Text: Philemon 1:1-14
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our beloved friend and fellow laborer, to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I thank my God, making mention of you always in my prayers, hearing of your love and faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints, that the sharing of your faith may become effective by the acknowledgment of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus. For we have great joy and consolation in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you, brother…
For the last decade now, our society has been adopting what has been called an outrage culture. Outrage culture is when people attempt to change the larger society through their anger, understood as a righteous indignation, and to make this happen they use inflammatory language, they encourage public shaming, and they call for outright coercion. This is a change from the older liberalism which prioritized free speech and individuality. Now, in the name of freedom and individual expression, ideas which are deemed to be insensitive or intolerant are ostracized, fined, and, occasionally, punched in the face.
One of the most common tactics of our outrage culture is to bring out the sins of the past in order to justify drastic action now, whether the present problem has any connection with the past one or not. These sins are brought out precisely because they generate outrage, and they are brought out in order to end the conversation. Passions are riled and arguments cease. The most common example of this is the use of American slavery and racism in nearly any discussion about morality. Gay marriage attempted to connect itself to the older Civil Rights Movement, and it argued that opposition to it was essentially the same as opposition to Civil Rights, and perhaps even support of slavery. Conservatives were immediately put on the defensive. Christians, being the kind of folks who actually are willing to listen to criticisms of their own sins, often fall right into this trap. They can even allow this sort of thing to prevent them from seeing what the Bible has to say about controversial topics and about how social change should happen.
And this is precisely where the Epistle to Philemon comes in. This short little book, stuck right at the end of the other Pauline letters, actually deals with both slavery and the proper way to bring about social change. It gives us a fascinating picture of how the Apostle Paul dealt with a runaway slave, and what is even more important than his desire to free the slave is the way he wants this emancipation to come about, through voluntary agreement. What I would like to show you this morning is that Christianity really does call for freedom, including the freeing of slaves, but that it does so by way of gospel persuasion. Paul does not call for political activism, nor does he engage in subversive or revolutionary behavior. Instead, he sends the runaway slave back to his master and asks the master to free the slave voluntarily because of what the gospel has done for them both. In this we see a picture of how the gospel changes people and communities. It does so from the inside out. I would like to focus on this theme of gospel persuasion for the next few weeks, and this morning I want to especially highlight the role of prayer in bringing this about.
Setting the Scene
First, let’s review the setting and the personalities. Philemon is a short letter that is entirely devoted to a specific pastoral problem. A runaway slave named Onesimus has found Paul in Rome and has converted to Christianity. After this, however, Paul sends him back to his master, Philemon. Paul does not “command” Philemon to release him, but as I will demonstrate, he does carefully and subtly ask Philemon to free Onesimus, as a voluntary act which Philemon is supposed to understand to be an expression of gospel transformation. We shouldn’t miss the fact that Onesimus agrees to go back to his former master, thus also being an example of voluntary submission. Paul asks Onesimus to lower himself by returning to his old slave master, and Paul asks Philemon to lower himself by setting his slave free.
Philemon, for his part, seems to be a pastor in Colossae. The Epistle to Philemon was written at the same time as the Epistle to the Colossians, and Colossians 4:9 actually names one of the letter-carries as Onesimus. This means that the Epistle to the Colossians was carried to the church at Colossae by the runaway slave who Paul was also sending back to Philemon. The letter to Philemon most certainly came with Onesimus at the same time, and so Philemon would have read both together. In Philemon 1:1, we also see that Paul calls Philemon a “fellow laborer.” This is a typical expression used to signify a minister or church leader. This means that, in the New Testament Church, one of the pastors was a slave owner, and now one of his slaves has become a Christian. Paul had to decide what to do with that very tricky situation.
