Tag Archives: philemon

How to welcome those who are difficult for you – Philemon 8-25, Part 5

30 Aug
Photo by Taylor Simpson on Unsplash

Who is difficult for you? Think about it. Who are the people you really struggle with? Does it seem like it would be awful to welcome them into your life? How should you treat them?

If Paul’s message to Philemon is our guide, then what we do will be self-sacrificial, it will be radical, it will cross the societal lines, and it will overturn conventional ideas.  It will be white people, giving up their power, privilege and position for people of color who have been marginalized.  It will be a purposeful embrace of the other who is no longer an outsider, but now in Christ a brother or a sister. 

As we conclude our series on Philemon, consider, then, what Jesus did.  Paul clearly describes how Jesus is an example for us of the very thing Paul is asking Philemon to do:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!

Philippians 2:3-8

Other translations say that Jesus “emptied himself”.  He gave up his rights, privilege, position and power so that he could reach us.  That meant he had to become one of us.  Think about that.  The one in the position of power and privilege “emptied himself,” as the hymn says, “of all but love, and bled for us.”  To save us, he became one us and died for us. 

In another place, Paul said that this concept was his modus operandi as well:

“Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews.” And just a few verses later he says, “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.”

1 Corinthians 9:19-20, 22

Jesus, therefore, is asking you and me the exact same thing that Paul was asking Philemon. 

What will you and I do about this?  We are the Philemons of our day.  The time has come for us to welcome the Onesimuses around us as dear brothers.  It might not mean they come to our church. Maybe it will.  But what will it mean?  Ask God to show you.  Ask God to give you his eyes, to see people and situations as he sees them, to act in love to all, because in his eyes all are equal. 

So we would do well to ask ourselves, who do we struggle with?  Who do we look down on?  Who do we think we are better than?  There are so many ways Paul’s letter to Philemon can apply. 

It could be people of a different ethnicity.  And it could be people of a different gender.  Perhaps you struggle with people who are of a different generation.  How about those of a different socioeconomic status?  Maybe people who speak a different language.  What about the immigrants, the asylum seekers, the refugees?  It could be those struggling with homelessness, divorce, bad choices, or a financial struggle.

Who will you stand beside and welcome?  Who will you embrace as a dear brother or sister?

Let’s conclude hearing Paul’s words again, starting:

“[Treat Onesimus] no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord. So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ.”

Philemon 16-20

The world-changing power of forgiveness – Philemon 8-25, Part 4.

29 Aug
Photo by Priscilla du Preez on Unsplash

Have you ever been in a situation where you needed to forgive someone who hurt you? Did you find it difficult to do so? It can be scary to forgive, especially when the pain runs deep. Will that person respect your forgiveness? What if they hurt you again? Are they really sorry? How do you truly know? There are many questions surrounding broken relationships, questions that can make forgiveness seem murky. In our study of Philemon, Paul is addressing a situation of brokenness, and one that needed forgiveness. But this wasn’t any ordinary brokenness, and what Paul is asking is, well, a lot.

If you want to catch up on the broken situation I’m talking about, start with Part 1 of this series, and continuing reading Parts 2 and 3. Then look at verse 17 of the letter to Philemon.  Do you see where Paul says to Philemon, “If you consider me a partner”?  It is almost certain that Philemon would have considered Paul a partner.  Guess what Greek word Paul used there for “partner”? Koinonia.  Remember that from the previous series on Philemon 1-7, when we discussed verse 6? “Sharing” is the word koinonia, and it means “fellowship, sharing or participation.” Paul has come full circle, and then some!  Paul says, “Welcome Onesimus as you would welcome me, as a close friend, because that’s what Christians do!”  Further, if Philemon is to welcome Onesimus, just as he would welcome Paul, do you see how Paul is putting Onesimus on an equal level with himself!  That’s the kind of amazing equality that we all have in Christ.

