Tag Archives: philemon 1-7

How to transform your life from useless to useful – Philemon 8-25, Part 2

27 Aug
Photo by Linh Nguyen on Unsplash

Have you ever felt useless in life? Maybe you watch others around you, friends and family, and it seems they are successful, advancing, making a difference in the world, enjoying life. Then you think about your life, and maybe you see a past littered with failure, broken relationships, and poor choices. Even if that describes you a little bit, know that you are not alone. Today we meet a man with a broken past. In fact, he was described as useless. At the outset, though, let me give you a hint: there is hope!

So far in our study of Paul’s letter to Philemon, in verses 1-7 we’ve seen Paul profusely encourage Philemon to see himself as a lover of Jesus who also loves all of Jesus’ followers. Then in verses 8-9, Paul begins to make an appeal to Philemon, because there is a specific situation in which Paul wants Philemon to practice that love for Jesus and all his followers. Paul knows that Philemon has a broken relationship in his life, and in verses 10-21, Paul makes his appeal to Philemon to fix that relationship.

What relationship? Paul is writing Philemon on behalf of Onesimus who used to be Philemon’s slave.  But something happened.  We don’t know all the details, but in verse 18 Paul gives some clues.  It seems that Onesimus not only ran away from Philemon, but may have even stolen from him.  Onesimus then made his way to Rome where he met up with Paul.  My guess is that one of three things led Onesimus to Paul. 

First option: Paul had previously become friends with Philemon.  It is possible that Paul would have also met his slave at the same time.  As time goes by, Paul ends up in Rome on house arrest, and Onesimus runs away from Philemon, hoping upon hope that Paul will help him.  If you’ve just committed a crime, and you don’t know where to go, you often seek a person you think will be understanding.  In Onesimus’ mind, Paul fits the bill.

Second option: It could be that Onesimus and Paul hadn’t previously met, but Onesimus still seeks out Paul for help, simply because of Paul’s reputation.

Third option: Onesimus just so happens to end up in Rome and comes across Paul.  Seems unlikely, but as we all know, unlikely things happen all time. 

The rest of the story, Paul tells us.  There in Rome, as he says in verse 10, Onesimus becomes his son.  That is strong family language, right?  Paul writes like this often, calling people his “son” in the faith.  What he means is that he shared Christ with Onesimus, and Onesimus chose to place his faith in Christ, giving Jesus both his assent and allegiance.  In other words, through Paul’s ministry on house arrest, Onesimus becomes a Christian. 

In verse 11 you see Paul’s literary flourish as he uses a wordplay, and most of your Bibles will point to this in a text note.  Almost certainly Onesimus was a difficult case for Philemon, and Paul knew this. If he hadn’t previously heard the story of Onesimus’ running away, he now heard it from Onesimus. Maybe Onesimus was a bad worker, maybe he was insubordinate, a back-talker, a slacker, we don’t know. As a result, maybe Philemon was hard on Onesimus, and that led to his running away. Or maybe Onesimus just wanted to be free. When Paul describes Onesimus as “formerly useless,” it could be all of the above. But here’s wordplay: Onesimus’ name means “useful,” and what does Paul say in verse 11?  Onesimus has gone through a transformation from uselessness to usefulness.  Through the work of Jesus in Onesimus’ life, a great change has happened. Onesimus is now as his name suggests, useful!  And not just to Philemon, Onesimus, Paul says, is useful to Paul too.  Apparently Onesimus was on fire for Jesus, serving, helping Paul. 

So Paul has a tough decision to make.  Do you send a runaway slave back to their master, knowing that it might not go well for that slave?  Or do you keep him with you, especially considering the amazing change that has taken place in his life?  There’s a lot riding on this.  If Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon, how will Philemon handle it?  Philemon really seems to be a good man, but Onesimus had betrayed Philemon, and Philemon could have a bad reaction. Also consider this from Onesimus’ point of view.  How much convincing did Paul have to do to get Onesimus to agree to this, after having wronged Philemon and run away?  How scared was he to go back there?  We can imagine Paul having a talk with Onesimus: “Now that you are follower of Jesus, there’s something we need to discuss. Philemon. Your master. How you treated him. Your broken relationship. Jesus is in the business of making things right. We’re going to need to deal with this.”

