Saturday, June 6, 2009

Dear Brother Philemon,

The little epistle of Philemon with its twenty-five verses, is a verit-able Horn-O-Plenty! It is, as a flower, its petals opening one by one; each portraying a picture, or revealing doctrine; even more, is the unveiling of the Person and work of the Thrice-Holy God. May the Spirit of Illumination quicken our minds that He “might show the exceeding riches of His Grace in His kindness toward us through Christ Jesus.”

“Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother, unto Philemon our dearly beloved and fellowlabourer,”

Though Paul be held in a Roman prison, he acknowledges only Christ as his Jailor; and as such he would be kept safe, for He keeps His prisoners in “Maximum Security!”

May we behold the moment: the appearance of Onesimus; the slave who had many days before, fled his master’s presence and went into the far country. A volley of mixed emotion: surprise, and then astonishment; perhaps gladness in seeing him, followed by an interweaving of grief and anger because of what he had done! Yet another moment and his heart leaps with joy; for he now holds in his grasp a letter - from Paul! Onesimus would be dealt with, but not until he knows the mind of his dear brother Paul!

If we would analyze these verses carefully, we must come to a firm conclusion that Paul was unsurpassed in the art of diplomacy. He began, not in an urgent plea for the sinner, but rather making much of the master. Paul would speak of himself, but not until last.

To whom the letter was addressed: “unto Philemon, our dearly beloved, and fellowlabourer,” to our beloved Apphia, and Archippas our fellowsoldier, (perhaps Philemon’s wife and son; he may have been a pastor;) and to the church in thy house. From this we can see that the letter was intended not only for Philemon, but was an open letter, to be read also before the entire congregation.

Paul would endeavor to see that Philemon received his transgressing servant, “not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved.” But the need was there also, that all the body of believers should receive him as one of their own, a brother beloved.

Paul commends Philemon upon the excellent report he has received concerning his love and faith; that he communicates it unto the saints: it is not only in word, but in deed! Paul expresses joy and consolation, because the fruit of his friend’s labor was that the hearts of the saints were refreshed.

Thus begins the work of the apostle in the office of Priest. Indeed, what O.T. priest would have dared to approach the Holy Place with any attitude other than that of reverential respect. May we likewise, as “priests,” see that we enter not into His presence, except it be in an attitude of worship and devotion.

Behold now the ministry of Intercession. Paul, as a Roman citizen was doubtless well versed in Roman law: the slave was at his master’s disposal. The slightest infraction could lawfully bring down his wrath and judgment: scourging, being thrown to the lions, crucifixion.

But the appeal to Philemon is not that the demands of the law be met. No, it is rather that the arm of Mercy be extended, that favor be shown to one who was due no favor; and all was asked to be done “for love’s sake.”

Further, in his appeal Paul makes known his own heart; his petition is not in behalf of a thieving, runaway slave: “I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds.”

There is no attempt by the apostle to cover the wrong-doing of Onesimus, or to account it as something trivial that should be overlooked. He is deemed “the Unprofitable Servant.”

May we recall the parable of the Master who left his goods in the hands of his servants, that they should be stewards of it until his return from a far country. Upon his arrival, one servant was declared to be “wicked and slothful.” “And cast ye the “unprofitable servant” into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Matt. 25. This servant is marked by a spirit of disobedience and unbelief!

In the same scripture we are told of the profitable servant. To him the Master enjoins: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things: enter thou into the Joy of the Lord.”

With gladness of heart, Paul proclaims the good news: Onesimus “in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me!” (It seems likely that Onesimus, though a slave, was a domestic servant, whose responsibilities brought him into close contact with the “things” of his master; that he was a trusted steward until that day that he absconded, stealing that which had been placed within his keeping.) Know also that he stole far more than money; but we shall wait until later to develop this thought.

“Whom I have sent again.” “Whom I would have retained with me. . .” Of course Paul would not, could not; for as Priest, he is an Intercessor. And now begins another phase of his ministry; and for this Onesimus certainly must return: Paul is a “minister of Reconciliation.”

