One Chapter Books in the Bible

Three Distinctives of Biblical Christianity

Philemon 1-25

Teaching t23000


This morning we begin a series on the one-chapter letters of the New Testament: Philemon, Jude, 2 John, and 3 John. Because of their brevity, these letters are seldom read or pondered. But they are a wealth of spiritual insight, so let’s see what they teach us...

We begin with Philemon. Let’s dive right in and read the entire letter. As I read it, look for information about the three main characters: Paul (the author), Philemon (the recipient), and Onesimus (the key third party)—read letter (NLT). What did you notice about:

PAUL: He is a Christian leader who is presently imprisoned for his allegiance to Jesus (1:1,9,10; probably in Rome & under house arrest [Acts28:30] – MAP SLIDE) – though he hopes to be released soon (1:22). Apparently, he led Philemon to faith in Christ (1:19), and he has a warm friendship with him.

PHILEMON: He is a Christian worker (1:1; in Colossae – cf. Col.4:9,17) who hosts a church in his home (1:2). Apphia is probably his wife, and Archippus is probably a key leader in Philemon’s church (1:2; Col.4:17). Philemon is wealthy – he owns a house big enough for a church to meet in, and he own slaves. He also has a reputation of loving other Christians, and of refreshing them (1:5,7).

ONESIMUS: He is a slave, owned by Philemon, who ran away and possibly stole some of Philemon’s possessions (1:18). In the Roman world, Onesimus was legally regarded as Philemon’s property, and runaway slaves could be killed or (more commonly) physically mutilated by their owners. Onesimus fled to Rome (filled with runaway slaves), where he somehow found Paul – and Paul led him to faith in Christ (1:10). Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon with this letter, asking Philemon to forgive him, accept his as a new brother in Christ, and send him back to Paul as a helper (1:13,17). Imagine Philemon opening the door, and Onesimus saying: “Here! Read this before you do anything!”

So that’s the historical setting of this letter. Now let’s consider some of the rich spiritual lessons this letter teaches. We learn about three distinctives of biblical Christianity through each of these three characters. Let’s start with Onesimus...

Onesimus: the nature of Christian conversion

Conversion is central in biblical Christianity. From Paul’s comments about Onesimus’ conversion, we learn several things about Christian conversion.

Christian conversion is an event. “I became his father” (1:10) is gennao (“begat”), and is in the aorist tense, which refers to a point in time rather than to a process. This metaphor also emphasizes the “event-ness” of conversion, because babies are born at a point in time.

Our culture tends to view spirituality as a process of spiritual self-development—discovering and utilizing the spiritual resources that are already within you. But Christianity says that true spirituality begins as a crisis event (TIMELINE WITH “X”), when you choose to entrust yourself to Jesus as Savior and Lord, and receive from Him spiritual life that you did not have before. This is why Jesus said: “You must be born again!”

Christian conversion normally involves the witness of other Christians. It was Paul who led Onesimus to faith in Christ (1:10). Almost all Christian converts can point to one or more Christians who both modeled Christ’s love and explained Christ’s offer of new life and how to receive this offer. I received Christ alone in my bedroom—but it was the witness of two friends that influenced me toward this decision.

God works through even our poor decisions to lead us to Christ. In 1:15,16 Paul opines that even though Onesimus’ decision to flee and steal was not right, God somehow worked through this to lead him to Christ. Maybe Onesimus was like the Prodigal Son in Lk.15: he thought that getting away from Philemon and living in Rome would fulfill him, but it didn’t. Instead, he ran out of money and found Paul and asked him for help. Whatever the specific circumstances, the point is that God pursues us especially through the negative consequences of our poor choices. Because of our pride and self-sufficiency, it usually takes some kind of personal failure or difficulty for us to realize our need for Christ. But the joy receiving Christ soon leads us to be thankful for the painful experiences that led us to Him (ME).

Christian conversion changes people for the better. “Onesimus” means “useful.” In 1:11, Paul says: “’Useful’ used to be useless to you, but now (through conversion to Christ) he is living up to his name for you and for me.” When you receive Christ, His Spirit comes to live in your heart, to give you a new motivation and power to love God and other people! “Christ changes lives!” is true – and Onesimus was proof of this.

GOSPEL: Is God working through your negative circumstances and/or poor choices to make you aware of your need for Him? Has He brought Christians into your life to show you a new life and tell you how to receive it? Do you want Christ to change your life for the better? Then make the decision today to convert to Christ by asking Him to forgive you and come into your heart!

One more point about Christian conversion: It is not an escape from problems; it provides new resources to resolve problems. Part of Onesimus probably wanted to stay with Paul and stay as far away as possible from Philemon. But Paul (and Jesus through Paul) lovingly insisted that he return to Philemon try to work things out. This leads us to another lesson we can learn, this time through Philemon...

Philemon: faith in Christ leads to loving other Christians

Through Philemon we learn that faith in Christ leads to loving others who have received Christ. Conversion opens the door to begin experiencing Christ’s radical love that you don’t deserve. And this in turn ignites a motivation and conviction to give His love to other people who don’t deserve it—especially (though not exclusively) to brothers and sisters in Christ. In a healthy Christian life, we keep growing in both our faith in Christ’s undeserved love and in giving His love to other undeserving Christians.

