From Shadow to Sunshine
Paul’s letter to Philemon has three outstanding values for the Lord’s people today: the historical, the evangelical, and the practical.
The Historical Value:
Here is a most interesting page from the life story of the writer of this unique piece of sacred literature. Eleven names appear in these twenty-five verses. Paul and Timothy salute Philemon and Apphia, probably husband and wife, together with Archippus, just as probably their son. Onesimus is named as the reason for the letter, while five of Paul’s associates in service, Epaphras, Marcus, Aristarchus, Demas, Lucas, unite in sending greetings to Philemon. Paul is seeking by letter the reinstatement in the home and employment of Philemon one who had wronged him, but who, having emerged from the thraldom of sin by the grace of God, was willing to return to the master he had treated so injuriously. This priceless little document has in it all the tenderness and skilful-ness of this large-hearted servant of Christ. He writes to Philemon in terms of intimacy not paralleled anywhere else in the New Testament.
The Evangelical Value:
No plea for the use of this letter and its background as the basis of a gospel message is needed. It is only necessary to present its salient features to discover its correspondence with the sinner’s folly and the Saviour’s provision.
Shadows In The Story:
Onesimus was a bondslave: Forget for the moment that he was the bondslave of Philemon for there was something infinitely worse. He was a bondslave of Onesimus. He discovered active desires and actuating motives within, which he had no power to control. Covetousness, greed, and dishonesty held sway and led to sin against a good master. Christ declared, “Whoso committeth sin is the servant (bondslave) of sin” (John 8:34). “Serving divers lusts and pleasures,” is the tragic record of every man and woman since the Fall.
Onesimus was a thief: He robbed and ran. Man, who derives being, health of mind and body, the use of every faculty, and every creature blessing, yet appropriates them to his own personal use and selfish ends, without regard to the will and rights of Him Who gave them, his Creator God, is a thief.
Onesimus was a misnomer: How strange to be called “Profitable” for so his name means! A profitable thief! The misappropriation of the name “Christian” by rebels and sinners against the Christ of God is purely far more incongruous.
Onesimus was a fugitive: His sin put him on the run. He quickly put distance between himself and Philemon. He reflects the attitude of everyone that sin has alienated from God. Just as the disobedient Jonah rose up to flee from the presence of God, man, conscious of sin, seeks to put distance between himself and the holy God. These are the shadows that darkened the past history of Onesimus.
Sunshine In The Story:
There was one to intercede for him: What loving pleas Paul presents to Philemon on behalf of the thief! His love, “For love’s sake;” his age, “Paul the aged;” his circumstances, “a prisoner of Jesus Christ;” these are compelling pleas, but they fade into insignificance as we hear the Man of Sorrows plead with God for those whose wicked hearts had sought His death, and whose cruel hands had nailed Him to the tree, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). “He made intercession for the transgressors” (Isa. 53:12). It is for love’s sake, that is for Christ’s sake, that God forgives the sinner (Eph. 4:32).
There was one to accept liability for him: Paul must have this matter resolved upon righteous grounds, “If he hath wronged thee or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account, I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it.” The acceptance by the Lord Jesus Christ of responsibility for the sins of men was the only means by which God could be just and the justifier of the ungodly. Christ paid the price in full when He laid down His life, and having risen from the dead, now both the Surety and the sinner are free. This becomes effectual when it is appropriated by faith.
There was a measure for his acceptance: Paul now asks that the erstwhile robber, the unprofitable Onesimus, be received as himself, “Receive him, that is mine own bowels” (V. 12). “If thou count me a partner, therefore receive him as myself” (V. 17). “As myself” was to be the standard of welcome. The counterpart can be traced in all the wonder of God’s acceptance of unworthy men and women in the glorious worth and perfection of the Son of His love. “Accepted in the wellbeloved, near to God’s heart we lie.”
There was a means for his assurance: This is derived from the precious documents Onesimus carried in his hands, for it seems that, with Tychicus, he carried it and the letter to saints at Colosse back to the meeting place of the Church in Philemon’s home (V. 2). The transcending greatness of the Word of God to all who believe in the Lord Jesus is indicated by the words of John, “If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater: for this is the witness of God which He hath testified of His Son. He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself: he that believeth not God hath made Him a liar; because he believeth not the record that God gave of His Son. And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in His Son” (1 John 5:9-11).
There were evidences of triumphant grace: The changes that took place should not be passed over lightly; a change of relationship, the slave has become a brother, yea, a brother beloved; a change of condition, the thief has become profitable; a change of direction, the prodigal is returning; a change of outlook, he is obviously in perfect sympathy with the act of reinstatement as a matter of righteousness.