“Receive him, that is, mine own bowels” [inward affections, tender mercies.] Receive him, reconcile him to yourself, as though it were me, your dear friend Paul.

“Whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel.” Might not Philemon have been there himself with his beloved brother Paul were it possible? But instead, Paul is appealing to Philemon in the stead of Onesimus!

“But without thy mind would I do nothing; that thy benefit [good things] should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly.” That is, of what value would reconciliation be were it imposed upon one and there abode not within the heart a true desire and willingness for such? It would be a lie, and not reconciliation at all.

“For perhaps he therefore departed for a season that thou shouldest receive him forever;” Might we suppose that Paul is here, mindful of Divine Purpose; of the effectual working of the Holy Spirit to deliver a slave from his sin. That He might initiate a series of events that would gladden the hearts of the saints and glorify the Lord Jesus: that we might, right now, be reaping the benefits found in the study of the little epistle of Philemon?

“Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved.” Paul previously named Timothy as “brother,” Philemon himself as “dearly beloved. . .fellowlabourer,” and Archippus as “fellow-soldier.” And now must Philemon, as well as the Colossian church, understand that the new birth renders king and slave alike, one in the body of Christ.

Further, a slave could be made free if his master so willed it, by adopting him into the owner’s family. “For ye have not received the spirit of bondage [slavery] again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.” Rom. 8:15. “We are the children of God. . .heirs; heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ.” vs. 16,17.

“if thou count me therefore a partner [if not in temporal business, certainly in the realm of eternal business!] “Receive him as myself.” If there is a lawful and binding contract that declares our partnership, then let it be known that he may enter into and participate in such business in my stead. As a partner, I assume responsibility for any and all debts that he may have incurred. Therefore, “If he oweth thee ought, [anything, be it person or thing] put [or impute] that on my account.”

“I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay.” As there were obviously no “Notary Publics” available, what Paul wrote with “his own hand” would be received as legal and binding.

There being yet another arena of Truth to be displayed, I have purposely refrained from presenting many thoughts in this article. We shall continue with

The Gospel of Philemon

If the little epistle of Philemon truly portrays the Gospel, then there must needs exist certain qualifications. Does it show forth a sinner, one who has fled the face of the Master and eluded into a far country? Does he come to himself; does he willingly return unto the One whom he had forsaken? Is the return made in sorrow-fulness of heart; in repentance? Can he approach the Offended One in faith, owning his offence, acknowledging that he deserves the most severe penalty demanded by law; yet having irrefutable reason to believe that he will gain forgiveness and acceptance?

Does it depict a Savior, one who will place himself in the offender’s stead; who will present Himself a sacrifice; who will become his Surety, assuming every debt? Does it show forth one who will intercede in his behalf; who will be a Mediator, who will institute a Reconciliation, that the Transgressor may be freely forgiven; that he will be the recipient of Divine Favor; to eternally abide in the presence of Him to whom he declares his allegiance?

Does it make known Him who is Owner, who is both Lord and Master; He who is the Lawgiver; He who is Right and Just; He who must be reckoned with; He who must be satisfied, Propitiated; whose Grace may not be meted out while there remains one iota of Offence to one’s record?

Does it reveal Him who imparts discernment of Truth, who is companion and guide; who is consoler and Comforter; One who is “along side to help;” who is “not seen,” yet whose presence is powerfully demonstrated? One who as the wind, though unseen, may lift the seas into fury and rage and then cause a great calm to settle over them?

We should have little difficulty in identifying the offender: it is Onesimus, the “unprofitable servant.” That Paul should write “if he oweth thee ought” suggests that he had stolen money and/or goods from his master; but far more is intimated: he had stolen himself.

“And God said, let us make man. . .”Gen. 1:26. As a created being, man was “not his own;” he belonged to another. “And God said, let us make man in our image, after our likeness:” Thus does he assume identity as “Adam, which was the son of God.” Luke 3:38. (italics added by translators)

“And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth . . . God is the Creator and Owner, but man is appointed servant or steward over all the earth; he is given dominion. As such he was to rule and reign” with his Sovereign. (May it be noted that the Plan of God is not to be thwarted;) “And hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth.” Rev.5: 10.

