Christ’s Gospel Breaks Down All Barriers

Christ’s Gospel Breaks Down All Barriers

Well, I certainly hope you’ve left yourselves extra time for worship this morning because, for the first time ever, we’re going to be covering an entire book of the Bible in one sermon! But then again since that book is Philemon—and it only contains one chapter—I think I should be able to cover it in the time allotted this morning.

The brief epistle of Philemon is an extraordinary example of how the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news that God in Christ came to earth in human form to take away the sins of the world, is intended to create unity among God’s people starting with our time on earth and extending into eternity in heaven. This isn’t the only time Paul addresses this theme, of course. His letter to the Galatians contains a beautiful synopsis of the difference Christ’s Gospel creates in our lives. As Paul states there, “26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”[1]

In Christ we are all God’s children;

in our baptism we have all died to sin and been raised and clothed with Christ’s righteousness;

in Christ we are all Abraham’s seed;

in Christ we are all heirs according to the promise.

The Gospel of Jesus is the great equalizer in God’s eyes for the only way for anyone to enter into God’s Kingdom is by way of his Son. Therefore anyone who has believed that Jesus Christ is who he said he was, has turned from their sin, and received his sacrifice on our behalf is equally welcomed and embraced into his eternal Kingdom by our Father in heaven who so freely gave his Son and just as freely, along with his Son, sends us his Spirit to seal us[2]—thus guaranteeing that we are his true heirs—and to indwell us,[3] thus helping us to live according to his will and ways.

Now though we often see in Paul’s writing how the Gospel of Christ is able to break down barriers between Jew vs. Samaritan believers and even between Jewish believers and Gentile converts to Christ, this brief letter to Philemon is a beautiful example of how Christ’s Gospel is able to break down equally enormous differences in socioeconomic status; even differences between masters and slaves.

Paul begins his letter, as was the custom at this time, by:

identifying himself;

identifying the recipients of the letter;

and providing an initial word of greeting.

He begins with himself in verse 1, “ Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,…” Now for starters Paul being “a prisoner of Christ” isn’t used in the same way as when he speaks of himself being a “servant” or “slave” of Christ. In the latter usage, he speaks of being Christ’s servant or slave as a way of indicating that Jesus is his first and highest priority.[4] But when Paul speaks of himself as Christ’s prisoner, he literally means that he has been imprisoned for proclaiming Christ and his Gospel—his imprisonment in this instance being in the form of a house arrest.[5] This was probably his imprisonment in Rome[6] which occurred around A.D. 60 or 62. And though Timothy is included as author of this letter, in what follows it’s clear that Paul is the primary author.

The stated recipients of Paul’s letter are Philemon, his and Timothy’s “dear friend and fellow worker” along with a woman named Apphia, their “sister” and a man named Archippus, their “fellow soldier” as well as “the church that meets in [their] home:” As to Philemon, according to one source he “was a wealthy slave-holding Christian who lived in the city of Colossae, about 100 miles…inland from Ephesus.”[7] Concerning Apphia, this is the only mention we have of her in the New Testament. And as to Archippus, there’s an Archippus mentioned in Paul’s letter to the Colossians.[8] Since Philemon lived in Colossae, it’s likely that this is the same Archippus. Concerning this threesome, one source suggests the possibility that Apphia may have been Philemon’s wife and Archippus their son,[9] though we can’t know for certain. Now after mentioning these three, as already noted Paul extends his greeting “to the church that meets in your home.” Since the “your” is singular,[10] it’s probably a reference to Philemon’s home. But the closing “grace and peace…from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” is a plural you,[11] indicating the inclusion of all of these believers in Paul’s benediction.

