The story is told of two brothers who were convicted of stealing sheep. As part of their punishment, they were branded on the forehead with the letters ST, to indicate “sheep thief.” One of the brothers couldn’t deal with the embarrassment of it, so he moved away and never came back. The other brother, though, took a different approach. He said, “I can’t run away from what I did, so instead I’ll stay here and try to win back the respect of my neighbors.”
As the years passed, this man slowly began to rebuild a reputation for integrity. When he became an old man, there was a newcomer who came to town who was curious about those letters on his forehead. He asked someone in town what the letters ST stood for. The villager paused for a moment and said, “It happened so long ago, I’ve forgotten the details, but I think the letters are an abbreviation for ‘saint’.”
Although there’s no mention in that story that the thief’s transformation was the result of the gospel, it does illustrate how the gospel changes everyone that it saves. As Paul wrote in Romans 6, “In the past you were slaves to sin—sin controlled you. But thank God, you fully obeyed the things that you were taught. You were made free from sin, and now you are slaves to goodness.” (Romans 6:17-18, NCV).
Those verses state what the book of Philemon illustrates, that God changes every person whom he saves through the gospel.
The book of Philemon is Paul’s shortest and most personal letter. It was written while he was in prison in Rome, and it was addressed primarily to a man by the name of Philemon. At some point in time, Paul had come into contact with Philemon and led him to Christ.
The letter was also addressed to Apphia, who was probably Philemon’s wife; to Archippus, who may have been the preacher of the church there, and to the entire church that met in Philemon’s house.
They met in his house because Philemon was a wealthy man who would have had a big house. He was also a man who owned slaves. It’s important that we know something about slavery in the first century. Although slavery was occasionally practiced in Israel, it was never widespread and was very carefully regulated by the Old Testament law.
But the Roman Empire was built on slave labor. Every time the Romans conquered a new province, they added new slaves to the empire. Scholars tell us that in the days of Paul there were more slaves than there were Roman citizens. It wasn’t unusual for a rich man to own as many as 10,000 slaves.
Furthermore, Roman law provided very little protection for slaves because they were regarded as property, not as people. Owners could mistreat their slaves and even kill them with little or no consequence. Roman law specifically provided that owners could put runaway slaves to death – probably as a warning to the others.
There are many who find it hard to explain why the New Testament never directly attacks the institution of slavery. But, as F. F. Bruce pointed out, “What this epistle does is to bring us into an atmosphere in which the institution [of slavery] could only wilt and die.”
One of Philemon’s slaves was a man by the name of Onesimus. He had apparently stolen from his master and run away. So Onesimus was a fugitive slave, guilty of a crime that carried with it the punishment of death.
As Onesimus ran away from Philemon, he ended up in Rome, perhaps with the intention of getting lost in the big city. Because big cities have always provided a certain amount of anonymity for those who don’t want to be found.
While he was in Rome, Onesimus crossed paths with the apostle Paul. It’s possible that Onesimus knew who Paul was because of Philemon’s connection with Paul, but we don’t know if his meeting with Paul was intentional, or if it was just one of those things that happened by God’s providence.
But what we do know is that the result of their meeting was that Paul shared the gospel with Onesimus and Onesimus became a Christian and was baptized into Christ. After that, Onesimus stayed with Paul for a while to help serve his needs, and the two men formed a close relationship.
But, as time went by, as Onesimus grew in his faith, he came to understand that he needed to return to his master and make restitution for the crimes that he had committed. This letter is Paul’s appeal to his friend, Philemon, and to the entire church, to welcome back this runaway slave, not as a second-class citizen, but as a beloved brother in Christ.
What Paul wanted to accomplish was not an easy task. He had to convince a slave owner and an entire church that was immersed in the cultural acceptance of slavery to set aside that cultural viewpoint and to practice the Christian truth that all people are equal in Jesus Christ. This would have been like trying to convince a slave owner and a white church in the South before the Civil War to accept a returning runaway black slave as a member in full standing!
Now, Paul was an apostle, and he could have asserted his authority as an apostle and commanded Philemon to do what he wanted him to do. But Paul wanted Philemon to do what was right from his heart. Paul didn’t deny that Onesimus had committed a crime, but he wanted Philemon, his wife, and the entire church to forgive him completely. He wanted mercy to triumph over justice. And he also wanted to leave the door open for Philemon to free this slave, so that perhaps Onesimus would choose to return to Rome and continue his ministry to Paul.
As we take a look at Paul’s letter to Philemon, I want us to see how God changes us through the power of the gospel. He changes our character, he changes our relationship with other people, and he changes our relationship with him.
But, before we get to that, let’s watch this overview of the book of Philemon, and then I’ll be back to talk about how God changes us.
Watch VIDEO (Philemon)
Let’s begin by reading this entire letter from Paul to Philemon:
Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, 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. For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.
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.
Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
The first thing I want you to see here in the story of Philemon is that…
1. God changes our character when he saves us.
Everyone in this story is behaving differently than he would have before meeting Jesus Christ. But I want to take a look at only two people — Paul and Onesimus:
a. God changed Paul’s character.
