The Fellowship of Faith: The book of Philemon, Pt. 1 (1-7)

Posted: April 21, 2015 in Bible Study - Philemon, Church, Discipleship, Slavery in the Bible, Social Justice, Soteriology
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Paul is a prisoner in Rome – possibly during the time described at the end of Acts (During this time he also wrote Ephesians, Philippians & Colossians). Philemon lives in Colossae, and most likely became a Christian through Paul while in Ephesus (19). He is a respected leader in and host to the Colossian church (2). For whatever reason, one of his slaves, Onesimus has either escaped or not returned on time from an assignment, possibly using his master’s money as he did so (18), and has made his way to Rome, maybe hoping to avoid recapture by being lost in the crowded city. In what the world would call an amazing (but mere) coincidence, Onesimus encountered (or sought out?) Paul. It may be that Onesimus became a Christian at this time, and a deep friendship and sense of partnership in the Gospel developed between them. (10,12) Onesimus is now sent back to Colossae to be reconciled with Philemon, along with Tychicus, who is the courier for the letter to the Colossian church (Colossians 4:7-9). (It it significant to note that in Colossians and Ephesians Paul gives very clear a detailed instructions about slave-master relationships. Clearly this was an issue that was prominent in his mind in light of this encounter with Onesimus.) This letter is is both about personal reconciliation and unity between people in the church, and about social transformation. The Gospel impacts us in a deeply personal way by transforming relationships between individuals, but it also, through the combining of these individual transformations, brings about a wider social transformation in which the culture of a community is changed. The way that Paul opens this letter gives us the foundation for any kind of reconciliation within the church, and of any kind of social transformation. Potentially this letter could cause a rift between Paul and Philemon – and even between Paul and the church in Colossae. Possibly some tension was already there, if word had got back to Philemon that Paul was advocating for Onesemus. It is significant then to take note of how Paul addresses Philemon. Firstly, unlike in most of his other letters, Paul does not introduce himself as an ‘Apostle’. In the letters where he is addressing significant and controversial issues, or giving clear instructions about leadership in the church, Paul uses that title as as way of asserting his authority. As an apostle, he was entrusted with a responsibility to bring Jesus’ commands to the church (As Jesus commissioned his Apostles in Matthew 28:20 to ‘teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.’) However, Paul does not seek to pull rank on his friend Philemon. Rather, he described himself as a ‘prisoner of Christ Jesus’. This describes not only the reason he is, literally, imprisoned in Rome: it is because of his proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus that he has been arrested, imprisoned awaiting trial, and possibly may soon be executed; but it also describes his understanding of His calling an mission in life. He is a prisoner not only for or because of Jesus, but a prisoner of Jesus. In 2 Corinthians 5:14 Paul says, ‘The love of Christ compels us’ when talking about his ministry of proclaiming the Gospel. The word ‘compel’ implies that he has been captured, and has no choice, no other option than to do what Christ, his loving master, demands of him. Secondly, Paul speaks of his as his ‘dear friend [agapato] fellow worker’. I wonder how different some of our confrontations and attempts at dealing with conflict on a personal or community level would be so different if we began with an affirmation of our love and partnership with the other person? Paul does not view Philemon as a potential opponent or enemy, but as a beloved partner in God’s family and in the ministry. So Paul is not writing in order to get Philemon to obey him; rather, he is writing because to not do so would be disobedient to Christ, and he wants Philemon to have the same attitude in how he chooses to respond to Onesimus. What is at stake here is not primarily domestic or church harmony, but the honour of Christ Himself. Repaired relationships is not the end in itself, because it is the repairing of relationships in the Gospel that bear testimony ultimately to Christ – our love for one another will enable to the world to see that we are disciples of Jesus, and so in the end He receives the glory. And so Paul speaks not as an Apostle who stands over Philemon, but as an equal partner in serving Jesus. Paul does not want Philemon to obey Paul, but Christ. There is also something very significant about who Paul addresses this letter to. Primarily this is a letter to Philemon, urging him to deal with a matter that, we could say, was his own personal business. This was about his slave, whom he employed. Any disputes he and Onesimus may have had were personal and private – or were they? In our modern world of individualism and privacy laws we might say ‘Yes. Whatever happened between these two men was no-one else’s business, least of all the church’s.’ Yet, Paul includes, ‘and to the church that meets in your home.’ in his greeting. Very clearly the church in Colossae was not merely a group of people who gathered a few times a week for meetings. They were a community that did life together. Their gatherings were in a home – not in a building reserved just for services and ‘religious’ activities, and so they did not have, as we tend to, a clear distinction between the ‘secular’ and the ‘spiritual’ in life. When we’re told in Acts (4:32) that the Christians had ‘everything in common’ that means not only a certain attitude towards their possessions, but an attitude to one another. Why would you be willing to sell land and  houses in order to share with your fellow believers unless a depth of relationship and loving trust was already established? Why would you be free to give to help a brother or sister in need unless you already shared with one another a depth of openness and vulnerability in your lives that their burden became your burden and laying down your life for the sake of your brother or sister is a natural reaction to their problem? So Philemon’s problem with Onesimus was not his personal private issue. He was a member of the community of the family of God, and like it or not his actions impacted on the life of this community. This was a matter for which the church should not only hold him accountable, but also a problem in which they should be providing support, comfort, encouragement and advice. Galatians 6:2 says, ‘Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.’ This is not an optional extra; it is not a last resort when everything I have tried on my own doesn’t work.  Maybe this is why often ministry can become a tiresome burden and so many pastors burn out – because they end up so often trying to deal with issues that people have been trying to fix on their own so long that they have now escalated to a catastrophic level. If we as God’s people were to be sharing our lives on a deeper level – and I don’t mean living in each other’s pockets every hour of every day – then many of our personal and relational battles may be nipped in the bud before they develop beyond control. Paul has no qualms about making this problem public, and it’s unlikely that Philemon would have had a problem with him doing so, as we see in the next verses that this Gospel community dynamic was already happening in Colossae: In verse 5, Paul gives thanks for the two things that Philemon was known for: love and faith. These are the two authenticators of genuine salvation, and they go hand-in-hand. Sometimes within the Christian community we may see a polarisation towards one or the other; some will say, ‘This person has declared their faith in Jesus. That’s good enough for me! Who am I to judge them?’ We might hear that kind of comment in the context of a celebrity making a public statement about God, or turning up at a church, even when their lifestyle doesn’t seen to correspond to their profession. Or a bit closer to home, it may be that we say, ‘This person prayed the sinner’s prayer, or went up to commit their lives to Jesus and so we know for sure that they’re in the kingdom; or ‘this person has their theology sorted out, and they can explain the Gospel clearly in five simple sentences.’ Others might say, ‘Believing in Jesus is pointless unless you give yourself to serving, doing good, fighting for justice for the oppressed and feeding the poor,’ or ‘That person may not hold to what you consider to be orthodox theology, and they may disagree with you on what the Gospel actually is, but at least they are out there doing something!’. It is not faith verses works. Both genuine faith and loving works are the fruit of God’s work of salvation in a person’s life. We talk about faith, hope and love as being a summary of what it means to be living a true Christian life – it’s a trio we find all through the scriptures. Hope is the certainty of what God will do for us in Christ, based on what He has done for us in Christ. Faith flows from this hope, as the Father revels to us His faithfulness displayed and promised in Jesus and we respond by putting our trust in Him; and because Jesus has set us free from slavery to sin and death, this faith expresses itself in love – for God and for our neighbour. So faith and love are the fruit of our hope in Christ. Just as faith without works is dead, so too works without faith are simply a personal self-justification project. So Paul rejoices and thanks God because he sees the two operating in Philemon’s life. Notice