In God’s dealing of saving grace conscience is always renewed, the will subdued, and the mind given a Godward direction, all resulting in a sympathy with practical righteousness. Where these are absent it can be said unhesitatingly there has been no saving work of God in the soul. Here then is the sunshine of Divine love that transformed and radiated from the thief who came back. What an adornment it is of the grace of God (Ti. 2:10-11)!
The Practical Value
Five special marks of a well-developed believer are traceable in the writer of this little missive.
He is the devoted loyalist: In verse one he introduces himself as “Paul a prisoner of Jesus Christ.” He repeats that description in Verse 9. He speaks of “my bonds” and of “the bonds of the gospel,” while his reference to Epaphras is his fifth allusion in the letter to his imprisonment. In every instance it can be seen that the chains are hallowed. He is the prisoner, not of Rome merely, but of Jesus Christ. For him to live was Christ, so that every circumstance, dark or bright, must bend to that. The prison cell lights up with the knowledge that Christ has ordered it; it comes in the way of His will and there can be no mistake in His scheme of things. There is but one secret to rising above and glorying in the limitations and hardships that life imposes on the child of God. It is found in the words of this devoted loyalist. “For to me to live is Christ.” Such a passion for Christ leads to the acceptance of everything in life as from Him, to be used by Him. There are not wanting today those who have endured infirmities, suffering reproaches and persecutions for the One who is altogether lovely, the Alpha and Omega of their being.
He is the tireless soul winner: “Whom I have begotten in my bonds” are words that pay tribute to the earnestness of this great lover of souls. Handicaps of age and circumstance cannot quench his fervour or hinder his activity for Christ. We can only guess how these two men were brought together, but we can be sure that the Apostle bought up the opportunity and the patience, prayers, and efforts of the soul winner had a big recompense in the salvation of Onesimus. It is a sight to send us back with renewed determination to woo and win for Christ that individual He has permitted to cross our path in some special circumstances.
He is the kindly shepherd: Paul’s allusions to the spiritual state of other Christians shows the care that he felt for them, and some of these are found in this letter (Vv. 5-7), where he thinks with joy and gratitude of one who so ministered to the church of God in Colosse that the saints were refreshed in the Lord. It is this same pastoral love and concern that moves him to seek, not merely the reinstatement of the bond-slave, but the reception to the fellowship of the saints one who has given good evidence of being born again. A great deal can be inferred from the optimistic words (Vv. 20-21), “Being confident of thine obedience I have written to thee knowing that thou wilt do even more than I say.” Surely that envisages the spiritual treatment that would await brother Onesi-mus. Deep interest in the welfare of God’s people and practical sympathy with their difficulties are not found in the mere aspirant to power in the assemblies.
He is the Christian gentleman: Although the Apostle Paul possessed rights and powers as an Apostle of Jesus Christ, there was nothing of the dictator about him. “I might” he says (V. 8), “be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee (command thee) that which is convenient, yet for love’s sake, I rather beseech thee.” He was conscious of the power to command, but he used the stronger lever, love. He greatly needed the services of such an aide-de-camp as the new convert, but another’s claim must be considered, so he declared, “Without thy (Philemon’s) mind I would do nothing.” What lovely courtesy! What Christian consideration! What Christ-likeness of conduct! What a glowing example of the Christian gentleman, for these days in which that which is rough and uncouth frequently passes as faithfulness to Christ and His truth! Lording it over God’s heritage is expressly forbidden (1 Peter 5:3), and even were such dictatorial powers present in the Church it is clearly manifest that there is no higher or safer principle of action towards other believers than that which impelled the Apostle here, “For love’s sake.”
He is the tactful mediator: What has been said already emphasizes the presence of a very delicate situation between a man and his master, between the erring one and the wronged one. The wise handling of the case by the writer of the letter calls forth our admiration and inspires our emulation. The structure of the little epistle shows that everything that could be appreciated in Philemon is alluded to. His personal devotion to Christ and His people (V. 5), his great usefulness in the Church of God (V. 7) are placed in the foreground. Then follow references of a personal kind that would rouse Philemon’s love and sympathy for his friend in Rome. The age, imprisonment, and love of Paul, all are thrown into the argument before ever Onesimus’ name appears in the letter. The conversion in such condition of the bond-slave, and the Apostle’s deep affection for him are next in order in the mediator’s appeal. Moreover, what a masterly stroke it is to waive his apostolic rights. How can Philemon do otherwise than relinquish any claim he may think he has. Every other thought that might have influenced the wronged master against his slave is swept away as Paul recalls their partnership together, offers to liquidate the debt, and reminds him of his own personal indebtedness to Paul which one cannot but interpret as referring to Paul’s instrumentality in the salvation of his soul.