Bible Study from Calvary Chapel Newberg
with Tom Fuller
Some people love school. I was talking to a recent graduate the other day who said they would like nothing more than to stay in the safety of the classroom—learning and enjoying the academic environment. Some even consider themselves professional students who go from bachelors to masters to doctorate and then stay to teach others. While there is nothing wrong with that—sometimes we Christians are guilty of the same thing in our transformation of character and maturity in our walk with the Lord. We come to Christ, fall in love with Jesus and His Word, go to lots of Bible studies and spend lots of time at church. We love to learn about God and to stay in the relative safety of the fellowship.
But like many who graduate from school, there comes a time in our Christian maturity when we need to leave the theoretical and actually put this new character into practice. Some of you may have found yourselves in that situation recently. We just finished a thirteen part series in Colossians, the companion book to Philemon. It was challenging to many of us as Paul gave us some real tools to deal a deathblow to the old nature and really let the character of Jesus start to take root in our minds, words, and actions. It’s not just theoretical, not just something to listen to in a Bible study. In fact, it is something to be lived out practically in our lives.
So in a real way, Philemon is Paul’s way of encouraging the understanding of who Jesus is and what He’s done not just in theory, but in practice.
Philemon is the most personal book in the Bible and the shortest of Paul’s letters (though longer than most personal letters of the day). It was written basically to one individual, but was not a secret letter. It’s a letter that challenges a man to put into practice what he’s learned about the radical changes Jesus makes to a person’s values once they come into relationship with Him. Paul does it with both irony and tact—persuasion and love. And, in the end, it is a practical way of showing what Jesus did—of reconciling us to God, and to each other.
The background of this letter is that Philemon, a prominent member of the church at Colossae, had a slave, Onesimus, who had run away and probably stole something of value on his way out the door. Somehow Onesimus met up with Paul, got saved, and became part of Paul’s ministry in Rome. Now Paul wants Onesimus to go back and be reconciled with his former owner. This is no small task but vital to acting out the gospel in practical terms.
1 – 3
This is the only one of Paul’s letters where he refers to himself as a prisoner in the opening greeting—apostle, yes—even servant, but not prisoner. It’s significant, I think, because Paul is, in a way, identifying himself with Onesimus’ former position—of a man in the chains of slavery.
Paul writes principally to Philemon—who had a church meeting in his home. Apphia is most likely Philemon’s wife and Archippus, some feel, was the pastor of the church. Churches met in homes in those days—some cities had multiple churches and one of the reasons Paul’s writes the letter is to help ensure that the peace of Christ was maintained throughout the churches in the city.
In fact, grace and peace—though part of Paul’s “normal” greeting, are very important here. God showed both Philemon and Onesimus grace—and so now Paul wants them to show grace to each other and be at peace, despite the social and legal pressures to do otherwise.
4 – 7
We have to remember that Paul is being very strategic in this letter. He tells Philemon that he prays for him and thanks God for him. But look what he thanks God for: love and faith upward to the Lord and outward to the saints. The transformation of a character begins by falling in love with Jesus. Then that character begins to infect a life and that same love (agape) goes out towards others. Paul wants to remind Philemon of this because of what he’s asking—mainly to show God’s love towards Onesimus.
Verse 6 is very hard to understand and different versions translate it very differently. I think the key to the verse is the word, in the Holman: “participation” which is the Greek word: Koinonia. We sometimes translate it “fellowship” or “sharing” but “participation” is a good rendering here. In essence, Paul is saying that since Philemon is participating in a relationship with God, that God’s character should be pouring out of his life, and the lives of those around him, leading to the fullness (“glory”) of Christ. “Participation” then here means we are all a part of each other—sharing in our joys and sorrows, no longer master and slave but brothers.
Verse 7 is a follow-on then. Paul is encouraged and has great joy because Philemon acts on his faith and gives God’s self-sacrificing, other-centered affection to the saints. Paul characterizes it with the word “refreshing” which is a military term of an army at rest while on a march. Given the daily battles a Christian goes through, Philemon stands as someone who gives rest to them. He ends with “brother” which is a term of endearment.
So with this set-up—reminding Philemon of how he has acted in mirroring the character of Jesus to the body—Paul then gives him the big request of the letter.
8 – 16
Paul makes six points in verses 8 through 16, all designed to convince Philemon to give up retribution against his runaway thief of a slave. These verses are about Paul and Onesimus.
- (8-9) I could tell you to do it, but I know you’ll do it because it’s the right thing to do.
- (9-10) I’m an old man now, and Onesimus is my son (he should be dear to you because he’s dear to me).
- (11) He’s not the same person he used to be (you should value him because I value him). There’s a play on words here, by the way. Onesimus means “useful” or “profitable” in Greek.
- (12-13) Onesimus is really a slave of Christ and given to me (and was serving me in YOUR place), but I’m willing to send him back to you.
- (14) I want you to be in on the decision (though it’s obvious what the decision is to be).
- (15-16) Maybe all this was part of God’s grand plan to remove a pagan slave and return to you a dear brother (both physically—treat him well, and spiritually, hold him dear yourself).
Philemon has choices here, but Paul is urging him to make the right choice. You know, we as humans know our rights—and when they are violated we want to assert them strongly. But I think the lesson from Paul here to see the bigger picture. Jesus is the Son of God but didn’t assert His rights. In fact He gave up His rights in order for us to be benefited. It is the sign of a maturing believer to see the bigger plan—the higher good. Maybe sometimes it’s better for us to relinquish our rights in order for a brother or sister to be benefited.
Now Paul switches the focus from himself and Onesimus to himself and Philemon.
17 – 19
Paul gives four very straightforward requests: welcome Onesimus back, put his debts on my account, refresh my heart, and make up a bed for me.
“Partner” in verse 17 is the Greek koinonia. So Paul is saying: “if you share a commonality with me and share with me in the faith, share Onesimus as well.”
In verse 18 we learn that Onesimus likely stole from Philemon. Paul says: “charge it to me” but then adds the fact that Philemon actually owes Paul a debt—his own soul because Paul led him to Christ. Here we see the outworking on what Paul wrote in Colossians—we should forgive just as we have been forgiven.
20 – 21
The Greek here might well be rendered: “come to think of it, I want a return from you.” It’s gentle irony, but Paul is appealing to Philemon’s better self, while reminding him “if you really want to press the issue, there is the matter of what you owe me!”
So even as Philemon refreshed the hearts of the saints with his love, so he can now refresh Paul’s heart by welcoming Onesimus back as a brother and forgive his debt.
Just in case none of the other arguments worked, or if Philemon responded “oh sure, I’ll take him back” but then afterwards would put Onesimus once again under a heavy burden because he’d run away and stolen from him—Paul let’s Philemon know that he’s planning a visit to check up on how things are going with this new relationship.
Just as in Colossians, Paul mentions those that are with him—who are also aware of what Paul is writing, no doubt. Epaphras was the man who originally shared the gospel with the Colossians so there is more accountability there as well.
- We’re not isolated from one another but share in the body of Christ. So we should share the same goals and try to help each other grow. Often we justify not sharing in each other’s lives by thinking of ourselves as either better than or different from others. In Christ, we are all one.
- Do the right thing not because you feel obligated but because it’s the right thing to do.
- Are you a refresher?
- We also are accountable for our actions—not to Paul, but to the Lord!
By the way, though before you came to know Jesus you were “useless” to God, now in Him you are very “useful”. Did you know He thinks of you this way?