“Refresh My Heart”
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“Refresh My Heart”

Philemon 1:17–25  (ID: 2635)

When we are redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ, we enjoy a familial bond with other Christians that cannot be severed. Because of their shared faith, Paul pleaded with Philemon to forgive and welcome back his runaway slave Onesimus. Forgiveness and reconciliation can feel overwhelming, but Alistair Begg reassures us that by God’s grace, we are enabled to do what He calls us to do, even when it seems humanly impossible.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in Philemon

The Road of Reconciliation Philemon 1:1–25 Series ID: 15701

Sermon Transcript: Print

Gracious God, we pray that you will help us now to live a life that’s dependent on your grace, to preach the Bible in the same manner, and to listen to it in the same vein, so that Jesus Christ might be enthroned in our hearts and exalted in our lives. To the praise of his name we ask it. Amen.

I invite you to turn to Philemon, the tiny letter in between Titus and Hebrews. We come this morning to our third and final study in what is this tiny letter—very important letter—right here towards the end of the New Testament.

First of all, I’d like to read verses 17 to the end in the translation that most of us have in front of us. Then I’m going to invite you just to sit and listen as I read the entire letter again in Peterson’s paraphrase in The Message.

Verse 17:

“So if you consider me a partner, welcome him”—that is, Onesimus—“as you would welcome me. If he[’s] done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.

“And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.

“Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”

And now let me read the whole letter for you as it is paraphrased. And you will see why it is that we don’t study from this, because he takes liberties at certain places. But I read it just because we’ll get the general sense in a way that I think is quite helpful:

“I, Paul, am a prisoner for the sake of Christ, here with my brother Timothy. I write this letter to you, Philemon, my good friend and companion in this work—also to our sister Apphia, to Archippus, a real trooper, and to the church that meets in your house. God’s best to you! Christ’s blessings on you!

“Every time your name comes up in my prayers, I say, ‘Oh, thank you, God!’ I keep hearing of the love and faith you have for the Master Jesus, which brims over to other [Christians.] And I keep praying that this faith we hold in common keeps showing up in the good things we do, and that people recognize Christ in all of it. Friend, you have no idea how good your love makes me feel, doubly so when I see your hospitality to fellow believers.

“In line with all this I have a favor to ask of you.” (Remember, we said last week that he wasn’t asking him for a favor, that he appeals on the strength of goodness. “Be quiet; just read the letter.” All right.) “In line with all [of] this I have a favor to ask of you. As Christ’s ambassador and now a prisoner for him, I wouldn’t hesitate to command this if I thought it necessary, but I’d rather make it a personal request.

“While here in jail, I’ve fathered a child, so to speak. And here he is, hand-carrying this letter—Onesimus! He was useless to you before; now he’s useful to both of us. I’m sending him back to you, but it feels like I’m cutting off my right arm in doing so. I wanted in the worst way to keep him here as your stand-in to help out while I’m in jail for the Message. But I didn’t want to do anything behind your back, make you do a good deed that you hadn’t willingly agreed to.

“Maybe it’s all for the best that you lost him for a while. You’re getting him back now for good—and no mere slave this time, but a true Christian brother! That’s what he was to me—he’ll be even more than that to you.

“So if you still consider me a comrade-in-arms, welcome him back as you would me. If he damaged anything or owes you anything, chalk it up to my account. This is my personal signature—Paul—and I stand behind it. (I don’t need to remind you, do I, that you owe your very life to me?) Do me this big favor, friend. You’ll be doing it for Christ, but it will also do my heart good.

We daren’t claim to love God, whom we cannot see, if we’re failing to love our brother who stands before us plain as day.

“I know you well enough to know you will. You’ll probably go far beyond what I’ve written. And by the way, get a room ready for me. Because of your prayers, I fully expect to be your guest again.

“Epaphras, my cellmate in the cause of Christ, says hello. Also my coworkers Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke. All the best to you from the Master, Jesus Christ!”

