Summary: When we consider God’s purpose for our lives as a result of God’s grace, we will see the consequences of life as opportunities to serve God and to be effective witnesses for the gospel.
Do you see every circumstance of your life as an opportunity to be a witness for the gospel? Throughout your lifetime, you will have many opportunities to serve Christ as a witness for the gospel. There will be times in your life when it is easy to serve the gospel, especially when everything in your life is running smoothly and when your relationships with others are sound. But there will be times in your life when serving the gospel seems like a difficult task.
How can you serve Christ as an effective witness for the gospel during the difficult times? What will enable you to see every circumstance of your life as an opportunity to serve the gospel? In his letter to Philemon, Paul gives us insight into how we can continue to serve Christ as effective witnesses for the gospel even in the face of adversity.
Before we read this letter, there is some important background information we need to consider. First of all, as we read we are going to encounter the names of various people. For our purposes this morning, we are going to focus on three people in particular: The first person is Paul, the author of the letter. The second person is the man for whom the letter is written, whose name, of course, was Philemon. And the third person was a runaway slave named Onesimus. Paul wrote this letter in an effort to return Onesimus back to Philemon, because the slave Onesimus ran away from his master Philemon, who happens to be the leader of the church in Colossae, the same church for whom Paul’s letter to the Colossians was written. We know that Philemon was the leader of the church in Colossae because toward the end of his letter to the Colossians, Paul sends a greeting to a man named Archippus, who was a member of the Colossian church. In v. 2 of his letter to Philemon, Paul again mentions Archippus, and he writes that Archippus was a key member of the church of which Philemon was the leader. Again, Philemon is the leader of the church at Colossae and the owner of the slave Onesimus. Now, considering what we believe as Christians there seems to be a conflict of interest here: How could Philemon, a follower of Jesus Christ and no less the leader of the church at Colossae, be a slave-owner? When we study this letter, It is important that we view slavery in the context of the culture of which Paul was a part. For us, slavery is repulsive. The thought of forcing someone to work under our authority against their will is totally unacceptable. However, in Paul’s society, slavery was acceptable and it was very common; it was estimated that slaves made up between 70% to 80% of the Roman Empire. It is important that we view slavery in the context of the culture of which Paul was a part because, in this letter, Paul does not condemn slavery, nor does he encourage Philemon to free Onesimus upon his return, which may be unsettling to us considering what we believe about slavery.
Also, as we read this letter we will notice that Paul will often make references about imprisonment; in fact, Paul introduces himself as a “prisoner of Christ Jesus” in verse 1, which is very significant because this is the only letter Paul wrote where he introduced himself in such a way. In no other letter did Paul introduce himself as a prisoner of Christ Jesus, which would lead us to believe that the concept of imprisonment is an important underlining theme throughout the letter. Therefore, the concept of imprisonment will be an important underlying theme throughout our study of this letter this morning.
Let’s read Paul’s letter to Philemon.
An important question we need to consider is: Why did Paul write this letter from the perspective of a prisoner? Wouldn’t this letter have carried more weight had Paul began by introducing himself as an “apostle of Christ Jesus” as he had in some of his other letters by writing from the position of an authority? Wouldn’t that have made Philemon sit up straight and pay attention to what Paul was writing? Paul wrote this letter from the perspective of a prisoner because, at the time he wrote this letter, Paul was a prisoner. Paul was imprisoned for his efforts in preaching the gospel message, that those who put their faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ will receive the forgiveness of sin and the promise of eternal life. Paul wrote this letter from the perspective of a “prisoner of Christ Jesus”, with emphasis on the word “prisoner”, because Paul understood what it was like to be imprisoned. As a physical prisoner of the Roman Empire, Paul was denied the freedoms and rights normally enjoyed by Roman citizens.