Writing from a Roman prison cell, Paul urged Philemon and his runaway slave Onesimus to be reconciled. Paul wrote with thankfulness and joy because he had been encouraged by stories of Philemon’s faith in Jesus as evidenced by his love for others. Alistair Begg teaches that genuine shared faith in Christ is so deep and transformative that it becomes impossible to remain selfish or unforgiving.
Can I invite you to turn with me to the letter of Paul to Philemon, which is nestled in between Titus and Hebrews and which, if you have difficulty finding it, is on page 845 of the Bibles that you will find around you there in the seats?
I’m not sure if it is on account of how long I took to complete James or just what it is, but I’ve determined that we’ll do a couple of short studies. We’ve begun Habakkuk in the evening; there are only three chapters—that limits my potential for length—and now Philemon in the morning, with only twenty-five verses. So, you can easily get familiar with both our evening studies by reading those three chapters and then by reading this chapter, which I would like for you to do on your own. I’m only going to read as far as verse 7.
“Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
“To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home:
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
“I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.”
And now, Father, with our Bibles open before us, we come and ask you once again for your grace and help that we might explain the Bible, that we might understand, and that we might believe it and obey it and be changed by your Spirit, making it come alive to us in our lives. For we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Since Philemon may be unfamiliar material to some, let me give just the briefest of backgrounds so that we’re not coming to it completely in the dark. This little letter is not so much a private letter—as it may at first appear to be, addressed as it is to an individual—as it is, if you like, an apostolic letter that is dealing with a personal matter. And the matter, as you will see as you read through the letter for yourselves, is that this individual by the name of Onesimus has been living as a slave in the home of his master, Philemon; he ran away, perhaps taking material goods with him, and ran away to Rome in the hope, presumably, of just melding into the crowd and disappearing for good. But unknown to him, God had plans and purposes for this runaway slave, and it was in Rome that he ran into the arms, as it were, of the apostle Paul, and Paul then had the privilege of leading him to Jesus.
As a result of him coming to know Jesus, his life was changed. And as he began to become a new man in Jesus, he became increasingly useful and helpful to Paul while he was in the jail, so much so that Paul tells us that he was almost tempted to harbor this runaway slave, were it not for the fact that he felt a right sense of obligation to return Onesimus to his master, Philemon. And when you read Colossians, which in one way goes along with Philemon, you will discover there, towards the end of chapter 4, that it was another of Paul’s colleagues, Tychicus, who was given the responsibility of ensuring that Onesimus arrived safely in the household of Philemon once again.
The message of the book is essentially a message of reconciliation, a reconciliation that is brought about in and through the work of Jesus. And while some have languished in their reading of these twenty-five verses on account of the fact that Paul seems not to tackle the issue of slavery head-on, I found it helpful to reflect on the words of Geoffrey Wilson when he wrote, “If this letter presented no revolutionary challenge to the social structures of the day, the implications of its teaching were bound to prove fatal to slavery in the end.” “Bound to prove fatal … in the end,” as, of course, we are able to see throughout the course of history.
Now, this little letter, I suggest to you, is actually a jewel in the whole of the New Testament. You can pick it up and examine it and lay it down and then pick it up again, and you will be intrigued as you do, and I hope you will be helped by these studies.
One of the things that is immediately striking in reading through the verses is the depth of feeling, the depth of fellowship, that is apparently present in the lives of each of the central characters. There is a sense in which there is an almost palpable notion of meaningful relationships which pervades the entire letter. And the foundation of that, of course, is that God in his grace has brought each of these characters to faith in Jesus. This is not a book about people who were interested in being religious. It’s not about religious experiences. It’s not even about a quest for spirituality, which is of interest to many in our day. It’s actually about a story that begins outwith and beyond each of these individuals; it is the story of how Christianity comes seeking out people and how God in his mercy draws individuals to himself.
And we discover that a once proud Pharisee is now brought into friendship with a prosperous homeowner, and the two of them are united in their love for one another, in their love for one of the dregs of society—namely, this character Onesimus. And there is a sense in which what we have is a little snapshot in Philemon of what is true as articulated in the rest of the Pauline letters. So, for example, what Paul writes to the Colossians is embodied here in these events. And I’m quoting now from Colossians 3, but from J. B. Phillips’s paraphrase: “In this new [self] of God’s design there is no distinction between Greek and Hebrew, Jew [and] Gentile, foreigner or savage, slave or free man. Christ is all that matters for Christ lives in them all.”