Well, I think if we were summarizing the message of this letter, as we’ve said before, we would employ just one word, and the word would be reconciliation. Reconciliation. Calvin says that the gospel is “the embassy of … reconciliation between God and [man].”[1] If you think of the embassies of the world, either in Washington, DC, or, if you go to European cities, in London or in Prague or elsewhere, and you go down Embassy Row, you find that the flags are flying outside of all of the embassies, identifying themselves with the nation from which they’ve come and identifying themselves with the characteristics of all that that flag represents. And the notion is that flying, as it were, from the portals of the church of Jesus Christ is this flag which speaks of reconciliation, bringing God to man and man to God and men to one another all in the wonderful evidences of God’s goodness.

And the more I read this little letter, the more I wondered whether Paul had something of 2 Corinthians 5 in his mind, where, in the second half of 2 Corinthians 5, he speaks about “the message of reconciliation” that has been entrusted to him and to his colleagues, reminding his readers that God has not only “reconciled us to himself” but has then committed to us a “ministry of reconciliation”[2]—so that in the same way that John writes, “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another,”[3] here, in emblematic form, in this letter, it becomes clear that we daren’t claim to love God, whom we cannot see, if we’re failing to love our brother who stands before us plain as day. And in the case of Philemon, of course, this was concrete in the life of Onesimus.

Now let me just reinforce this. You can turn to 2 Corinthians 5 if you choose. I want just to point this out to you. In 2 Corinthians 5:16, Paul says from now on, since we’ve been reconciled to God, it not only changes our relationship with God, but it changes the way in which we view the world, the way in which we view everything and everyone. So, verse 16: “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, [and] the new has come!”

If you put that in terms of this little letter that we have before us, what it means is: “So from now on, we don’t look at Onesimus the way we used to. We used to look at him simply as someone who was a general nuisance and who had broken the law and had run away and stolen his master’s possessions. But we no longer look at Onesimus that way.” Nor does Onesimus look at Philemon the way he used to look at him. And the reason for the transformation is that both Onesimus, the slave, and Philemon, the wealthy owner of the slave and the prosperous homeowner, both of them have been made new in the Lord Jesus Christ. And it is on account of that and on the basis of that that Paul is able to make his appeal in the writing of this letter.

In the interest of clarity and brevity, I want to gather our thoughts simply around four imperatives, which make up Paul’s appeal.

“Welcome Onesimus”

And the first of these is “Welcome Onesimus.” “Welcome Onesimus.” If your eyes are open at your text, you will see in verse 17, he says, “So”—building on what he’s already written—“so if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.” The word there for “partner” is koinonon, and it is directly tied to verse 6, where, you will remember, in that difficult verse, we noted that this idea of sharing in the faith, the word there for “sharing” is koinonia. And in keeping with that, Paul now addresses Philemon on those same terms, and he says, “Our partnership is something that is very deep, it is very significant. We share in the faith. It is the faith that has been given to us in the Lord Jesus Christ. And so, if you consider me as one sharing in that faith with you, then I want you to welcome Onesimus.”

Back in verse 13, Onesimus is said to have fulfilled the role of Philemon to Paul, and here, he is now fulfilling the role of Paul to Philemon. “I know I can’t get there to receive the welcome you would give me, so give it instead to Onesimus.” “If I were to show up, Philemon, I know you would give me a big welcome, and I’m not able to show up at the moment, but Onesimus is going to. And therefore, I want you to give the hug that you would give to me to him.”

Now, this all may seem very straightforward and almost sort of easy, so let me put it in far more concrete terms for us, since none of us are able to identify with Philemon as a wealthy slave owner nor with Onesimus as a slave. What has happened here is there has been a breakdown in their relationship, a significant and deep breakdown in their relationship. Onesimus has offended gravely and significantly against his master. He has run away from his master. His master has every reason to be offended by his actions and to show him no encouragement upon his return. And yet this letter calls for Philemon to do something which is frankly supernatural—and, indeed, asks of Onesimus an action which he would not naturally have been interested in performing.

