A Personal Letter
Do you look forward to checking your mail each day? I do. Unfortunately, all I usually find in my mailbox are bills and junk mail. In this age of email, Facebook, and Twitter, it’s rare that you ever receive a personal letter.
A quick introduction to the book of Philemon:
- Written by: Paul. When? Around A.D. 60. The letter to Philemon is the shortest book in the NT in the original Greek (355 words). Timothy is mentioned in verse 1. Why? He is not a co-author. Paul probably mentions Timothy because he is present as Paul is writing the letter. And perhaps Philemon knows Timothy. They may have met in nearby Ephesus (see Acts 19:22).
- Written from: Prison. Where? Probably Rome. Paul describes himself as a “prisoner for Christ Jesus” (v. 1). Technically, Paul is under house arrest, chained to a Roman guard (see Acts 28:30). Philemon is one of the four “prison epistles.” The others are Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians.
- Written to: Philemon. Who? A wealthy Christian in Colossae. The church at Colossae met in Philemon’s house (v. 2). This indicates that he was probably wealthy since his house is large enough to be used for church meetings. Philemon was saved as a result of Paul’s ministry: “you owe me your very self” (v. 19). Three other recipients are mentioned in verse 2: (1) “Apphia our sister” (probably Philemon’s wife); (2) “Archippus our fellow soldier” (probably Philemon’s son); and (3) the Colossian church. Philemon is the primary recipient because his name is listed first and “you” is singular in the Greek (except for vv. 3, 22, 25).
- Written about: Onesimus. Who? A runaway slave. At some point, Onesimus, one of Philemon’s slaves, fled to Rome after having stolen money (or property) from Philemon. Somehow Onesimus met Paul in Rome and was converted. His life was changed, and he became a great help to Paul. He had been reconciled to God, and now he needs to be reconciled to Philemon. [Note: In the sermon audio, I briefly address the issue of slavery in the NT.]
I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints (vv. 4-5).
Real Christianity is real faith expressing itself through real love.
We can see a picture of salvation in verses 17-18. First, Paul was willing to pay Onesimus’s debt (v. 18). “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.” Second, Philemon was asked to welcome Onesimus as he would welcome Paul (v. 17).
Christ paid the debt of our sin so that we could be welcomed into God’s family. “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Christ’s death on the cross made it possible for our sin to be put on Christ’s account and His righteousness to be put on our account. What must we do? Put our faith in Him.
What is real faith?
1. Faith is not just an intellectual thing; faith works.
The faith you have toward the Lord Jesus (v. 5).
Jesus is our “Lord.” The Greek word for “Lord” is kurios, which means “master,” or “he to whom a person belong.” Philemon was a slave owner, but he belonged to Jesus. This means that faith includes both belief and commitment.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). Salvation is by grace through faith, not by works. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:8-10). We are not saved by works, but we are saved to do works.
“What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:14-17 NIV).
2. Faith is not just an individual thing; faith connects.
I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ (v. 6 NIV).
So if you consider me your partner… (v. 17).
The Greek word for “partnership” is koinonia and means “fellowship” or “communion.” Faith in Christ not only brings us into fellowship with God; it also brings us into fellowship with other believers. We are all brothers and sisters in God’s family.
What is real love?
1. Love is not a selective thing; love accepts.
Your love…for all the saints (v. 5).
Receive him as you would receive me (v. 17).
The Bible doesn’t say love some of the saints or most of the saints or all of the saints except that really annoying one. Someone named “Mark” is mentioned in verse 24. This is probably “John Mark,” the son of a woman in whose house the Christians met in Acts 12. He was a “cousin of Barnabas” (Col. 4:10). He accompanied Paul and Barnabas on the first missionary journey. However, Mark didn’t complete the journey (Acts 15:38). As a result, Paul refused to take Mark on the second journey. This led to a falling out between Paul and Barnabas. “They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company” (Acts 15:39 NIV). Eventually, Paul was reconciled with Mark (and Barnabas). About five years later, Paul tells Timothy, “Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry” (2 Tim. 4:11 NIV). And now—about twelve years later—Mark is working alongside Paul (Col. 4:10). It was this Mark who became the author of the second Gospel. Paul had welcomed back Mark and was an example to Philemon.
2. Love is not a sentimental thing; love acts.
For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you (v. 7).
Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you (vv. 8-9a).
“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:16-18 NIV).