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No 'Throwaway' Verses (Philemon 21-25)

August 23, 2020 Speaker: Bryce Morgan Series: Bible Study Basics: Philemon

Topic: One Truth: Your Word is Truth Passage: Philemon :21–25

***Click Here for the MESSAGE VIDEO***

I. Expendable? 

Let me do something I don't normally do. Let me begin our time by simply reading through our main verses for this morning. These are the closing verses of Paul's letter to Philemon. If you have your Bible open or a Bible app open, please follow as I begin reading in verse 21... 

Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. [22] At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you. [23] Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, [24] and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. [25] The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. 

I wanted to begin by simply reading these verses so that you could hear and/or read for yourself what some people might consider 'throwaway' verses. To be fair, I've never heard anyone describe verses like this in that way, but they have been treated that way. In fact, all of us have been tempted to see verses like this as somehow... expendable. 

These are not the kinds of verses that you will see printed on a wall plaque or Christian t-shirt. These are not the kinds of verses that people memorize or claim as their life verse. These are not the kinds of verses around which books are written or evangelistic rallies are planned. These genuinely appear to be minor afterthoughts, and therefore we might consider them interesting, but relatively unimportant. 

Now, I'm not here to argue these verses are foundational or critical to this or that major doctrine or belief, or that every verse in either the Old or New Testament is important in exactly the same way. No. But, nonetheless, these verses are the inspired word of God. Therefore, there are no 'throwaway' verses. Therefore, we need carefully consider how God wants to speak to us through Philemon 21-25. 


II. The Passage: “My Fellow Workers” (vs. 21-25) 

This morning we are both continuing and concluding our August study entitled, “Bible Study Basics”. My goal as a teacher for this series has been transparency, that is, working on the 'how' of studying a verse or passage, not just the 'what' of that verse's meaning and application. 

In order to make sense of what Paul is saying here, AND, what God is saying to us through Paul, let's begin by combining some of the Bible study principles and practices we've already talked about this month, with some new, but related ideas. Let's begin by thinking through...


1. Bridge Verses 

What is a bridge or hinge verse? Well, verse 21 is a pretty good example. The word “obedience” in verse 21 actually connects us back to the previous section, verses 8-20, where Paul is appealing to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus, Philemon's runaway slave. If you recall, since leaving his master's household, Onesimus had become a born-again follower of Jesus through Paul's ministry. So in light of Christ's call to love and forgive one another, Paul calls Philemon, in verse 17, toreceive him [Onesimus] as you would receive me”. 

But also notice how verse 22 begins: “At the same time...” That language indicates a relationship between verses 21 and 22. We could say that both represent closing thoughts. Therefore, verse 21 serves has a kind of 'bridge' from the main section of the letter to the conclusion of the letter. It's a 'hinge' of sorts between these two parts. 

Identifying these kinds of bridge or hinge verses can be really helpful as you try to understand the structure of a book, that is, how a book is put together. But there's more here. We also discover that this passage contains... 


2. Bookend Verses 

Did you notice that this conclusion contains a number of themes that were introduced in the opening sections of the letter? Therefore, the repetition of these themes creates 'bookends' to the main body of the letter. What are these repeated words or ideas? Take a look at this chart: 

  • Fellow worker” (v. 1) “Fellow workers” (v. 24)

  • Prisoner” (v. 1) “Prisoner” (v. 23)

  • In your house” (v. 2) “A guest room” (v. 22)

  • My prayers” (v. 4) “Your prayers” (v. 22)

  • Grace to you” (v. 3) “Grace... be with your spirit” (v. 25) 

  • Confidence in and affirmation of Philemon's faith (vs. 4-7 and v. 21) 

This literary feature or bracketing technique is also called an inclusio. It used in many places through both the OT and the NT. Why is important? Because it highlights ideas that are clearly important to the writer and can help us make sense of a book's main point or big idea. 

We'll come back to this idea in a few minutes, but I also want you to see that in addition to bridge verses and bookend verses, we're also reminded here about the importance of... 


3. All the Verses 

This is truly a basic 'Bible study basic', but if you want to understand (that is, rightly interpret and rightly apply) a verse or verses in the context of a particular book of the Bible, then... read that entire book; read it all the way through. Now that's pretty easy to do with a tiny book like Philemon, but what about a book like Genesis or Isaiah or Jeremiah? Well, yes, you may not have time to read through a whole book during a Bible study session, but if you can, you should. It really does help.

If for whatever reason you aren't able to read through the entire book, and least not yet, then use a Bible study app or website, or a good old fashioned concordance to search for key words and key phrases within that same book; that is, limit your search parameters to just the book you're studying. You can also use a cross reference in this same way, sticking to just that book in which your study verse or verses appears. 

How is this helpful? Well, think about Philemon. We've already seen that the end of the book repeats ideas from the beginning of the book. That puts an extra emphasis on words and themes that we might have missed had we stopped at verse 7. 

