TEXT: Philemon 10-16; Galatians 3:24-29
We are continuing today in the short letter to Philemon, found near the end of the New Testament. It is a personal letter from the Apostle Paul to the head of an early Christian house church, a man named Philemon. The situation, which we really hear about in today’s text, is that Paul has met a man named Onesimus who is a bondservant or slave who has fled his debt to Philemon. We’ve talked in previous weeks about the culture that accepted that kind of slavery as debt-payment, but also about how Christianity intersected and cut against that culture. Yet Christians, even “good Christians” like Philemon still had blind spots and Paul was writing to his friend to help him see with Gospel lenses more clearly. Last week we talked about effective communication, seeing how Paul wrote Philemon, not ordering him what do to (though he had the authority and the truth to do so), but appealing to him to receive Onesimus back as a brother in Christ. Today we get to the actual details of the situation and see the very heart of the Gospel, the “Good News.”
Useful (vv. 10-13)
When we think about Onesimus being a slave, verse 11 comes across especially harsh. It’s bad enough to refer to someone as ‘useless’ in any context, but the context of slavery adds to that word the even worse connotation that Onesimus was just viewed as property or a thing (and not a valued one at that). That Paul would now declare him ‘useful’ doesn’t help; it sounds like Paul has just fixed his attitude so that he’ll now be a “good slave.” But that’s not what is going on at all – another reminder that scripture always needs to be read in context.
Remember that Paul is pressing in towards the gospel truth here, not just wanting to order it from Philemon, but wanting him to understand and believe and be changed by it. Paul is not talking about the inherent worth or dignity of Onesimus here (he will in a moment and elevate that dignity as high as it goes!); he is talking about how Philemon views him. Onesimus as “useless to you.” In other words, Paul is saying, “You didn’t view or value him as a person to respect, much less see him as a brother or potential brother in Christ… but listen – he IS!” This is Paul pressing in on the blind spot created by culture that said slavery and the “less than” perspective that came with it was acceptable, even for a good Christian. Paul is saying that the Gospel of Jesus Christ requires more!
Paul uses vivid language to describe Onesimus: he is “my very heart” (v. 12) and he is ministering to Paul while he is in jail… not serving Paul as a slave, but serving Christ and ministering to Paul.
Finally, there is some intentional use of words here. Paul did not just pull ‘useless’ and ‘useful’ out of the air. The name, Onesimus, means ‘useful.’ Paul is playing on that to say, “Philemon, you did not see the true worth of this man; I have and am sending him to you and asking you to see in a new way, with the eyes of Christ, that this man is not just ‘useful’ to you, but useful to Christ and therefore a brother to you and me.”
For the Right Reasons (vv. 14-15)
Paul mentions two details that are worth noting. One is repeating his reason for writing: he is not ordering Philemon to do the right thing (‘compulsion’), but appealing to him that he might see the gospel opportunity and respond “of his own free will.” (v. 14) Paul is after a change of heart because that’s what Christ does to people – it changes their hearts. Onesimus is not the only one here who is a “new creation in Christ”; Philemon, though a believer, has an opportunity to grow – to see what was in his blind spot – and to be made new again.
Paul goes a step further with the second detail. He says, echoing a similar situation wording from Genesis, that perhaps God was using this very situation for this reason – that both men would grow closer to God and to one another. In Genesis, Joseph’s brothers had sold him into slavery – an evil and malicious act, to be sure. But God had turned good out of that evil, leading Joseph to a place where later he would even save his brothers’ lives. The powerful statement in Genesis is, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” (Genesis 50:20)
That can lead into a philosophical question of whether God causes evil, but scripture asserts God is not the author of evil. What God can and does do, though, is act around, under, and beyond limited and sinful human intents and actions to redeem them for good and for His glory. Next week we will see Paul echoing that redeeming gesture when he offers to pay off the debt Onesimus owes to settle his earthly obligations.
No Longer as a Slave (v. 16)
Finally, in verse 16, Paul gets to the heart of the Gospel message: as a believer in Jesus Christ, Onesimus is more than a slave – the creation of a fallen culture apart from God. He is a creation of God, a “beloved brother,” in the flesh and in the Lord, that is, in human and spiritual terms. That’s what Paul wants Philemon to “see” – what has been in his blind spot. And he doesn’t just want him to see, he wants him to understand and change and grow.
And all that leads to this question for us as we try to apply this letter to our lives:
What has our culture created that may be a distortion or lie, yet is in our blind spot even as we try to be “good Christians?”
Our own view of race?
Our view of money and the pursuit of money?
I think the answer is yes, yes, and yes; and the list goes on. And part of what keeps a thing in our blind spot is the increasing tendency these days to insulate ourselves with like-minded people. The internet is actually wired to move in that direction, noting your preferences and what you click on to feed more of that same thing back to you (as it sells you stuff). So you get ads that agree with you, news that agrees with you, and friends who agree with you; and the blind spot gets bigger.
What can we do? How do you see something you can’t see?
The Apostle Paul invites us to bring a gospel lens to bear on our lives and on culture. What does Jesus and the scripture say about race? What does it say about politics and earthly power? What does it say about money and the pursuit of money?
We have talked a bit in this series about the Gospel and race. Paul writes in Galatians that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for we are all one in Christ. (Galatians 3:28) And that’s not just a great leveler of race and status and gender; it is a reminder of our identity in Christ. We are actually inheritors of God’s image and blessing. If that’s not a basis for dignity and seeing each other differently, I don’t know what is.
More broadly, I want to make a plug for church and Christian community. While there are some churches that are very homogenous and like-minded, I think one of the great values of Christian community is the real-world opportunity to talk with, work with, and live life with people who think and talk and act differently than you do. We all are trying and need to keep growing in faith and practice, but here we can do what is so hard to do online and in the real world, and that is to intentionally choose each other, in spite of different politics and race and gender, precisely because we have the same Savior who has declared us brothers and sisters – God’s FAMILY together.
So don’t be put off if you realize someone here votes differently, looks different, or talks differently from you.
Press in for the sake of Jesus; you are God’s family!
Hang in there for the sake of Jesus; you are God’s family!
Grow together for the sake of Jesus; you are God’s family!
Next week we’ll see Paul head in that direction, and talk about the work God has for us as intentionally chosen family together. Amen.