Slavery in the New Testament Church
The institution of human slavery had existed for thousands of years, probably going back to the tower of Babel. The Israelites had been slaves in Egypt, and they were also sorts of slaves while in captivity in Babylon and Persia. Judging by the various slave laws in the torah, we can see that Israelites practiced slavery themselves. The Greeks and Romans also practiced slavery, and so slavery would have been fairly common throughout the Mediterranean world in the 1st century. This is why masters and slaves were mentioned in 1 Corinthians 7, Colossians 3, Ephesians 6, and 1 Peter 2. If you lived in that world, then you would have met those kinds of people, and so the new Christian Church had free men, slaves, and slave masters on its rolls.
Now, slavery in the ancient world was not a very nice thing. Slaves had no legal rights, and Aristotle’s definition of them tells you what you need to know. He said they were “living tools.” Masters had total domination over these slaves and could do just about whatever they wished. However, ancient slavery usually did not have a strict connection to race, and most slaves would not have gotten married after being enslaved. Therefore you did not typically have any class of people, based on race or ethnicity, consigned to perpetual slavery. Instead, ancient slavery was usually made up of individuals who had fallen into great debt, been captured in war, or had been arrested for a serious crime.
What is surprising to many people, and perhaps shocking to some, is that the early Christian Church did not make explicit emancipation its first priority. No one in the New Testament devotes a sermon against slavery, and slavery does not appear in any of the big lists of sins that the Apostle Paul gives. Instead, the instructions to slave owners go something like this, “Masters, give your bondservants what is just and fair, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven” (Col. 4:1). The slaves are told to “be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ; not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, with goodwill doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men” (Eph. 6:5-7). Total social equality was not an immediate mission for the church.
And yet, Christianity did go on to argue against slavery. The Church eventually argued that it should be illegal to enslave other Christians, and slavery was mostly wiped out across Europe by the year 1000. There were still occasional pockets of prisoners of war, but there was no longer any slave trade. This is why the African slave trade was such a great evil, by the way. It was not the continuation of some centuries-old practice but instead a reclaiming of a practice which the gospel had put out of business. The Atlantic slave trade was actually a renunciation of the heritage of Christendom.
As we said, the New Testament did not set forth a political agenda for ending slavery. So, how did the New Testament argue for the freeing of slaves? If it did not call for immediate emancipation, and if it did not lead a political movement, then what did it do? The letter to Philemon shows us the answer, and it is gospel persuasion. “But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary (vs. 14).” What is it that Paul wants Philemon to “consent” to? Verse 13 gives us the clue—“I wished to keep [him] with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel.” Paul wants Onesimus to be able to minister to the church. He goes on to say that he wants Philemon to actually get to know Onesimus as he is know, to treat him like a brother, and indeed, to treat him in the same way that Philemon would treat Paul. “If then you count me as a partner, receive him as me” (vs. 17). Some of our English translations say “receive him as you would me,” but it is quite literally “receive him as me.” Onesimus should be treated with the same respect as Philemon would give to Paul. This is how Paul asks Philemon to set Onesimus free. In short, Paul wants Philemon to reflect on the meaning of the gospel, the fellowship between believers, and the goodness of liberty. After doing that, Paul hopes that Philemon himself will be changed. This teaches us that persuasion ought to be our primary means of changing the world, and it has to start with our own hearts.
Prayer as Persuasion
In Philemon we see a few main ways that persuasion works. In the coming weeks, I want to highlight each of these. Today I will start with the first, which is prayer. Paul uses thse opening verses about prayer to go ahead and set the stage for the persuasion. He is building rapport and leveraging the conversation for what will come later. This is what Paul says:
I thank my God, making mention of you always in my prayers, hearing of your love and faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints, that the sharing of your faith may become effective by the acknowledgment of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus. (vs. 4-6)
Notice that Paul prays about the people in Philemon’s church, and he prays about Philemon. He thanks God for Philemon and the others, and he does this “always.” I don’t think that this means that Paul devotes every waking moment of his life to prayer, nor do I think that he prayed for Philemon every time he prayed, but I think the use of “always” does show us that prayer was the overall posture of Paul’s religious life. He was praying regularly, and he always had a mindset of prayer. It was first in his thoughts. This also means that Paul prayed for people specifically, and he prayed for them regularly. We need to recover this kind of serious prayer life.
