Bible Studies in Philemon
Gospel Perspective - 1 : Unity
The Epistle of Paul to Philemon is a personal note, written about a slave called Onesimus (and probably delivered by him). It is also Scripture; the Church recognised its authority as the Spirit-inspired Word of God. It is a privilege to read; we sit in on a conversation between two godly men - the aged, imprisoned apostle Paul, and the well-to-do church-leader Philemon. The letter has a lot to teach about looking at life from the perspective of the Gospel - that is, how does my faith shape how I see things?
Part of the Perspective of the Gospel is UNITY. Those who know/trust the Lord Jesus Christ are united in Him. This comes across clearly in Philemon.
1. The Perspective emerges in this letter in four ways.
(a) In the “family words” brother (7,20), sister (2) and son (10). Those who have faith in the Lord Jesus are one family in Him. There is thus a unity.
(b) In the “fellow” words - fellow worker (1, 24), fellow soldier (2), fellow prisoner (23). These give the sense of “in this together” -that is, of unity.
(c) In the theme of sharing found in v.6, and underlying the word “partner” in v.17. The thought is of what we have in common - what unites us.
(d) In the emphasis on love (see v.1, 5, 7, 9, 12, 16).
2. This Perspective is truly part of the Gospel. 3 things that show this are:
(a) God the Father adopts us into His family (John 1:12).
(b) God the Son is the Good Shepherd who gathers all His sheep into one flock through His death and through His call (John 10:14-18).
(c) God the Holy Spirit works in those who believe to grow His fruit, which is love (Galatians 5:22). There is one Body and One Spirit (Ephesians 4:4).
3. The Problems we encounter. Why do we find divisions in churches? Why can there be something less than love? We find that some people:
(a) don’t know to love. Some come to faith in the Lord Jesus as their “own and personal Saviour” without realising that He brings us together.
(b) can’t warm to love. People have different personalities, and emotional baggage. Some Christians find that loving others does not come easily!
(c) won’t go to love. It can be the case that people confess Jesus as Lord but stubbornly refuse to obey His command. They may agree that someone else is a Christian, but still refuse to be reconciled to him/her!
4. How, then, can we develop this Gospel perspective in our lives?
(a) Prioritise it. Think on how important this is. It is the reason why Jesus died on the cross (Ephesians 1:9-10). Make every effort (Ephesians 4:3)!
(b) Pray for it. Ask the Lord to help you love as He loves. Think on the cross, on the love the Lord has shown to you.
(c) Practise it. Christ commands it (John 13:34) but we can’t make our-selves love! But as we “do what love would do,” His love grows in us.
Gospel Perspective - 2 : Ministry
Gardeners will tell you how it takes a certain type of soil to grow a certain type of plant. In the same way, a letter such as Philemon could only arise out of a particular ground - the perspective on life given by the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. The letter reflects this perspective in its presumption of MINISTRY; that is, that all who follow Jesus are called to serve.
1. A General Overview of Ministry
(a) Plan of Service. God’s design for humankind is that we serve one another. We find this in the teaching of Jesus (Mark 10:43-45; Luke 22:27), and in the three-fold offices of Prophet, Priest and King. From these derive:
- the ministry of the Word - we bring God’s truth to one another;
- the ministry of care - not just in word, but in deed, we give needed help;
- the ministry of order - by which we strive for and maintain right relations.
(b) People in Service. Some may be called especially to minister, but all are to serve. So (for example) the appointment of deacons in the church in Philippi (Philippians 1:1) did not mean that no one else was to care for the poor!
(c) Place for Service. Ministry is to be exercised towards everyone, especially to those who are part of the Church (Galatians 6:10). Anyone in need is your neighbour (Luke 10:25-37) but the Church is described as a Body which is healthy only when each part fulfils its role (1 Corinthians 12:14-27).
2. Ministry in Philemon. Paul’s Epistle to Philemon takes for granted that those who confess Jesus as Lord will be involved in service. We can:
Look how those named ministered. Paul was a prisoner of Christ Jesus (v.9), in chains for the Gospel (v.13). His special ministry was to preach. His companions (v.24-25) were his fellow workers in this. No doubt they also encouraged Paul by their visits during his house-arrest, and by undertaking the practical tasks he was not free to do! Onesimus helped with this, doing what Philemon would have done had he been there (v.13). Philemon ministered out of love, which gave the apostle great joy to hear (v.7).
Look at the ministries named. We find references to preaching (this was probably also the ministry of Archippus (v.2) - see Col 4:17), to encourage-ment (v.7, 20), to practical hospitality (v.22) and to prayer (v.4, 22). The Christians then ministered to one another in these ways. So can we today.
3. Developing Ministry. How, then, may we improve our serving of one another in the Body of Christ? We see this is the perspective the Gospel brings - but how do we live it out? V.5 shows that Philemon’s love for all the saints was grounded in his faith in the Lord Jesus. As we look to the Lord in faith, and come to know and trust Him more, then we grow in our desire to tell others of Him and to pray. As we grow in our love for Him, then we will love others, for His sake. He leads us to serve!