Now are you seeing why Paul gushes so much over Philemon in verses 1-7?  All that talk about loving all Christians?  Yeah.  It’s because Paul is dropping a bomb right in Philemon’s lap.  And that bomb is Onesimus.  Paul chooses to send Onesimus back, as we read in verse 12, which is the right thing to do. In fact, under Roman law, it was the legal thing to do. Philemon owns Onesimus, and Paul chooses to submit Onesimus to that relationship, as he says in verse 14.

At this juncture we need to pause and talk about slavery in the Roman Empire.  Even just saying “Philemon owns Onesimus” feels wrong.  But that is what was going on.  He was legally seen as property. 

Doesn’t it seem really odd that Philemon, a Christian, owns slaves, and that Paul would send a runaway slave back to his master!  Shouldn’t Philemon set his slaves free?  And shouldn’t Paul say, “Onesimus, you are not going back there into slavery”?  Yes, it seems like that should be happening, but none of it did.  As we’ll see, Paul has a whole lot more to say, but for now I want to point out that slavery in the Roman Empire, while it was awful, as slavery always is, was not like slavery in our American past.  Frankly, American slavery was worse.  A horrible, racial, terrible evil.  It was evil in the Roman Empire too, but it was not racial, and slaves actually had some measure of opportunity for freedom and advancement.  What I do not want you to hear me saying, though, is that slavery was okay in the Roman Empire.  It was different than American slavery, but it still was not okay.  It was evil and wrong back then and went against God’s desires.  I, too, wish Paul would have said more to denounce it.

So what did he say?  Next if Part 3 we continue observing his flow of thought, which will have significant implications for not only Philemon and Onesimus, but so much more, including the practice of slavery.

How to help people see things from a different perspective – Philemon 8-25, Part 1

26 Aug
Photo by Léonard Cotte on Unsplash

There have been some illusions in recent years that have become internet sensations.  Like the dress that was either white/gold or blue/black, or the computer voice that says “laurel” or “yanny.”  Now there is the bird or the bunny.  Which do you see?

It’s wild how the mind works!  It is actually a bird, but you can sure see how it looks like a bunny. Here’s another one.  What color are the strawberries? 

Red, of course.  Right?  Well, maybe they seem like the color is slightly washed out, but you can still see the redness.  Or can you?  The creator of this photo says it is entirely in grayscale.  No color whatsoever.  Our minds supply the red color because that is what we are used to! 

These illusions relate to our divided world, as people see things so differently.  Have you ever had the experience where you are talking with someone, and they are describing their viewpoint, and inwardly you are thinking to yourself, “How can they possibly believe that?” 

It can be very hard to see things from another perspective.  Usually we just hold more tightly on to our own and characterize the other side as a bunch of whackos.

Last week we started reading Paul’s letter to his friend Philemon.  As we continue this week, we’re going to discover that Paul sees an issue from a very specific perspective, and he wants Philemon to agree with him.  How will Paul help Philemon see another viewpoint?

In verses 1-7 (you can review the five-part series on those verses starting here), we learned that Paul has a lot of really nice things to say to Philemon. While Paul certainly was telling the truth about Philemon, and while he wanted to encourage Philemon, Paul does have another motive going on.  He really wants Philemon to identify himself in the ways that Paul has described him.  How has Paul identified Philemon?  As a person who is deeply committed to Jesus, who loves and encourages “all the saints.”  That word “all” in verse 5 is key.  Paul wants Philemon to be thinking, “Yeah, that is me.  That’s how I am. I love Jesus and I love all his followers, and I encourage all of them.”  Why does Paul want Philemon to think that way? Because there was one follower in particular that Philemon had a problem with.

Now read verse 8 to find out where Paul is going with this.