However starting with verse 4, Paul moves from the general “you” to the individual “you” and he speaks in the first person “I” rather than “we.” The comments that follow—at least through verse 21—are all written in the singular “you” indicating that Paul’s remarks are now intended primarily for Philemon. He begins with an expression of his high regard and appreciation for Philemon as he states some of the reasons why he has come to think so highly of him: “I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus.” Last week Ron’s final point in preaching on 1 John was that just as Jesus was the real deal, we need to be the real deal. Well, it’s clear that in Paul’s eyes Philemon was the real deal. He was a true brother in Christ to Paul. He was someone for whom Paul regularly prayed; someone for whom he regularly thanked God. And the reason he did so was because of Philemon’s reputation as a believer who was living out the sum of the law and the prophets: he loved God’s people and he believed in and loved Jesus Christ. Philemon was a man who understood that as children of our heavenly Father, we are called to extend God’s love to all his children. And regarding God’s people, the word translated as “holy ones” may also be translated as “saints.”[12] Because of Jesus’ obedience, when our loving Father in heaven looks upon us, all he sees are children who have already been cleansed by the sacrifice of his Son; all he sees are “holy ones”; all he sees are “saints.” Little did you know we’re all saints in God’s eyes—not because of our obedience, but because of Christ’s!

Next Paul shares the content of his prayer with Philemon in verse 6, saying, “I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ.” Paul is appealing here to the oneness in ministry we all share as brothers and sisters in Christ with Philemon. This faith journey was never intended for us as lone individuals against the world but rather is one of partnering with other believers, helping one another understand and act upon the truth that because we share a belief in and love for Jesus, we now belong to one another and are to live as such. As children together of our Father in heaven, we share an inheritance in him that cannot be lost. We are united by his Holy Spirit. We share one another’s joys. We share one another’s trials. These are but some of the “good thing(s)” we share for Christ’s sake. And Paul’s prayer is that Philemon’s understanding of these realities would deepen. What Paul states next in verse 7 makes it clear that this has also been Philemon’s perspective for Paul says to him, “Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.” Philemon, who headed up a house church in his home—perhaps a house church similar in size to our own—sought to do whatever he could to “[refresh] the hearts of [Jesus] the Lord’s people.” His commitment to Christ and his people was real. Again, Philemon was clearly the real deal.

But these are all preliminaries—wonderful preliminaries that should cause us joy yet preliminaries all the same for we don’t yet know why Paul has chosen to write to Philemon. Having established his high regard and affection for—and joy in—and partnership with Philemon, the “why” begins to be addressed starting in verse 8 as Paul states, “Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love.” This language is both direct and measured. As an apostle—one who like Jesus’ original twelve disciples received his teaching directly from Jesus when Jesus appeared to him after he was crucified and had risen from death—Paul had a unique authority in the early church. His words were to be heeded by the church for the risen Christ Jesus had given him a unique ministry. Paul knew this. And Philemon knew this. Yet rather than order Philemon to do what he asked, Paul stated that he would rather “appeal to [Philemon] on the basis of love.” He wanted Philemon to act on the basis of his relationship with God who is love. Paul no doubt had Philemon’s complete and utter attention at this point. So he continued: “It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus—10 that I appeal to you….” Again, the basis of his appeal to Philemon wasn’t as Paul, apostle of the risen Christ. No, it was as Paul, an “old man,” a man who was writing thirty or so years after first coming to a saving faith and knowledge of Christ; a man who not only was old but was also in prison under house arrest because of his preaching for Christ. In other words, Paul was appealing to Philemon not as apostle who is to be obeyed but as brother to brother or, perhaps even better, as father to son in the Lord.

And his appeal was “for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.” I imagine that upon first hearing Onesimus’ name, Philemon’s hackles rose for as we’ll see, Onesimus had been one of Philemon’s slaves—a literal slave not a slave, as we noted earlier, as Paul understood himself to be of Jesus Christ. So here the plot thickens. This slave of Philemon, who had run away from him, had subsequently come to faith as a result of Paul’s ministry of proclaiming Christ’s Gospel while he was in prison. Notice that Paul states that Philemon “became my son while I was in chains.” The language used here is that of giving birth to someone.[13] Our Lord used Paul’s preaching to bring Philemon from spiritual death to spiritual life. And here’s a fun fact: The name “Onesimus” means “useful” so in verse 11 Paul is making a play on words. Though formerly Onesimus had been “useless” to Philemon—he had run away, after all—now he had “become useful” both to Paul and Philemon. But Paul was going to have to make his case to Philemon for Onesimus’ usefulness for, again, this was a slave who had run away from him. Though Philemon may have been able to offer his “amen” to Onesimus’ uselessness, it was going to take some convincing by Paul to offer his “amen” to Onesimus being useful to him for there is no doubt that Philemon viewed him as being anything but useful.

