With this message I’d like to start a brief series of lessons on this unique and interesting epistle of Paul. From the outset, it’s appropriate to ask: “Why is this letter included in the cannon of the scriptures?” It is the only letter of Paul which is not addressed to any of his churches or to any of the preachers or ministers of the day. There are a few general epistles which are not addressed to anyone in particular, but this is very particular.
Why did the Holy Spirit lead the early churches to consider this letter to be inspired and important? Was it because Philemon was someone especially important? Not as far as we know. His name is found no where else but in this epistle, as is the female name “Apphia.” Since those two names are tied together in the greeting of the letter, it is logical to assume they were husband and wife. And because “Archippus” is also included it might be assumed that this is the couple’s son. They would all be familiar with and directly connected to the other major person in the letter.
It is Archippus who helps us to identify the family and their place of residence. That name is mentioned only in one other New Testament scripture – Colossians 4:17. There 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.” Apparently Archippus was one of the ministers in that church on the western side of Asia Minor. Coupled to the fact that the Epistle to the Colossians mentions “Onesiums.” we can be pretty sure that Philemon and his family lived in Colosse or perhaps nearby Ephesus.
But again we have to ask, why is this epistle included among the books of the New Testament? The obvious answer must be that it teaches universal lessons – lessons which reach beyond Philemon. And it is to those lessons we’ll be looking over the next few messages.
I am going to begin this morning by considering the most often used application of this letter. We will probably look at the providence of God, the nature of evangelism and perhaps prayer. But this morning, I’d like to address the subject of salvation from sin. Probably 90% of all sermons derived from this letter have been presentations of the gospel. And assuming you’ve heard some of them, my thoughts may come up a bit short by comparison. One of the reasons for the quality of this message lays in the fact I am reluctant to preach types and symbols. I prefer to express the clear and distinct declarations of God. But today I am going to make an exception, applying as illustrations some of the things expressed in Paul’s letter to Philemon.
For example, when it comes to salvation there are three major characters – the Judge, the Saviour and the sinner. When it comes to deliverance from the penalty which our sin deserves, there is God, then the Redeemer and the person delivered. There are no mediatory priests, no intercessory saints, no administrators of the ordinances. There is the sinner, the Saviour – Jesus Christ our Lord, and the offended Triune God. And in this epistle we see three primary characters – Philemon, Paul and Onesimus. In those three people we have three parallels.
Philemon can be looked upon as a type, or picture, of God the Father.
But I must start with a caveat – a warning – a declaration of certain limitations. Not everything we read here about Philemon can be properly applied to God. All the parallels in this message have to be taken with a bit of salt – or they won’t taste quite right. There is nothing in this world which is perfect. Thus, there is no human being who can accurately depict the perfection of the Lord. But there ARE some things about this man which at the very least point to God the Father. I will mention those which seem pertinent to me, but I’ll just skip right over those which don’t.
For example, Paul speaks about Philemon’s agape love. “I thank my God, making mention of thee always in my prayers. Hearing of thy love and faith.” I am beginning to think that whenever Paul inquired about Christians he had known, he asked specifically about their LOVE. Some saints are well-known for their genuine love, while in others it is not so prominent. But it’s obvious that Paul wanted love to be at the forefront of the Christian’s testimony. Is it because true and proper love reflects the nature of our God?
Philemon’s love was commendable despite its human imperfections. I wonder if anyone has ever read through the Bible jotting down and counting those scriptures which speak of the love of God? How many are there? Hundreds? “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” “God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” ” Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God.” From Ephesians, which we read earlier, there is – “God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ.” Romans 8 tells us that nothing can separate God’s saints from the love He has for them – nothing. God’s love is perfect and flows from Him rather than being something which is drawn out by us.
And the God who loves is a God to be loved. “We love him, because he first loved us.” Furthermore, THOSE whom God loves should BE LOVED by those whom God loves. “Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother, unto Philemon our dearly beloved.” Paul was among those saints whose love was above average. He was exemplary in his love for others, and also for his love for the Lord. As we should all be. Jehovah is worthy of love a million-times more intense than we are capable of giving “And now, Israel, what doth the LORD thy God require of thee, but to fear the LORD thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the LORD thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul.” ” Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
It needs to be admitted that our love to God is not what it ought to be. We should love Jehovah for no other reason but His magnificent perfections. But beyond Who He is, in application He is kind, gracious and merciful, giving us practical reasons to love Him. As Paul says of Philemon, “We have greater joy and consolation in thy love, because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee.” The god of many people is remote, uncaring – impractical. The God of the Christian blesses His people, refreshing them over and over again. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” And one of those blessings is seen in the promise of an eternal home. Like Philemon the Lord has “prepared us also a lodging unto which we will be preserved” – verse 22. The Saviour has said, “In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.”
BUT as we see in this letter, our Philemon has been offended by the sins of his servant.. In Adam, our first father, mankind disobeyed the Creator, stole His property and fled from His fellowship. We became unprofitable to God, because we could no longer serve and glorify Him. Like the prodigal, we carried God’s property into a foreign land where we wasted it upon riotous living. Jehovah has every right to thoroughly disown us – which He did. To Him, we were as dead men – which we are before being born again. We are offensive to God, odious, wicked, alienated and cast out. We need a Mediator, a Saviour who can bring us back to the Lord, even though we might not understand or want to be returned.
Before we can be restored, we need to see ourselves in the illustration of Onesimus.
