Small Things Matter 1 – Philemon (The Brotherhood of all Believers)
Reading: Philemon 1:1-25
Preacher: Rev Kevin Kim
Kevin starts a new three-week series, ‘Small Things Matter’. Kevin invites the congregation to explore three small books of the Bible (Philemon, Habakkuk and Malachi) over the next three weeks. They are the books that might not be read from the readers often. Kevin hopes this series helps us to see there are many smaller unknown books that we need to learn in the Bible.
The letter to Philemon is the shortest of all Paul’s writings and deals with the practice of slavery. The letter suggests that Paul was in prison at the time of the writing. The slave Onesimus robbed his master, Philemon, and ran away, making his way to Rome and to Paul. Onesimus was still the property of Philemon, and Paul wrote to smooth the way for his return to his master. Through Paul’s witnessing to him, Onesimus had become a Christian (verse 10 – that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains.) and Paul wanted Philemon to accept Onesimus as a brother in Christ and not merely as a slave.
In this book, Philemon was called to a ground-breaking act of forgiveness, but we, likewise, have to wipe the ugly graffiti of unforgiveness away from our hearts, homes and workplaces, acutely aware of Jesus’s logic when he taught: “If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” Kevin will also focus on those different characters in the book – Paul, Philemon and Onesimus.”
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Questions for reflection or small groups
- Please think of your one or two friends (Key Person) and share why he/she is your good friend (key person)?
- Have you found hard to be friend with someone because of his/her different past life experiences, language, culture or religion and so on?
- Have you ever recently forgiven someone? Was that a difficult experience?
- Has anyone forgiven you recently? How did you feel when you were forgiven (given a second chance)?
At this point in history, the sixty million slaves in the Roman Empire made up a critical component of Rome’s social and economic structure. As unpunished, runaway slave was seen as a threat to the whole structure. As a result, runaways were considered criminals who were punishable by severe measures including death.
- Given the seriousness of the crime committed by Onesimus, what impact will Onesimus’ return have on Philemon’s household? On Paul’s relationship with Philemon? On Onesimus himself?
- Does the fact that Onesimus has become a Christian lessen the seriousness of his crime? Why or why not?
- What is radical about Paul’s view of Onesimus (vv. 10-18)?
- Given Paul’s concern and need for Onesimus, why does Paul return Onesimus to Philemon, anyway? Why doesn’t Paul exert his apostolic authority, declare Onesimus free, and keep him as a partner in the gospel?
- What do you think are the chances that Philemon will do what Paul asks? In what way might Philemon be right to refuse Paul?
- Why doesn’t the Apostle Paul speak against slavery? Was Paul indifferent to slavery? (1 Corinthians 7:21-24 & Ephesians 6:5-9) To what extent do you agree that Paul’s advice to his readers was to keep their current social status as a citizen or slave and single or married person, so that they could focus more clearly on the great day when Christ will come again? (1 Corinthians 7:26-31 & 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11)
• Like Onesimus, do you have something you need to return to and make right? Do you have someone like Paul who can help you do that?
• When do you feel obligated to forgive someone: When they confess their sin? When they later change their behaviour? When someone else intercedes for offending party?
• For whom might you serve as a “Paul” in bringing about reconciliation?
From today, I am starting a new three-week series, ‘Small Things Matter’. I have not chosen this series name because I am a small person.
There are some books that might not be read from the readers often. We spend lots of time to read the four gospels and some big Paul’s epistles. We often do not read the books of minor prophet and short books. Over the next three weeks, we are going to explore three small books of the Bible – Philemon, Habakkuk and Malachi. I hope this series help us to see there are many smaller unknown books that we need to learn in the Bible. They might be as important as our four gospels in the New Testament.
The letter to Philemon is the shortest of all Paul’s writings. It only contains 335 words in the Greek text. Even though it is so brief, J. B. Lightfoot, the noted British NT scholar, describes Philemon as “infinitely precious.” Lightfoot argues, “Nowhere is the social influence of the Gospel more strikingly exerted, nowhere does the nobility of the apostle’s character receive a more vivid illustration than in this pleading on behalf of a runaway slave.” It has a structure of –
introductory greeting (vv. 1-3), a thanksgiving and prayer (vv. 4-7), the body of the letter (vv. 8-20), and the closing (vv. 21-25).
Philemon came to faith in Christ because of Paul’s ministry. Philemon has a slave named Onesimus and there appears to have been some sort of falling out between master and servant. It isn’t clear what happened, just that Onesimus left (either he ran away because he made some sort of mistake and/or stole from his master, or he ran away because he was being mistreated by Philemon). Eventually Onesimus ended up at Paul’s doorstep. During the time of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus, Philemon had likely journeyed to the city, heard Paul’s preaching and became a Christian. Like he did for Philemon, Paul leads Onesimus to faith, describing himself in the letter as Onesimus’s “father” and Onesimus as “my child”. Now, Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon with this letter in hand, in order to live out his role in the gospel’s call to reconciliation, hoping that Philemon will do the same.
