Paul's Epistle to Philemon
At least since I first taught Paul's Epistle to the Romans at The Institute of the Great Commission, I've been telling students of the Bible how important it is to grasp a book of the Bible in its entirety--to see not so much what is in this verse, or passage, or even this chapter, but to reach to what is being said by this book. Especially with the epistles of Paul, the books of the New Testament were written to make a point. Paul pursues his point relentlessly and systematically in each of his contributions.
Am I right?
Unfortunately, there is seldom the time or the space to master even the overarching themes of a work such as Romans, or even so great a work as Galatians. However, Paul's Epistle to Philemon is short enough that--well, you could read it and this teaching during a coffee break, and understand a great deal about it.
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Some of you may be wondering why we would bother with such an epistle. After all, I've read commentaries which dismiss the book as an interesting look into the social conditions of the day and the church's ability to adapt to the contradiction between its message of freedom and the social and economic realities of slavery. And if this were all that this was, I would not bother you with it. But the early fathers of the church saw something more in it, I'm sure (would they have listed it in the canon had they not?), and I too see a great and vital truth here, one that Christians today are by the thousands failing to grasp. I would like you to grasp it.
I trust all of you can get a Bible, and leave it to you to read the single chapter which comprises this book. I will be quoting from the New American Standard Bible where I feel it necessary to present the words of the text, as I have usually found this translation closest to the Greek in those passages in which there is variation between translations--no one edited the translation for style, so I feel closer to the phraseology of the original authors despite the language barrier which no translation can fully cross. But before I actually quote any text, let me bring to your mind the essential facts of the story.
Once there was a man named Philemon, apparently a reasonably wealthy man, as he owned at least one slave, whose name was Onesimus. It is noteworthy that Onesimus means "useful", because the one so named proved otherwise: he ran away. Philemon was a Christian, converted through Paul's ministry, and I don't expect that he treated Onesimus particularly badly, as slave treatment in the Roman empire went; but there is nothing particularly pleasant about being a slave at all, and this one had had enough. If we are correct in identifying this slave with the Onesimus mentioned in Colossians 4:9, then it is reasonable to assume that all this took place in or near Colossae.
Paul was in prison. I believe that this was the Roman imprisonment which began at the end of The Acts of the Apostles and resulted in Paul appearing before Caesar Nero and being released to go on to Spain. It is certainly a contemporary epistle to Ephesians and Colossians, and I would guess Phillipians, all of which I would place after Romans, which must have been written from very near Corinth on that last missionary journey recorded in Acts, just before he went to Jerusalem to be arrested. Rome fits most of the pieces of the puzzle very well. Onesimus, the runaway slave, ran to the largest metropolitan area in the world to disappear. But he could not disappear. Instead, he ran into Paul--who, as you recall, was under house arrest and permitted to have visitors while awaiting his trial before Caesar. Hearing the gospel from Paul, as had his master before him, he repented, and turned to Christ. This was cause for rejoicing. But a cloud hung over our joy. Onesimus was a runaway slave. Death was the normal punishment, so much so that for Philemon to beat his slave to within inches of death would have been regarded a merciful punishment. Onesimus, now converted, sees that he must return to Philemon. Repentance means change, a change of thinking which results in a change of action (read my story about the boiler to understand what faith is). Although Philemon might kill him, would certainly hurt him, still he must go back.
Paul would rather that Onesimus come to no harm. He writes this letter to ask Philemon to forgive the slave for the wrong he has done--in essence, saying, "charge it to my account, take it off what you owe me". Yet if that were all he said, then the critics would be right--an interesting story. But Paul says far more than this.
I don't like to gloss over greetings or names; the opening three verses contain much that is worthy of note. Paul's perception of himself as imprisoned not by Caesar but by God; the emphasis on Jesus as the annointed, the prophet, priest, and king; the inclusion of Timothy, of all of Paul's companions, as a sender of the epistle (who apparently served more as an apostle of the apostle); the familial designations for fellow Christian; the allusion to Paul as a warrior in common with a soldier; the reminder that churches shared their lives every day in homes during the first century, not meeting in buildings once a week--I leave these to you to pursue at your leisure. I note in passing that Paul took the familiar way of opening a letter and packed it with Christian meaning. The traditional "greetings to you, and peace" he replaces with "grace"--there is much more here that you may have seen; but it is more than we need to note right now. This brings us to the prayer, beginning with verse 4.