I confess to you that I struggle with prayer myself. It is an easy thing to minimize or forget, and many of us suffer from having been taught bad prayer habits when we were younger. You should not only pray before bed. You should not wait until you feel like praying. Prayer does not need to be spontaneous in order to be authentic. No, prayer is hard work. You should put thought into it beforehand. You should have some sort of plan for your prayers. You should pray for specific people with specific needs, and you should do so regularly.
Another aspect of prayer that we should see here is that it actually helps to shape the way we feel about other Christians. We are supposed to give thanks for them, and as Paul hears about the love and faith of Philemon, he comes to love Philemon more. Paul also prays that “the sharing of your faith” would “become effective by the acknowledgement of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.” This means that all of the fruit of the Spirit and gifts of grace would become more and more known as Philemon shared his faith with others. Paul was praying that this would happen, and Paul was expecting to hear about it. This means that Paul believed that good things were in Philemon and that they could and should be shared with others. Paul prayed that Philemon’s virtues would grow and be shared and that this would magnify Jesus Christ and encourage other Christians. We need to pray this way today.
Additionally, Paul is praying that Philemon would share “every good thing” with his fellow Christians. This isn’t obvious in most English translations, but verse 6 says “I pray that the fellowship of your faith may become effectual in knowing every good thing which is in you.” The word for “fellowship” is koinonia, the same term used in the book of Acts and in 1st Corinthians for communion. For the fellowship of the faith to become effectual, Philemon will need to share his life, and his things, with other Christians. He needs to see that every good thing which is in him is for Christ Jesus, and therefore he should be inclined to freely give to the work of the church. This is an important set-up for what Paul is about to ask for next.
We need to use prayer as a way to come together in love. Praying for other people ought to cause us to love and appreciate them. We need to look for the good things in their lives and pray for those things. We need to pray that those things can be shared with other Christians. And we can even pray for other people to share what they have with fellow believers. Most of all, we should pray that this sharing would be successful in showing Jesus to the world. This should make us grateful to God for one another. And if we pray for one another in this way, we cannot help but grow closer together in love and fellowship. In other words, if you pray for someone like this truly, then you cannot continue to mistreat them or look down upon them. Prayer changes you. You must do what you pray.
And this sort of prayer helps to refresh the hearts of the saints. “For we have great joy and consolation in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you, brother” (vs. 7). This definitely includes the communion created by the prayers, and the “love” refers to Philemon’s actions towards other Christians. But the knowledge of this love and the way it continues to abound in the church is through the continual prayer. As Christians pray for one another, giving thanks and remembering the good works done by one another, they grow in love and joy and their hearts are refreshed. This is what we must be like today. We need to create a community that is energized and sustained by prayer, and that means that each of you need to pray for each other. You need to create love and joy for one another through those prayers. Will you do this?
People often say that they are looking for community, but community doesn’t just happen. It isn’t a commodity that can be bought, and it certainly isn’t the kind of thing that can be forced upon people through legislation. Community has to be created, and it starts by building a sense of affection for one another. This means that you need to see the good in one another, thank God for the gifts present in one another, and share your lives with one another. This starts with prayer.
Pray for you friends. Pray for your enemies. Pray for people you’ve just met. Pray for people you haven’t met yet. If you are genuinely outraged, you can take that outrage to God in prayer as well. But don’t simply use prayer as a vehicle to transfer your feelings. Instead, use prayer as a vehicle to transform your feelings through the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of others. Allow God to speak to you in prayer. Listen for His voice.
And most of all, you should be refreshed through your prayers. Persuasion is most effective when the person doing the persuading is confident and irenic, and this comes from a refreshed spirit. An angry and unstable person is not a praying person. An anxious and irritable person is not a praying person. A praying person has peace which surpasses all understanding. A praying person shall not be moved. Let prayer shape and change you so that it can also shape and change others. This is the beginning of how God will change the world through His people.
Let us pray.