Have you ever been deeply offended by someone? Has anyone dreadfully wronged you emotionally, physically, financially? Have you forgiven them from your heart? Are you reconciled to them at the deepest level of your life? Or is it simply that you have allowed the passage of time to, as it were, cover over a multitude of sins? And so you think that because you’ve managed not to bring it up or not to mention it over a period of years, that it is dealt with—but inside, you know that it isn’t, and at your core, you remain unreconciled to that individual. At the very heart level of life, forgiveness is not the marker. And the Bible calls for each of us who are in Christ to welcome one another with the same level of welcome that we have received from Jesus. It’s not easy! In fact, it’s impossible apart from the empowering grace of God.

When our children were small, we used to urge them always to be reconciled to one another, especially before they went to bed. And we would force them to hug each other, whether they wanted to or not. “I want you to say, ‘Sorry,’” or “I want you to say, ‘Forgive me,’ and then I want you to hug your sister,” or “I want you to hug your brother.” I’m sure that you do the same thing. If you don’t, you should institute it.

And one of the three, who was never particularly keen on the moment of reconciliation, when it came time for the hug, the tiny little person that she was and is, she would stick out her stomach like this. She’d make herself as big as she possibly could, thereby preventing any kind of closure with her sister. They could touch belly buttons maybe, but that would be all that would happen. And we would say, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Not like that. A proper hug. A proper hug.” Because that will mean that she needs to become more convex than concave [sic] if she is to welcome to herself the one with whom she is in need of reconciliation.

In the early ’70s, when we were in Scotland and working in Edinburgh, we worked in a church plant out from the central church, in a housing area of government housing where many young people over a period of just a few years were radically and wonderfully converted, and the church grew very, very quickly. And many of these young men had been particularly tough characters in gangs in the suburbs of Edinburgh, many of them bearing, in the scars on their faces and hands, the evidences of their fights with one another. And therefore, it was all the more compelling to be amongst them as a group and to have them singing songs that we weren’t singing in the larger and older building. And I still have a strong sense of wonder when they would sing to each other, “I love you with the love of the Lord. … And I love you with the love of the Lord.”[4] And many of these hard-bitten guys would turn and face each other, people who had been their enemies, and tangibly convey that to be reconciled to the living God against whom they had offended so incredibly, it was imperative that they lived in reconciliation with one another.

Is there anyone that you are unprepared to welcome? Do you profess faith in Jesus? Do you remain unreconciled to your brother or to your sister? Do you refuse to forgive them from your heart? I guarantee you, to the extent that we are willing to do so, it reveals that we have minimized our offense against God and we have maximized their offenses against us.

“Charge It to Me”

Secondly, “Don’t only welcome Onesimus, but I want you to charge it to me.” “Charge it to me. If you consider me a partner,” and he does, “and if he’s done anything wrong,” verse 18—and he has—“then charge it to me. Charge it to my account.” It makes you think, if you know your New Testament at all, of the parable of the good Samaritan: how the Good Samaritan, when he came to the man who had been beaten on the roadway, poured in oil and wine, and bound up his wounds, and set him on his donkey, and took him to an inn, and took care of him there. And then, in the King James Version, it says, “And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two [denarii], and gave them to the [innkeeper], and said … Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.”[5] “Take care of him, and I will make sure that all the charges are covered.”

You see, there is a sense in which it was for Paul a great challenge to send Onesimus back. He wanted to keep him for himself. He’s letting him go because it’s the right thing to do, but he doesn’t simply say that; he says, “And when you welcome him back, any wrong that he’s done, any charge that he has accrued, you can charge it to me, to my account.” In other words, what’s he being like? He’s being like Jesus. He’s being like Jesus. Because that is exactly what Jesus says when he sends the sinner, as it were, back to his Father. He says, “Father, charge all of their indebtedness to my account. Charge it all to me.” Two Corinthians 5, again: that he wasn’t “counting men’s sins against them,”[6] because he was counting men’s sins against his Son. And Christ bears all of the punishment that sinners deserve.