“For the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof” I Cor. 10:25. For Adam, the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was forbidden; it was not his for the taking. As in the case of Onesimus, the taking of fruit or “goods” was not the great sin. No, the great atrocity was this: that he had stolen himself away from his Creator, Master, and “Father.” That the Godhead regarded him as the most precious of all His earthly creation, there is no doubt. Yet Satan had injected him with his most poisonous venom: “Ye shall not surely die. . .ye shall be as gods.” Gen. 3:4,5. The Serpent had deluded himself that he could exalt himself to a position of a god; that he would be accountable to no one, not even the God of heaven. This atrocious lie he sought to inflict upon man. Therefore in his rebellion against God, man declared (as do the New Agers this day;) “I AM going to be god; I AM god!”

May we stop at this point to make a needed observation. As we address upon many occasions the warfare between the flesh and the spirit; as we are admonished to “die daily” for we have “crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. . .” Gal. 5:24. Understand that the “pride,” the “self-life” of the flesh is nothing less than man’s desire to be “self-ruled,” to “be as gods;” to have no one rule over us! May the knowledge of this Truth bring us before our God in repentance and brokenness of heart.

Man had betrayed the hand that formed him; no longer would he be slave or servant or steward: no longer would he walk in sweet communion with the Prince of Peace. A thief of the greatest magnitude is he. Oh Lord God! Man has stolen himself away from You! Of what value is he to be found in Your eyes? What price would You pay to redeem him back to Yourself? “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.”

Understand, Oh sinner, that you have not entered the household of God and stolen that which was of little value; you have taken that which He has highly esteemed; a Precious Treasure. Exceedingly wicked, therefore, is your sin, your transgression.

Know this, Oh man, that there is One God, and only One God. He will not allow you to continue as a self-proclaimed god: you will bow before Him, confessing Him, submitting to Him as Lord of your life; or you will utterly perish in your sins.

Onesimus fled into the “far country,” there to find God waiting for him: for where on earth can man flee, where God is not?

“I beseech thee for my son Onesimus. . .” “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

“I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds:” As Paul was held captive by the Roman soldiers, also was Jesus. It was while in his bonds that Paul became a “begetting father” to Onesimus. Likewise, it was while in His bonds (the Cross) that Christ became the “begetting father” to us, who as transgressors, had fled into the “far country.” Now, as Onesimus, are we, by means of the new birth, made citizens of another “far country!”

Verse 11 of our text, the “unprofitable servant,” shall receive little more comment as we looked earlier at Dear Brother Philemon. May we define, however, the word “profitable:” euchrestos Gr. easily used, meet for use. Does not common reasoning tell us that one whose heart and life is yielded and submissive to God will be “fruitful;” and desires opportunity to please Him in willing obedience?

“Whom I have sent again.” This statement immediately assures us of the willingness of Onesimus to return to his master. As such, Paul is saying to Philemon: Your servant is willing to come back to you; now you be willing to receive him! To what extent is he called upon to accept him? Receive him, that is, mine own bowels (inward affection, tender mercies.) Verse 17 further clarifies his thoughts: receive him as myself.”

(For comments on verses 13 through 16, please refer to the preceding article.)

Verses 17 through 19 gloriously portray the oneness of purpose between Father and Son. First, there is a contract involved: “If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on my account: I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it.” Or, it might be expressed this way: “I. O. U. (signed) Paul. He continues: “albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides. Or it might he expressed this way: U. O. Me!

“If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put [impute] that [wrong, debt] on my account: that is, let me become “accountable” for his debt.

“If he oweth thee ought” tis Gr. anything, be it person or thing. What is Paul saying and how does it relate to the Gospel? Under Roman law, a slave was without rights; if he fled and was caught, the master was without limitation: the slave might be severely flogged or disfigured; he might be forced face-down in the dirt and his neck be broken under the force of the slave owners foot. The Law made no provision for mercy.

