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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Pilgrim Canadian Reformed Church
 London, Ontario
Title:A Hard Test of Forgiveness
Text:Philemon 12-14 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 16:1,4                                                                                                     
Ps 119:50,51,52
Reading – Psalm 133; Philemon
Ps 133:1,2
Sermon – Philemon 12-14
Hy 49:1,2
Hy 61:1,2
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved in Christ, there are two sisters who aren’t speaking to one another because of things that happened, years ago: What does the gospel say to them? There’s a brother in the church who’s made a serious mistake: What does the gospel say to him, and those around him? There’s a whole congregation that needs reminding of how to be at peace with one another, and to accept each other: What does the gospel say to them?

To all of these circumstances—and so many more—the gospel does have something to say. Because the good news of being saved is so powerful, and redemption is such a fundamental thing, those who know the gospel must be changed by the gospel. If we really believe it, it needs to change our outlook on life, to give our purpose, and to transform our relationships.

            This is evident on almost every page of the Scripture. It’s evident, even on the unassuming page that’s open before us this morning, the 25 verses of Philemon. Even in these humble words, we see that theme of the gospel at work.

Philemon is the shortest of Paul’s letters, and it’s the last one that we’ll study in our journey through the Bible. It’s also very different from other areas of Scripture that we’ve visited over the last two years. It’s not like the ancient beginnings of Genesis. It’s not like the lyrical poetry of the Psalms, nor the deep theology of Romans. No, it’s a semi-private letter, written to a (so-called) “regular” member of the church in Colosse. The sole purpose of this letter is to secure forgiveness for a runaway slave, named Onesimus.

It’s short, and it’s unique. But God was pleased to have this letter preserved. And we can safely say it’s in the Bible for a good reason. It’s here, because the truth of the gospel resides not only in dramatic historical events and profound theological statements. The truth of the gospel is also found in stories like this—stories where we see what a difference salvation makes. And that’s still how it is today, isn’t it? The gospel can make a difference, for you, and me, and everyone. This is our theme,


            Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon:

1)     the precious bond between these brothers

2)     the loving conduct between these brothers


1)     the precious bond between these brothers: This letter is one of the “Prison Letters” of Paul—like Philippians is, or Colossians, or 2 Timothy. Philemon was likely written from a cell somewhere in the city of Rome, as Paul waited for his day in court. That’s what he puts up front, “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus…” (v 1).

            The letter he’s writing is for Philemon. Paul calls him, “Our beloved friend and fellow laborer” (v 1). Nice title, but just who was this Philemon? A few things are clear. Philemon was a Gentile believer, and one who’d been brought to the Christian faith by Paul himself (v 19). He lived in the city of Colosse, which was near the much bigger Roman city of Ephesus—just up the valley from there.

And this Philemon is probably wealthy, for Paul passes on greetings “to the church in your house” (v 2). In the early days, churches would gather wherever was convenient, whether in a meeting-hall, or in a home from someone in the congregation. Philemon’s house was large enough for this; later on, notice that Paul even asks that he might stay in his guest room, should he be released from jail.

Philemon was likely also a leader in Colosse—Paul calls him a “fellow labourer” in the gospel, and those opening words show that Paul expected him to share this letter with the whole church. We know that’s what happened with more of his letters, that they’d be read aloud to the congregations. From a very early time, Paul’s letters were received as Scripture.

What about the third brother in this letter, Onesimus? He’s not mentioned until later. And we don’t find out much about him, except he’s a slave, one bound to a life of service. Now, we should realize that slavery was very widespread in the Roman Empire, far more than it ever was in the U.S. during the 18th and 19th centuries. Slaves probably made up about one third of the Empire’s total population.

But unlike in North America or Europe, Roman slavery wasn’t based on one race of people being considered inferior or subhuman. People would enter a life of slavery in different ways. Some were born into it, slaves because their parents were slaves. Some children were enslaved after being abandoned or sold. Some people gave themselves up for slavery because they couldn’t pay their debt. Others had to become slaves as punishment for some crime, while some were soldiers or citizens captured in war.

