Radical Grace (Philemon 8-20)
Topic: One Truth: Your Word is Truth Passage: Philemon :8–20
I. Guided by the Light
This morning, in both Scripture and song, we heard about the power of God's word to provide us with truth, and therefore guidance, as we travel down the difficult path of life in this world; or in the words of the psalmist, “Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path.” (Psalm 119:105) That is certainly good news for us, isn't it, especially when the darkness seems thick and immovable.
But a lamp does us no good if we don't know how to use it, right? The same is true with God's word. That's why we we've been talking about some Bible study basics this month. Whether you are somewhat new to the Bible or have been reading the Bible for years, I think all of us want to get everything we can out of that reading; we should desire not only comprehension, but transformation.
With that end in mind, we've talked about a number of helpful practices and principles thus far: we talked identifying the genre of a what we're reading; we talked about using other parts of the Bible to identify individuals mentioned in a passage; we talked about comparing Scripture with Scripture, for example, how Paul begins each of his letters. We also thought last time about the author's intention, that is, what the writer meant is where our search for understanding begins. We also talked briefly about how the when of a verse's composition can help us better understand the context and use of language Finally, we talked about the importance of identifying and exploring repeated words, phrases, and themes.
But there's even more we can do. Let's explore that 'more' by returning to the short letter known as Philemon. You'll find it right after I & II Timothy and Titus in the New Testament.
II. The Passage: “Receive Him as You Would Receive Me” (vs. 8-20)
This morning, we finally arrive at the main part of the letter; what's typically called the body of the letter. As we learned last time, the man to whom the letter is addressed is Philemon, identified as Paul and Timothy's “beloved fellow worker” in verse 1, and a “brother” in verse 7.
After the greeting of verses 1-3, and the encouragement and prayer of verses 4-7, Paul begins to explain his ultimate reason for writing. Look with me at verse 8-20. Paul writes...
Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required,  yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment.  (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.)  I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart.  I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel,  but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord.  For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever,  no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.  So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me.  If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.  I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self.  Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.
Now, again, there are number of things we could do with a passage like this. For example, using a Bible app or Bible study website, we could study all the words or names that are repeated in this passage or that seem to be important. We could also use a tool called a cross reference to find other verses in the Bible that have similar themes, keywords, concepts, or names. Your Bible may have a cross reference on an inside column.
But let's use another technique this morning as we seek to understand this passage. Let's simply ask good questions about these verses. Let me give you some examples. We could begin with...
1. A 'What' Question
Notice right from the start, we discover a repeated word in verses 9 and 10. The word is “appeal”. Paul is appealing to Philemon. He is beseeching Philemon. He offers here a plea, a request. And this is where our 'what' question comes in: “WHAT specifically is Paul asking of Philemon? WHAT does he want him to do?”
I think we hear an answer to that question in verse 17: So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. I think there's more we could say about Paul's request, but notice how verse 20 'bookends' this emphasis on the appeal: Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. (you may recall Philemon's ministry of refreshing hearts mentioned earlier, in verse 7). And yet, after reading verse 17, we have to ask another question. In addition to 'what', I think we also have to ask...
2. A 'Who' Question
“Receive him and you would receive me.” Receive who? Who is Paul talking about here? Well, the answer is no mystery. Verse 10: I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. Now, notice right away what we learn about this man named Onesimus. Paul (who is currently in prison or under house arrest) became this man's father. The context here, along with similar language from Paul's other letters, tells us that Paul is talking about becoming Onesimus's spiritual father; that is, Paul led Onesimus to saving faith in Jesus Christ.
But who was this Onesimus? Well, consider what this passage reveals. First, verse 16 indicates that Onesimus was Philemon's “bondservant”, that is, his slave.
Second, in v. 11 Paul tells Philemon that “formerly he was useless to you”. Now consider that statement in light of v. 18: If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything... So if Philemon, who lives in Colossae (in modern western Turkey) has a slave who is now in Rome (or wherever Paul was imprisoned), a bondservant who Paul described as “useless” and could be guilty of theft, the most likely explanation is that Onesimus was a runaway slave; a slave that Paul was now sending back (for several reasons—including it was illegal to harbor).
But as we just learned, Onesimus was now a follower of Jesus. We don't know how or why this runaway slave ended up with Paul, but wonderfully, it resulted in his salvation; in his ultimate emancipation... from sin and self; Onesimus was now experiencing what Paul in Galatians 2:4 describes as “the freedom that we have in Christ Jesus”.