Did you notice how the tone of this passage shifts in verse 8?  Paul says, “Although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do…”  Wait.  Bold?  Order him?  What just happened?  Paul has spent the better part of the previous 7 verses pouring praise on Philemon.  Now here in verse 8 he sounds pretty confrontational doesn’t he?  There’s something going on, and Paul is about to spill the details.

Verse 8 stops mid-sentence, so read through the end of Paul’s sentence which continues until about halfway through verse 9.

Paul says that though he could be bold and order Philemon, he’s not going to.  Instead he is going to appeal to him on the basis of love.  That’s quite an interesting phrase.  Paul knows he has authority, because he is an apostle of Jesus, and he could pull rank on Philemon.  Whatever is going on, Paul knows he could take the power route.  But he doesn’t.  He takes the love route. 

He still reminds Philemon that he, Paul, could take the power route, and the fact that he reminds Philemon of this stands out to me.  Could it be said that Paul is being manipulative here?  Someone could say that he spent the first seven verses buttering Philemon up, because he knows that he is about to drop a bomb on him.  Or it could be that Paul is just showing tact and wisdom.  The same goes for his reference to his position of authority and power that he could wield on Philemon.  In all this, I think Paul is being truthful and wise.

Now continue reading from the middle of verse 9.

How about that?  Paul calls himself an old man, and he repeats the line he started the letter with, that he is a prisoner of Christ Jesus.  Is Paul trying to establish more authority, using his status as an elder?  As a prisoner?  Is he staying he has street cred?  Is he referring to his seniority?  Probably all that and more.  It is clear that Paul really wants Philemon to do something, to answer his appeal from love.

In Part 2 of this series through Philemon 8-25, Paul will reveal the details of the specific situation he is concerned about. For now, focus your thinking on how Paul has begun his appeal. He wants it to be clear that he is not using a power move, but he is appealing to Philemon based on love. I find that quite instructive and applicable to many situations. Parents, teachers, coaches, bosses, pastors. Anyone who has a measure of authority. How are you motivating the people you lead? With power or with love? Going back to where we started this post, consider the conversations you have with friends and acquaintances in which you are sharing different points of view. How are you communicating? With power or love? There certainly may be times when power is needed, but for Christians, may your use of power always be guided by love. We would do well to make it a practice of asking ourselves, “Am I being loving in this?” Or “Does the person I’m interacting with feel loved?” Even if we have to confront them, we can do so in love. Paul is about to confront Philemon, but take note of how he has communicated love to Philemon first. Paul has laid an extensive groundwork of love in verses 1-7, so that when he gets to the difficult part of the conversation, Philemon will know it comes from Paul’s heart of love. What a great example!

Be a Refresher of Hearts! Philemon 1-7, Part 5

23 Aug

How do people come away from interacting with you? Think about some of the recent times that you have interacted with people. Maybe it was your family members. Perhaps it was co-workers. Or even social media posts. Try to put yourself in the shoes of the people who were with you, or who were reading your posts or viewing your videos. What impression did you give them? Were you complaining? Angry? Joyful? Hopeful?

We started this series of posts asking, “Are you able to see yourself for who you really are?” In this fifth part in our series on Philemon verses 1-7, if you read verse 7, you’ll see that Paul really encourages Philemon, helping Philemon see himself for who he truly is. It appears that Philemon was a really great guy. But how so?

Paul says that Philemon’s love has given Paul great joy and encouragement, because Philemon has refreshed the hearts of the saints.  I wish I knew what Paul meant by that, but it would appear that Philemon was a very loving, encouraging person.  He was full of faith, to the point that when people visited Paul in Rome on house arrest, they talked about Philemon. Paul was overjoyed to hear how Philemon was living out his faith.

It is amazing to consider that Paul would be able to say this while in prison!  Paul really wants Philemon to be happy to be holding that letter in his hands and reading it.  Why?  He’s getting there. Next week in the series on Philemon 8-25, we’ll get the answer to the question of “Why?”

For now, let’s consider what we have heard in verses 1-7.  The character of Philemon is quite impressive. If you want, go back and read the previous parts of this series, starting here.