Therefore beginning with verse 12, Paul makes goes on to make his case on Philemon’s behalf, saying, “I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you.”[14] Wow! Stop and think of someone you’ve considered to be your “very heart”—Paul literally says “my bowels”[15] which was the more common organ used at this time for expressing deep emotion. But we’ll accept the English equivalent of “heart” to indicate someone who was beyond precious to Paul! Again, who in your life have you considered to be your very heart? Someone who delights you? Someone who, upon hearing their name, brings a smile to your lips? This is who Onesimus had become to Paul. His expressed love for Onesimus is palpable. Yet despite his deep love, Paul was now sending this runaway slave back to his master, Philemon.

Paul goes on to tell Philemon starting in verse 13: “13 I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary.” In these couple of verses, we’re provided some important information. First, and again, Paul genuinely valued Onesimus and the way the latter had been ministering to him while he was in prison. Second, apparently Philemon had been actively involved in caring for Paul during this imprisonment since he indicates that Onesimus had taken his place. And third, the language Paul uses in verse 14 leads us to believe that Paul didn’t have a legal right to keep Onesimus. The “consent” he requests could only be granted by Philemon. In other words, Onesimus still belonged to Philemon. Onesimus was still Philemon’s slave. For again, Onesimus, Philemon’s slave, had run away from his master. And herein lay Paul’s dilemma. Even though Onesimus had come to faith in Christ and therefore was now brother to both Paul and Philemon, this change in his spiritual status from unbeliever to believer hadn’t changed his socioeconomic status as slave. And so Paul was sending him back. Again, Paul let Philemon know that though as an apostle he could have forced Philemon to allow Onesimus to continue to stay and minister to him, he had chosen instead to honor the law of the land. He didn’t want to do anything without Philemon’s consent. He didn’t want any favor granted by Philemon concerning Onesimus to be forced but rather wanted it to be voluntary. Paul was asking Philemon to dig deep and draw from the deep reservoir of love that he, who was the real deal because of Christ, had ever expressed by refreshing “the hearts of the Lord’s people”—as stated in verse 7. Paul was now asking Philemon to apply that love to this formerly ungrateful and fugitive slave.

Then having appealed to Philemon as a brother in Christ, what Paul does next is to appeal to the sovereignty of God concerning Onesimus having run away from him in the first place. As we read starting in verse 15, “15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.” Now to be clear, at no point does Paul suggest that Onesimus running away was a good thing. What Onesimus had done was illegal and wrong. But perhaps we can consider the outcome of this wrong action as an example of what Paul teaches in Romans: “28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”[16] Though running away from his master wasn’t a good thing, doing so led to Onesimus being “called according to [God’s] purpose” for Onesimus had now come to a saving faith and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. God was able to bring good from Onesimus’ wrong in a way similar to how Joseph saw his brothers’ wrong in selling him into slavery as a way of bringing about the good of feeding the people of Egypt and Israel by means of his enslavement. In Joseph’s own immortal words, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”[17]

But, again, it’s important to note that Paul sent Onesimus back to his master. His freedom in Christ didn’t release him from doing what was right under the laws of the day. Yet Paul made his case for him. After noting that perhaps the reason for Onesimus going way was that he might come to a saving faith, Paul added how this now meant that Philemon would have him back forever. He would have him back forever not as a slave but, as Paul states it, “better than a slave, as a dear brother.” Paul understood that the union that believers have in Christ isn’t simply for the earthly part of our sojourn but it’s forever. Now that Onesimus had given his life over to serving Jesus, he, like Philemon, had become part of our heavenly Father’s eternal family. Paul leads by example stating how Onesimus was “very dear” to him “but even dearer” to Philemon “both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.” In Christ there’s no such thing as a hierarchy. For the price for entering Christ’s Kingdom is the same for all:

we must all acknowledge our sin and need;

we must all turn away from our sin and selfish desires;

we must all commit our lives to living for Jesus.

