Beloved, Faithful Brother
“Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand:I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.”
We have come to the end of our study in Colossians. In order to wrap this study up I would like to take a glance at Philemon. The evidence is that Paul wrote and sent the letter to the Colossian church at the same time he wrote and sent the letter to Philemon.
As I think we will see, the letter to Philemon really functions as an application of the teaching we have been given in Colossians. Colossians unpacks the radical nature of what it means to be in Christ, to be a participant in God’s new creation. Ultimately, Philemon is about the radical nature of God’s new creation as that new creation finds expression in the lives of those who share in it.
Let’s review Colossians and then look to Philemon.
To Whom and Why:
As we have seen, Colossians was written to a precious people who had heard and understood the grace of God in truth. They had heard the gospel and had believed in Christ Jesus (Colossians 1:3-8). This gospel, Paul tells us, was bearing fruit and growing among these people. Paul had heard of their faith in the Christ and their love for all the saints.
Paul is writing to these precious participants in Christ, among whom the genuine fruit of the gospel was evident, in order to encourage their hearts so that they would be fully assured of the value of Christ in the gospel. Christ in you is the hope of glory. In Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:2-3). That is why Paul is writing, to encourage them in the knowledge of Christ.
The Danger of Delusion:
Paul recognized that there is a real danger, even among those who have heard and understood the grace of God and believed in Christ, to become deluded and distracted and taken captive by empty philosophies (Colossians 2:4-8). Paul saw that there was a danger that they might lose sight of the full glory and power and sufficiency of Christ.
And that danger remains with us to this day. How quickly we can become deluded and distracted and start looking elsewhere for nourishment and growth and health.
Oh, that we would not be found scraping the crumbs off the floor like beggars when the indescribable feast of the Sons of God has been abundantly provided for us in Christ.
Paul prays that their minds would be filled with the value of Christ – “Look!” Paul says:
“and give thanks to God the Father who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered you from the domain of darkness and transferred you to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom you have redemption the forgiveness of sins” (see Colossians 1:12-14)!
Consider the Christ:
So Paul in 1:15 begins by holding up the Lord of Glory for the saints to behold. Christ is the Preeminent One, the eternal Son, the Creator and Sustainer of all things, and by Him and for Him they were created.
And He is the One through whom God brought peace by the blood of His cross and triumphed over the grave (Colossians 1:15-20). He is the Lord of the New Creation.
Why does Paul focused on the person and work of Christ? Because, it is through faith in Him that you, who once were barred from God and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, have now been reconciled in His body of flesh by his death – and this was in order to present you holy and without blame and above reproach before the very throne of God! Oh, how our God is jealous for us, His saints, to remain stable and steadfast in the hope of the gospel (Colossians 1:21-23)!
The Center of Christian Ministry:
Starting in verse 24 of chapter 1 Paul is trying to help us gain the right perspective about how absolutely central the gospel of God’s grace in Christ truly is.
Paul was an apostle, entrusted by God with one task, a task for which he was willing to suffer – more than willing, he actually rejoiced in the suffering for the sake of God’s people. What was his one task, given to him by God? It was to make the Word of God fully known, the mystery, hidden for ages and generations, but know revealed to the saints.
God has chosen to make known how great among the nations are the riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim! Warning and teaching everyone with all wisdom so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. This is why Paul toils and suffers and pours out his life (Colossians 1:24-29), so that the saints would know how precious Christ is and be established and built up in Him.
Paul understood God’s grace in Christ as the treasure worth more than all other treasures combined. In Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Christian, do you know how valuable Christ is?
Connecting Faith with Fruit:
Paul has been aiming to demonstrate that life, that is forgiveness and righteousness and peace and God for us and fullness and maturity – life is not found by any other means than faith in Christ. He is the source of all life and fruit and growth and health and maturity. This is why Paul says in Colossians 2:6,
Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.