What we saw is that Philemon has qualities that are worth emulating: faith, love for all the saints, love that gave Paul great joy and encouragement, and finally, because Philemon was a giver of joy and encouragement, he refreshed the hearts of the saints

In other words, Paul sees Christ in Philemon. 

Therefore I have a question we all should ask: do others see Christ in me?

They will see Christ in you if you are like Philemon.  Full of faith, having a love for all the people in the church family, love that gives joy and encouragement, so that people’s hearts are refreshed after spending time with you.

Think about that.  How do people react to you?  Do they come away from their interaction with you encouraged, joyful, feeling loved?  What about your social media posts?  What about your interactions on the phone?  How do you handle yourself in meetings? Would people say that you refresh their hearts?

If not, what do you need to confess? How do you need to repent? And what do you need to change in order to become more like Philemon, who was a refresher of hearts?

Defining true Christian fellowship – Philemon 1-7, Part 4

22 Aug
Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash

What is fellowship? How does it look in your life, in your church? How do you know if you are doing it right? As we have seen in our study through Philemon verses 1-7, Paul has been giving his friend Philemon feedback on what Philemon has done with his life. Paul has many nice compliments for Philemon (see Parts 1, 2, and 3 for what we have covered previously). We’ve arrived at verse 6, and Paul is far from the end of his encouragement to Philemon. Is Philemon fellowshipping right?

In verse 6 we face a problem, though, as scholars tell us it is difficult to translate.  Here’s how the NIV 1984 translates it:

I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.

Paul, to Philemon (Philemon 6, NIV 1984)

When you read the words, “sharing your faith,” what comes to mind? Evangelism, right? Sharing the Gospel. Some kind of proclamation of the content of the good news of Jesus. But most scholars believe that is not what Paul is talking about. 

For the word “sharing,” Paul uses the word koinonia.  It is a Greek word that carries the idea of sharing.  But more commonly it is translated in the New Testament using the English word: “fellowship”.  Paul, therefore, is talking about the fellowship of our faith.

What is fellowship?  Churches are sometimes called fellowships.  Faith Church has a room in our building called a fellowship hall, and we also have a Fellowship Serve Team, which is responsible for, among many other things, administration of our kitchen and meals. So there seems to be a connection between fellowship and food.  Fellowship is not equal with food, but the two concepts are connected because of what so often happens around a table of food.  People talk.  People open up.  They share life.  Fellowship is about close relationship.

There are also times in the New Testament when this word is translated as “participation.”  In other words, there is no way we can truly have a fellowship of faith by just meeting together on Sunday mornings.  Sunday mornings are important, and they should launch us into a life of worship and fellowship.  This is why I really encourage you to participate in groups.  Place yourself in settings like Sunday School classes, and small groups, and ministry teams where you can develop deeper relationships.  But fellowship doesn’t stop there.  Fellowship means you invite people in your home, take them out to coffee or lunch, and going deep.  It is one reason why I love our informal runner’s group at Faith Church.  We train together, talk about how race prep is going, hang out, run races, and more than that, we share life. 

So if that is what fellowship is, sharing life together, what is Paul trying to say in verse 6?  One bible commentator, NT Wright explains this a lot more clearly. He points us to Paul’s mention of Jesus in verse 6:

“Paul uses ‘Christ’ here, as in some other passages, as a shorthand for the full and mature life of those ‘in Christ’, so that ‘unto Christ’ refers to the growth of the church towards that goal. Paul’s desire is that the fact of mutual participation, enjoyed by Philemon and his fellow Christians, will result in the full blessing of being ‘in Christ’, i.e. the full unity of the body of Christ.”[1] 

N. T. Wright

What a wonderful picture of what the fellowship of faith can accomplish!  Our fellowship motivates us toward discipleship. Again, Paul is setting a stage.  He wants Philemon to agree with him that all Christians can enjoy the mutual participation of being in Christ, just like Philemon and the other Christians in Colosse enjoy.  Paul is nearly ready to explain why he is talking about this.  He is building toward the “therefore” in verse 8.  For now, we simply need to see what Paul is saying as really important.  Churches should have as their goal that the people in the church grow a more and more mature life in Christ, such that all can mutually participate together in the blessing of being in Christ.  Paul is talking about the strong bond of a church family. 

