Providence as Illustrated in Philemon – Philemon 1-25


How much of a roll does God play in the affairs of men? That is a theological “hot potato,” and it has been for centuries. It may be the single most divisive subject among today’s Baptists. This church has lost members because they couldn’t see what I think is impossible to miss. And I’ve lost members from other churches I’ve pastored. Sometimes we can talk peaceably about the subject, but then when one of the few buzz words are mentioned the sky seems to fall. So I’m going to try to refrain from using those words this morning – not that this eliminates the problem.

There are people in this world who call themselves “atheists.” – in the opposite camp are the “theists.” Together, they are like the Israelites and the Philistines squaring off across the Valley of Elah. Some believe in God while others think that any deity is a myth and a crutch for the weak-minded. Sadly, not all theists believe in the same kind of god. It seems that some people’s god’s are weaker than others’. There are professing Christians who might speak of God, calling Him “Elohim,” “Jehovah” and even “Christ Jesus,” but they do not ascribe to him the same kind of God-hood that we do. For example, there are professing Christians who do not believe in a miracle-working god. And there are professing Christians who believe that god learns things as they take place, just the same way that we do. There are professing Christians whose god needs human help in order to save people. But is a god who is not omniscient or omnipotent really a god? The God of the Bible is the Almighty, in the sense that He possesses “all might.” He is in charge of all things, even though His creatures sometimes think otherwise.

In the 25 verses of this Epistle to Philemon, Paul refers to his God several times. For example, he speaks of “God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.” He says that grace and peace come from the Father and the Son. And Paul prays to his God, giving thanks to Him for His bountiful beneficence. Is it logical to give thanks to a God who didn’t actually bestow those blessings? Wouldn’t my wife be a little upset with me, if I thanked you for the meal she prepared for me last night?

This letter gives us an opportunity to consider the sovereign providence of the omnipotent God. Here we catch a glimpse of the way in which Jehovah moves men around the chess board of life. Our lives are not just the collection of personal choices and moves, as the atheist and others suggest. Rather our lives are orchestrated by the composer and conductor of the greatest of all symphonies. And it is not just the billion things which take place in each of OUR 70+ years, it is the trillions of events in the lives of the billions of people on this planet.

The equation.

Paul was in Rome when this letter was written. How did he get there? In Acts 19, during his third missionary journey, “Paul purposed in the spirit, when he had passed through Macedonia and Achaia, to go to Jerusalem, saying, After I have been there, I must also see Rome.” As we know, human purposing and hoping, planning and expecting are not always successfully carried out. For example, during Paul’s second journey he purposed to go to Asia, planning on preaching in Ephesus, “but the Holy Spirit suffered them not” – Acts 16:7. Also, he wanted to spread the gospel into the countries of Bithynia and Mysia, but it was not God’s will, so it didn’t happen. I can imagine Paul imagining himself on a fourth missionary journey gloriously sailing into Puteoli harbor then joyfully riding up to the city of Rome. But that was not exactlyprecisely God’s will.

At the end of his journey #3 Paul was in Jerusalem where he was taken by the Jews and nearly torn limb from limb. Then through a circuitous route he was taken from the Jews by the Romans to Caesarea, down the Mediterranean Sea to Malta and then into Italy. During that journey he was delivered from the Jewish mob, then from assassins, from a deadly storm & from soldiers who felt the need to kill him & finally from a poisonous snake who also wanted to kill him. But the omnipotent God was there with every step – preserving and protecting His servant. It is impossible not to see the miraculous hand of the sovereign God through every step from the temple in Jerusalem to living in his own hired house in Rome – the city on the seven hills.

How does Paul describe himself in Philemon verse 1 and again in verse 9? “Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ” – “Being such an one as Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ.” And what of his friend Ephaphras? “My fellowprisoner in Christ Jesus.” Paul had wanted to preach the gospel in the greatest city in the western world, and he was fulfilling his dreams, but it was not as he had envisioned it. While having some liberty, he was not completely free to roam about Rome or to do as he pleased. He may have intended to present Jesus Christ in the Jewish synagogue, but that was not to be. Perhaps he had made earlier contacts to preach in one of the great halls of the city, but that fell through as well. He did get to preach the gospel, but it was only to those who came unto him.

As Luke says in Acts 28 – “When we came to Rome, the centurion delivered the prisoners to the captain of the guard: but Paul was suffered to dwell by himself with a soldier that kept him. And it came to pass, that after three days Paul called the chief of the Jews together: and when they were come together, he said unto them, Men and brethren, though I have committed nothing against the people, or customs of our fathers, yet was I delivered prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans. And they said unto him, We neither received letters out of Judaea concerning thee, neither any of the brethren that came shewed or spake any harm of thee. But we desire to hear of thee what thou thinkest: for as concerning this sect, we know that every where it is spoken against. And when they had appointed him a day, there came many to him into his lodging; to whom he expounded and testified the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus, both out of the law of Moses, and out of the prophets, from morning till evening. And some believed the things which were spoken, and some believed not. And Paul dwelt two whole years in his own hired house, and received all that came in unto him, Preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him.”

