ slightly on how we view the sequence of the end of history will occur, but there should be no disagreements that we all believe that Jesus Christ will come again and close all of history.

Hopeful Gathering

Paul offers one more encouragement to the Thessalonians. He not only wants them to see that those who have fallen asleep will not miss out on the resurrection, but they will not miss out on the glorious gathering of the saints in heaven. 1 Thessalonians 4:17, “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” Let us first deal with the content of the verse then we can look at the main intent of verse.

The idea of a rapture has come from verse 17. The word “caught up” comes from the Greek word harpazo which is translated rapio in the Lain which is where we get our English word rapture. As we have seen in verse 16, it does not appear that this is a silent event, but a loud visible cosmic declaration of the coming of the King of kings and the Lord of lords, Jesus Christ. The saints will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air or the clouds. Daniel mentions that the Lord will be coming in the clouds and the angel said after Jesus ascended into heaven that they would see him return in the same manner. The term “meet” comes from the technical greeting of a visiting dignitary to a city. The city officials and citizens would meet the dignitary on the road and then be ushered back into the city with great celebration and fanfare. The word is used with a similar meaning elsewhere in the New Testament[4]. Although the passage does not clearly state what happens after the alive and sleeping saints meet the Lord together in the air, it is a logical deduction that they met Jesus in the air to usher him back to the earth. We do not have time to unpack how this passage relates specifically to the millennium and the tribulation, but appears based on this passage alone that Paul is describing the Last Day and consummation of history.

It would be easy to get lost in the details, but we have to continue to focus on the Holy Spirit’s intent through Paul to encourage the church of the Thessalonians. There are two main encouragements from this verse. First, all the saints of history will be reunited as it says, “caught up together with them.” We have not lost those who have fallen asleep. Their sleeping will one day end and w all will be reunited together. How comforting and encouraging is that truth!!! We will see all those we have lost in Christ again. It is hard to quantify how encouraging that is. One of my favorite things to watch is military reunions. I love to watch children run to their dads and wives run to their husbands. The joy and happiness is so overwhelming that in almost every reunion I see, I am moved to tears. Can you even imagine how glorious our reunion will be with the saints who fallen asleep?

The second encouragement from this verse is that we will be with the Lord. The text says we will be caught up together with them to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Our Savior who for our sake, became sin who knew sin. Our King who bore our sins in his body on a tree. Our Messiah who took our shame nailing it to the cross. Our Prince who delivered us from God’s wrath. Our Lord who cast our sin as far as the east is from the west. On that Day we will always be with Jesus and all his saints. Do you long you to see Jesus? It will be glorious to see our love ones, but it will be even more glorious to see the King of Glory.

Jesus is our only hope in life and in death. On November 15, 1982, Atheist and Russian General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev was buried at the age of 72. Then Vice President George H.W. Bush attended the funeral. Five years later when giving a graduation address, Bush recalled that day,

(At the funeral of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev,) things were run in military precession; a coldness and hollowness pervaded the ceremony – marching soldiers, steel helmets, Marxist rhetoric, but no prayers, no comforting hymns, no mention of God. The Soviet leaders took their places on the Kremlin Wall as the Brezhnev family silently escorted the casket around to its final resting place. I happened to be in just the right spot to see Mrs. Brezhnev. She walked up, and took one last look at her husband and there – in the cold, grey center of that totalitarian state – she traced the sign of the cross over her husband’s chest.[5]

There in the citadel of secular, atheistic power, the wife of the man who had run it all, hoped that her husband was wrong. She hoped that there was another life, and that that life was best represented by Jesus who died on the cross.[6] She knew that the only hope in the face of death was Jesus. She knew people in atheistic Russia didn’t want to think of Jesus, but she also knew that the only way to bring hope in death was to share the hope of the cross.

An exemplary church will regularly speak of our exemplary hope as we face death. 1 Thessalonians 4:18, “Therefore encourage one another with these words.” Is there anything that could be more encouraging than sharing real hope?  Let us commit ourselves to the unwavering hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” (Romans 15:13) Believe and share the gospel of hope.

 

[1] http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/conditions/coping-loss-bereavement-and-grief accessed 10.17.2015

[2] Jonathan Edwards, quoted in Jonathan Edwards on Heaven and Hell by Owen Strachan and Douglas Allen Sweeney. Moody Publisher, Chicago 2010

[3] Wanamaker, C. A. (1990). The Epistles to the Thessalonians: a commentary on the Greek text (p. 173). Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.