As Paul now enters as Surety in the stead of Onesimus, let us consider the weight of the consequences he might endure. What he is saying is this: Philemon, I am putting myself in the stead of Onesimus: render to me the full force of your judgment; I place myself at your feet. Allow me to receive the fury meant for your slave. Slay me if you will, that he may go free. Any person who is at all spiritually discerned need not be advised as to the parallel of this scripture to that of the offering of the Lamb of God upon Calvary’s cross.

“I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay” Notice, the word used here is not “pay,” it is “repay.” If I drive to the grocery store; if I stop for gasoline; I “pay” for what I receive. However the word “repay” has to do with an outstanding, unpaid debt.

But how may one “repay” the awful debt and demerit surmounted by sin? Might Adam have brought forth the eaten fruit from the pit of his stomach; may it be formed again into the whole; can the hand that plucked it from the branch restore it to the same? Neither can man “pay” for his offence: Sin may not be made Righteousness. Man can in no wise rectify the slightest infraction against the Perfect Righteousness of a Holy God.

“My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous: And He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, hut also for the sins of the whole world.” I John 2:1,2. (It would be well to read our article on John 3:16 in conjunction with this passage.)

Though a fugitive from justice and condemned by the law, Onesimus found himself befriended by the Apostle Paul; a “begotten son.” On the other hand Paul was a “dearly beloved friend and fellowlabourer, a partner, with Philemon: thus was he in the position to be an advocate. Though a co-equal Friend and Partner with the Father, Yet do we know Jesus to be the “Friend of Sinners:” well able is He to intercede in our behalf as our Advocate! Paul demonstrates himself as a propitiation in Onesimus’ stead as he “gives himself as a sacrifice” before Philemon upon the “Mercy Seat.” Christ’s death accomplished two things: by the sacrifice of Himself He forever settled the sin issue by applying the Atoning Blood upon the Mercy Seat. The Holiness of God was satisfied, He Himself rending the veil; opening wide the door of Reconciliation.

“Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him. . .” The long journey home; back to Colosse; back to his master. His return is voluntary; he who previously fled the presence of his owner now yearns for the reconciliation to follow. But must he go alone? Paul cannot make the trip with him. Who will accompany this solitary traveler? To find the answer we must look elsewhere.

From the book of Colossians we discover that Paul’s letter writing is not limited to that which was addressed to Philemon; he was dispatching yet another, to the Colossian church. But who will deliver that letter?

“All my state shall Tychicus declare unto you, who is a beloved brother, and a faithful minister and fellowservant in the Lord: Whom I have sent unto you for the same purpose, that he might know your estate, and comfort your hearts. With Onesimus, a faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They shall make known unto you all things which are done here.” Col. 4:7-9.

Tychicus would be the faithful traveling companion to Onesimus on the journey home. They would enter into the presence of Philemon together! Shall not the Holy Spirit remain with us on our pilgrim journey: to be all that we need; to safely bring us into the presence of our Owner, our Master, our Lord? Tychicus doubtless put into practice the instruction of the Beloved Apostle: “And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also” II Timothy 2:2

They would journey through Ephesus: “But that ye may know my affairs, and how I do, Tychicus, a beloved brother and fellow minister in the Lord, shall make known to you all things: whom I have sent unto you for the same purpose, that ye might know our affairs, and that he might comfort your hearts.” Eph. 6:21,22.

What the little epistle of Philemon could not tell us: here is an unseen traveling companion; a sent one; he whose purpose is to “make known” all things concerning the Apostle: he who was enabled to “know your estate” (through, all over, matter, circumstances, completeness) he whose purpose is to comfort your hearts.