Gospel Perspective - 3 : Transformation
Notice the pattern in Philemon vs.8-14. Both v.8 and v.14 focus on Philemon’s free choice; both v.9 and v.13 focus on how Paul was under house arrest. Both v.10 and v.12 speak of how dear Onesimus had become to Paul. V.11, then, is at the centre of this pattern. This key verse conveys an important point: Onesimus had changed! He was not the man he used to be. The Gospel gives us this perspective of TRANSFORMATION. God changes the lives of those who believe. We should expect this transforming work to become apparent in others; we should seek this work of God in our own lives.
1. Transformation at Outset.
When a person decides to trust and follow the Lord Jesus Christ, a two-fold change has happened to him/her:
There is an objective change in standing. This is declared in the Gospel and is to be accepted by faith. Those who confess Jesus Christ as Lord are justified through faith, have their sins forgiven and have peace with God. They have all the rights and privileges of adopted children in God’s house.
There is also a subjective change in spirit. There is a new attitude to God, and to the Lord Jesus - an attitude of worship, reverence and thankfulness. There is a grief and hatred for sin. There is a new love for others. In all, the person who decides to follow Jesus has a new heart (is “born again”).
This transformation occurs within, but the change will be seen in its fruit. The noticeable change may vary in degree. Some lives are turned around in a dramatic way; others may not seem different at first. The fruit, however, is vital. It is this that shows the reality of God’s work in that person’s life. Because this is God’s work, we always have hope. It is said, “Some people never change.” The Gospel perspective is that God can change anyone!
2. Transformation is Ongoing.
The change in Onesimus showed that truly he had become a Christian. What Paul wrote to Philemon, however, shows us that God calls us to keep on being transformed, by grace, through faith.
v.17-20: no turning back. Philemon easily could have dealt with Onesimus as any other slave-owner would have done. He is reminded, however, that he is a partner in the Gospel (v.17), that Paul had led him to true life (v.19) and that he is “in the Lord” (v.20). In other words, he is a Christian - and is to deal with the situation in a Christian way. When we follow the Lord Jesus, there is to be no turning back from the change he makes in us!
v.6: still going forward. Paul’s prayer for Philemon was either that his continuing service would lead him to grasp more of what it means to be a Christian, or that he would grasp more of what it means to be a Christian, and continue serving! Either way, it is a prayer for ongoing transformation.
This is the perspective the Gospel gives us. The Christian life is a journey. As we follow the Lord, He leads on - to change our lives to be like Him!
Gospel Perspective - 4 : Providence
Paul wrote this letter to Philemon whose slave, Onesimus, had become a Christian while with the imprisoned apostle (v.10). We don’t know all the circumstances that led Onesimus to Paul, but we do know that it was not a coincidence. This was the providence of God (see v.15).
PROVIDENCE is another part of the perspective on life gained through the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Providence means that God is in control. God is working out His big plan in (first) the work of creation and (now) by works of providence - His most holy, wise and powerful preserving and governing all His creatures and all their actions. The Bible tells how people came to see that God had everything planned for their lives - see Genesis 45:5, 50:20; Esther 4:14; John 11:4.
1. Knowing about providence doesn’t reduce suffering, but it sustains us. Paul wrote this letter while in chains! He knew the providence of God, but that he still had much to endure. If we believe God is in full control, that has to include our suffering. We may not understand why (although sometimes we may see the principle of cause and effect at work), but we know that suffering won’t: (i) be beyond what you can bear (1 Corinthians 10:13); (ii) be for ever (Romans 8:18); (iii) be in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58); or (iv) separate you from God’s love (Romans 8:35-39).
2. Knowing about providence doesn’t reduce guilt, but steers us. Paul’s letter hints that Onesimus may well have wronged Philemon (v.18), but how do we reconcile doing wrong with the providence of God? If God is in control, does anyone step outside His will (Romans 9:19)? The answer is that we speak of God’s will on different levels. His revealed will tells us what we are to do. So, we look on the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus as a heinous sin (Acts 3:14). The secret will of God, however, includes God’s use even of our rebellious actions to fulfil His plans (Acts 4:28). Knowing God steers us to do what is in keeping with His revealed will. Knowing He is in control also steers us, when sinned against, (i) not to be consumed by desire for vengeance (Romans 12:19); (ii) not to be crushed by injustice (1 Peter 2:19) and (iii) not to be closed to forgiveness and pity (Luke 23:34).
3. Knowing about providence doesn’t reduce planning, but steadies us. Paul told Philemon his hopes and plans (v.22). God’s control doesn’t stop us making our plans for what we hope to do, but knowing about providence means that we recognise that everything is subject to the will of God (James 4:13-15), and so we pray for His guidance. Moreover, knowing about providence means that if (or when) our plans are thrown into disarray, we are not defeated. We know that “with God, things don’t just happen; every-thing by His planned” and trust to the perfect way of our heavenly Father!