This, my friends, is the gospel. This is the gospel. The gospel is not “Do you have issues in your life? Jesus takes care of issues.” The gospel is not “Do you need to know how to fix your finances? We can do that.” The gospel is not “How to deal with relationships, interpersonally.” The gospel is none of that. Those things are all fruits of the gospel. But let me tell you what the gospel is: the gospel is the story of what God has done historically, in a moment in time, for those who had turned their backs on God—namely, all of us in our sin. It is the reminder to us that we have been alienated from God by our sins[7] and he from us by his wrath. So there is a double alienation: we alienated from God who made us on account of our sins, walking off in our own way; and God alienated from us on account of his wrath, which is meted out against sin and which must punish sin.

So if reconciliation between the sinner and God is going to happen, God must be able to look on the sinner without displeasure, and the sinner must be able to look at God without fear. Question: How can that possibly happen? How may we stand before God without fear, and how may a perfectly holy God look on us as sinners without displeasure? The answer is that that transaction has taken place in Christ as in his death God’s wrath is turned away from us and our sin is cancelled as it is imputed to Christ. And it is this great exchange that lies at the very heart of this doctrine of reconciliation. And it is when the wonder of this great exchange truly grips and changes a life that such an appeal as this may be responded to on account of the difference that this grace makes in a life.

“So,” he says, “here is my IOU.” That’s what he’s saying, verse 19: “I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand.” The legalities of Rome demanded that an IOU be written in the hand of the one who was covering the promissory note. So Paul, as it were, takes the pen from the hand of his secretary, and he says, “Let me write this part. It is important: ‘I, Paul, am covering this charge. This is my IOU to you. You will see that it is written in my own hand. I have signed it in my own name. Any debt that has been incurred I will cover.’”

If reconciliation between the sinner and God is going to happen, God must be able to look on the sinner without displeasure, and the sinner must be able to look at God without fear.

And then, almost humorously, at the end of that verse, he says, “Now, I’m not going to mention the fact that you owe me your very self.” And by not mentioning it, of course, he mentions it. “I don’t want to mention this,” he says, thereby mentioning it. He knows what he’s doing. He never expects to have to pay the charge, because Philemon understands that that which he owes to Paul is his very life. And this is the verse that makes clear to us that Paul was used not only to see Onesimus become a follower of Jesus but also to see Philemon become a follower of Jesus. And what Paul is saying is “I’m sure that I can appeal to you on this basis. And I want you to know that I will cover everything, but I’m not going to mention the fact that really, when push comes to shove, you owe your entire existence to me. Your eternal destiny under God is tied to my account.”

And so, in a sense, what he’s saying is “I led you to Christ, and here’s your chance to repay me.”

“Refresh My Heart”

“Welcome him.” “Charge it to me.” Thirdly, “Refresh my heart.” “Refresh my heart.” Verse 20: “I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord.” “Yes, brother,” is how the Greek begins. “Yes, brother.” It’s almost as if he is thinking as he goes along, and he says what he’s said, and then he says, “Yes, brother,” gathering up all that has gone before. “What I would like is some benefit from you. I’d like some benefit from you.”

Interestingly, the word here for “benefit,” onaimen, is the cognate, is derived from the same root as the word “Onesimus.” Okay? If you think about it, Onesimus means “useful,” onaimen means “benefit,” and so he is continuing his pun. He’s already said, “Onesimus, whose name means ‘useful,’ was useless; Christ has made him useful again, and he’s coming back to you. And by the way, I would like you to give me some benefit, and I’m appealing to you as my brother.” “As my brother.” As “a partner,” verse 17, as a brother.

This is the Christian family, loved ones. This is what it actually means to be in Christ. It’s not a private matter to be in Christ. It is a personal matter, but it isn’t private. When we are brought into Christ, we’re brought into a whole family of people, and they are our brothers and sisters—funny ones, weird ones, nice ones, ugly ones, distasteful ones, all kinds! You know, whatever cap fits, put it on, at whatever hour of the day. We are family in Christ. And that’s why the ideas of sort of superficial expressions of friendship will never match what the Bible is calling for. And indeed, such things are hardly anywhere close to that which God intends for us.

