Summary: Final in a three part series exploring the role of the church in the city. This message explores the book of Philemon, and the role the church has played in cities through the centuries.
It was a hand delivered letter. It arrived at his home. He opened it, and read it.
(Had loaded a copy of the book of Philemon from "the message" into an envelope. Opened it as if it was a delievered letter, and read the text.)
That’s it. The letter, or as we know it today, the entire book of Philemon. The second shortest book in the New Testament. Just 330 Greek words long. About the same as the Gettysburg Address, which of course is not in Greek. But you get the point. However, the book may not make much sense, or at the very least all the sense it should, without as Paul Harvey would say, “The rest of the story.” Here is how the play unfolds.
Scene One – A.D. 53, Ephesus, Acts 19:8-10
For three months Paul preached in the synagogue. But when the resistance, and distractions became too much, Paul rented a Greek amphitheater and had been presenting the gospel daily for two years. According to Luke “all Asia” hears the gospel.
Philemon, a farmer who lives roughly a hundred miles away, in all likelihood made regular trips to the big city of Ephesus. While there, at some point, it seems that he hears the gospel message from Paul and believes. Then he heads back home near the twin towns of Colossae and Laodicea, and launches a house-church.
Scene Two – A.D. 54-55, Laodicea, Philemon 2
Philemon, Apphia and Archippus (possibly Philemon’s wife and son) have started a church in their home. Their home is probably a rather spacious and considerable home as he is a farmer in the area with hired servants and considerable land.
But at some point, one of his servants named Onesimus, steals money from him and takes off on a thousand-mile journey to Rome where he becomes an urban prodigal and run-away immigrant of sorts.
Scene Three - A.D. 63, Rome, Acts 28
(read Acts 28:11-31) Paul is now living in Rome, one of only two cities in the world at that time believed to have exceeded one million in population. And the way the story probably unfolded, Tychicus, one of Paul’s associates, is evangelizing and preaching one day, possibly even in Onesimus’ dialect, drawing him to the message. Onesimus, the run away thief of a slave belonging to Philemon is saved, enters into a discipleship program with Paul, and eventually reaches the point of joining the leadership team there in Rome.
But at some point, the leaders come to an agreement that reconciliation must take place. Onesimus must own up to his past, and go back to Philemon, and repent for his actions. So Paul drafts the only personal letter of his that we still have today. Paul praises Philemon for his work and witness, and then appeals to Philemon to accept back Onesimus. Not just as a slave, but as a brother in Christ.
One of my favorite verses in Philemon is verse 15 (read). Paul is saying, maybe the reason that Onesimus was separated from you was so that he might run to the city, hear the gospel, and receive eternal forgiveness.
Notice this important piece, Onesimus’ salvation didn’t come while working at the very site where this home church is taking place. It is in the heart of the city that the contrast of secular living and the gospel message hits home, and changes his life for eternity.
How’s that for a Biblical contrast of ministry mentalities? “If you build it, they will come.” Didn’t happen for Onesimus. If you go to the land, to posses the land. Paul went to Rome, and it made all the difference for Onesimus.
The saying goes, “All roads lead to Rome.” Kind of like all roads lead to Lexington. Cities, then and now are the catch basin of society. Criminals, immigrants, people rejected by others, outcasts, marginalized groups don’t find their home in the countryside. They find themselves in the hearts of our cities, looking for life changing answers.
Paul and I are kindred spirits. Paul saw the city as an opportunity for global evangelism. He knew that the cities were collecting people from all over the continent and across continents. Paul saw ministry in the city as worldwide ministry.
Scene IV – A.D. 64, Laodicea, Colossians 4:7-9
Tychicus and Onesimus begin the journey to Laodicea, and news probably spreads through the young church of the pending situation. We are about to have a reunion, that might brew in to more of confrontation.
Try to imagine the situation Philemon finds himself in. He has three options under Roman law. He can brand the runaway Philemon as his permanent slave. He can execute him. Or he can purchase his freedom by buying the proper types of papers from the government.
Now follow this. Philemon is in the upper echelon of society. He hangs out with other slave owners. Think of the pressure on him. If he frees Onesimus, what will the other slave owners think? Every slave in the region will run away on that precedent. Word will get out. Hey, run away, get saved, and get freed.