Now, what is being said there by Paul is not that ethnic distinctives are obliterated in Jesus. There are many people that are coming in the next few days from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds. We’ve already, this morning, met some from South Africa, and some from India, and some from other parts of Europe, and so on. And they are identifiable by virtue of their nationality and their language and, in some cases, their distinctive looks. What Paul is not saying is that those things are obliterated. What he’s saying is that the unifying principle of faith in Jesus transforms the relationships of those individuals irrespective of the background out of which they come. And this is embodied, as I say to you—dramatized, if you like—in the content of this letter.
Well, let’s just work our way through these first seven verses, noticing the writer as he introduces himself. And he does so humbly; you will notice that. This is the only occasion that Paul introduces himself in one of his letters by introducing himself as a slave or “a prisoner” of the Lord Jesus Christ. He’s not parading any credentials that he might have. He’s not reflecting on the extent of the ministry that he’s enjoyed. Instead, “Here I am, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus.” His chains, writes Calvin, “were the ornaments [and] badges of the commission he exercised” on behalf of Christ. “If you want to know that I am a servant of Jesus,” he says, “in this instance, I have to tell you that I am a prisoner here in Rome, and if you were to come and see me in my chains, in actual fact, although I’m in the custody of Rome, I’m actually a prisoner of Jesus Christ. It is because my life has been bound up in him that I am bound up in here.” And, of course, it is from the context of his own enslavement, as it were, in this Roman prison that he writes concerning this runaway slave, Onesimus.
So, keep that in mind. It’s physically he’s at the mercy of Rome, but in reality he is the prisoner of Christ. And this letter as it unfolds from here is honest, and it is tactful, and it is skillful, and in some instances, I think it is even humorous in the approach that he takes. How was Philemon going to be able to resist the appeal which is penned from within the walls of a prison by hands that are actually held in handcuffs or manacles? And there is great credibility that is written into the posture of Paul.
Now, you will notice that Timothy is with him, as is often the case as he writes these letters. And in the greeting that comes you will find that the heart of the letter is largely in the singular, addressed as it is to an individual. There are a couple of places where it moves into the plural, but that really is of very little consideration for us.
Notice, then, the recipients of this letter: it’s written to Philemon, you will notice, who is described as agapetos, which is Greek for “our good friend,” agape meaning love, the self-giving love of Jesus. He’s “our dear friend,” and he is our sunergos. He is our “fellow worker.” Sunergos sounds like su-ner-gy, which is the base for the derivative word in English, synergy. And the synergy that exists between Philemon and Paul, and now Onesimus, is a synergy that is grounded in the grace of God. And you will notice that as he addresses Philemon, down in verse 19, Philemon had a special relationship with Paul. Paul is able to refer to Philemon as the individual who owes his very self to him. He owes his very self to him.
And the relationship of Paul with Onesimus is one of father to son in the faith, and apparently so, as well, in relationship to Philemon. How that came about we’re not told. I have my conjectures, and they are largely irrelevant, but it had to happen somewhere, and it could have happened, I suppose, if Philemon was on a business trip and went and heard Paul giving his lectures in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. And perhaps he then came home, having come to trust in Jesus, and told Apphia (whom I take to be his wife, here in verse 2) and then Archippus (whom I take to be his son, also in verse 2) that his life had been touched and changed by Jesus, and suddenly their home is radically altered.
Now, when you read the commentators, as some of you will do, you will discover that there is all kind of material regarding who Apphia is or was and who Archippus was and so on. And the actual fact is we don’t know; nobody can say categorically. But it just seems nice to me. I like the thought of it being father and mother and son, and they, in turn, as a result of the benefits and blessings of God, opening their home to these fellow Christians from Colossae. I like the thought of Archippus, their boy—if he is their boy—being referred to as a “fellow soldier”: “And here is Archippus, our fellow soldier.” Some of us who were brought up in the vintage where we sang the song,
I’m too young to march with the infantry,
Ride with the cavalry,
Shoot with the artillery,
I’m too young to zoom o’er the enemy,
But I’m in the Lord’s army.
Marching to victory. Remember that? And there is a sense in which that would have been Archippus’s song as well. “Who are you, Archippus?” “Well, I’m a soldier of Jesus Christ. I am a fellow soldier, with Apphia and with Philemon and with the rest.”
And all who are not named are gathered up under the collective designation “the church that meets in your home.” The church, you see, is the ekklesia; kaleo “to call”; ekk “out of”—the called-out ones. Remember last Sunday we said that the purpose of God from all of eternity is to call out for himself, from all the nations of the world, a people that are his very own and to unite them then in friendship and fellowship with one another in Jesus.