[4] “To meet” the Lord translates a term used only two other times in the New Testament. In the parable of the ten maidens the maidens are called out to “meet” the groom and join the marriage procession (Matt 25:6). Outside Rome some Christian brethren came to “meet” Paul and escort him back into the city (Acts 28:15[4]

[5] http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-903380 accessed 10.18.2015

[6] Gary Thomas, in Christianity Today, October 3, 1994, p. 26.

A Friend's Reminder (Philemon 17-25)

Human beings naturally forget. We have developed techniques to increase and enhance our memory. The calendar, whether electronic or paper, helps us recall the important dates and events in our lives. The strength of the calendar is not in having a calendar, but using it to recall important details. The more we look at the calendar, the more we bring the calendar to our minds and therefore we remember. Reminders intentionally bring the important things to our minds so that we can remember them. We all have different techniques to remember. Whether you are Michael Scott trying to remember people’s names or a student creating an acronym to remember the parts of the circulatory system, we all use different reminders to remember important details of our lives. Regardless of the technique, the key is that we have reminders that force us to recall important details.

            God has built in a weekly reminder for his people to recall and remember what he has done for us. Every week we remind our hearts of God’s goodness through the fellowship of the saints, and the singing, praying, and the preaching of God’s Word. God wants us to remember, so he has given us reminders so that we would never forget what has done for us. He has given us two physical reminders in the Lord’s Supper and Baptism where we actually get to participate in symbols that portray God’s love for us in Christ. There are also reminders in the natural world. Each day the sun rises declaring his glory over the earth. Every night the sun sets showing our utter dependence upon him. Our world is full of reminders of God’s sovereign power.

            And yet, we are a forgetful people. Deuteronomy is full of references where God tells his people “take care, lest you forget.” Even the title “Deuteronomy” means “the law again”. The whole book is the retelling of the law so that the people would not forget. And with so many reminders, God’s people forget. The Apostle Peter summed up his ministry as one of reminding the people so they could recall the great works of God. 2 Peter 1:15, “And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things.” The job of parents and pastors is that when we are gone, those under our care will be able to recall the things of God. The Apostle Paul is nearing the end of his letter to his friend, Philemon, and wants to remind him of his responsibility in the gospel to forgive his repentant slave Onesimus. I pray that as we look closely at Paul’s reminder to Philemon that we would be reminded of our responsibility in the gospel to forgive our repentant brothers and sisters.     

Reminder of Partnership

            Paul ends his letter by reminding Philemon of their partnership in the gospel. The most important aspect of Paul and Philemon’s relationship was their partnership in the proclamation and the spread of the gospel. Verse 17, “So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me.” Paul reminds Philemon of their partnership in the gospel and then tells Philemon that Onesimus is one of us. Paul is saying that, “Onesimus holds the gospel as dear as we do Philemon. He is one of us.” And with that one sentence, Paul is bringing the crux of the whole letter to the forefront. Will Philemon act as a prosperous businessman or a partner in the gospel? What will be his main allegiance? What will be the driving force for his decisions?

            It would be very hard for Philemon to remain a partner in the gospel if he did not live for the gospel. Philemon has sacrificed his money, his time and his resources so that people will know more about Jesus. He has opened his home to the church so that people will hear and believe the gospel. The question is not what has Philemon has done, but what will he continue to do? As Christians we do not live in past, we live in the present. We do not ask “Did I obey Jesus yesterday,” but rather “Will I obey Jesus today?”

            It may be easier to pacify our consciences to think about all the things we have done in our life for the Lord, but God wants to know if we will remain with him? Will you abide with Christ? Paul again uses Greek word koinonia translated “partner” here. At very key points throughout this letter, Paul uses this word to highlight the importance of fellowship among believers. Christians are called into the fellowship of the Jesus Christ and the fellowship of the saints. How we interact and receive God’s people will be one of the greatest markers if we truly have fellowship with Jesus? If we have true fellowship or partnership with other believers, we should be confident that we have partnership with God. And if we do not have fellowship with others, how can we say we have fellowship with God?

