Ministry as Illustrated in Philemon – Philemon 1-25


There is a word in verse 6 which I will take as the spring board for our message this evening. In that word we have an opportunity to speak about the ministry – the human side of the work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Also in this short epistle, the Lord has revealed several other suggestive things about the ministry. And it needs to be understood that it’s not just about the pastor, the missionary and the evangelist. The word “ministry” needs to be applied generally to all Christians. We all have our ministries. Music might be one person’s ministry. But very few of us can play an instrument well enough to be a blessing to others. And not all of us are good singers, helping others in that aspect of their worship. Not every can preach or have the opportunity to teach a Bible class. But there ARE some things which all of us can do – and should do – for the glory of the Lord’s Name.


The word which caught my attention is “communication.” “I thank my God, making mention of thee always in my prayers… that the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.” While several of my thoughts this evening will be related to the Apostle, we notice that this verse is pointed toward Philemon. And Philemon apparently was not the pastor of the church of which he was a member. He doesn’t appear to be ordained; he was not an elder in the church. He might have been a deacon, and that is a ministry, it is not necessarily a public ministry. His son, Archippas, however, may have been a servant of the church or training for the ministry. As I said this morning, Paul concludes his letter to the church in Colosse with the words “Say to Archippus, Take heed to the ministry which thou hast received in the Lord, that thou fulfill it.” No where in this letter or in the Epistle to the Colossians, is there any indication that Philemon was a “professional minister.” And yet that didn’t keep Paul from speaking about his ministry.

What can we learn and apply to our ministries from studying this small book?

First, consider that statement about “the communication of thy faith.”

I admit to taking a narrow and pointed interpretation of “communication.” The Greek word is the familiar “koinonia,” and it is used 20 times in the New Testament. 80% of the time “koinonia” is translated either “fellowship” or “communion.” “And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” “God is faithful, by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.” “That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. “If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.”

“Koinonia” refers to the sharing of peoples’ love, joy and God’s blessings with one another. And with that we can understand how it might be interpreted evangelistically as sharing the gospel. In Romans 15:26 it is used differently again – “It hath pleased them of Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor saints which are at Jerusalem.” The saints in Corinth, Thessalonica, Berea and Philippi were sharing their prosperity with their suffering brethren in Judea. The same idea is conveyed in Hebrews 13:16 “To do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.”

As I read and re-read Philemon 6 I did not become embarrassed with my first thought – the application which first sprang into my heart. “I thank my God, making mention of thee always in my prayers… that the [sharing] of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.” It was to the spreading of Philemon’s faith that Paul was referring.

Why has the Lord saved any of us? The first answer should contain something about His glory. “We have been saved to bring glory to God.” There should be a very real vertical aspect to that purpose – words of praise to God; love toward the Saviour; a desire to do those things which please Him. But there should also be a horizontal aspect – the glorifying of God before our neighbors. And clearly, there should be a communication of our faith – a sharing – with people around us.

It was Paul’s prayer that the communication of Philemon’s faith would be “effectual.” The Greek word translated “effectual” is somewhat rare, but it is as interesting as “koinonia.” It is “energes” (en-er-gace’) and perhaps you can already hear its transliteration “energy.” Twice the Greek is translated “effectual.’ The only other time we find it in the Textus Receptus it is translated “powerful.” “For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword…”

It was Paul’s prayer that the communication of Philemon’s faith would be powerful. And that should be our prayer as well – not for dead Philemon, but for ourselves. We have been saved and left upon this earth in order to glorify our Saviour And that includes through the God-empowered communication of our faith. When we share that gospel tract or the brochure about our church it should be with the prayer that God empower the communication of its message. When you come to the house of God, I would ask that you pray for God’s blessing on the communication of the gospel message. We have the souls of friends and loved ones at stake. When you write that note to your friend, include a prayer for the effectual communication of your faith.

Besides prayer, Paul mentions a practical step towards that effectual end.

Without diminishing the importance of the Holy Spirit in our various ministries, Paul speaks of several human ingredients. First, “I thank my God, making mention of thee always in my prayers… that the communication of thy faith may become effectual – by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.” How much theology should be included in our evangelistic efforts? That is a question with a different answer every time we open our mouths in the Lord’s name. Of course, the gospel sermon must have a good deal of scripture and sound theology. But when we are speaking to an acquaintance, should we begin with talk about Hell or the fall of man? Yes, sometimes we should, but not as often as one might first think. Should we introduce the lost man to election and the sovereignty of God? Usually we should not.

But in the context of this encouragement of Philemon, we should, “tell others what the Lord has done for us.” Acknowledge “every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.” Share with that person the joy which God gave you after He broke your heart over sin. Speak with him about the peace you now have in contrast to the fear which you used to have. If possible talk about the communion you have with the Lord through prayer and the many answers to prayer the Lord has given you. If you like, share with him the fellowship you have with good Christian brethren. It should be a part of our devotional lives to contemplate the Lord’s blessings to us. And it should be a part of our ministry to share those contemplations with others, “acknowledging … every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.”

Paul then spoke of another helpful ingredient to Philemon’s testimony. “The bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother.” I suppose that some people would interpret that statement as absolutely literal. In which case it would refer to Philemon’s assistance in the feeding of brethren less privileged. But the word is again used in verse 20 where that could not be the case “Yea, brother let me have joy of thee in the Lord; refresh my bowels in the Lord.” Paul was not referring to financial assistance or a care package of food, but to the joy he might have if Onesimus was well received when he returned to Colosse. Joy should be a part of our testimony – both our own joy and the joy we create in others.