And that’s why there is a sense in which the sign out there on the street should actually read “Parkside Church meets here.” For this building is not Parkside Church. All that represents Parkside Church are those who have been placed in Christ and in relationship with one another, and that little group out of the vastness of the called-out ones happens to meet in various rooms in these selection of buildings. It is the people, not the place.
Well, then he greets them. And look at how he greets them in verse 3. He greets them with “grace”—charis—and with “peace”—eirene. Two lovely girl’s names because, again, of their origin: Charis, “grace”; and Irene, “peace.” I do hope that if you have grandchildren by that name, that they at least approximate to the names that have been given to them, especially when you have to babysit and wait for their parents to come home. But they are lovely names: the standard greetings of both Greek and Hebrew; a reminder of God’s grace bringing them into a saving knowledge of who Jesus is and what he’s done, and then the peace which flows from that saving knowledge, a peace of being restored to fellowship with a God against whom we have offended on account of the sacrifice of Jesus, being brought into fellowship with those who may be very, very different from us in all kinds of ways, but a peace that ultimately even passes human understanding that is all wrapped up in this lovely greeting. It is “from God our Father and [from] the Lord Jesus Christ.” And as our service ends this morning, we will sing a benediction that just tracks right down that line.
Now, when we get to verses 4–7, we move from his greeting to the opening indication of his love and his concern and his affection.
You will notice that there is nothing introspective about Paul, despite his circumstances. Many of us, writing from far less daunting predicaments, may have been tempted to fill at least a piece of our letter with a measure of complaint or concern—concern regarding everything that’s going on. But Paul pays scant attention to his circumstances, chained as he may be, imprisoned as he is, and he moves immediately to thankfulness, to prayerfulness, and to joyfulness. In other words, he takes his own medicine, or he makes it clear that he’s been reading his own letters, or, if you like, that he has been responding to his own sermons. Remember when he wrote to the Thessalonians, as he comes to an end and he fires all those imperatives at them, he says to them, “And I want you to be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances.” And now, as he writes this gem of a letter, you find that he’s doing exactly what he said. It’s full of thankfulness, it’s full of prayerfulness, it’s full of joy. And it is a reminder to all of us who have a responsibility to teach the Bible that unless the Bible is first taught to our own hearts, then we have no legitimate basis from which to teach it to others at all.
“I always thank my God,” he says, “as I remember you in my prayers.” What a wonderful, kind, gracious, humble greeting! If you receive a letter like that from someone who says, “When I think of you, when I pray for you, it is always with thankfulness,” it would warm your heart, I think. It would encourage you. It certainly does me. Peterson paraphrases this: “Every time your name comes up in my prayers, I say, ‘Oh, thank you, God!’” Well! Think about that. Think about all the names and faces that come up when you and I are praying, as they come across the computer screen of our minds, as it were. And what do we do? Reach for the mouse to click the Delete button? Boom! “Get rid of that face.” Boom! “Get rid of that name.” Whoa! That’s only causing me concern. Boop! Boop! Boop! But not Paul, no. He clicks for the Enlarge button. He enlarges the whole screen, and he fills the screen up with the face of Philemon, and, as it were, as he sees him in his mind eye, he says, “Every time your name comes to mind when I’m praying, I just say, ‘Thank you, God.’” I know you have people that fit that category. And I hope that you take the opportunity, in prayer, to thank God as he does.
Now, don’t think for a moment that this is something superficial or sentimental. Paul makes it clear that that is not the case, because in verse 5 he says that his prayers of thankfulness are fueled because of what he knows concerning this fellow Philemon. What does he know about Philemon? Why does he thank God every time he comes into mind in his prayers? Well, he tells us: “Because of what I hear.” “I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints.” “Your faith in Jesus and your love for all the saints.”
Let me give you Phillips’s paraphrase: “I have heard how you love and trust both the Lord Jesus himself and those who believe in him.” Or “I keep hearing of the love and faith you have for the Master Jesus, which brims over to other [Christians].” You see this kind of cause and effect: that this faith in Jesus and that this love for Jesus produces a trustworthiness and a trustingness and a genuine affection for those who also love Jesus.
In fact, John, more than anyone else, when he writes his first letter, uses this as one of the defining features of genuine Christian faith. Because, you remember, he says, “How could you ever claim to love God, whom you cannot see, while failing to love your brother and your sister, whom you can see? So let your love for your brothers and sisters be the evidence of your genuine love for God, who is your Father.” And Paul is able to address this very thing. And we have great reason to be thankful for those who are able to pray for us and for whom we pray in this very vein.