Gospel Perspective - 5 : Prayer
Paul’s Epistle to Philemon helps us to see life from a Gospel perspective. It reminds us of truths that inform Christian understanding, helps us see them more clearly, and encourages us to live by them. One part of this Gospel perspective is PRAYER. It is no surprise for us to read of the prayers of Paul (vs.4-7) or Philemon (v.22). Christians are people of prayer!
1. Prayer involves Praise & Thanksgiving. Paul thanked God when he prayed for Philemon (v.4). Paul recognised that faith and love (v.5) were signs of God’s grace in Philemon’s life, and praised and thanked the Lord. We too see what God has done in people’s lives, but often:
✣ we forget to give praise and thanks to God for His wonderful work; or,
✣ we focus on the good we see in the person (her caring nature, his strong faith or whatever) and don’t see the Giver behind the gift; or,
✣ we find faults in the person, and fill our prayers with complaints! If you find it hard to get along with a fellow Christian, thank and praise God for all that He has done in that person’s life. See if that makes a difference!
In Jesus, we have “every good thing” (v.6). He makes us people of prayer. Look to Him to help you give praise and thanks to God!
2. Prayer involves Grace-thinking & Petition. Paul prayed for Philemon (v.6); Philemon prayed for Paul (v.22). We often ask for things too. We should note three things about how our prayers relate to God’s will:
(i) providence. The question is sometimes put like this, “How can praying change anything if God already knows what He will do?” God uses even our prayers in His providence. He has our petitions woven into His plans!
(ii) harmony. If the Lord uses even our prayers to accomplish His purposes, then our petitions need to be in harmony with His will. This is where grace-thinking comes in. The Bible tells us of God’s plans of grace in Christ. We need to ask, “What will accomplish these plans? What can I pray, that will bring glory to God for His grace in Christ?” Paul’s petition for Philemon is shaped by this (v.6). Philemon’s petition was specific (v.22), but the more sure we are that something is God’s will, the more confidently we may ask. And God is always able to surprise us; would Philemon ever have imagined that Onesimus would return as a brother in the Lord?
(iii) direction. God’s will is that we pray. He direct us to ask. The Gospel perspective leads us to see what is for God’s glory and to pray for it.
The great encouragement in our praying is that we have One who prays for us! Paul’s Epistle to Philemon is an intercession. The apostle made two requests: receive this guilty one as you would me (v.17) and charge what he owes to me (v.18). This is how the Lord Jesus intercedes before God for His people. Because of Him, we are people of prayer!
Gospel Perspective - 6 : Liberty
Two ideas are carefully balanced in Philemon: the thought of what is correct to do (v.8); and, the thought of consent (v.14). This balance is another part of the Gospel Perspective that we glean from the letter. The Christian life is a matter of LIBERTY - freely resolving to follow the right path.
1. How Paul dealt with Philemon. Paul knew he could use his authority as an apostle to command Philemon, but preferred to allow his friend a free choice (v.9). He therefore fuelled Philemon’s understanding. He gave him new information about Onesimus (v.10-11) and reminded him of what he already knew about being a Christian (v.16). Paul also fanned Philemon’s emotions. He showed how welcoming Onesimus would be in keeping with love, with partnership (v.17) and with refreshment (v.20). Paul showed Philemon that to welcome back Onesimus would be both logical and lovely. Thus he guided him freely to resolve to follow the right.
2. Other Examples of this Principle are found in the NT. For example:
2 Corinthians 9:7 describes liberty in giving: “not reluctantly ... cheerful giver.” When we see the reason for making a donation, and are stirred to do so, then our giving is not grudging, but acceptable (see 2 Corinthians 8:12).
1 Peter 5:2 describes liberty in spiritual oversight: “not because you must, but because you are willing.” Any work of service can be let slide into a drudgery, which dishonours the Lord (see Malachi 1:12-13) and begs the question, “Where is the abundant life Jesus promised in John 10:10?” “Life to the full” is seen when we freely resolve to follow the right!
3. How God works in us. Christian liberty follows from the salvation we receive through faith in Jesus. The prophet Jeremiah described God’s new covenant (Jeremiah 31:33-34). God’s forgiveness of sins brings us a new mind and heart by which to know Him. Without His grace, we only ever choose sinful ways. By His grace, we are led to see and to appreciate His way for us. He makes us able freely to choose to follow His Son.
4. Ways this affects us. The Gospel perspective of liberty addresses:
(a) How we help each other. Although there is a place for authority, we should help each other to value doing what is right (see 2 Timothy 2:24-26).
(b) How we resist temptation. Alternatives to God’s lose their power when we listen to the truth rather than lies (faith), and when we turn our desires to something better than anything (repentance). When we see what is both logical and lovely, we freely resolve to follow the right!
(c) How we keep the joy. The Christian life is about liberty - about being satisfied with God (as is seen in Paul or Philemon). There is something attractive about the life of someone who freely resolves to follow the right. That is to be in us, as we make Christ our Vision and Lord of our hearts!