And if this is the only way for any of us to enter God’s Kingdom, then there’s no place for boasting. In God’s sight we are all equally in need; in God’s sight we are all equally saved not because of our merit but because of his Son.

Paul continues to urge Philemon to do right by him—and Onesimus. As stated beginning with verse 17, “17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.” Paul appealed to Philemon much as Jesus would have. As Jesus identifies with those who are his to the extent that he considers any good we do to one another as a good done to him,[18] so Paul encourages Philemon to welcome Onesimus as he would welcome Paul, even to the degree that if Onesimus had done him any wrong or owed him anything—not only by running away but perhaps by also stealing from him—Philemon was to charge it to Paul’s account. For this runaway slave would probably not have had the means of repaying Philemon for goods stolen and work lost as a result of his leaving in the first place.

Paul then notes in verse 19 how he was writing these words with his own hand, testifying to how seriously he viewed these matters. And he then again pledged to Philemon that he would pay back any charge owed him from Onesimus. Paul then reminded Philemon, “not to mention that you owe me your very self.” In other words, it’s likely that Philemon had come to a saving faith in Jesus as a result of Paul’s ministry—just as his Onesimus, his slave, now had. Therefore Paul goes on to admonish in verse 20, “I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ.” Paul has asked Philemon who, as stated in verse 7, had a reputation for refreshing the hearts of the Lord’s people, to now refresh his heart. And Paul ends this portion of his letter by expressing confidence that Philemon would pass with flying colors. As stated in verse 21, “Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.” Paul was counting on Philemon to follow through with his request with shining colors, doing “even more” than Paul had asked. It’s certainly within the realm of possibility that Paul was exhorting Philemon to set Onesimus free, releasing him as a slave and embracing him as a brother. And perhaps he was hinting as well that he would like Philemon to send Onesimus, who was his very heart, back to minister to him.

Well, in the end of his letter Paul returns to the plural, addressing not only Philemon but also Apphia, Archippus, and the house church. Paul expresses his hope to see these siblings in Christ in person in answer to their prayers for him so he asks them to prepare a guest room for him as he expects to be released. The letter then ends as it began, with the social conventions of its day marking others who sent their greetings—Epaphras, who had helped plant the church in Colossae,[19] Mark,[20] Aristarchus,[21] Demas,[22] and Luke[23]—all of whom were “fellow workers” with Paul. And then Paul closed with a note of benediction to the church, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”

The clear lesson from Philemon is that Christ’s Gospel breaks down all barriers. But though we all love such high-minded inspiring thoughts, we would do well to try and place ourselves in Philemon’s shoes for a moment and consider the enormity of what Paul was asking him to do. Normally in Roman society a fugitive slave who had been caught would have been expected to be brutally punished, even to the point of death.[24] This was an expectation that was probably shared by Philemon as a wealthy slave-owning member of that society. It’s difficult to come up with an exact equivalent in our day but it would be similar to an employee stealing from an employer or anyone stealing something from us. If that individual was caught, we would want and expect them to be brought to justice. Yet Paul was asking Philemon not only to forgive this formerly useless scalawag by forgiving him his debt, overlooking his escape, and embracing him as part of his family in Christ. That’s a lot to ask.

And though we can’t know, in thinking about the relationship between these two, I can’t help but wonder if prior to coming to faith in Christ through Paul’s ministry Philemon was, perhaps, a less than kind master to Onesimus and his other slaves. And not to excuse it, but perhaps his poor treatment of his slaves was what had made Onesimus, who had now also come to faith through Paul’s ministry, run away in the first place. If so, how beautiful it is to think that what may have taken place between these two former sinners was a mutual asking—and granting—of forgiveness.

Well, like Onesimus, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is intended to change our lives, all lives, from being useless to being useful. For in and because of Christ all lives matter; in and because of Christ all lives are precious; in and because of Christ all lives are dear. For in and because of Christ we belong not only to our gracious Father, Son, and Holy Spirit but also to one another.