Now we come to verse 6, in which he proceeds to tell Philemon that when he says his prayers, he specifically asks that something may happen. And the NIV has “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.”
Now, let me just pause for a moment of confession, which I hope will be instructive on more than one level. Spurgeon, when he addressed his students, encouraged them to keep their old sermons so that they could weep over them. And if you don’t understand that, then you’ve never preached a sermon. And if you have, then I hope that you have had occasion not to ask that it would be committed to print and put on the wall of your study but rather that you would keep it somewhere in the darkness and every so often look at it and burst into tears.
This is a sermon from January 14, 1996, entitled “Building Bridges,” and the text is the sixth verse of Philemon, preached here at Parkside. It was within the context of a series of studies on evangelism, and I came to the sixth verse as it reads there in the NIV and preached a sermon that had all to do with the importance of the benefit of personal evangelism proving to be a stimulus to our understanding of biblical faith—which, of course, is a fair principle, isn’t it? That as we teach, we learn. But as I preached the sermon, I received feedback, as inevitably happens, and one individual in particular made contact with me to let me know that he thought it was a fair sermon, but it just had nothing to do with the text—that the text was not about that. Well, with characteristic gentleness and humility, I responded. Despite the fact, he and his wife still kept coming to the church.
And just this year, when I studied Philemon properly for the first time, I had occasion to go and find this individual and tell him, “I owe you an apology. It’s twelve years in coming, but you were right, and I was wrong.” Because I finally studied verse 6 in the context of the surrounding twenty-four verses, and I think the sermon that I preached should have been from 1 Peter 3:15, “Be ready to give an answer to those who ask a reason for the hope you have,” rather than from the sixth verse of Philemon, even though it seems to suggest that it is all about conversational or personal evangelism.
Point in passing: you know I say to you frequently, “You are sensible people; you must examine the Scriptures for yourselves.” That in light of what was said of the Bereans, who, when they listened to Paul preach, went away and “examined the Scriptures every day to see if [these things were so].” Now, you have every reason to anticipate that I will be not leading you in the wrong direction, but it is always important to be reading your Bible for yourself.
Let me give you one commentator’s statement regarding verse 6. It reads as follows: “The meaning of almost every word in this difficult verse is disputed.” “The meaning of almost every word in this difficult verse is disputed.” Now, the writers are referencing the Greek. And then the translation that has come from the Greek is an endeavor on the part of people to make sure that they get it as close to the original as it is written down as they can. That’s why if you have the King James Version, you will notice that the word “sharing” is not there at all, but the word “fellowship” is there [sic], which is the word from Greek which is koinonia, which is the same word that is used for “communion” or for “partnership.” Okay? It also means “to share in.” But the translators of the NIV determined that what was being written in the Greek was about sharing with others this great news and, by doing so, thereby becoming more familiar with the gospel yourselves—which is, of course, a biblical notion. There’s nothing unbiblical about the idea, and we’re forced to say the NIV translators may actually be the ones who got it right—in which case, I rescind my apology. But I don’t think so. I don’t think so. Because they’re out on a limb. They’re out on a limb with the others.
For example, I just decided—I went to my New English Bible, which I hardly ever pay attention to at all, and I thought, “Well, I wonder what they did in the New English Bible.” And listen to how it’s translated in the NEB: “My prayer is that your fellowship with us in our common faith may deepen the understanding of all the blessings that our union with Christ brings us.” As opposed to “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith.” You see the distinction? “That your fellowship with us in our common faith may deepen [our] understanding.”
Now, why did I go in this direction and decide that I’m not gonna side with the NIV on this? Because I studied it in context. And what Paul is actually doing in here is making a plea to Philemon to do something which is not normal, to do something which is not characteristic of the culture of his day, to do something that is actually divine, to do something in the expression of forgiveness that is emblematic of the forgiveness that Philemon himself has discovered as a result of all that he has in and through the Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, he is saying, “I want you to make sure that you dip into the shared, communal, mutual reservoir of every good thing that we have in Christ, and as you do so, that this may increase your knowledge of that,” a knowledge which he’s going to go on to say “is not something that I want merely to reverberate in your thinking but to be translated into your doing. And, of course, what I have in mind expressly is your response to my plea for your runaway fellow, Onesimus—that the sharing of your faith in the faith may reveal this for you.”