So Paul thanks God for how Philemon’s faith in Christ has already led to a reputation of loving other Christians (read 1:4,5,7). Hosting a church and Christian workers was just one of many ways that he refreshed other Christians, including Paul (who may have stayed in Philemon’s home when he was in Colossae).

But in 1:6 (read), Paul prays that Philemon’s faith in all that he has through Christ will lead him to take a step of even greater generosity—namely, to love the now-converted runaway slave who stands at his door.

What would loving Onesimus involve? What “good things” does Philemon have through Christ that make it reasonable and important to do this?

For one thing, Paul asks him to forgive Onesimus—in this case, to cancel his debts and lay down his legal right to kill or mutilate Onesimus. This was no small thing, because Onesimus would have cost him thousands of dollars. But on the other hand, Philemon, like all of us, had been a runaway from God, and had ripped God off of the life of service that he owed him. Yet through Christ, God paid the penalty of Philemon’s flight and theft, and extended complete forgiveness to him when he converted. Should he not, then, be willing to extend this same kind of forgiveness to Onesimus, who has also converted to Christ, and who has returned to apologize? This is what Paul is getting at in 1:18,19 (read & explain).

Do you see that the logic of Philemon’s faith in Christ leads to this decision to forgive? This is the same logic that led the apostles to forgive the converted Paul who had persecuted and killed their Christian friends. This is the same logic that led Corrie Ten Boom to forgive the converted Nazi prison guard who had tortured her sister. This is the same logic that calls you and me to forgive the people who have ripped us off, hurt us deeply, etc. This is what faith in Christ’s forgiveness always leads to (read Eph.4:32). Are you willing to let your faith in Christ take you to this kind of love? He will help you do this!

For another thing, Philemon needs to welcome Onesimus into his home and church (read 1:17). This violated the social protocol of Greco-Roman culture, which boxed out people from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. But God had welcomed Philemon through Christ. Like all of us, he was very different from God – not just the difference between deity and humanity, but also the difference between perfection and being deeply broken and damaged. Yet through Christ’s death, God welcomed Philemon into a love relationship with Him. Should he not, then, be willing to welcome Philemon (despite his ethnic and socio-economic differences) into his life as fellow-human being and brother in Christ?

Do you see that the logic of Philemon’s faith in Christ leads to this decision to welcome? This is the same logic that led Jewish Christians to welcome Gentile converts into their churches. This is the same logic that led conservative, middle-class, adult Christians to welcome drug-background hippie converts like me into their Bible studies. This is the same logic that calls you to welcome into your life brothers and sisters who are very different from you culturally, socio-economically, etc. (EXAMPLES). This is what faith in Christ always leads to (read Rom.15:7). Are you willing to let your faith in Christ take you to this kind of love? He will help you do this!

Paul: the importance of Christian peacemaking

Finally, we learn from Paul the importance of peacemaking between Christians. Peacemaking is the Bible’s word for helping our brothers and sisters work through alienation and conflict to forgiving one another and welcoming one another back into each other’s lives. That’s what Paul is doing through this letter—serving as a peacemaker between Philemon and Onesimus.

Biblical Christianity places a huge priority on helping Christians get reconciled. Jesus says that peacemakers will be called children of God (Matt.5:9). Paul calls on Christians to help brothers and sisters work through their conflicts (Phil.4:2,3). James says that peacemakers will reap a harvest of righteousness over time (Jas.3:18).

One of the great tragedies in the American evangelical church is the practical absence of this priority. Ken Sande, who wrote the excellent book Peacemaker, was here a couple of years ago to speak at our Summer Institute. I asked him why his book was the only contemporary evangelical book on this subject. He said: “Because American Christians are just like American non-Christians—when they have conflict with someone, they just move on.” Maybe this is one big reason why American Christianity is so impotent. Why should people who can’t make relationships work listen to Christians, when they don’t demonstrate the ability to work through their own relational problems?

Think of all the “good” excuses Paul could have used to opt out of being a peacemaker in this situation. If I were Paul, I’d be thinking:

“I’m way too busy preparing for my trial before the Emperor to deal with this.”

“Onesimus should just move on instead of stirring this up.”

“Philemon might get angry with me if I call on him to do this.”

“This probably won’t work, so I’m just going to stay out of it.”

Instead, Paul prayed, gave his time, invested his wisdom, offered his money—in short, he really threw himself into this mess to persuade Onesimus to go back, and to try persuade Philemon to forgive and welcome him. The healing of this ruptured relationship is a big deal for Paul, because it demonstrates the reality of Christianity in a world where people lack the ability to make relationships work! We don’t know how this conflict ended—but we do know that Paul fulfilled his responsibility to work hard for peace!

How about you? When you get stuck in conflict, do you ask other Christians for help? Do you respond to the help they offer? Are you involved enough in Christian community to even see brothers and sisters who need help to resolve their conflicts? Do you look the other way, or do you pray for them and take action to help them? This is an absolutely critical issue for our home groups! Recommend Sande, The Peacemaker.

Conclusion: Repeat 3 distinctives