            The first command used in this letter is the word receive. Paul says if you are my partner in the gospel than you must welcome in, take in, gather together and bring along your fellow partner Onesimus. There is no exclusion from the receiving of a repentant brother. All sinners who turn away from their sin and trust in Christ as their Savior should be received into the fellowship of the church. Onesimus was a thief. He had taken from Philemon, disrespected him and his family, but he had repented. Onesimus came to Christ. He too was a partner in the gospel therefore Paul uses the imperative to show there is only one option for a true partner in the gospel…to welcome the errant brother. Jesus says, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15) Forgiveness is an essential mark for Christians. It is a non-negotiable. If you want to be one who has fellowship with Christ and his people, then receiving the repentant brother is essential.

            What sin is unforgivable? What action would restrict fellowship in the church? There are all sorts of horrific sins that we can imagine, but if someone truly repents, they, too, can be forgiven and restored to fellowship of the church. The church welcomes into fellowship repentant sinners. Friend, if you are in sin, as Christ’s ambassadors, we implore you to be reconciled to God. Turn from your sin and trust in Christ. Christian, if you are in sin, turn to Christ and be restored into fellowship of the saints.

Reminder of Payment

            Paul continues to charge Philemon to forgive Onesimus, but does something profound; he offers himself up for the sin of another. Verse 18, “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.” (Philemon 1:18-20) Most of Paul’s letters were written by someone else, so scholars believe that when he says, “I, Paul, write this with my own hand,” that would have been a contractual arrangement. The reader of the letter would have seen the handwriting change putting additional weight and force upon the reality of Paul’s statement.

Paul offers up himself to pay for Onesimus’s crimes. Friend, this is exactly what Jesus Christ does for us. We are the ones who have sinned and rebelled against God. We are the ones who have robbed God of his glory by living for ourselves and our agendas. We are the ones who deserve to pay. We are guilty. And yet, Jesus steps forward and stands before the father saying, “If they have wronged you at all or owe you anything, charge that to my account.” Jesus paid the full price for our sin on the cross. He died in our place. He became our substitute paying for our crimes. And upon his death, God raised Jesus from the dead accepting his sacrifice on our behalf. So now we have hope because Jesus gave himself up for us. Paul is acting in the way of Christ. He is laying his life down for Onesimus.

Christian, are you willing to act like Paul here? Are you willing to pay the price for someone else’s sins? There is a story of a good king who cared well for his people. He was kind and fair and always did his best to provide for his people. One day, one of his men informed him that someone stole food from the palace. He gathered the whole town together and pleaded with them for the person to confess, saying, “I have always provided for your needs. If you needed anything all you had to do is ask and I would have provided it for you. But because I am a just king, anyone caught stealing will receive 10 lashes.” A week went by and someone stole from the treasury again. The good king again pleaded with this people to not steal, but bring their request to him again pleading with them to confess. He increased the lashes to twenty for the one caught stealing. A week went by and a servant came to the king and saying, “The thief has been caught, but it is your own mother.” Pain gripped the king’s heart. What was he to do? He promised that anyone caught stealing had to be punished.

      The day arrived when his mother was to be punished. The whole town was wondering what the king was going to do. Would he let his mother go free or would he have her punished? His mother was walked into the center of the town and tied to a pole. The guard looked at the king and the king nodded his head for him to begin. The guard looked on in shock, but right before the first lash was struck, the king yelled, “Stop.” The king walked over to his mother wrapped his arms around her and said, “Now you may begin.” The guard began to whip the back of the king to pay for his mother’s crime. Friend, this is what Christ has done for us. He was beaten in our place. He was whipped that we might go free. And this is exactly what Paul is doing for Onesimus.

      Paul is asking to credit Onesimus’s thief to Paul. Would you be willing to do the same? Would you be willing to pay someone else’s debt? Why would Paul do that? Because he knows how he was forgiven. Paul writes of himself, “formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” (1 Timothy 1:13-15) Never forget that you have been forgiven, for this is what Paul reminds Philemon of, saying, “your owing me even your own self.” Paul reminded Philemon of how he came to Christ under Paul’s ministry and encourages him to repay him be welcoming Onesimus.

Philemon should forgive Onesimus, but that does not make it easy to forgive. Forgiveness is not easy. Forgiveness is supernatural. We need divine help to forgive. Would you readily forgive someone who stole $20 from you? What about $20,000? Forgiveness is hard, but worth it, for we have been forgiven of a great debt. Here this story from Jesus,

“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:23-35)

Friend, we forgive because we have been forgiven.