We are partners with one another as we seek to love our Lord Jesus more;

We are partners with one another as we seek to make God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven;

We are partners with one another as we seek to bring the values and norms of God’s shalom, of his peace, of his heavenly kingdom to bear on earth.

These are but some of the ways in which Christ’s Gospel breaks down all barriers. So let us, like Philemon, go and refresh one another’s hearts in the Lord.

Let us pray.

[1] Galatians 3:26–29.

[2] 2 Corinthians 1:21–22: 21 Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, 22 set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

[3] I Corinthians 6:19–20: 19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.

[4] E.g., Romans 1:1: Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God—; 1 Corinthians 4:1: This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed.; Galatians 1:10: Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.; Philippians 1:1a: Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,…; Titus 1:1: Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ to further the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness—

[5] For other passages that speak of times when Paul was imprisoned, see Acts 16:25ff: 25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.; Acts 23:18b: The centurion said, “Paul, the prisoner, sent for me and asked me to bring this young man to you because he has something to tell you.”; Acts 25:14, 27: 14 Since they were spending many days there, Festus discussed Paul’s case with the king. He said: “There is a man here whom Felix left as a prisoner…. 27 For I think it is unreasonable to send a prisoner on to Rome without specifying the charges against him.; Acts 27:1, 42: 1 When it was decided that we would sail for Italy, Paul and some other prisoners were handed over to a centurion named Julius, who belonged to the Imperial Regiment.; Ephesians 3:1: For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles—; Ephesians 4:1: As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.; Colossians 4:10: My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas.; 2 Timothy 1:8a: So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner.

[6] See Acts 27–28.

[7] Crossway ESV Study Bible note on The Letter of Paul to Philemon under “Purpose, Occasion, and Background.”

[8] Colossians 4:17: “Tell Archippus: ‘See to it that you complete the ministry you have received in the Lord.’”

[9] Crossway ESV Study Bible note on verse 2.

[10] καὶ τῇ κατ’ οἶκόν σου (2nd singular of “you”) ἐκκλησίᾳ:

[11] χάρις ὑμῖν (2nd plural of “you”) καὶ εἰρήνη ἀπὸ θεοῦ πατρὸς ἡμῶν καὶ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ.

[12] The Greek is a substantive adjective τοὺς ἁγίους.

[13] ὃν ἐγέννησα—to whom I gave birth. The range of meaning of the Greek γεννάω

includes to become the father of; to bear, give birth to <>

[14] As noted, Philemon was a slaveholder in Colossae. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul mentions sending Onesimus bach with Tychicus. Note also this exhortation from verse 1 in chapter 4: Colossians 4:1, 7–9: 1Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven…. Tychicus will tell you all the news about me. He is a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. I am sending him to you for the express purpose that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts. He is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you. They will tell you everything that is happening here.

[15] τὰ ἐμὰ σπλάγχνα. Also in verse 7, the “bowels” of the Lord’s people (saints) and later in verse 20, refresh “my bowels”—all of which are rendered with the more common way of stating this in the English, “heart.”

[16] Romans 8:28.

[17] Genesis 50:20.

[18] See, e.g., Matthew 25:37–40: 37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

[19] Colossian 1:6–8: In the same way, the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world—just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace. You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf, and who also told us of your love in the Spirit.

[20] Acts 12:12: When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying.

[21] Acts 19:29: Soon the whole city was in an uproar. The people seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s traveling companions from Macedonia, and all of them rushed into the theater together.

[22] Later left Paul for worldly pursuits 2 Timothy 4:9–10a:Do your best to come to me quickly, 10 for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica….

[23] All four are named in Colossians 4:10–14: 10 My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.) 11 Jesus, who is called Justus, also sends greetings. These are the only Jews[c] among my co-workers for the kingdom of God, and they have proved a comfort to me. 12 Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. 13 I vouch for him that he is working hard for you and for those at Laodicea and Hierapolis. 14 Our dear friend Luke, the doctor, and Demas send greetings.

Luke is probably the Gospel author. See also Colossians 4:14: Our dear friend Luke, the doctor, and Demas send greetings.; 2 Timothy 4:11: Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.

[24] Crossway ESV Study Bible note on verses 18–19.