But also notice the very last line of the letter, verse 25: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Now, if we were to compare how Paul finishes this letter with how Paul finishes his other letters, we would would discover that every one of Paul's letters has some version of this blessing*; some sound just like Philemon 25, some are expanded, and some are simplified, like Colossians 4:18, “Grace be with you.” 

But think about this ending in the context of Philemon. As I mentioned earlier, and as we thought about last time, Paul was calling Philemon to forgive and lovingly receive his former slave; a slave who had betrayed him; a slave who had probably stolen from him. Paul was calling Philemon to see how God had worked in Onesimus's life, making him Philemon's brother, and quite possibly, at some point soon, Philemon's representative at Paul's side as the apostle continued to minister for Christ. 

Knowing this, when you arrive at the end of this letter, there is something especially powerful about this blessing: the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. This is no mere formality. This isn't simply Paul's boilerplate ending. This is, in fact, the key to the whole letter. Remember, this is also a bookend verse with verse 3. In both places, the grace of God, the grace of Christ, is key. Paul is bracketing his appeal to Philemon with an appeal to God on behalf of Philemon. “Grant him grace, Father. Grant him abundant grace for path to which you are calling him.” 

This beautiful and powerful truth is just one reason to consider all of a book's verses as you study even one verse from that book. 


III. Fellow Workers 

Now, I truly hope it's been helpful looking at all of these Bible study basics. But we've still not talked about a number of details from this closing section of Philemon. Let me read those verses one more time, and please listen for a unifying idea or theme in this passage: 

Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. [22] At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you. [23] Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, [24] and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. [25] The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. 

Though these verses are not deep or difficult or explicitly or notably 'doctrinal', it is very hard to read these verses and not sense how central real-life relationships are to Paul's words.

As we do throughout the letter, we continue to hear Paul's heart for and appreciation of Philemon, his brother in Christ, his partner in the gospel, his fellow worker in God's work. Is Paul some kind of aloof apostle, issuing edicts from his prison cell in Rome? No, he is a beloved brother and co-laborer, one who wants to come when he can and stay at Philemon's house in Colossae... (v. 22) “prepare a guest room for me”. 

And this relational emphasis to the 'bookends', in both the beginning and ending of this letter, is also clear from the list of names provided in verses 24 and 25: Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke. Not surprisingly, all of these men are also mentioned at the end of Paul's letter to the Colossians. Remember, both of these letters (Philemon and Colossians) were probably delivered at the same time by Onesimus and a brother named Tychicus. A simply search of these names will also reveal how these brothers are mentioned in other letters from Paul, and in the book of Acts. 

But please don't miss how the emphasis here is not only relational, but missional. We already know Paul considered Philemon his partner in the work of the gospel. But notice that Epaphras has also been imprisoned for Christ, and that the other brothers mentioned here are described, like Philemon in verse 1, as “fellow workers”. What does that mean? Well, in Romans 16:3, Paul uses the fuller phrase, “fellow workers in Christ Jesus”, and in Colossians 4:11, we find the even fuller phrase, “fellow workers for the kingdom of God”. 

Brothers and sisters, these are not throwaway verses. These are precious verses that remind us about the very real relationships and very, real-life circumstances that characterized the earliest days of the Church's gospel-centered work. From guest rooms to greetings, such mundane details remind us that these people were more like us than we often appreciate. 

But what united them was not location or class or personalities or ethnicity or culture. No, these were Jews and Gentiles, slave and masters, men and women, spread across the Roman Empire. What united them was Jesus Christ and the work of the kingdom; the gospel-proclaiming, disciple-making mission of Jesus. 

If the greeting of this book pointed to the reality of radically redefined relationships through Christ, and the opening spoke of a radically renewed way of loving and blessing other like Christ (which in verse 8-20 is radically defined by Christ-like grace), then this conclusion simply reminds us that this grace radically knits our lives together for Christ's mission. 

But is that true for us as a faith family? Is that how you feel? Are our lives radically knit together, are they being radically knit together, for Christ's mission? If not, why not? For lack of opportunity? For lack of effort? For lack of vision? Do we not know this? Do we not know how? We need to carefully consider these questions. I do think the passage reminds us this doesn't always look the same. Epaphras and Paul were closed into a prison cell, while Philemon opened his home to a church meeting. But all of it was for the gospel. 

Remember, only the gospel can make us fellow workers for the kingdom, since only the death and resurrection of Christ can bring us from the domain of darkness, from the tyranny of sin and self, into the kingdom of God's beloved son (Colossians 1:13). But do we have a passion for that Good News, to share it, as we have been called to do? And are we supporting each other in that very thing? Brother, sisters, would you pray even now for yourself and our church, that God would unite us, in our real lives, in these very ways? 


More in Bible Study Basics: Philemon

August 16, 2020

Radical Grace (Philemon 8-20)

August 9, 2020

Every Good Work (Philemon 4-7)

August 2, 2020

Greetings & Grace (Philemon 1-3)