Last Sunday, I started a sermon series on Philemon, “Spiritually Free.”
Philemon is a unique letter about the how the Gospel changes our perspective on life and gives us hope. How and why is it unique?
After a diving accident when she was 17, Joni Erickson Tada became paralyzed from the shoulders down. Despite deep despair because of the drastic change in the course of her life, Tada went on to build a ministry that has served thousands of disabled individuals around the world.
In situations like hers, our natural response is to hope less to avoid disappointment, but God promises us hope and offers us a future.
In the book of Philemon, Paul is hoping against all odds that:
- Soon Paul will be released from prison
- Philemon will forgive his runaway slave Onesimus and receive him as a brother in Christ and treat him as such
Uniqueness of Philemon
This letter is unique in many ways.
Unlike other prison letters, it neither has theological arguments to defend the faith against growing heresy nor does it have any major doctrinal teaching. It has no direct instruction for the church.
Yet it is unique because it addresses slavery in the cultural context. Slavery was not only acceptable but rather encouraged to boost the economy. The main point of the whole book is the application of Col. 3:11: Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all and in all.”
Paul indicates that the gospel has transformed Onesimus, a runaway slave who may have stolen from his master Onesimus, into a new and useful person. Paul is appealing to Onesimus to forgive him, reconcile with him, and have a new relationship with him.
Because both Philemon and Onesimus have experienced Gospel transformation, there is hope for restoration and reconciliation, which is why Paul is writing this letter.
Reconciliation and Forgiveness in Philemon
Paul wants Philemon to know that if he desires God’s mercy, he must extend it to others. If he desires God’s forgiveness, he must extend it to others. Reconciliation and forgiveness are two ends of the same theme that saturate this letter. You cannot have one without the other.
Just as God forgives us our sins to reconcile us to Himself. So, the right thing to do for all believers is to forgive each other because we are forgiven and reconciled to God.
Fear is a powerful thing.
Onesimus had to rise above his fear of retribution and return, repent, and ask to be taken back with no conditions. Sometimes we feel hopeless because we are afraid to hope, so what we need to do is tell fear, “Fear! you have no place in my life because I have been set free.” Hope in the Lord should always take the central place in our lives.
Philemon had to rise above his fear of social standing, how he would be viewed if he did not punish a runaway slave, or worse, if he treated Onesimus as a brother and co-worker in the Kingdom of God. But that is exactly what Paul is hoping for, that Philemon would do the right thing irrespective of the social and cultural pressures.
Next week we will look at how this hope is not tied to our circumstances, or challenges of life, but rather to our commitment to the Lord. The power of the gospel changes everything.
To watch the full sermon, click here.