How can you strengthen the bonds of your church family? Are you participating in a group? What will it look like for you to be more like Philemon?


[1] N. T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 12, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 183.

How faith works – Philemon 1-7, Part 3

21 Aug
Photo by Rachel on Unsplash

Have you wondered how faith works? What is faith? I long ago heard that faith is like sitting in a chair. You sit down, believing and trusting that the chair will hold you up. Of course, the chair might be poorly built, and when you sit on it, the chair breaks apart and you fall to the ground! While I get the chair illustration, it can still seem difficult to know if I am truly placing my faith in God. What do I actually do?

As I said in the previous post, Jesus has numerous really important purposes for this letter Paul is writing to his friend Philemon, and one purpose that is to explain how faith works. If you haven’t started with Part 1 of this series on Philemon 1-7, I encourage you to pause reading this one and start with Part 1. Then continue with Part 2. Ok, all caught up?

Now look at Philemon, verses 4-7, which is Paul’s brief introduction to the main part of the letter.  In this intro, Paul will set the tone for what he has to say to Philemon.  So let’s look at it closely.

Verse 4 is pretty straightforward.  Paul often talks like this in his other letters.  He tells Philemon that he thanks God for Philemon, as he remembers Philemon in his prayers.  What a wonderful example Paul sets for Philemon and anyone who would read this letter, even 2000 years later.  We should pray for people, and thank God for them.  How often do you pray for the people in your life, thanking God for them?  What if that became a new habit for you?   

Also, imagine how Philemon would have felt reading that.  He would love it.  It’s so encouraging.  Paul, the guy who was one of the foremost Christians of his day, even when he is hundreds of miles away in Rome, on house arrest, is personally remembering Philemon, praying for him, and thanking God for him?  Who do you need to write a note of encouragement to, just saying, “I’m praying for you, and I’m grateful for you”?  And then actually pray for them.  I think the note itself is a prayer too.  This day and age with texting, it is so easy to send a note of thanks and prayer for people.  A few weeks ago, someone put a card on my desk in my office.  It simply said, “You are loved and being prayed for you!”  It was anonymous.  They made sure the focus was on God, not on them.  It was really encouraging!

But Paul is not nearly done with the encouragement for Philemon.  Look at verse 5. There he explains the reason that he thanks God for Philemon.  Two reasons, really.  First, he heard about Philemon’s faith in the Lord.  Second, he heard about his love for all the saints.  So word got out.  People who visited Paul were saying to Paul that Philemon is the real deal. 

I always get a little weirded out when I hear that people are talking about me.  Whether that is good or bad.  It can just feel uncomfortable.  How about you? Do you feel that way when you find out people are talking about you? 

But it sure does help, though, to hear that they have good things to say about you.  Paul has heard people say very good things about Philemon: about his faith in the Lord and love for all the saints.  Those are two really important aspects of being a disciple of Jesus, so think with me about how faith and love work together in the life of a disciple of Jesus. Faith in God that shows it is true faith by loving people. 

I recently heard a talk about faith that was very helpful.  The speaker said that we so often think of faith as “assent,” meaning that faith is when we believe in or agree with certain ideas or concepts.  It is saying, “I agree or I believe that Jesus is God, that he died and rose again, and so on.”  But in the New Testament, when the writers, including Paul and Jesus himself, talked about faith, they were almost certainly not talking only about assent.  When they talked about faith, it included assent, but it went beyond assent to allegiance.  In other words, when we have faith in Jesus, we are saying, Jesus, you are the one true King, and I pledge my allegiance to you and you only.”  Paul says that is what Philemon was doing.  Philemon was showing that he was a true disciple of Jesus, by living out a faith that demonstrated love.