But the idea of a brother is important, or a sister. I never had a brother, but I had friends with whom I was so close growing up as a boy that I would gladly have had them as my brothers, and they me. Sometimes we went to the extent of actually taking a penknife and nicking our thumbs and rubbing our thumbs together like this and declaring that we were in it with one another, thick and thin. There were things that we weren’t going to tell anybody and so on—all the times that we slid down the sliding roof of that lady’s shed to gather up her rhubarb and take it up and sit on the shed, thinking we were so smart, and then just making ourselves totally sick to our stomachs. But it was a wonderful experience, and we were in it together, just like this.

Well, that’s exactly where Philemon and Paul are. But it’s much deeper than this, because Philemon and Paul are brothers, because they have been redeemed by the precious blood of Jesus Christ. And their relationship with one another is a blood-bought relationship. They are tied together in the bonds of the gospel—bonds that cannot be severed, neither by time nor through all of eternity.

So he says, “I wish, brother, that I might have some benefit from you in the Lord. Why don’t you do for me what you do so well?” And in verse 7, remember, he had “refreshed the hearts of the saints.” “Now,” says Paul, “I’d like you to refresh me as well.” And notice what he says: “Refresh my heart in Christ.” Back up a line: “Some benefit from you in the Lord.” “In Christ.” “In the Lord.” These are favorite phrases of Paul, and they’re not filler; they’re vital. His appeal, again—and notice it—is on account of the fact that Philemon is in Christ. Two Corinthians 5: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”[8] What is Onesimus? He is in Christ. “Therefore,” he says, “Onesimus, I’m going to send you back to Philemon. Philemon is in Christ. Philemon, I’m sending Onesimus back to you. He’s not the one that left. He’s a new Onesimus. He is in Christ. And Philemon, while you’re at it, would you refresh my heart in the Lord? Would you refresh my heart in Christ?”

Every real and lasting benefit that as a Christian you will ever know comes to you in Christ. It is always en Christos.

O Christ, in you my soul has found,
And found in you alone,
The peace, the joy I sought so long,
The bliss till now unknown.

Now none but Christ can satisfy,[9]

you see. And all of the refreshment that you bring to me and I may bring to you is always in the Lord and in Christ.

You see, at a superficial level, all of these pleasantries and friendships and familial aspects of things that make up life and make it lovely as a result of God’s common grace are engaged in at multiple levels today throughout the entire nation. People getting together: “I see friends greetin’ friends,” you know, “Sayin’ ‘How do you do?’ I see them saying, ‘I love you.’ And I think to myself, ‘What a great country. What a wonderful place. Isn’t this all fantastic?’”[10]

All of the refreshment that you bring to me and I may bring to you is always in the Lord and in Christ.

But the Christian no longer views people from a worldly point of view. There is a sadness in it all for the Christian, because the Christian knows that without Christ, all that camaraderie comes to a crashing end with death. All of the meaningfulness and joy of relationships and family life and gatherings for celebrations are ultimately an expression of futility when we confront the radical fact that one out of one dies. And therefore, you will notice how carefully Paul addresses his remarks, and why I take care to point it out to you.

“Prepare a Room”

Well, finally, he says, “And I want you to prepare a room.” “Prepare a room.” “Welcome Onesimus. Charge it to me. Refresh my heart. And prepare a room.” Verse 22.

There’s perhaps a gentle sense in which he’s saying, “And by the way, I’m coming to check up on you, and I just want you to know that, and so I’d like you to prepare a room.” “I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.” He’s already confident—verse 21—that Philemon will step up to the mark, that he will do this. In fact, he says, “I’m sure that you will do even more than I ask.” Paul has been praying for Philemon. The church in Philemon’s house has been praying for Paul. And somehow, in the mystery of God’s purposes, the prayers of his people, inspired and answered by the living God, will bring about the restoration which Paul anticipates.