Though so numerous, slaves were right at the bottom of the ladder. They had no rights under law, and they were property in every sense of the word. Slaves could be bought, sold, inherited or traded. And slaves could be treated as their master willed. There could be brutal punishments, even for the smallest offense. Slaves who ran away from their masters were often crucified, just to discourage others from doing the same. Now, by the time of Paul, it’s true that slavery was beginning to change. People realized that slaves who had better conditions and more freedoms were more productive.

Still, the New Testament never condemns slavery—it seems to accept it as a fact of life—and some people have been bothered by this. Shouldn’t the apostles have spoken out against this terrible injustice? But think if the early Christians had gone around arguing that every slave should be set free—this would have turned that whole society literally upside-down. You can be sure the church would’ve been violently suppressed, even more than they were. Instead, Christian teaching began to undermine slavery in a different way, with its teachings on the equality and the worth of every human before God. Those very themes come out in this letter.

So Onesimus was a slave. More than that, he was a slave with a checkered past. Verses 18-19 tell us that he’d stolen something from Philemon—maybe a bag of silver, some precious jewelry from his house. Then, riches in hand, he’d run away. A natural place for anyone to flee was Rome, where Onesimus hoped to lose himself in the teeming crowds.

His life was one sad story—it’s hard to think of someone having less hope, facing more of a dead end. But Onesimus had been greatly changed. For he’d come to faith in Christ. The New Testament describes how when the gospel spread across the Empire, slaves were among those who received it. Perhaps they heard the gospel preached in the marketplace, or learned about it from their owners. Somehow or another, Onesimus came into contact with Paul. Paul had introduced him to Christ, and the Spirit had done the rest. So the apostle calls him his son in faith, “I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains” (v 10).

And this slave had become a comfort to Paul; “ministering to [him] in [his] chains” (v 13). It must’ve been great to have fellowship together: here was Paul, stuck in jail, alone for months at a time, but Onesimus would come and visit, to bring news from outside and words of support. People who’ve been in the hospital for weeks at a time know what kind of blessing faithful visitors can be. No wonder Paul speaks of him with affection.

Even so, Paul recognizes that Onesimus is someone’s slave. As much as he’d like to, he won’t encourage him to stick around, but he’ll send him back, carrying this letter for his master. And Paul asks that he give a warm welcome. “Take Onesimus back. And receive him with love.”

To us, this letter can seem a straightforward thing at first—like the note that parents write for the principal, when the kids are dropped off late for school: “Please admit Billy to class without a detention.” But there’s much more going on here. Think of it: how can Paul expect that this slave Onesimus will even want to go back to his master? And if he does go back, how can he expect that Philemon will be forgiving, and won’t beat him up, or worse? How can Paul even get between them like this? Shouldn’t he mind his own business?

This letter’s possible, beloved, because the gospel changes things. It changes how we treat one another. It breaks down walls of separation between people. It gives a true basis for love. We see this in how Paul first carefully puts things in the right perspective. He praises God for how the Spirit’s been at work in Philemon: “I thank my God, making mention of you always in my prayers, hearing of your love and faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints” (vv 4-5). These verses aren’t just small talk, nor is Paul trying to butter him up. No, it’s exactly because of that “love and faith toward the Lord Jesus and all the saints” that Paul can write the way he does. Paul’s got a basis to speak with Philemon about Onesimus.

            To be sure, these three brothers are very different. One is Jew by birth, trained as Pharisee, now an apostle of the risen Christ—and a prisoner of the emperor in Rome. Another brother is a Gentile by birth, a former pagan, wealthy, and now a leader in the Christian church. The third is also a Gentile, but the lowest of the low: a slave, a runaway, even a criminal. But he’s also a believer. These three men are very different from each other, but there’s a precious bond between them. Faith in Christ unites them. Redemption from sin gives them something amazing in common. The gospel makes these three “strangers” into brothers.

Paul makes that explicit in verses 15-16, “Perhaps [Onesimus] departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother.” Something fundamental has changed in his position. He’s no longer a slave, but a brother! When we look at Scripture, this is a core teaching, like in Galatians 3, where Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” That’s the theory (in Galatians), now this is the practice (in Philemon): “You are all one in Christ Jesus.”