Paul is also setting a tone here.  He definitely wants Philemon to self-identify as a person who demonstrates faith in God by loving all Christians.  He has a reason for encouraging Philemon so much.  That reason will become very apparent in verse 8 when Paul says “therefore”.  We’ll get to that next week when we study the rest of the letter.  For now, observe what Paul is saying about Philemon, and ask yourself how that might apply to you.  How is your faith in the Lord?  How is your love for the people in the church?  Is your love and faith being talked about?  Are there ways you could improve? How so? What do you need to do differently?

Seeing beyond our circumstances to share grace and peace – Philemon 1-7, Part 2

20 Aug
Photo by Bud Helisson on Unsplash

How are you viewing your life? Are things going well? Are they difficult? If they are going well, my guess is that you probably view them in a positive light. But they are difficult, your view could be negative. In the middle of the difficult, it can be hard for us to think and feel anything but self-loathing, wanting an escape, or anger and despair. In the previous post, though, we saw Paul, though a prisoner, demonstrate an ability to see beyond his circumstances. As we continue studying Philemon 1-7, Paul’s at it again, and this time he not only sees his personal difficulty hopefully, he has a message to share.

After introducing himself as the letter writer, Paul includes Timothy as a cosigner to the letter, because Timothy was in Rome with Paul.  Next he refers to the recipient of the letter, Philemon, calling him a “dear friend and fellow worker,” so we learn just a bit about how Paul felt about this guy.  Clearly Paul feels a close relationship with Philemon.

Then Paul greets two other people. Apphia, who most scholars believe could be Philemon’s wife, and Archippus. Some have speculated that maybe Archippus is Philemon’s son.  We don’t know. 

Interestingly Paul calls Archippus a “fellow soldier.”  “Soldier is a word that refers to “one who serves in arduous tasks or undergoes severe experiences together with someone else—one who struggles along with, one who works arduously along with, fellow struggler.”  Scholars tell us that a “strictly literal translation of that word could imply that Paul himself was a soldier and therefore, in a sense, a secret agent of some military force.” Because we know that wasn’t the case, we need to see Paul as saying to Archippus that Archippus is one, “who works like a fellow soldier or one who experiences great hardships along with us.”[1]

Finally at the end of verse 2, Paul greets “the church that meets in your home.”  Because this is a personal letter to Philemon, it seems best to understand this as Paul referring to a church that meets in Philemon’s home.  Remember that at this time, churches all met in homes.  There were no church buildings. 

Then in verse 3 Paul gives a greeting that is very typical for him: “Grace and peace from God our Father and Lord Jesus.”  But these are not just throw-away words.  Paul means them.  He uses them over and over in his letters, and so we know he takes this greeting seriously.  

Grace came up a lot in Titus.  It comes up a lot in all of Paul’s writings. So we could assume that we all know what it means.  But let’s not.  Instead let’s talk through what grace is.  In the original language that Paul wrote in, ancient Greek, he is using the word, “charis.” In English, “charis” is often translated as “gift”.  You can see how that relates to grace, because we often call it “God’s gift of grace.”  A gift is something that is given, not earned.  That is how we see grace, right? 

Next Paul says “Peace.”  Peace is the Greek word “irene”.  So we have two women’s names in Paul’s greeting: Charis and Irene.  Peace, or irene, refers to a favorable set of circumstances involving tranquility.   

Now add in the rest of the greeting and we see that the grace and peace is “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”  This is not human grace and peace, it is from God.  He wants the people receiving this letter to have quite a wonderful blessing from God.  A blessing of grace and peace.

What is so amazing about this, is to consider Paul’s situation as he writes this.  Imagine Paul, in chains, trying to encourage people who are not on house arrest!  He wants them to experience grace and peace when it seems like they should be encouraging him!  Doesn’t it seem like Paul is the one who should be getting a blessing of grace and peace?  And yet here again, Paul does not allow his circumstances to dictate his message.  He wants grace and peace to be communicated anyway.  He doesn’t want his house arrest to destroy the work of God.  He easily could have allowed his chains to ruin his ministry.  But he doesn’t.  Paul allows Jesus to transform his situation.

And Jesus has a really important purpose for this letter, which we will see in the next post in this series.


[1] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 447.