Paul’s prisonerhood is a type or picture of something much larger. In his case, the bonds and shackles he wore were gifts of God’s providence which he wore throughout his life. He was as much God’s prisoner when he was preaching Christ in Thessalonica, Ephesus and Corinth as he was while his feet were shackled together in Rome. And he was not only good with that condition; he loved it. It was the Lord’s will that Paul not preach in Troas the first time he was there. Rather it was God’s will that he sail from there to Philippi. He was a prisoner to God’s will even though there were no bonds around his ankles. Everywhere Paul went there was a blending of the missionary’s surrendered will and the Lord’s gracious providential will. (I wonder what it would have cost Paul to buy passage to Rome for himself and 2 or 3 companions? As it turned out, it was God’s will that he sail free of charge – on Caesar’s dime.) And now here he was in Rome; not in a prison or a jail, but rather under house arrest in his own home. And anyone who was drawn by the Spirit of God had access to the gospel which Paul preached. The sovereign God was in complete control of Paul’s life and his current incarceration.

And then along came Onesimus. This man had been a servant in the house of Philemon, back in Colosse. He most likely had heard Paul preach the gospel when the Apostle was in Asia. And he probably overheard conversations between the Paul and Philemon as he served. But it was not God’s will anything come of those contacts – at that time.

How do you suppose that Onesimus was now in Rome; on the street where Paul lived, and willing to show his face to the friend of the man he cheated? Our answer and guess is limited by only the weakness of our imaginations. Had Onisemus been a hired servant because his parents had been in service before him, and this kind of work was all he knew? Or was he a true slave because his debts or the debts of his parents had forced him into bondage? It might have been something else, but if it was debt, what had created those debts? Was it personal sin, or was it due to things only God control like famine or sickness? Speculation is useless and pointless. The fact is, he had been there in the house of Philemon because it was God’s will for him to meet Paul.

And then that servant chose to run, apparently taking something of value to finance his escape. The slave had bought a ticket on the underground railroad. I said last week that he might have gone to Ephesus, Corinth and then to Rome – the most direct route. But it could have been entirely different – up the coast to Troas, sailing to Thessalonica, traversing Macedonia and sailing across the Adriatic Sea to Italy and walking eventually into Rome. The details are unimportant. The critical thing is that he eventually came to where Paul was residing. And why was he there? Because it was God’s will, whether Onesimus knew it or not.

Do we need to imagine the difficulties and obstacles which stood in the way of bringing these two together? Rome is more than a thousand miles from Colosse, yet God brought BOTH men across that distance. What was the population of Rome during the two years Paul lived there? One article I read said that between 4 and 5 million people lived in Rome at the end of the 1st century. Let’s say that only 1 million were there in Paul’s day, or what if it was only 250,000. Does that really make much of a difference? It was still two needles in a huge haystack. What is the likelihood that Paul and Onisemus accidentally bumped into each other, especially if Paul wasn’t getting around town very much. Accidentally, the likelihood would have been minuscule, so let’s say Onisemus was looking for Paul. How did he know the Apostle was there?

But then again, under the circumstances, why would the criminal be looking a friend of the judge? He would not have been seeking Paul, unless the Lord put that desire in him. I believe with all my heart that God providentially brought Paul and Onisemus together twelve hundred miles from where they first met. Some may say that it was a chance or coincidental meeting, but as I have heard a hundred times – the good detective never believes in coincidences.

Why did God bring these two men together? What was the purpose?

In verse 15 Paul told Philemon, “For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou should receive him for ever.” The two men met in Rome, NOT so that Onisemus could use Paul to return the property he had stolen. It was not to ease the mind of the thief. And it wasn’t so Paul could report to his old friend that Onisemus was doing well. It wasn’t just to create a nice story, like the dog, the cat and the pig who got home safely after being separated by the flood. The purpose of this God-directed meeting was the SALVATION of Onisemus’ soul.