Let me give you one other paraphrase. And just listen carefully and see if this is helpful: “I[’m] praying that the mutual participation which is proper to the Christian faith you hold may have its full effect in your realization of every good thing … God wants to accomplish in us to lead us into the fullness of Christian fellowship, that is, [of] Christ.” In other words, Paul reckons that if Philemon allows this principle to inform his thinking and in turn his living, then Paul can be confident that Philemon will do what is right in relationship to his slave Onesimus. So it is the very mutuality of things. It is the essence of our Christian experience that we are brought into a mutuality of relationship in and through Jesus which is so transformative, so life altering, that it finds that the way in which we work out that experience in our Christian lives is radical and, in many cases, countercultural.
Our lives are bound up with Jesus, and therefore, they are bound up with one another, and therefore, we are to give to one another because we belong to one another. And when we understand the depth of what we share—the depth of fellowship, the depth of communion, the depth of that interdependent relationship—then it will be virtually impossible for us to claim anything as our own, or to be unprepared to grant forgiveness where it is due, or, indeed, to be selfish in hardly any shape or fashion. It’s ironic that I think what proves to be the key verse is, by the testimony of the commentators, one of the most difficult.
Well, verse 7 draws us to an end for our time this morning. He says, “I want you to know, I’m praying this; I’m praying that this will be true. But let me just tell you,” he says, “that your love, your agape, the love of Jesus in you and through you, has given me great joy and encouragement. I’ve derived joy and encouragement from you because of your love, because I know that you’ve been refreshing the hearts of the saints.” What a wonderful thing it is to be a refresher! To be a refresher. The word that is used here is a military word for soldiers on the march, and as they’re marching through—I think of, like, Bridge on the River Kwai: du-dum, du-du-du-dum-dum-dum, and eventually the English guy says, “Okay, fellows,” you know, “take fifteen minutes,” and they all just lay down their burdens and grab for water and sit and chat and so on, and it is a moment of refreshment. That is the word that is used here.
What a fantastic ministry, huh? I haven’t heard anybody tell me of late when I ask them, “And what gift has God given you? What are you doing with your life? What are you doing?” Immediately people want to say, “Well, I’m teaching a Bible study. I’m involved in a…” No, someone says, “God has given me a ministry of refreshment.” “How does that work?” “When I get with people, they feel like they’ve had a rest, and they feel like they’ve had a big drink of water, and they feel like they’ve been encouraged in Christ.”
Well, that’s a ministry, isn’t it? The refreshing ministry. Because you know, we all know, that there are people who are enervating and there are people who are energizing. There are those who suck the air out of your balloon just when they’re walking towards you, and there are others who are able to put a little bit of air into your balloon when you’re just like this. And Philemon was the latter. “You have given me great encouragement,” he says. “When I think of you in prayer, I say, ‘Thank God for Philemon!’ And I know that a whole ton of people are saying the same thing, because you, my brother, through your love, you have refreshed the hearts of the saints.”
And that, I think, is our prayer as we go. May, then, the Spirit of Christ so fill us afresh that we might in turn be a refreshment and an encouragement to one another.
Father, we thank you for the Bible. We thank you for its clarity. We thank you even for difficult verses that force us to realize again that when we’ve done our best, we put our hands over our mouths, and we say, “Teach us, Lord.” We pray that the love and the peace and the joy and the grace that pulses through this little letter may increasingly become the heartbeat of our lives as individuals and, indeed, the heartbeat of Parkside as a church family. I think we want this, Lord. We know we need it. And so we ask you to accomplish it. Through Jesus Christ, your Son, we pray. Amen.
 See Colossians 4:7–9.
 Colossians 3:10–11 (Phillips).
 John Calvin, The Second Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians and the Epistles to Timothy, Titus and Philemon, trans. T. A. Smail, eds. David W. Torrance, Thomas F. Torrance, Calvin’s Commentaries (1964; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 393.
 See Acts 19:9.
 See Philippians 4:7.
 1 Thessalonians 5:16–18 (paraphrased).
 Philemon 4 (MSG).
 Philemon 5 (MSG).
 1 John 4:20 (paraphrased).
 Philemon 6 (NIV 1984).
 1 Peter 3:15 (paraphrased).
 Acts 17:11 (NIV 1984).
 W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor’s Greek Testament (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1897), 3:528. Paraphrased.
 N. T. Wright, “Putting Paul Together Again,” in Pauline Theology, vol. 1, Thessalonians, Philippians, Galatians, Philemon, ed. J. Bassler (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1991), 203.
Copyright © 2021, 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.