The Holy Spirit is the sent one: “It is expedient for you that I go away; for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you” John 16:7. His purpose is to “make known” all things concerning Christ. “Howbeit when He, the Spirit of truth is come, He will guide you into all Truth.” John 16:13. “But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost. . .He shall teach you all things.” John 14:26. “Even the Spirit of Truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth Him not, neither knoweth Him: but ye know Him; for He dwelleth with you and shall be in you” John 14:17. And what were Tychicus and Onesimus to do upon their journey? Make known all things concerning the Apostle? “after that the Holy Ghost is come. . .ye shall be witnesses unto me. . .unto the uttermost part of the earth” Acts 1:8.

But what was Philemon to do? The church at Rome, the church at Ephesus, his own congregation at Colosse - all are soon going to know how he would handle this situation. Slavery had to be an important question in the minds of those believers. What an impact, what a rippling effect would be felt from that day forward - even unto our day. Did Abraham Lincoln read Philemon - and what effect did it have on his decision to end slavery?

Is there any doubt that Philemon would shortly receive and read the letter sent to the church at Ephesus? Paul‘s short correspond-ence to Philemon would not contain very much doctrinal instruction but it is interesting how he begins the Ephesians epistle! “chosen us in him. . .that we should be without blame before him in love. . .predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ unto himself. . .he hath made us accepted in the beloved. . .we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins.”

If God chose Onesimus for Himself, through Christ; if he is without blame, justified by our Lord’s imputed righteousness; if God truly has accepted him in the beloved; if he is redeemed, forgiven of sin, reconciled to God - Onesimus, if God be for you, who can be against you: certainly not Philemon, a Brother of the household of faith!

All the household of Philemon; indeed all of the body of Christ; knew of Paul’s brutal persecution of the saints; yet of his glorious conversion and the complete turn-a-round of his life. If Philemon could love this man and count him his dear brother. . .what sort of reasoning is it that would allow him to do otherwise in his relation to Onesimus? If Philemon is deserving of the testimony of Paul, (dearly beloved, fellowlabourer), then surely he longed after and prayed for Onesimus, that God would ultimately work in the life of this prodigal! Was hatred and vengeance lurking in Philemon’s heart? Or did it abound with love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance? May we suppose that Philemon freed this returning slave? That he might willingly be a bond-servant, not out of necessity, but for love’s sake? Philemon is to love Onesimus? Yes! But Onesimus is to return that love. (He did not show respect, nor honor; much less love, when he fled from his master. He likely voiced his opinions before the other slaves in the household.) If Philemon had other slaves, servants who were yet unsaved - what a powerful testimony to the mercy and grace of God, as they daily beheld Onesimus, a ‘new creature in Christ’! The ‘unprofitable servant’, true to his name, is become profitable: to Paul, to Philemon, to God! If Paul had other correspondence with Philemon he might well have begun the letter: unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellowlabourer; and to Onesimus, also, our dearly beloved, and fellowlabourer. . .

But how did Philemon respond to this situation? We are not told. If I were putting an ending to this story, I’d picture Philemon meditating upon his Saviour: how that he, Philemon was a slave to sin; of his own will alienated from God; how he had been chosen in Christ; how he had been bought off the slave market: he was not his own, he was bought with a price: how he had been redeemed through Jesus’ blood; while he was yet a sinner, Christ died for him: how he had been forgiven of his sin; how he had been accepted in the beloved; how he had been reconciled to God; how that Christ Himself had prayed that he be made one with his Sovereign; how that he had been adopted into the Heavenly family as a son; how that he was made an heir of God, joint heirs with Christ; how he had been made free. . .

“For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps. . .For ye were as sheep going astray; but now are returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls” I Peter 2:21,25.

In conclusion.

“Having confidence in thy obedience I wrote unto thee, knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say” vs.21. “Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us” Eph. 3:20. Paul is confident that Philemon will do more than even he, Paul thinks - because the exceeding abundance of God is working in him!

So - you meditate; you decide in your own mind and heart: was Onesimus severely punished? imprisoned? sold to a cruel taskmaster? crucified for his crimes? Or was he forgiven, reconciled, adopted, made a son [and a brother] of the household of Philemon; made an heir; made free indeed from the bondage of slavery that he might willingly, freely, for love’s sake, serve both Philemon - and God?