The Christian life never moves beyond looking to Christ alone for life. He is our victory, our propitiation, our righteousness, our peace, our freedom, our redemption, our forgiveness, our solid Rock, our fullness, our nourishment, our life. He is all our treasure and the very riches of God. He is the hope of glory.
Look to Jesus the author and finisher of our faith. The call of Colossians rings out: hold fast to the Head, to the glorious Christ, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its various members, grows with a growth that is from God. We have been filled in him. (Colossians 2:9-10 and 3:11)! Like a branch must be holding fast to the vine, He is our life!
And so Paul’s prescription for the Christian life is this: Set your minds on things above. Fill your eyes and minds and hearts with the person and work of Christ. It is clear that Paul believes that the stable and steadfast Christian, who is fully assured in all the will of God, and the one who is mature and bearing fruit in every good work… is the one who is walking by faith in Christ – that is living with eyes and hearts that are looking to Christ in love and faith and thanks giving for who He is and what He has done and what He even now continues to do for us.
Guard yourself against the temptation to look elsewhere for fullness and life and maturity.
Can you see how the grace of God in Christ creates, not simply a forgiven people or a positionally righteous people, but a new people, a spiritual people, an alive people – who have spiritual eyes to love God and to one another. We do not lack any spiritual blessing. We do not lack any needed resource. Everything is ours in Christ. God dwells in us and is for us. We are called to open our eyes and walk by faith and abound in thanksgiving together.
He is the wellspring of our lives and it is by seeing and beholding and embracing the love of God for us in Christ Jesus that we are nourished and built up and bear much fruit.
That is Colossians.
I said that Colossians unpacks the radical nature of what it means to be in Christ, to be a participant in God’s new creation and now we turn to look at an expression of that new creation in the lives of those who share in it.
Philemon was a new creation, that is, he was a Christian, a brother in Christ, who lived in Colossi and looks to have come to faith under the ministry of Paul. Paul describes Philemon as a beloved fellow worker. At the beginning of Paul’s letter to Philemon Paul makes mention of Philemon’s love and faith toward the Lord Jesus and toward the saints and the fact that Philemon has been a refreshment to the hearts of the saints. Paul himself says he derived much joy and comfort from this man’s love for the saints.
Philemon is the real deal – a new creation – love and faith in Christ overflowing in love for the saints.
Now we discover as we continue in the letter to Philemon that there is another person on Paul’s mind and it is in reference to this person that Paul is writing to Philemon. His name is Onesimus. The best explanation seems to be that Onesimus was a bondservant of Philemon who had run away from his master and, either by coincidence or perhaps because Onesimus had second thoughts and was looking for help, ends up running into Paul. Either way, it was a Divine appointment because it appears that Onesimus hears about the hope glory in the word of the gospel through Paul and believes upon the Lord Jesus Christ – and is filled in Him!
So Paul is writing to Philemon on behalf of this new brother in Christ, Onesimus, the once rebellious servant who had thrown off the authority Philemon and run away.
What I would like to do is examine Paul’s new creation thinking regarding this situation. I believe this letter gives us a practical outworking of what we have just learned in Colossians.
A New Creation:
Notice, first of all, how Paul speaks about the radical change that has happened to Onesimus the once unconverted runaway bondservant, now new creature, a brother in the Lord. Paul says in verses 11-13,
I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel,
Do you hear Paul’s love for Onesimus. Paul calls Onesimus, “my very heart.” If you recall at the end of Colossian Paul mentions that he has sent, “…Onesimus, our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you” (Colossians 4:9).
Philemon 17 -18
So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.
So, I want to make sure we see that Paul understands Onesimus, not first in earthly terms, but as participating in the Lord. “Receive him as you would receive me,” not in earth-bound categories, but as a brother in Christ. All things are new. Christ is all and in all.
Bearing Fruit in Christ:
Notice Paul’s prayer for Philemon in verse 6
“… and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.”