that his love and faith are very specific: His love is ‘for all his holy people’ – not a general philanthropy or social action, but a commitment to the body of Christ; and his faith is ‘in the Lord Jesus’ – not a self confidence or a ‘faith in faith’ where if we believe had enough we will receive what we want, but a complete trust and dependance on Jesus, where He is his all in all, and his life is shaped by a desire to see Christ exalted and made known. Paul goes on to flesh out each of these. Verse 6 speaks of the nature and fruit of faith, and verse 7 the nature and fruit of love. Firstly, Philemon’s faith is not a personal, private one. By trusting in Jesus he automatically is in partnership, or ‘fellowship’ with others who share his faith. Keeping your faith to yourself was almost unheard of in New Testament times; is was unthinkable to separate your faith in Jesus from being part of His body. Christians faced – and still do – severe persecution simply for not keeping their faith private, and often in countries where Christians are persecuted it is the church congregations that are attacked when they are meeting; church buildings are burned; and those who facilitate the gathering of Christians – pastors and leaders – who are imprisoned. Being part of the church is not just an activity we do as Christians, it is an intrinsic part of our identity. So much so that Paul reminds Philemon of the fruit of his ‘partnership [with others] in the faith’: a deepening understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ.’ Philemon’s own faith will grow and deepen as he lives it out in the context of community, and in this context specifically as he includes his brothers and sisters in the process of restoration and reconciliation with Onesimus. Secondly, if Philemon’s sharing of his faith with others has led to a benefit for him in his faith growing, in a similar way his active love for God’s people has produced the same effect for others. Most of our modern English translations are a bit politically correct here in translating the word, ‘hearts’. The KJV translates this verse literally: ‘…the bowels of the saint are refreshed by thee…’. In Jewish thinking the heart was the seat of the will, while the bowels were the set of the emotions. Compassion, mercy, tenderness, passion, all came from the bowels – hence our saying, ‘I’ve got a gut feeling about this…’ Philemon’s active, faith-filled love for his brothers and sisters had fostered in them not a mere will to do good, but a passion to love that came from within them; a love that was no longer something they did, but something they were. But this is not mere motivation or self-help. In Isaiah 63, when Isaiah is calling out to God on behalf of the people who are in exile, he prays:

Look down from heaven, and behold from the habitation of thy holiness and of thy glory: where is thy zeal and thy strength, the sounding of thy bowels and of thy mercies toward me? are they restrained? Doubtless thou art our father, though Abraham be ignorant of us, and Israel acknowledge us not: thou, O Lord, art our father, our redeemer; thy name is from everlasting. (Isaiah 63:15-16 KJV)

Isaiah is calling on God, as the compassionate Father, to be moved with compassion and tenderness and mercy and to come and save His people. This is the tender compassion that the Father has shown towards us in giving HIs only Son, whom he loves, to become the lamb who would take away the sin of the world. It is this mercy that the Father has displayed in extending grace to his enemies and pardon to rebels through the cross; it is the tenderness that Jesus his shown by willingly and joyfully going to that cross where He gave all of himself for us. So what is taking place in the Colossians through Philemon’s ministry is not simply that they are better Christians or human beings, but they are people who are reflecting the character of the Father; they are being transformed into the image of Jesus himself. Philemon is not just doing a good thing by loving his brothers and sisters; he is being part of the Father’s work in His people to bring them to the goal he has for them. It’s no wonder then that Paul can say, ‘Your love has given me great joy and encouragement.’ He sees in Philemon the powerful working of God. And it is no wonder too that Paul now goes on to speak with a sense of great confidence about the problem that is before them because he knows that Philemon is a man after God’s own heart (bowels!). He begins his discussion of the issue with verses 8 and 9: ‘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.’ He is confident that the love of God that is at work in Philemon will prevail in this situation. Next time, we will see how Philemon is called to exercise this love, and how the love of God is able to overturn obstacles and transform relationships for His glory.

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