You would wonder how Paul’s personal letter was included in the Canon, selected books of the Bible we have today? There were many other books, ended up not chosen to be in the Canon. According to some of early Church writings, Onesimus later went on to become the bishop of Ephesus. A church father named Ignatius addressed their wonderful minister, their bishop – his name: Onesimus. In this letter, Ignatius referred to Onesimus as the one “who formerly was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.” He used the very same Greek words that appeared in verse 11 of Philemon.
According to others, Philemon was bishop of Colossae. If either one of those is true then, since the Churches of Ephesus and Colossae were involved in the passing on of Paul’s epistles to other churches such that we have both a Letter to the Ephesians and a Letter to the Colossians in the New Testament now. We could guess through those process, a book of Philemon would have been preserved and later included in Canon.
Paul now had a converted slave on his hands. What should he do? He decided to send Onesimus back to Philemon his master. But Onesimus was now a believer in Christ – he left as a rebel and now returned as a brother. Paul wanted to make sure Philemon understood what had happened. That is why he wrote this letter.
Before we continue, we need to know something about slavery in the first Century. Although slavery was occasionally practiced in Israel, it was never widespread and was carefully regulated by the Old Testament law. By contrast, the Roman Empire was built on slave labour. 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 far more slaves than Roman citizens. It would not have been unusual for a rich man to own as many as 10,000 or even 20,000 slaves. In short, slavery was so commonplace and so accepted that no one thought seriously to oppose it.
Furthermore, Roman law provided little protection for slaves so owners could mistreat their slaves and even kill them. The law provided that owners could put runaway slaves to death.
Yet Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon. Why? This is the central question of the book. How could he do that? Didn’t Paul know that slavery was wrong in the eyes of God? If he knew that, why didn’t he say that? These are questions that have troubled thoughtful Christians across the centuries.
A friend knows all about you and loves you anyway. This was exactly what Paul was asking Philemon in reference to Onesimus. Philemon had been a friend to Paul, “Paul . . . to Philemon our dear friend” (Phil. 1), and a friend to believers, “I hear of your love . . . for all the saints” (Phil. 5). Now, Paul asked Philemon to be a friend to Onesimus, “For perhaps this is why he was separated [from you] for a brief time, so that you might get him back permanently, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave – as a dearly loved brother. This is especially so to me, but even more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (Phil. 15-16). To me that is exactly about Keyperson relationship. Paul became a keyperson while he needed a help and support. Onesimus did not have to go. He needed a person who can give a guidance and future. This is exactly key person could do to your another keyperson. Now Paul is asking Philemon to become a keyperson to his former slave. This is very difficult change. When a new relationship was built between a former master and slave, something remarkable happened.
We humans have a great ability to recall old injustices and old wounds. We tend to be unforgiving and unforgetting. One would think that Christians would be different, but often that is not the case.
The people with wounded hearts need a second chance, to be forgiven. The gospel is the good news of the second chance, to start over, to grant a new beginning. Paul, the one who attacked and persecuted the Christian community, was granted a new lease on life to further the cause of Christ.
Now, Paul was requesting of Philemon to grant Onesmius a second chance. “I am sending him – a part of myself – back to you . . . accept him as you would me” (Phil. 12, 17). Onesimus had done a wrong. He made a mistake. He had committed a crime. But he deserved a second chance.
What does a forgiver do? A forgiver releases the sin. In other words, he lets it go, she forgets the mistake, he allows the other person to get on with life. Forgiveness means to cancel a debt in order to provide an opportunity for repentance and reconciliation of a broken relationship. What Jesus did for us is we are to do for others. When I am going to talk about this theme of forgiveness in September for a few weeks. I hope we can be more generous and determined to give a second chance to others.
Who do you know needs a friend / keyperson? A second chance? Forgivenss? For many hurting people you may be the person who can turn their life around by offering them friendship, forgiveness, and a hope-filled future.
The letter of Philemon reminds us that Christianity has the power to heal hurting hearts and to repair broken people, putting them back on their feet. It instructs us that when given the chance we are to participate in a revolutionary thing called grace and forgiveness, leading to reconciliation.
Will you be a friend / keyperson by refreshing the wounded? Will you be a forgiver by releasing the sin? This small book of Philemon indeed gives us “infinitely precious” lesson we can take and should practice.
Please read the book of Habakkuk before you come to Sunday service next week!