But the passage tell us even more. Not only had Onesimus been converted, he'd also become a valuable part of Paul's ministry team. In Greek, the name Onesimus means profitable or useful. So verse 11 is wordplay on that meaning. This runaway slave had, by God's grace, become truly onesimus (useful), now in the service of Christ. In fact, in verse 13, Paul suggests an arrangement in which Onesimus could serve Paul on behalf of Philemon. Remember, Philemon is described as Paul's “partner” in verse 17, and as a “fellow worker” in verse 1. Onesimus had become so valued, Paul even calls him his “very heart” in verse 12.
But this leads us to a final question; not a 'what' or a 'who', but...
3. A “Why” Question
Why was Paul's appeal necessary? Why even write this letter? Why not simply send Onesimus back to rectify the situation?
Well, in general, runaway slaves, when caught, could be beaten, burnt, or even killed, to make an example of them. Some were branded on their forehead as fugitivus, and still others might have a metal collar riveted around their necks, a collar that functioned like a dog tag. So is Paul writing because he is concerned that Philemon will respond in this way. Most likely not. From everything we've already learned in this letter, Philemon is a respected Christian brother, one who is full of faith and love.
So I think Paul writes this letter, not because he fears Philemon will be severe, but maybe because he fears Onesimus will not be believed. Onesimus may have served Philemon according to an agreement, one that this slave had not honored. And in light of verse 18, he may have stolen money before he left. At the very least, he was costing Philemon money every day that he was gone. So Onesimus had not shown himself to be all that trustworthy.
This may be one reason why Paul, an apostle and a trustworthy friend, wants to share the glorious news with Philemon. Additionally, Philemon couldn't simply order a book online called, “What to do When Your Runaway Slave Returns Confessing Christ”. I think Paul also wants to help Philemon handle this situation in a Christ-honoring, God-glorifying way. Finally, in attempting to answer that “why” question, I think Paul also wants to float the idea that Philemon, after working through what needed to be worked through, could return Onesimus to Paul to assist him indefinitely. Not only did he want Philemon to receive this runaway “as you would receive me”, but notice v. 21: Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. That seems to line up with Paul's suggestion in verse 13.
Now, at this point, some of you may be asking yet another question about this passage... albeit more of a peripheral question. Some may be asking: “Slavery? Why didn't Paul simply condemn slavery and tell Philemon to set Onesimus free?” That's a good question with an answer more complicated than we have time to explore this morning. But I think it's enough to say that given Paul's unique historical, social, and political context, AND, in light of this calling to preach the gospel, that kind of social change was not going to be accomplished by overt abolitionism. But that doesn't mean Paul did nothing.
Consider the radical grace highlighted in verses 15 and 16... For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever,  no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
Paul wants Philemon to consider the mysterious ways in which God sovereignly works to bring about new life. Perhaps God permitted this slave to escape in order that, wonderfully, he might be captured by grace; radical grace that can turn a master and servant into brothers; radical grace that could eventually transform a society. Speaking of questions, in light of all this, Paul's ultimate question to Philemon seems to be, “In light of the radical grace evident in Onesimus's life, the same radical grace I once preached to you, will you now welcome him home with a heart full of radical grace?”
If the greeting in this letter spoke to the radically redefined relationship that are ours through Christ, and his opening prayer spoke to the radically renewed way in which God wants us to love and bless one another, then this passage reveals how that radically renewed way of loving and blessing is radically defined by grace. Do you see that?
Yes, as Paul's indicates in verse 8, he could have commanded Philemon “to do what is required”. That means this was actually a matter of obedience. Paul described that kind of obedience in another of his prison letters: Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32) There's the gospel.
As we are told in verses 1 and 9, Paul was a prisoner for Christ, imprisoned (v. 13) for the gospel. So Philemon knew his “partner” was willing to do hard things for the sake of the gospel. But was he as well? Are you? Are you prepared to show radical grace, even to a brother or sister who has wronged you? Radical grace that is focused more on what God is doing with and in that person and less on what they did to you? Radical grace bent on applying and advancing the gospel, rather than asserting your rights?
Follower of Jesus, is God speaking through Paul to you this morning, saying (v. 9) for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you... (v. 14) so that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord? With that person or those people in mind, is He stirring you to grace, in light of grace; to love, in light of love?
Did you notice how Paul embodies Jesus here? He not only intercedes for the sake of Onesimus's restoration, but he's also willing to personally bear any penalty on behalf of the runaway slave. What a picture of Jesus, our advocate, our punishment-bearer, our debt-payer. You can know freedom from an unforgiving heart this morning. Even better, you can know the glorious freedom of serving Christ forever. Surprisingly, that alone is true freedom.