Paul continues.  In verse 18 he says that if Onesimus has done Philemon any wrong, or owes Philemon anything, he should charge it to Paul.  As we said in Part 2 of this series on Philemon 8-25, it is highly likely that Onesimus did something more than just run away; in the process of running away he probably stole money and possessions from Philemon.  Paul knows this, and does not want that offense to get in the way of Philemon embracing Onesimus as a brother.  Paul wants this reunion to go well.  This could be an amazing example to many people of the power of Jesus, and how Jesus wants to reshape the world.  A master welcoming back his runaway slave who stole from him?  The normal response for Onesimus’ behavior would have massive punishment, maybe even death.  Also Philemon’s honor was at stake in the community.  Paul knows that if Philemon acts in a surprising upside-down Jesus kind of way, Philemon’s forgiveness and brotherly-welcoming of Onesimus could have significant ripple effects in Colosse. Imagine the people in the city talking as word gets out: “Did you hear that Philemon welcomed back a slave who ran away from him, and stole from him?” That would get notice! Sure some people, maybe even many people, would think Philemon is crazy, but they would still be seeing an amazing example of forgiveness and brotherhood that Jesus brings to the world. What an impact that could make in the church!  In the world!

Therefore, what we see Paul pushing for is the beginning of the eradication of slavery.  This is how Christians can clearly say that slavery is not supported by the Bible.  This is an upending of the social order and seeing God’s Kingdom come to earth as it is in heaven.  Paul is teaching Christians to be willing to go against the conventions of their day, in the name of Jesus.  To cross color lines sacrificially, lovingly.  To repent where they need to repent.  To forgive.  To pay for crimes they didn’t commit.  This is a distinctly Jesus way of life, isn’t it?  That kind of self-sacrifice, Paul says to Philemon, is what it takes to be the church.

Still Paul isn’t done.  In verse 19 he says he is writing this with his own hand.  Often Paul would just talk and one of his friends would write.  But he is writing this one himself.  It is very personal and important to him.  It could be that his friend wrote the rest of the letter, but at verse 19, he picks up the pen and says, “Philemon, I’m serious about my offer to you to charge Onesimus’ damages to me.  I will pay it back.”  And then he gets back to some, well, could we say, urging?  Manipulating?  Maybe.  Paul says, “by the way, Philemon, remember that you owe me you very self.”  I don’t know what that means.  Paul doesn’t say.  It could be that Paul guided Philemon to faith in Christ. We don’t know. Clearly, though, Paul is pulling out all the stops to help Philemon see things his way.

Then he lays it on a bit thicker in verses 20-21.  Read those verses. How much does Paul want Philemon to forgive Onesimus and welcome him as a brother?  So much.  He wants a benefit from Philemon, so Paul tells Philemon to refresh his heart, as he said Philemon was so good at back in verse 7.  Then he says in verse 21, “Philemon, I know you will do even more than I ask.”  Maybe Paul is trying too hard here.  What we know by all his cajoling is that this situation is extremely important to Paul.  I read this letter and think, “Did Philemon have any choice but to do what Paul is asking of him?” Then Paul finishes up the letter with some further greetings and a closing blessing of grace.

But let’s go back to that question: Did Philemon have a choice?  Sure, he did.  With Paul far away in Rome, Philemon had a choice.  Paul couldn’t make Philemon agree and receive Onesimus, no longer a slave, now a brother.  Philemon would have to overcome his personal anger, embarrassment, and hurt.  He likely felt betrayed by Onesimus.  He would also have to overcome societal pressure that said masters do not forgive slaves.  In a society of honor and shame, Onesimus had greatly shamed his master, and the common response by the master would be severe punishment.  What Paul is asking Philemon to do, then, is radical, earth-shattering, Jesus kind of forgiveness and acceptance.   Paul’s teaching that all are one in Christ, that Jesus removes the distinctions between slave and free, is right, but it presents a tall order for Philemon.  What will he do?

What did he do?  We don’t know for sure.  Ancient historians tells us that there was an Onesimus who eventually became a Christian bishop.  Maybe it was this Onesimus, and if so, that would indicate a possibility that Philemon did exactly what Paul asked him to.  We really don’t know.  Scholars also point out that because we still know the content of the Paul’s letter to Philemon, that, too, is an indication that Philemon received Onesimus as a brother. Why? Because this letter was almost certainly private, and Philemon could have crumpled it up, thrown it away, and burned it. Most likely, he didn’t, and instead allowed the letter to become public, copied and transmitted to many other churches, so they could also benefit from Paul’s teaching. Again, how did Philemon respond to the letter? We don’t know for sure.