You get this for free: almost every one of Paul's epistles contains a prayer, and in almost every case the prayer contains the heart of the message of the epistle. This shouldn't be surprising. Paul is, in addition to being an apostle, a teacher. Thus he prays at the beginning of the lesson that his students will understand the lesson; and then he teaches it to them. As obvious as that appears in retrospect, no one ever told me that. It will help you greatly in understanding the epistles of Paul. So we must take a close look at the prayer which Paul prays for Philemon.
The heart of the prayer appears in verse 6: he prays "that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for Christ's sake." Although the rest of the passage in important, these words are the prayer, and we must understand them. This is what Paul wants for Philemon; it is what God wants for us. When we understand the prayer we will understand the meaning of this book, but also far more. But what does it mean?
The word "fellowship" has been expressed as two fellows in one ship. That's a cute image; but fellowship goes far beyond mere togetherness. It is a sharing together of our lives, a mutual support relationship through which each builds up the other.
The particular fellowship mentioned is the fellowship "of your faith". I've found that within the New Testament, the word "faith" has three related but distinct meanings. The first of these is best stated as "that you believe", the meaning clearly intended by the phrase "have faith", the intensity and reality of your belief. This meaning does not fit this passage. The second use is "what you believe", the content of your belief, the articulable articles of religion. This is the meaning in the phrase "the faith once for all handed down"; it is not the meaning here. The third definition is that represented by "the household of faith", the collection of people who share the same faith with the same faith. We sometimes stretch that use of the word today to refer to your denomination, and this is not an incorrect example of it, although for most of us that particular context has less to do with people and more to do with structures and organizations. In this passage, Paul is using that definition. He is speaking about the sharing together of our lives with those who share our beliefs.
He prays that it may "become effective". This immediately causes me to realize that it could be ineffective. In fact, I would dare to say that Paul would not pray for this if effective faith fellowship was something common for most Christians. If it is effective, that means that we are effectively sharing our lives together, building each other up. Elsewhere the word "edify" is used for the process of each Christian building the church by improving the lives of every other Christian. That is what the process of effective faith fellowship really is about. That is what Paul wants us to have, what God wants us to have. He prays that we should have it; and we can certainly repeat that prayer for ourselves and for each other.
But how do we get it? I think Paul is about to tell us. He says that the fellowship of our faith may become effective "through the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for Christ's sake"--and there is the key. But again, it is not easy to unravel. This time, we'll start in the middle.
There are good things in you. It says so, very plainly: there are good things in you. God wants you to know that. Not only did Paul say it here, putting God's word in black and white for you to see it, but he emphasized that what mattered wasn't so much that there were good things in you, but that you knew it--it is the knowledge of every good thing which is in you which makes the difference, more than the good things themselves. In fact, the combination of the Greek word gnosis with the word every makes me see that God wants you to go beyond merely assenting to the point that He has said there are good things in you so there must be some (a starting point for this knowledge, but far from the knowlege itself) to having a detailed understanding of what are the good things which are in you. God wants you to know not merely that He doesn't make junk, and therefore you have value, but in wonderful detail where that value lies, what you have within you that makes you a valuable person. You need to understand yourself, your own talents and strengths.
This point is lost on millions of Christians. They think that it's humble to claim that they have nothing good in them. A dear friend of mine years ago wrote an otherwise exellent song in which he sang, "there's nothing good in me"--and I know what he was saying, but that's very misleading, and entirely wrong as an attitude about yourself as a Christian. There is much that is good in you. So what is humility? We'll have to explore that in a moment. First, I want you to see why this is so important, why it is that the fellowship of your faith only becomes effective when you know, in detail, the good things which are in you. To do this, I'm going to have to digress for a moment.