I suppose that a Christian’s “witness” might be confined to his words – his verbal sharing of the gospel. But our “testimony” is much more broad than that – it encompasses everything about us. Our neighbors should recognize that we no longer commit the sins which once characterized us. In fact those close to us should see that we fear and search out those former sins. These things are a part of our testimony. Our neighbors should see positive things in our lives, and hear our words of praise to God. Perhaps our music and entertainment should change and the way we relax at the end of the day. There should be a more joyful, peaceful, helpful attitude in us. Simply put, our testimony before the world should make us appear to be new creatures.

Someone the other day told me about visiting a certain church – one of the churches of Christ. When they walked in no one greeted them; no one smiled or offered their hand. No one asked about their welfare or showed any interest in them. Despite hearing a good message, the visitors didn’t leave the service feeling spiritually refreshed. You and I have a part of that ministry even when we aren’t preaching the sermon.

Philemon was an ambassador for Christ both inside and outside the church meeting house. Ordinarily he left people better off than when he first ran into them on the street or in the market. Paul wanted that to continue – particularly when Onesimus returned home. These sorts of things can be a part of any Christian’s ministry.

There are other things in this letter which relate to the ministry.

Some of them are a bit of a stretch in application, but they still fit my theme and are echoed Biblically. For example, there is a lesson here in imprisonment. “Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ.” “There salute thee Epaphras, my fellowprisoner in Christ Jesus.” Someone might think that their life is too narrow – too confined – to be of use to the Lord. “I am too young to be of service to my Saviour. Some day when I am older, I’ll be more useful.” “I am too old to be a good witness for Christ. My health won’t permit me to go out knocking on doors.” “I am too poor to be able to contribute to the Lord’s cause.” If we are looking for excuses not to serve the Lord, Satan will gladly supply them. Sometimes they are rooted in real stuff Paul really was a prisoner, but that didn’t stop him from leading Onesimus to Christ. I recently mentioned the testimony of a Christian friend of ours in Canada who is crippled with MS. Years ago, in Vernon, Texas, I visited the sister of a missionary friend – she was a quadraplegic. That woman was a spiritual blessing to me, ministering even in her limited capacity.

Is there anyone more restricted or confined than the prisoner? I suppose it depends on how you define or picture his restrictions – our own restrictions. Every prison has multiple inmates, and who needs Christ any more than those people?. Every home has family members even before we get out to meet the neighbors. Every person has a few friends and acquaintances, even though we may not be out in the world to any great extent. All our acquaintances should know that we are children of God.

Paul even had an epistolatory ministry – he could write a letter to a friend. Did he ever write to someone whom he knew to be lost? No, he never put a scripture into a post on Facebook, but would he have if he could have? Yes, the cost of postage has gone up to 55 cents, but it was a lot more to carry a letter in Paul’s day. You might say that he did what he could with his cards and letters.

But what good are a few well-intentioned words written on a sheet of paper? They may have no ability to touch the heart of anyone, until the Lord steps in. What can God do with the printed page? What has He done with His own written Word? Paul wrote to his Christian friend, but he might have also written that day to someone who was lost. And in both cases, he implored the Lord for His blessings. “Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God, making mention of thee always in my prayers…” It is all right to tell our lost friends that we are praying for them. I have a friend in Seattle with whom I speak on the phone every couple of weeks. He no longer is taken aback when at the close of the conversation he hears me say, “God bless you, Howard” or “I’m praying for you.”

It is the power of God which makes any ministry more than a mystery.

There is another lesson here about the ministry, but it comes toward us negatively.

Paul has led sinful Onesimus to the Saviour. The former servant has become a new creature in Christ. Then to Philemon Paul says, “I beseech thee for my son, Onesium, whom I have begotten in my bonds.” That man was no longer a servant, but “a brother beloved.”

And this new Christian has now been sent from Rome to Colosse carrying Paul’s letter. Imagine the thoughts which must have gone through that man’s head during the weeks it took to make that journey. There is no indication that any other brethren were with him; he was on his own. He had every opportunity to change his mind and run once again. But he is now a Christian with the responsibility of making things right with his former employer. I assume that when he reached Colosse, he simply walked into the house he had known so well, and with his hat in hand and his heart in his throat he presented himself and Paul’s letter to Philemon. In that, I see an indication that he is not the man he once was. Paul was convinced of the man’s salvation. BUT what would others think?

At that point it was the testimony of Philemon which became the center of attention. Reading between the lines, it seems that Paul wasn’t sure what that meeting would be like. He had his hopes and possibly his expectations. But would Philemon refuse to listen to Onesimus? Would he order his immediate arrest, casting him into chains? Here was a test of the testimony of the older saint. Despite all the theologically correct words he’d uttered in the past, they could all be negated by his response to Onesimus. All the kind deeds and the joy he had given to others might unravel like a bad sweater if he didn’t behave like a Christian at this point.

There are so many professing children of God who undo their good testimony by single acts of sin. A sudden burst of anger can destroy a person’s reputation before a lost coworker. Any number of sins can effectively blow the words of the gospel away like gust of a mighty wind. And to deny that God can save someone who has personally offended us, says our theology is faulty. That God cannot save the worst of sinners, suggests that God cannot save even the best of sinners. “I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds:… Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels.”

Christ can redeem the drug addict, and the criminal like Onesimus. He can save and restore the adulterer and the wicked woman. The woman of Samaria can become a useful member of the Lord’s church – a deaconess to others. And when other Christians cannot see that, they effectively destroy their testimony to any third party.

Paul expected good things from the future life of Oneimus. And he expected just as much or perhaps even more from Philemon. “I thank my God, making mention of thee always in my prayers… that the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.”

Each of us have our own special ministry or service for the Lord. We have been given gifts to use for the glory of our God and our Saviour. We can enhance those gifts and that ministry. Or we can sully and destroy them. And for these things we shall be accountable at the judgment seat of Christ.