The better question is: what will we do? And we attempt to answer that next in Part 5.

How Jesus redefines “family” – Philemon 8-25, Part 3

28 Aug

How do you define “family”? Biologically? Qualitatively? Some other way? As we continue studying Philemon verses 8-25, today we’re going to see Paul explain how Jesus defines family, and get ready, it is shocking.

So what did Paul say?  Let’s continue his flow of thought from what we already learned in Part 1 and 2 of this series.  We’ve come to verse 13, where Paul admits that he wishes the runaway slave, Onesimus, who has now become a Christian, could stay with Paul. Already in Part 2 we saw how Paul describes Onesimus as “useful” to him.  So as Paul writes to Philemon, saying he wishes Onesimus could stay with him (Paul), that should show Philemon how highly Paul thought of Onesimus.  What Paul says next is where it really gets interesting: Paul writes that if Onesimus could have stayed with Paul, Onesimus would be taking Philemon’s place helping Paul!  That is a bold statement.  Paul is saying that a slave could take the place of his master.  In a slave society, that is laughable.  There is no version of slavery in which a slave could take the place of the master.  But when Jesus enters the situation, he turns society’s convention upside-down.  A slave, Paul is saying, a lowly slave who is transformed by Jesus, can become equal with his master.  Paul’s not done.  It’s going to get even more wild.

Next in verse 14, Paul quickly says that he wants to honor Philemon’s consent. Philemon owns Onesimus and thus Paul is legally bound to send him back.  Also, whatever Philemon chooses to do, Paul doesn’t want anyone to be able to say, “Paul forced this on me.”  Paul wants Philemon’s response to be Philemon’s own free choice.

Now read verses 15-16 where Paul says there might have been another reason for Onesimus running away.  Another reason? What other reason? Isn’t it fairly obvious, Paul? Think about it: normally when a slave runs away, there’s nothing but bad blood between slave and master.  In the master’s eyes, slaves are property that equal money.  Slaves create wealth for their masters.  Thus slaves who run away are seen not only as missing property, but also as missing income.  Add to that, slaves who runaway are disrespecting their masters.  Clearly, masters would often disrespect and mistreat slaves, which is precisely why the slaves wanted to run away in the first place.  So the slave/master relationship was often a fraught situation, and the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon was no different.  Philemon could easily be reading this thinking, “I know why Onesimus ran away, Paul,” and he was almost certainly not happy about it.  Paul is bold, then, in suggesting that there might be another reason. 

What is this other reason Paul hints at? He tells Philemon that it so Philemon could have Onesimus back for good, which is no surprise, but then he adds a shocker in verse 16 when says Philemon “might have him back for good–no longer a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.”  Do you see what Paul does there?  He totally redefines the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon.   Master and slave is gone.  Now they are brothers.  Dear brothers.  Totally equal.

This is exactly what Paul taught in other places:

“You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3:26-28

Paul says the same thing in 1 Cor. 12:13. He also writes it in Colossians 3:11, which is interesting, because when Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon, almost certainly Onesimus and another ministry partner, Tychichus, were carrying the letter of Colossians with them too, a public letter which would have been read to all the Christians in Colosse, including Philemon.  So Paul doesn’t want this to be just a private matter between Philemon and Onesimus, he wants all Christians to know that in Christ, there is a total redefinition of people’s status.  No more ethnic stratification, he says, “neither Jew nor Greek.”  Nor more gender stratification, “neither male nor female.”  No more slave and master, “neither slaver nor free.”

All are one in Christ.

Paul was asking Philemon to embrace the full truth of Jesus’ teaching, that in Christ there is no more slave or free, Jew or Greek, but all are one in Christ.  All are equal.  Paul says in verse 16 that Philemon should consider Onesimus as even dearer than Paul does.  A brother in the Lord.  And a brother is family.  Does your definition of “family” need redefinition to make it the same as Jesus’? Does your practice of family need to change?

In the next post, we’ll see how passionately Paul continues to argue for this redefinition of family.

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.