And so he sends his greetings and the greetings of his “fellow workers,” there in verse 23. Epaphras, the one who had preached in Colossae at the very beginning,[11] he sends greetings. “So do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.” Note in passing that Paul was no one-man band. He had a significant role, he was uniquely used by God, but he recognized that he was part of a team, and every member of the team was important.

Earlier this year, I think I may have told some of you, in speaking to a group of businessmen out in Northern California, I was part of an evening in which one of the businessmen present gave a talk. He was a stockbroker somewhere in Silicon Valley and owned the San Jose Sharks, which… Funnily enough, the dinner was taking place in the aquarium in Carmel. And so, literally, you were eating your food with a shark just swimming along beside you, and then he was on about the Sharks. It was rather scary.

But anyway, he said he wanted to show a video clip of the San Jose Sharks, which is fair enough, and he asked us all to watch number 19. And so we watched number nineteen for about two minutes. The clips came from a game, another game, another game, another game, but it was all nineteen, nineteen, nineteen, nineteen. And then he said, “I have one question for you. Tell me what stands out about number nineteen.” And the answer was he assisted in every goal. He assisted in every goal. His was the final pass that led to the goal. He actually had ninety assists in two seasons, breaking all the records in the league in ice hockey for such a part. And the point the man was making was: there were no goals scored without number nineteen, but number nineteen didn’t score the goals.

Most of us are number nineteens. What a privilege to be a number nineteen! To be an assistant. To be assisting in the work of the gospel. To be playing our part.

A Warning and an Encouragement

Let me conclude with a warning that is there in one name and an encouragement that is there in one word. The name is Demas, and those of you who don’t know the Bible will not know this, but by the time Paul writes his final letter, Demas has forsaken him.[12] Demas has gone off; he’s fallen in love with all the things that are on offer outside of the framework of Jesus. And so Calvin makes this comment: “If one of Paul’s assistants became weary and discouraged and was afterwards drawn away by the vanity of the world, let none of us rely too much on our own zeal lasting even one year, but remembering how much of the journey still lies ahead, let us ask God for steadfastness.”[13] “Let us ask God for steadfastness.” And Demas’s name is there as a warning to all of us who grow presumptuous, who begin to think we can do it on our own, who think that we no longer need to rely on the power and enabling of Christ, and in a moment in time we may be down with our face in the gutter.

A warning in one name, and finally, an encouragement in one word, and the word is “grace.” “Grace.” Notice verse 3: he began the letter with “grace”; verse 25, he ends the letter with “grace.” All of the benefits and blessings, undeserved and unearned, that God pours out upon his people in the Lord Jesus Christ, all of that is necessary. And it is this that he prays may “be with your spirit,” verse 25. The “your” there is now back in the plural. We said when we began that the majority of the letter is in the singular, addressed to Philemon to be listened to by others. Here he is back in the plural: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” In other words, he prays that the church that meets in Philemon’s home may be marked by the grace of God.

Now, think about this as I close. Paul had asked Philemon—Paul had asked Philemon—for a superhuman task, a task that involved heartfelt reconciliation, a task that involved forgiveness that was at the very core of his being. He asked him to do something which is not natural to do. He had asked Onesimus to do something which, as a runaway slave, he would be by nature afraid to do and unwilling to do. So both of the parties in the reconciliation have only one hope, and that is the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, enabling the one to go back and say, “I’m sorry,” and enabling the one to whom he returns to say, “In the Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you.”

Love always takes the initiative.

Now, let me come back again to this. There may be a husband or a wife here. You may not even be sitting together. You may be sitting together, but your hearts are not together. And the reason is that you’re alienated from one another on account of sin. Whoever the offending party is or isn’t is unknown to me and known to you. And the message of Philemon is a striking reminder that if you are in the Lord Jesus Christ, if you are in Christ, then that which God calls for he provides, enabling you to look into the eyes of the one against whom you have offended and say, “I ask for your forgiveness,” and enabling the one who has been offended to say, “And I forgive you from my heart.” And since God has by his grace put our sins as far as the east is from the west,[14] whereby he will remember them no more,[15] reconciliation means that drawing on the resources of God’s grace, we pledge to one another our desire and our commitment to do the selfsame thing.