This letter is just filled with love and gentleness and graciousness. And you may be thinking, “That’s not really all that surprising. After all, this is the apostle Paul. What did you expect?”
But don’t forget what Paul was like before he met Christ. Paul participated in the stoning of Stephen. Then he began “ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.” (Acts 8:3). In Acts 9, he was “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” (Acts 9:1).
Paul describes himself as being “a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man.” (I Timothy 1:13). Paul wasn’t a nice man at all! To call him an angry young man would be an understatement. But here he is, about 25 years later, a gentle, humble, gracious man, urging others to show love and kindness.
Perhaps before you came to Christ, you, too, were an angry person. Perhaps you had a reputation for having a short fuse. But, as you’ve learned to walk in the Spirit, people around you can begin to see those outbursts of anger replaced with “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). Like Paul, you’ve learned to put off the sinful ways of the old man and put on the godly ways of the new man in Christ.
b. God changed Onesimus’ character
Onesimus had not been a Christian as long as Paul had been, but there were already some major changes in his character. Formerly, he had grudgingly served Philemon, probably doing only the bare minimum, and stealing everything he could as he looked for an opportunity to escape. But now that he’s a Christian, he returns to his master, ready and willing to render whatever service is required of him.
Paul uses a play on words here in this letter because the name Onesimus actually means “useful”. Paul says in verse 11 that “once he was useless to you.” He wasn’t a good worker. But now Onesimus truly lives up to the meaning of his name. Paul says, “now he is useful to both you and me.”
That can only mean that God had changed Onesimus’ attitude. Before he became a Christian, he resented his lot in life as a slave. He hated his master. But now, because of his faith in God, he was willing to give up his freedom, go back and place himself under his master’s authority. He was no longer an angry slave. He was now ready to be a helpful servant. God changed Onesimus’ attitude through the gospel.
The question for us is this — has God changed your attitude? Has God changed the way that you act on the job? Before, you did the bare minimum to keep your job, grumbling with other employees about the way the management treated you. Now, you give your very best with a joyful spirit of obedience, doing your job as unto the Lord.
At home, before you met Christ, you were selfish and insensitive, exploding in anger if the rest of the family didn’t do things your way. Now, you are patient and kind towards them. You think about their needs and seek to serve them.
Coming to know Jesus Christ will change who we are. It will change our very character.
2. God changes our relationship with others.
That’s the natural result of a changed character. When you change from being hostile to being gentle, from being rebellious to being submissive, from being self-serving to serving others, it’s obviously going to affect your relationships. The story of Philemon shows us two basic relational changes:
a. God changes you from alienation to reconciliation with others.
When Onesimus ran away with Philemon and Apphia’s money and some of their personal belongings, they were no doubt angry. They probably complained, “After the nice way that we treated him, he ripped us off! That ungrateful wretch!” And, Onesimus probably didn’t have the warm fuzzies when he thought about Philemon and Apphia. “They live in ease and luxury while we slaves work our fingers to the bone! It’s just not fair! Sure, I stole a few things, but they’ve still got more than plenty left!”
How can a relationship as strained as that ever be reconciled? The answer is, only by the power of God through the transformation of the gospel. One of the proofs that a person is born again is when he wants to repair broken relationships and to make restitution for past wrongs. Jesus talked about this in the Sermon on the Mount. He said, “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24)
His point is that you can’t worship God properly until you do everything you can to be reconciled with someone who has something against you. Reconciled relationships are a big deal to God! And they should be a big deal to us as well.
We are all too quick to remember all the ways we’ve been mistreated and reopen old wounds. We tend to be unforgiving and unforgetting. You would think that Christians would be different, kinder and gentler – a people who having experienced the grace and mercy of God now pass that forgiveness on to others. But so often that’s not the case. Someone has said, “Christianity is the only army that shoots its wounded.”
But people with wounded hearts need a second chance, the opportunity to be forgiven. The gospel is the good news of the second chance, a chance to start over, to grant a new beginning. Jonah, the one who disobeyed God and set out on his own course, was given another chance. Peter, the one who denied Jesus, was given a second chance. Paul, the one who attacked and persecuted Christians, was given a second chance.
Now, Paul was asking Philemon to give Onesmius a second chance. Yes, Onesimus had done something wrong. He made a mistake. He committed a crime. But he deserved a second chance. He deserved to be forgiven. Forgiveness means to cancel a debt in order to provide an opportunity for repentance and reconciliation of a broken relationship. What Jesus did for all of us, we are to do for others.
God changes us from alienation to reconciliation with others.
b. God changes you from relating to others on the basis of social status to relating as family
Formerly, the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus was strictly master-slave. But now it had a new dimension: brother to brother. In verse 15, Paul says, “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…” (Philemon 1:15-16)
Philemon and Onesimus had a new basis for relating to one another. I’d like to think that when Onesimus got back, he had the opportunity on occasion to open the Scriptures in worship and teach the church some of what the apostle Paul had taught him. And I can picture Onesimus teaching with Philemon sitting there listening attentively. The gospel erases social class distinctions and racial distinctions and financial distinctions, puts us all on the same level as members of the family of God.
