Summary: Exposition of Philemon 8-16 regarding the way Paul and Philemon handled a potentially painful situation.
Text: Philemon 8-16, Title: Resisting Cultural Norms, Date/Place: NRBC, 11/18/07, AM
A. Opening illustration: John Hess Yoder writes in Leadership magazine: While serving as a missionary in Laos, I discovered an illustration of the kingdom of God. Before the colonialists imposed national boundaries, the kings of Laos and Vietnam reached an agreement on taxation in the border areas. Those who ate short-grain rice, built their houses on stilts, and decorated them with Indian-style serpents were considered Laotians. On the other hand, those who ate long-grain rice, built their houses on the ground, and decorated them with Chinese-style dragons were considered Vietnamese. The exact location of a person’s home was not what determined his or her nationality. Instead, each person belonged to the kingdom whose cultural values he or she exhibited. So it is with us: we live in the world, but as part of God’s kingdom, we are to live according to his kingdom’s standards and values.
B. Background to passage: Paul has introduced Philemon as a man of deep Christian character and close associated with the church in his house. And now he gets to the main matter of his epistle—Onesimus. The situation is that Onesimus is a runaway slave that has been ministering to Paul while he is in prison. And Paul would like to keep Onesimus, but there are nagging issues from his past that must be dealt with adequately because of his new relationship with Christ. So Paul has asked him to return to Philemon and receive whatever Philemon sees fit. The culture would have had him put to death at worst, and beaten half to death at best. But as Paul indicates, as Christians we live by a redeemed code of conduct that calls upon us to go above and beyond what the world, our own flesh, and the devil say that we should do.
C. Main thought: Paul requests and demonstrates how that Christianity goes against cultural norms related to mistreatment and forgiveness
A. Requests not commands (v. 8-9, 14)
1. Paul begins his talk with the understanding that he was making a request or appeal for love’s sake, rather than a command. The world says if you have authority, use it to achieve your ends whatever the cost. Even though Philemon was a prominent businessman with much status in the community and Paul was a prisoner in a Roman jail, he still could have commanded him to do whatever he saw fit. He used the same spiritual authority to send Onesimus back to Philemon. And even though he could have made a case for just keeping him there for ministry’s sake, he knew that proper ends in themselves don’t justify improper means. God would receive the most glory if all this forgiveness and reconciliation was voluntary, not by compulsion. Paul wanted Onesimus to submit to the consequences of his actions, and Philemon to forgive as Christ forgave, but both because they wanted to do the right thing.
2. Mark 10:42, Rom 13:1-5, 1 Tim 5:17, Heb 13:17,
3. Illustration: in one church’s discipleship program that they had for men they focused on submission of their wills to higher authority, they said because if a man never learns that there are proper authorities in life, he will continually rebel against them displeasing God and wrecking all relationships, conversation with Margaret about how many wives really want their husbands to step up and take the spiritual leadership in their homes, Voddie’s testimony about the men in his church and how the wives look at them when they lead the family in a devotional time,
4. God ordained several lines of authority that really carry God’s force behind them. Governments are given authority over nations. Pastors are given authority over churches. Husbands you have authority over wives and children (by the way the language used here about “boldness in Christ to command” is used of husbands and wives in Colossians). And to rebel against these authorities is to rebel against God. And also to abdicate your role as a leader is rebellion against God and the responsibility that He has given. BUT, as leaders and authority bearers of God, we are not to lead with an iron hand, but by example and service. We know that if we lead as Christ led, we only command occasionally, but rather we request and persuade and appeal most of the time. This is the way a friend deals with a friend or a brother deals with a brother.
B. Evangelizes not complains (v. 10)
1. Roman prisons did not offer three square meals a day or mattresses and TVs in each room. They didn’t offer a chance to get a college degree. There was constitutional amendment about cruel and unusual punishment. If we could all see the conditions in which Paul was writing, we would have probably understood a little if Paul complained some about being imprisoned at 60+ years old for serving God. In fact the culture would have said to hang it up, forsake that God, go back to the house, etc. But instead Paul continues to bring spiritual children into the world. He figures that if he is in prison, there must be a reason that God wants him in prison. Then enter Onesimus. So Paul begins to persuade him about the truth of the gospel and he is gloriously saved from a life of rebellion to one of usefulness. Onesimus’ name means useful, but this was obviously not the case for a runaway. But the gospel changes people who are unprofitable into helpful, useful, Christ-centered, God-honoring, Spirit-empowered, Kingdom-oriented believers. This was Paul’s life, every time you turn around, he is giving testimony about how Jesus changed his life.