Now, this is something of a difficult sentence to translate, but it appears that Paul is praying that the participation, that is the fellowship, the sharing that Philemon has in Christ by faith, would be effective, that is active and powerful in bringing Philemon to see and understand and embrace every good work which is fitting for those in Christ. There is a connection between our participation, our share in Christ, and the life that flows out from that faith.
So in verses 8 and 9 Paul says, “Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required (or fitting), yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you …”
Notice again, that Paul has a clear idea, in his own mind, of what would be fitting for those in the Lord. But mark carefully that Paul does not want to command Philemon to do what is fitting in the Lord; he prefers to appeal to his brother in Christ on the basis of love.
Paul is not interested in barking out commands. Paul is not interesting in Philemon conforming unhappily to a standard imposed upon him. Paul loves Philemon and longs for him to walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work.
Begrudging external conformity is not pleasing to the Lord. It is not the fruit of our participation in Christ. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
Paul could command Philemon to do what is right, but Paul longs to see Philemon’s participation in Christ bear fruit in his life. Paul wants Philemon to act from love, freely, not by compulsion (vs.14). And I love that Paul is confident that Philemon’s faith in Christ will result in genuine love for his new brother in Christ.
There is much in Philemon that we could look at, but notice this one thing: being a Christian does not simply mean forgiveness for sin and positional righteousness. It means participating in Christ through faith. As Paul says in Philippians “participation in the Spirit.”
Being a Christian means being alive through the Spirit of Christ in us. Christians have been welcomed into the family of God – we are His Sons – and we are not those who live conforming externally, all the while our hearts are far from Him. No, we are a new creation.
We are those who are led by the Spirit, who live and move from hearts that love God, love His character, love His Word, and love His people. We are those who are standing on Christ alone and who rejoice in God our Savior and are filled with humble, broken-hearted thanks!
Each of these men illustrate us what participation in Christ should look like.
Paul would really like to keep Onesimus with him because he has been a comfort to Paul in prison. Paul knows he could have kept Onesimus and simply written to Philemon, demanding that Philemon do “the required” or fitting thing. But Paul is motivated by a love for Christ and a love for his brothers and he longs to see the fruit of the Spirit in his brother Philemon. So he sends Onesimus back so that Philemon has the opportunity to bear fruit, to demonstrate his participation in Christ by freely acting from love. Are we like Paul? Not barking our commands or threatening our brothers, but allowing the Spirit of Christ to move and produce much fruit?
For Philemon’s part, his participation in Christ will mean, in view of God’s mercies toward him, overlooking the wrong done to him, embracing and accepting someone as a brother who owed him a great debt. And it will mean seeing God’s sovereign hand in what looked like an “ugly providence,” actually being the means of receiving an incredible blessing, receiving a brother in Christ forever. Are we like Philemon? Do we forgive as we have been forgiven? Do we trust God to work even the wrong done to us together for good?
For Onesimus’ part, his participation in Christ meant returning to the one he had wronged and putting himself at his mercy without any guarantee that Philemon would respond well. Onesimus would put himself in harms way to make things right with his brother. He would trust the Spirit of Christ to work in his brother. Are we like Onesimus?
This is a peculiar community!
We come with 10,000 earthly reasons to hold grudges and pay back the wrong done to us and protect our rights and our comforts. There are 10,000 reasons to be frustrated with circumstances and with other people and with ourselves. But we are a new creation – the old has passed, the new has come in Christ.
You can stop laboring to get God on your side – He is for you in Christ.
You can stop worrying about getting what you are due (not that you really want that anyway!) – your inheritance is secure.
You can stop fretting about success – Christ has won your everlasting victory.
You can stop threatening and manipulating God’s people – because God is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us (Ephesians 3:20-21) and He will work everything together for our good (Romans 8:28)!
By Faith in Christ we have been welcomed by pure grace into the family of God. Here Christ is all and in all. Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you, yet for loves sake I prefer to appeal to you: Live in view of God’s mercies. Set your minds and hearts on Christ. Stop looking elsewhere! And as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, put on compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.