            And the very same truth needs applying today. Today we might be very different from each other. Different personalities and varied opinions. Diverse gifts and positions on this earth. Different histories. Sometimes difficult histories, and sad tales to tell. But there’s a bond in Christ that we share. It’s not just the bond of attending the same church, and chatting afterwards over coffee. It’s a bond that transcends all other differences. We can receive each other, no longer as strangers, “but as beloved brothers!” Not as rivals, but friends! Not as enemies, but as family.

It’s easy to say, but it doesn’t always go like this. We could greet one another on the parking lot outside, yet isn’t it true that there can be an undertone to our thoughts? “Glad I’m better than this person—after all, he’s uneducated, or less well-off. She’s socially awkward and out of style.” Or we just remember the mistakes that a person made, and we’d rather steer clear: we’re not sure what to say. You might not see it, but there’s a wall between you.

But there’s no reason for it. A Christian ought to know he’s nothing but a sinner—so how can he look down on others, or exclude them? A Christian should know he’s received everything by grace—so how can he withhold kindness from anyone? We ought to be loving, having received love. We ought to be patient, having experienced God’s great patience.

That’s the gospel at work. When you believe in the gospel, it’s never just an individual experience, a private event. It’s something to be enjoyed in common with others, in the communion of the Spirit. That’s why Onesimus went to visit Paul in prison. And that’s why Paul expects Philemon to accept his runaway slave. Because the gospel’s able to bring people together, not only Jew and Gentile, but also slave and master. And those two brothers who’ve long had a disagreement. And that family that’s been divided. And that husband and wife who hardly know each other anymore. The gospel can bring them back as one.

It’s a beautiful thing when this happens. God delights in this precious bond—He always has. The Psalmist sang of it in Psalm 133:1, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” In Israel, they knew about division too. The twelve tribes didn’t always see eye-to-eye. There was jealousy of Judah and Benjamin. There was suspicion of those in the north. There’d even been civil war. But when these brothers and sisters could all come together and join in the worship of the LORD at Jerusalem, how beautiful that was, how refreshing! It’s how it was meant to be.

And this is how it’s still meant to be. God delights in the unity of his saints, whether the unity between these two sisters, or these 200 people. He delights in the unity of our 55 churches across Canada, and the unity we have and seek with other churches. Because the bond is already in place: the bond of faith in Christ, according to his Word. The bond is in place—now God calls us to loving conduct.

2)     the loving conduct between these brothers: Has anyone ever suggested that you read between the lines? There’s more to something than meets the eye, so you have to look carefully. So for this letter. When you study it, you see a picture of the conduct between these brothers.

First thing to notice is that Paul never introduces himself as an apostle. He was an apostle—and Philemon, one of his converts, knew that very well. Paul had been given authority, even had the right to demand obedience. He could’ve done that in this situation too, but he won’t. Instead, Paul comes with a humble request. Verses 8-9, “Though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting, yet for love’s sake I appeal to you.” He’s approaching Philemon as a brother, speaking humbly in love. And he hopes that Philemon (who has his own position of privilege) will show this kind of love as well.

Instead of talking about being apostle, notice a second thing, how often Paul describes himself as a prisoner. He does in verse 1, then again in verse 9, and again in verse 10 and verse 13! No less than four times in 25 verses—can’t be an accident. Why would he do so? He wants Philemon to remember that he’s forfeited much for Christ’s sake—even his freedom. And appeals to Philemon, who may know relatively little of sacrifice. “This is what I’ve gladly given up for Christ,” says Paul to his brother, “What will you give up? How much will your discipleship cost? Will you do the hard thing, like I’ve done for so long?”

That’s not boasting, it’s issuing a challenge in faith. Paul wants Philemon—and us—to think about how being a Christian isn’t always easy. Somewhere else, he calls it being a “living sacrifice.” Because you’re going to have to give things up. Some of your possessions. Your time and energy for service. You’ll have to give up your pride, and maybe let go of a grudge that you’ve been nursing along for years. To follow Christ faithfully, you might have to forfeit your security and the comfort-zone in which you live. Paul, the prisoner of the LORD—one who gave up his freedom, and even his life—challenges all of us. We’re not apostles, we don’t live in the days of the Romans, but serving Christ always comes at a cost. Are we willing to pay it?