I'm going to have to talk about me. You see, I know what some of the good things are which are in me. (I also know where many of my flaws and failings are, but they are less relevant to this question.) I'm intelligent enough that I qualified for mensa, and got the highest score given on the Law School Admission Test (L.S.A.T.--a 48 out of 48). I am articulate; I write and speak adequately. For five years, I was in radio, and before and since I made public appearances as a singer and teacher. I am educated, having studied for two degrees in Biblical studies over five years of undergraduate work, and later obtaining Juris Doctore, graduating with honors. Do I tell you this to brag? No, to illustrate. It is because I know that I am intelligent, articulate, and educated that I have the audacity to presume to try to teach! Were I unaware of my intelligence (as I once was), were I unconvinced of my communication skills (which I consider the weakest link), were I to consider myself unlearned in spiritual or Biblical matters (there are many with far more training), I would not put myself forward, placing such thoughts in the open--especially in a forum such as this, where I am open to so much ridicule from those know me and those who don't, and especially from the many I've not seen since...well, those at Ramsey High or Shackamaxon Elementary who have forgotten the boy they teased or tortured or ignored so many years ago, who now have the opportunity to be reminded, and a connection to reach me again! Being here puts me at risk of criticism. Had I not the assurance that I had something to offer you, I would not be here, and any benefit you might have gotten would be lost.
It was so for Philemon. What Philemon had was the ability to show Onesimus the boundless love of Christ, by embracing the runaway slave, taking him back as "more than a slave, a beloved brother" and forgoing not merely the usual punishment, not merely the merciful punishment, but any punishment whatsoever. Onesimus was still to be Philemon's slave, but also now his brother, to share their faith and build each other up as brothers "in the flesh" (that is, while still on earth) and on into eternity ("in the Lord"). Paul uses the rest of the epistle to help Philemon see this as an opportunity to build up the body of Christ by expressing that love for Onesimus. It should also help you to understand the importance of finding the good things which are in you, and sharing them with others.
What, then, is humility? If it is not going around moping that you are worthless, claiming that you have nothing to offer that anyone would want, declaring yourself useless, then what is it? Christ himself is the example of humility, when, as Philippians 2 tells us, he displayed his humility by his death on the cross. At no time did Jesus say, "I am not the Son of God, the Lord of the Universe, the Creator of all things. I do not deserve to be worshipped. I have no power, no wisdom, nothing to offer these people." He said none of those things. Yet he was humble. Humility isn't believing that you are worthless. If you are in fact worthless, you aren't humble--you're worthless! If you aren't worthless but think you are, you aren't humble, you're decieved. If you don't think you're worthless but you say you are, you aren't being humble--you're lying! Humility is perceiving that you have great worth, great talent, great power, great ability--and using all of that to help and serve everyone else. God did not put great things in you to glorify you; he put them there "for Christ's sake".
These last words in the prayer--"for Christ's sake"--need some discussion. You see, I don't quite know how they attach. I see three possibilities, all of them good, so I will give them all to you to consider. But before that, I need to ask another question: in this passage, what does he mean by "Christ"?
Obviously, he could mean Jesus himself. This would mean that all of this was to benefit the Lord and to be used by Him--and that is certainly true. But I wonder if in this case it wouldn't be proper to extend the use of the word "Christ" to refer to the Body of Christ. We are talking about what is needed to build up the Body of Christ, and that is the church. Whatever it is that is "for Christ's sake" in this passage, it is especially likely that it means for the sake of the Church, Christ in the earth. Of course, what is for the sake of the Church (not merely the church) is for the sake of Christ; but in this case, I think the reverse may be true as well. So lets look at those three possible connections.
First, there are good things in you, not for your sake, but for His. God didn't fill you with good things so that you could use them to help yourself, but so you could help others. He didn't make you great and wonderful so that you would be glorified, but so that you would be a better servant. Perhaps the phrase attaches to the good things themselves.
A more tenuous connection could be made to the knowledge: it is for Christ's sake that God wants you to know these things, to have this knowledge. We have already seen that it is not so much the things themselves but your ability to know them and use them which make the difference. Although linguistically not as good, for the meaning of the sentence, this second connection is better.
But the third connection must be best of all. God wants the fellowship of your faith to become effective for Christ's sake. It is best for Christ, and for all in his body, if you and I learn to share that which we have found which is good in ourselves, using it to serve each other, to edify each other, to build up each other together into that mutual sharing of our lives which is our effective faith fellowship.
On the subject of humility, let me invite you to read the lyrics to my song,