Reminder of Preparation

Paul adds another reminder to Philemon as he closes this letter. Paul tells Philemon to prepare for his coming. Philemon would eventually have to look his dear friend Paul in the face and explain how he handled Onesimus. It may be subtle, but knowing that Philemon would have to confront Paul most likely encouraged Philemon’s obedience. This was not a threat, but a reality. Philemon would be held accountable for his decision to forgive Onesimus. Paul was confident based on Philemon’s character and partnership with the gospel, but this is no slam dunk case of forgiveness. Philemon would eventually have to explain his decision to an elder brother in Christ and a dear friend.

            In this way Paul is modeling how one day we are going to stand before God. As Philemon had to prepare for Paul’s coming, we have to prepare for the Lord’s coming. Have you ever had projects around the house that needed to get done, but you never quite had the motivation to complete? Then you discover your in-laws are coming in town for a visit in a month so you scramble to finish all the unfinished projects in preparation for their coming. When anybody of importance comes to your home, you want to be prepared for their arrival. Friend, this is how we should be for Lord’s return. We should be prepared for the coming of the King. We are going to be held accountable for the decisions in this life. Philemon will be held accountable for his forgiveness as we will be held accountable for our own. Are you prepared for the coming of the King?

Reminder of Perseverance

            Let me encourage you to pay attention to the names Paul highlights as he closes this letter. Verse 23, “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” (Philemon 1:23-25) We have the benefit of the hindsight. We can look at these names and know if they persevered in their faith.

Did Philemon forgive Onesimus? We cannot be sure for the New Testament does not explicitly tell us, but we can assume since the letter was preserved that he did. Church tradition states that Philemon eventually would become the pastor of Colossae, and along with his wife Apphia, was martyred for the Gospel. He persevered until the end.

A man named Onesimus eventually became the pastor of Ephesus a couple of decades later. We cannot be sure this was the same Onesimus, but we know that this Onesimus also laid his life down for the gospel dying for his faith. This Onesimus persevered until the end. 

Paul, the peacemaker, would also lose his life for the gospel being beheaded during his last Roman imprisonment, but blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God. Paul persevered to the end.

Luke would go on to write half the New Testament and according to tradition died at the age of 84. Luke persevered to the end.

Mark, the author of the gospel that bears his name, was reconciled to Paul. He was with Paul and Barnabas during their first missionary journey only to leave and return home. On the second trip, Mark wanted to rejoin the mission and Paul refused. The disagreement became so sharp that Barnabas and Paul split company and went in opposite directions. We know that Paul reconciled and forgave Mark at the end of his life as he wrote in 2 Tim 4:11 that Mark was, “very useful to me in ministry,” asking Timothy to bring Mark to him. Mark would eventually travel to Alexandria and became the pastor there before also being martyred for his faith. Mark persevered to the end.

Epaphras, a fellow prisoner with Paul, was most likely the pastor of Colossae. Tradition says he was released from his imprisonment only later to be arrested and martyred for his faith. Epaphras persevered to the end. Aristarchus mentioned here and in Acts endured persecution for the gospel. He later became the pastor in modern-day Syria and he too was martyred for the gospel. Aristarchus persevered to the end.

Do you see a trend here? These men held the gospel so dear that they would rather face death than deny the gospel. In persevering to the end, they persevered in forgiveness. They chose to die rather than to withhold the forgiveness of the gospel.

There is one more name on the list that should serve as a warning to us all. Demas, once a partner in the gospel laboring for the forgiveness of the saints, is said to have fallen in love with this world deserting Paul and the gospel. His love did not persevere. It has been said of the two thieves at Calvary, “One was saved that none might despair, but only one that none might presume.”

We have been studying the story of another thief who was reconciled to God by Calvary. Onesimus is a reminder of God’s offer of forgiveness. Philemon is a reminder of one who extended forgiveness. Paul is a reminder of one who encourages forgiveness. Demas is a reminder of one who walked away from forgiveness. What do you need to be reminded of today? We all need reminders to persevere in the gospel. And I pray that this short letter has reminded you of the beauty, the power and glory of the forgiveness of Jesus Christ and would remind you to persevere until the end.