Summary: Discover why the tiny book of Philemon was included in the New Testament
Little Book with a Big Message
Come with me this morning 20 long centuries back in time. Stroll with me down the streets of imperial Rome. See the Pantheon, the Coliseum, the Bath and of course, the Senate. As we jostle our way through the great crowds in the Market place keep in mind that half of these people are slaves.
60,000,000 slaves in total scattered throughout the Empire kept the wheels of this civilization moving. Schoolteachers, doctors, gardeners, cooks – they were all slaves. The economy of the Empire was built on the backs of the slaves.
Slaves had no rights. The Roman slave owner had absolute power over his slave. The Master could be kind or cruel or both depending on his mood. One historian tells about a certain slave who dropped and broke a crystal goblet. Right away, the master had his slave thrown into the courtyard pool where a savage shark-like creature tore him to pieces.
This was the world of the New Testament. And this morning we meet a slave by the name of Onesimus. We read about him in the book of Philemon.
Onesimus lived in the beautiful Lycus Valley of what is modern day Turkey. After months and years of thankless toil; with no future but the grave, he escaped, he took off with stolen property in his pack and hatred in heart – he headed down the Meander River Valley toward Rome 1,000 kilometers to the west.
In the great mercy of God Onesimus met the Apostle Paul and through Paul Onesimus met Jesus Christ. His life was changed. He was born again, turned around. He was so changed that he was willing to return to his master, a man by the name of Philemon.
If that doesn’t make you excited listen to this: it gets better. It just so happened that Paul knew Philemon. What are the chances of that? Out of the millions of slave owners in the Roman Empire Paul knows Onesimus’ master Philemon.
It just makes you want to sing: It’s a small world after all! He is 1,000 kilometers away from home and Onesimus runs into the one man who knows both his owner and his Creator. What a small world! What a great God!
So now Paul is sending Onesimus the slave back to his owner with a cover letter – we call it Philemon.
One might ask why the Holy Spirit allowed this tiny, personal letter to survive the centuries. It deals with no great doctrine. It attacks no sinister heresy. It doesn’t even speak out against the slave trade. Paul wrote hundreds, thousands of personal letters in his life and yet this is the only one that has survived.
I wonder why? I want to suggest that the book of Philemon is a little book with a big message. The big message is this: The Gospel that we preach has the power to change lives. And when lives are changed one by one, society changes. The Good News about Jesus Christ has done a 180° on many people in this service this morning. And as people change society changes.
Paul was changed. Philemon was changed. Onesimus was changed. This little book shows the power of the Gospel.
Look at Paul. Here is a man who in his early days could watch men die unmoved. He was a man raised by the rules. He was legalistic, tough, disciplined. As a younger man he would have turned to Onesimus and said: too bad for you, Onesimus. You got yourself into this mess, so suffer. Whatever a person sows that will he also reap. What goes around comes around.
But Paul had met the living Christ on the Road to Damascus. The Gospel had changed his thinking. Paul was far more loving and forgiving and merciful than he had ever been. The harshness was gone. The legalism was gone.
And some of us were raised like Paul. We knew the rules, we were tough, disciplined but we had very little love. But the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been at work on us. Slowly we are being make into the image of Jesus Christ. Slowly we are becoming merciful. Slowly we are being transformed into instruments of grace.
This little letter also shows the power of the Gospel in Philemon’s life as well. We have no doubt as to the way Philemon treated Onesimus when he returned home. This letter would never have seen the light of day if Philemon had not treated his slave with kindness and forgiveness.
This is a far cry from the way runaway slaves were normally treated. At best the runaway could expect to be branded with a red-hot iron on the forehead with the letter ‘F’ – fugitive. That’s if he was treated mildly. The worst that could happen is he would be crucified.