Picture an 18th century family of five with mother and father, both Christians, attending a little Baptist church. The middle son in the family is touched by the grace of God at the age of 12. He is saved, baptized, joins the church and after being called by God, goes into the ministry. He faithfully serves the Lord, pastors three churches and eventually cares for his widowed mother, before passing into Heaven himself. The youngest child – a girl – is weak and sickly all her life. At the age of 18, during a period of good health she is saved. But then a year later she is dead. The oldest child, a son, grows up surrounded by love and the gospel, but he rejects the Word of God and the wooing of the Spirit. He becomes more and more mischievous then rebellious – by his teens he is truly wicked. He joins the army and becomes an even worse individual. During the Revolutionary war he is wounded, captured by the enemy, starved, tortured and crippled. Eventually the war comes to an end and he returns home – bitter and emotionally destitute. He tries to commit suicide, but fails. He leaves his home and hometown, becoming a vagabond. But through the evangelistic outreach of another Baptist church, he hears the gospel once again, and the Lord crushes his wicked stubborn heart. He is given the gift of repentance and he is born again, trusting and loving the Lord Jesus Christ. Why is it that everyone in that family has been saved, but they were all brought to the Lord differently? Does it really matter? It was God’s will in each case, and the Lord is glorified individually by all five members of the family.

There are Christians who will happily acknowledge that when Paul and Onisemus met on one of the back streets of Rome, the former slave became a Christian – a child of God. This epistle makes that a certainty. Some Bible readers will even admit it appears that God providentially bought the two men together over a period of several years and many, many miles for the purpose of Onisemus’ salvation. It is hard for any Bible believer not to admit, based on this book that God was in control of the lives of these two men.

But if we make that admission, then we might ask, when it was that God began the process of reintroducing Paul and Onisemus? Obviously, it wasn’t only after they both were brought or came to Rome. It began much earlier. Couldn’t it have begun when Onisemus ran away and escaped from Colosse? It might have been that Paul never returned to Colosse & never again visited in the home of Philemon. So maybe God began the Roman reunion the moment both men left Asia, in order that Onisemus could be saved. The “chance meeting” of Paul and Onisemus wasn’t by chance at all. It was orchestrated by the sovereign God, and the prelude to the symphony began at least as early as Colosse.

But that raises another question: When did God know that Onesimus would be saved? Didn’t the Lord know about that man’s salvation before he ran off? Of course He did, the Lord knows all things. And with that being true, wasn’t the Lord aware even before Paul visited Philemon, or even before Onisemus became a servant? God’s omniscience – His perfect knowledge of this man’s salvation existed before the births of any of these people. The truth of the matter is that God knew of these events before the first of all men was even created. The Lord is omniscient and not ever surprised by anything.

Now let’s go back to our original question. How much of a roll does God play in the affairs of men? – particularly in the salvation of men? I believe that God brought Paul and Onesimus together in Rome in order for the missionary to give the former servant the gospel one more time. He didn’t just know about what was taking place, He was orchestrating each step of those events. I believe that God controlled the situation when Onisemus first became Philemon’s servant. But even beyond that, God chose to save that man before he was born, before the creation of Adam and before the creation of the universe. I believe that Jehovah really is God sovereign over all things. Some people will ascribe to God some limited control over human events.; I believe that God controls all events and even all human hearts. And if He didn’t there would never be a single sinner saved.

The Bible teaches that Jehovah saves those whom He chooses to save. And just as He led Omisemus and Paul to Rome and then together, He leads other sinful hearts to people who can share with them the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit softens those hardened hearts and presents the gospel message in ways each individual understands. He teaches those He saves how to repent – and actually grants that repentance. He shows people what to believe and trust – and actually gives those people that faith.


God brought Paul and Onisemus together in Rome with a purpose. It was no accidental meeting. It was not under the control of either of those men or both of them together. It was not because of the Roman government or the ownership of Philemon. God was in complete control.

And the purpose was that this sinner could hear the gospel once again and to be confronted with his sinful condition. Perhaps Onesimus had not seen himself as a sinner in need of salvation when he was back home. But now the weight of his escape from lawful custody & the theft of his master’s property convicted him. The Lord had softened the man’s heart.; There was one more sinful lump of coal in the duffle on his back, weighing him down. God had prepared the sinner for the gospel just as he had prepared the gospel for that sinner.

And the sovereign God then opened the heart of Omisemus in such a way as to receive the gospel message. He gave that man repentance to admit before the Lord that he was a wretched sinner. And He also gave him faith to trust Christ for deliverance and forgiveness of his sin.

I believe without a doubt that God has brought you to this church service the same way that He brought Paul and Onimemus together. I believe you are listening to this message on line or your are receiving it by way of the internet because God has brought us together. Now, I ask you – won’t you join Onisemus in repentance before God? Won’t you humbly acknowledge your sin and your need of the Saviour? Won’t you give up all your efforts at self-justification and put your trust in the sacrifice of Christ Jesus? Listen to what the Holy Spirit is saying to your heart and make this the day of your salvation.