I heard recently about a Christian who was enlisted in the National Guard. There was a colonel in his unit who also belonged to the same congregation. On some occasions, when the colonel saw this brother in the mess hall, he invited him to come over and join him for lunch. They would have a good time chatting together. After the meal, the colonel would often say, “Here, let me get your tray.” And then he would carry this enlisted man’s dirty dishes to the window. The other men would stare in unbelief and say among themselves, “That guy must have something on the colonel!” The only he had on him was this — they were brothers in Christ!
Now, I would add that when it comes to performance on the job, that enlisted man needs to respect the colonel’s rank and authority. He needs to show proper respect and obey his orders. When you’re at church or in social settings, your boss may be your brother in Christ, but on the job, he’s still your boss, and you need to show proper respect and serve him all the more because he is a brother.
So, God changes everyone whom he saves through the gospel. He changes your character and he changes your relationships with others. But thirdly…
3. God changes our relationship with him.
I had to smile when I read that Martin Luther once wrote, “We are all the Lord’s Onesimi.” I’m not sure that Onesimi is the plural of Onesimus, but I think his point was a valid one – that this letter beautifully illustrates the salvation that every Christian enjoys. And in this story, we are all Onesimus.
Let me explain what I mean by that. God created you to serve Him. He is your rightful owner and master. But, like Onesimus, you rebelled against him. You said, “I will not have this Master to rule over me.” And so, you took the body, the intelligence, and the talents that God gave you to use for him and you squandered them on yourself, because you wanted to be free from God. Like Onesimus, you were a condemned fugitive on the run, useless to your Master, guilty, and indebted to him.
But like Onesimus, when you were deliberately running away from God, God providentially led you to cross paths with someone who shared the gospel with you. At first, you were probably fearful of dealing with God, because you knew that you were guilty and condemned. You may have thought, “How could I possibly return to God in light of all the things that I’ve done wrong?”
But then Jesus our Savior says, “Don’t try to plead your own case. Don’t attempt to justify yourself. You are guilty as charged. Just give your Master this letter.” When you look down, you read the same thing that Paul wrote in verse 17, “receive him as you would receive me.” But, how can God do that? What about all the wrongs that I’ve committed against him?” Keep reading. Verse 18, “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.”
I want you to see that what Paul wrote on behalf of Onesimus is what Jesus is saying on our behalf. You could pay God back for all of the sins that you’ve committed. But you don’t have to, because Jesus Christ paid your debt on the cross. Everything that you owe God was charged to his account. And all that remains is to you to return to your Master and willingly put yourself under his lordship, so that you now live to please God and to do his will from the heart.
Maybe you’re thinking, “That’s all well and good for someone who has had a rough background, who has done a lot of terrible things. But I’m not like that. I’ve always been a basically good person. I’ve always gone to church. I’m not like this runaway slave.” If that’s what you think, then I ask you to consider this story.
Some years ago, there was a church in England that was having a combined communion service with another church. The preacher noticed that a former burglar was taking communion right beside a judge of the Supreme Court of England, the very judge who, years before, had sentenced that burglar to seven years in prison. After his release, the burglar had been converted to Christ.
After the service, as the judge and the preacher walked home together, the judge asked, “Did you see who was beside me at communion?” The preacher said, “Yes, I did.” The judge said, “What a miracle of grace!” The preacher nodded in agreement, “Yes, what a marvelous miracle of grace!”
Then the judge said, “Who are you talking about?” The preacher said, “The conversion of that convict, of course.” The judge said, “But I wasn’t referring to him. I was thinking about myself.”
The preacher said, “What do you mean?” The judge said, “That burglar knew how much he needed Christ to save him from his sins. But look at me. I was taught from childhood to live as a gentleman, to keep my word, to say my prayers, to go to church. I went through Oxford, got my degrees, was called to the bar and eventually became a judge. Nothing but the grace of God could have caused me to admit that I was a sinner on a level with that burglar. It took much more grace to forgive me for all my pride and self-righteousness, to get me to admit that I was no better in the eyes of God than that convict whom I had sent to prison.”
This morning, I wonder — has God opened your eyes to see that you are just as in need of a Savior as that convicted burglar or as Onesimus, the runaway thief and slave? Have you accepted the grace that God has extended to you, been baptized into Christ to come into contact with the blood of Jesus Christ that will pay in full the debt that you owe to God?
And, if you have been born again, are you allowing God’s grace to change you? Are you becoming less angry and more patient, kind, gentle, and loving? Is your attitude toward authority becoming more submissive, even when you’re mistreated? Is your life changing from self-centered uselessness to becoming a useful servant to others as you serve Christ?
And what about your relationships? Are you working at being reconciled to those that you’ve been alienated from? Have you sought forgiveness and made restitution to those you’ve wronged? Would those who formerly knew you as a sheep thief now think that the ST on your forehead must be an abbreviation for saint?
The gospel can change things. In fact, the one who has truly obeyed the gospel will always be a changed person.