Verse 16 tells us that Onesiums has been a “servant” in Philemon’s house. The word is “doulos” – a bondsman, a servant, a slave. For the sake of the lesson it doesn’t matter if he was a hired servant or a piece of human property. I would surmise that he was an employee who was paid a small wage, andt fed from his master’s table; one who lived in a room in Philemon’s house. He should have been pleased to have a Christian employer. He could have been a contented man, if his heart wasn’t so wayward.
But Satan came to him one day, internally if not physically and said, “Yea, hath Philemon said that none of the things in this house are yours? Why can’t you eat of every tree in his garden, even the rare and exotic one in the middle of the garden? Why can’t you make the decisions which directly affect your life? You should be be more like Philemon.” Paul seems to suggest that Onesimus stole some of the property of Philemon and fled. “If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account. I will repay it.” He said, “Onesimus became unprofitable to thee – useless as a servant.”
Onesimus is a picture of the sinner; he is a picture of all of us by nature. Adam was created to serve, glorify and fellowship with his Creator. It was intended that in the cool of the evening the Lord would visit His garden and commune with the man. But Adam chose to rebel and disobey his Lord, stealing and eating that which was forbidden. Adam was CAST OUT of the garden, andt Onesimus FLED the garden. There was no communion, no service, no way to magnify his master in the eyes of the world. Onesimus was essentially dead to Philemon.
When Paul wrote to his friend in Colosse, the Apostle was a prisoner in ROME. This means that Onesimus likely fled to Ephesus, where he took ship to Corinth, blending in with the riff raft of that evil city, before eventually moving on. Ultimately, he ended up in Rome where all roads seemed to lead, and where once again he blended in with the thousands of other former slaves and servants. But in the providence of God, he was brought into contact with his master’s old friend, Paul.
And Paul is a picture of the Saviour – the Lord Jesus Christ.
We don’t know the circumstances, and perhaps we never will, but I would like to think that the story is so glorious that God will pernit us to have all the details. In my imagination, I picture Onesimus somewhat like the Prodigal son, eventually having second thoughts about his wicked deeds. I picture the Holy Spirit bringing him under conviction for his theft, breaking his heart for his mistreatment of his master. Then one day, at almost the same instant, Paul and Onesimus see each other – perhaps through a window in Paul’s house. At first the two men can’t remember exactly why each other’s face looks familiar, but the then the Lord brings the sight and the memories into alignment.
Taking a step back, we find Paul in Rome. He is a prisoner in that city – a guest of the Emperor. He was taken by a mob of Jews and presented to the Romans for arrest and execution, very much like our Saviour. Even when the Romans declared Paul’s innocence they were reluctant to release him, so Paul had to appeal to his birthright for protection. Eventually he was put on board a ship to be taken before Caesar, for exoneration and release. “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” – Acts 28:30-31. Under the unmistakable will of God the Father, Paul was a suffering saviour to Onesimus.
Somehow the two men met again far, far from Colosse. And by this time, Onesimus’ sin lay heavily on his heart. He remembered going with the family to the hall where Silas and Timothy lead in the singing of the Psalms and Paul preached the Word of God. He remembered overhearing the conversations in the home of Philemon, when the two men discussed the Old Testament scriptures and how the death of Christ can be seen in them. Just seeing the face of the man of God pricked his sinful heart, creating an inexplicable pain. As Paul gestured to him, sinful Onesimus couldn’t keep his feet from stumbling toward him. The Holy Spirit was irresistibly drawing him so that he couldn’t say “no.”
Once again Onesimus was in the presence of the man of God, but this time, not as a servant listening to the conversation of others. This time Paul was talking to him one on one. And everything he said was pointed and personal. He quickly saw that his crime and flight were not his problem; the problem was his heart and its sinfulness. When the words of the evangelist turned to the person of the Son of God, dying on the cross, the Holy Spirit made him to see that Christ died for him – for Onesimus. And with a broken heart he crumbled before the Lord, reaching out to Him for forgiveness. The weight of sin which he had borne for so many months seemed to fall off his back and roll away. In an instant, he knew himself to be a new creation – a new creature by God’s grace.
Paul was not the man’s Saviour, but through him he came to know the Saviour. You might say that Paul represented the Saviour – as God’s evangelists should always do. At that point Paul became Onesimus’ intercessor, once again illustrating Christ Jesus. “It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us.” “If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And he is the propitiation for our sins.”
This epistle was Paul’s intercession with Philemon for Onesimus. “I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds: Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me: Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels: Whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel: But without thy mind would I do nothing; that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly. For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever; Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord? If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself. If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account; I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it: albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides.”
Notice a couple of things which Paul includes in his entreaty – this intercession. He describes the relationship between himself and Philemon as a “partnership.” Even though the word seems insufficient, there has never been a more perfect partnership than what exists within the Godhead – the Trinity. When it comes to salvation of the sinner, each member has His own critical roll to fulfill.
The part which the Son, the Saviour plays is to bear the sin of those He saves. “If he hath wronged thee (Father), put that on mine account.” That is precisely what has happened in our salvation. Christ “was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.” “Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed.” The Son of God has paid the price for our salvation; He cleared the account; He balanced the books. “Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us.” “As it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment: So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation.” “By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” “But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; 13 From henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool.”
The Son of God, as Saviour, has supplied everything necessary for our salvation, leaving nothing for us but to trust what He has done How could Philemon refuse Paul’s request and refuse to welcome his prodigal servant? And similarly, how could God the Father, not accept those for whom Christ has died to save?
Will YOU not become another Onisemus? Consider the illustration which the Lord has given to us. Surrender to the conviction of the Spirit and acknowledge Christ’s sacrifice for sin. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ that His sacrifice was for you. Trust His grace and lean upon His intercession on your behalf.