Do you see what would happen in the wee church in Philemon’s house? Because the community would be such that everyone would have known: “Onesimus has made a run for it.”

People at the marketplace: “Did you hear what happened to Philemon?”


“Yeah, Onesimus took off.”

“Where did he go?”

“Apparently, he went to Rome.”

Then, at the marketplace, at the beginning of a new week, somebody meets his friend and says, “You know, you told me that Onesimus had run off to Rome. You’re wrong. ’Cause I was at the praise time in Philemon’s house, and Onesimus was there. And he wasn’t just there—there there. He was singing! Actually, he and Philemon were sitting right next to each other; they were singing the songs and then participating in the whole thing.”

And the person on the street says, “No, there is no way in the world that that can happen. That can’t happen.”

“Oh yes,” says the person, “it can happen, and it did happen. Because Onesimus met Jesus, and Jesus changed him. And Philemon met Jesus, and Jesus changed him. And they are united together in Jesus now.”

Loved ones, that is supposed to be a hallmark of the family of God: that the things that are representative of an absence of reconciliation, that the aspects within our culture that are representative of alienation between people or races or intelligence factors or social strata, all of these things are completely collapsed in the discovery of the amazing grace of God.

So let us pray that where we are aware of the absence of this kind of reconciliation, that we will, under God, commit ourselves to be the very agents of reconciliation—whatever it takes, however hard it may appear to be, whatever people may think of us, that we will be the initiative- takers always. Because love always takes the initiative. Love never says, “Well, if they want to talk about it, they can come and talk about it.” That is not love. Love always takes the initiative.

“Help me … to live a life that’s dependent on your grace.”[16]

Let us pray:

Our God and our Father, we thank you for this little letter, for the message that it brings so forcibly home to our minds. I pray for some who as yet have never come and bowed their knee to you, the living God, and confessed their sins and asked you to grant to them forgiveness. I pray today that there will be some who receive the reconciliation that you have made available in the cross of Jesus.

I pray, too, that those who are living at odds with one another, whether within their home or even estranged by distance, may in Christ and in the Lord be enabled to do what you call for them to do.

And we pray for our church family, not selfishly but purposefully, that whatever this means in all of the ramifications beyond our ability to even quantify them now, whatever it means, that you will immerse us in the reconciling grace of God, and so that when our country is facing the possibilities of all kinds of fracturing, that you will find among your people here a willingness to say,

I love you with the love of the Lord,
[And] I can see in you the glory of my King,
And I love you with the love of the Lord.[17]

May this grace, the grace that Paul prayed for the church in Philemon’s home, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God our Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit rest upon and remain with each one who believes, now and forevermore. Amen.

[1] John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, trans. William Pringle (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845), 2:300.

[2] See 2 Corinthians 5:18–20.

[3] 1 John 4:11 (NIV 1984).

[4] Jim Gilbert, “I Love You with the Love of the Lord” (1977).

[5] Luke 10:35 (KJV).

[6] 2 Corinthians 5:19 (NIV 1984).

[7] See Colossians 1:21.

[8] 2 Corinthians 5:17 (NIV 1984)

[9] [Emma Frances Bevan?], “None but Christ Can Satisfy.” Language modernized.

[10] George David Weiss and Robert Thiele, “What a Wonderful World” (1967). Paraphrased.

[11] See Colossians 1:7.

[12] See 2 Timothy 4:10.

[13] John Calvin, The Second Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians and the Epistles to Timothy, Titus and Philemon, trans. T. A. Smail, ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 401.

[14] See Psalm 103:12.

[15] See Hebrews 8:12.

[16] Bob Kauflin, “O Great God” (2006).

[17] Gilbert, “I Love You.”

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.