For, coming back to this letter, Paul knows he’s asking a lot. He’s asking Philemon to forgive a crime that deserved heavy punishment: Onesimus stealing something, and then running away from his master. These are heavy things to forgive. But maybe Philemon could go one better. Not just take Onesimus back, and pardon him, but begin to treat his slave with a new kindness—maybe even release him? Paul hints at this, “I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say” (v 21).

Yet Paul won’t force it. He knows that all Christian love must be free. God loves a cheerful giver, not one who gives reluctantly, or for wrong motives. So he writes about how he would’ve like to keep Onesimus around, but decided against it, “Without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary” (v 13).

That too, is a lesson for our own conduct in the church. That we shouldn’t dictate how others should act, compel them to make amends or to give more of themselves. We shouldn’t do this as office bearers, nor as fellow church members.

Maybe you’re talking to a friend in the church, whom you feel should make a change in his life, a change for the better. You can suggest a course of action, and you can point to the reason to do so, and you can hope that they see it. You might say, “This would be fitting for you to do. I think this would be the right way to act, if you want to follow Christ. I can’t force you, but I will say it. And I’ll pray that you have the strength to do so.”

That’s part of the blessing of the bond we have. We may speak to one another openly. We can encourage the one who needs help. We can admonish the one living in sin. We can challenge the one who needs to be challenged. We don’t do this to hurt one another, or to make them uncomfortable. As Paul wrote to Philemon, “For love’s sake I appeal to you…” That’s the key to our conduct in the church.

With this letter, Paul’s asking a lot from Onesimus as well. It’s likely that Onesimus feared for his life, on his return to Colosse. He’d broken Roman law, and he’d defrauded his master. Everyone knew how rebellious slaves could be treated. Paul’s sending him back to what could be a very difficult situation. For Onesimus to return would be an act of faith: before God, he knew it was the right thing to do, so he had to trust that God would bless it, whatever the outcome. Which is often the way of obedience: when we know what is right, when we see how it might cost us, and we do it anyway, with God’s strength, and for God’s honour.

The thing about Onesimus is that he was ready to serve. He’d helped Paul, and now Paul hoped he’d be a blessing to Philemon. Instead of being a slave who grudgingly gave service, now he’d be ready to serve wholeheartedly. This is what Paul counseled Christian slaves in Colossians 3:22, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favour, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.”

However and wherever Onesimus would serve in the future, Paul asks that he be forgiven. It comes out most strongly in verse 18, “But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account.” Paul so badly wants the relationship restored, he tells Philemon that he’s willing to repay what Onesimus owes. Something as little as that bag of silver, that piece of jewelry, that time of being AWOL and the resentment that went with it—something so small shouldn’t be allowed to come between them.

For if you share Christ, something small, something earthly, something temporary, should never keep you apart. For in Christ we always have a basis for a new beginning! That’s the gospel in action.

Is it expecting too much? No, this kind of conduct comes when we embrace the gospel of our redemption, the message of being reconciled to God. It happens when we realize we’ve got to serve our Lord and Saviour with everything we’ve got, every day of our lives. Indeed, those forgiven by God learn something very important. His grace gives us insight into life, gives us wisdom for dealing with the people we encounter every day. For in humility before God and before others, we confess that we’re no better than the one who owes us—and so we forgive them, and so we love them.

Compare it to God’s forgiveness of us. He simply won’t let past sins get in the way of our relationship with him today. If we repent, He doesn’t keep bringing them up, but He puts them to rest. They’re off the radar, they’re irrelevant. So may we strive to do the same! To remember sins no more. To accept one another. To rebuild what is broken.

So as we come to end of these 25 verses, that’s the big question: How would Philemon receive his slave? Did Paul’s persuasive letter work? Was Onesimus forgiven? Were things made well in that household in Colosse? We don’t know. It is hard to imagine that this letter would’ve been preserved if there hadn’t been a happy outcome. For Philemon to read it aloud (as Paul asked him to) would be a public statement that he was accepting Paul’s brotherly counsel, that he was agreeing with his words.

No, we don’t know for sure. But we do know how this letter challenges each one of us. We have the gospel. We believe the gospel. And now we need to work with this gospel. It needs to shape how we in the church treat one another. For the gospel’s made us all brothers and sisters, one in Christ Jesus. It’s torn down whatever dividing walls used to stand. It’s given us a reason to love. Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2013, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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