Trinity Two, Sunday June 30, 2019 — Philemon 8-16 — The Destiny of a Runaway Slave
Sermon for Trinity Two – Sunday June 30, 2019
Calvary/Marquette ● Soli Deo Gloria
Grace be unto you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus, the Christ. Amen.
Philemon 8–16 (NKJV)
8 Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting, 9 yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you—being such a one as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ—10 I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, 11 who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me. 12 I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, 13 whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel. 14 But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary. 15 For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, 16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
In the Name of Jesus, the Christ,
Who took the form of a servant,
To deliver us from Sin and Death,
Dear Fellow Redeemed in His Blood –
This past week, in the House of Representatives, a Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held a hearing. In case you didn’t hear about it, it’s stated purpose was to ‘examine…the legacy of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, it’s continuing impact on the community and the path to restorative justice.’ In other words, they discussed reparations for slavery, some suggesting that the government – taxpayers – should repay today the families of those who were slaves 150 years ago for the abuse of their civil rights.’ I guess that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.
Do we need to talk about Slavery? Some suggest that the Bible approves of Slavery (notably the KKK), pointing out that men like Abraham had slaves. Does this mean that the Bible approves of slavery? Well, no it doesn’t. The Bible also reveals that David committed adultery and Rahab was a lying prostitute…but neither serves to approve these sins.
While God may have allowed for Slavery under very specific circumstances in the Old Testament, but the New Testament does not endorse or approve of one man owning another. In many cases, slaves weren’t forced into service, but became indentured servants, more like employees. If a man became poor, he could become a slave to earn money for himself and his family.
What does any of this have to do with the Word of God before us this morning? Well, as it turns out, the brief letter of the Apostle Paul to Philemon, made up of just 25 verses, speaks to the Destiny of a Runaway Slave, named Onesimus.
However, this isn’t just historical commentary between the Apostle Paul and a slave owner named Philemon. These words have been recorded for us in the New Testament for our spiritual growth. We aren’t all that different from Onesimus…we are unprofitable servants who run away from our responsibilities and serve ourselves, being destined for death. God has intervened…and has purchased us for God’s Service.
Let us Pray –
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Man; for 33 years on earth you labored and lived in perfect agreement with God’s Will in order to purchase my release from sin, death and Satan’s power. You endured homelessness. You lost sleep to pray for more strength. You let men abuse and crucify You. All this you willingly did to pay the price to make me your own child and heir. So You delivered me from the slaughterhouse and lead me into the green pastures of Your Word. How could I be worth so much to you? Why should you be so devoted to me? What makes me a treasure in your eyes? It is your own love that places value on me. I ask that you let me remain yours now and forever. Amen.
If Slavery was so terrible…why did some slaves…in the early Americas and in the 1st Century Roman Empire stay with their masters? It seems like a logical question to ask, doesn’t it?
Why then didn’t every slave run away? I suppose that in some cases they didn’t know anything else. In other cases, they were treated well and their necessities provided. There were also consequences to running away…especially in the Roman Empire!
What was the destiny of a runaway slave? If he was caught, his destiny was to be beaten and possibly crucified. After all, execution by crucifixion was for the most part reserved for runaway slaves and the worst of criminals. Death would serve as incentive to stick around, wouldn’t it?
Despite this, Onesimus did exactly that, he ran away. It appears that he took some of his master’s money (cf. Philemon 18) and ran away, finding his way from Colossae (cf. Colossians 4:9) to the city of Rome. Onesimus was on the run, living from day to day.
The Apostle Paul was also in Rome at the time, under house arrest. He was waiting to stand before the Roman Emperor and though under house arrest, he received any and all visitors.
So, it happened that Onesimus…the runaway slave…came into contact with Paul. What did Paul do? Did he immediately report him to the authorities and have him placed in irons? No, he talked to this unbelieving slave about Jesus, the Christ. It wasn’t that the Apostle didn’t care about his crime, it was rather that something greater was at stake.
While the destiny of a runaway slave was the cross; faith in the Cross of Jesus could deliver him from sin and death eternal! Onesimus, by the grace of God, came to believe in Jesus. He came to be a Christian. He came to see that he was subject to a greater and ever loving and merciful master, Jesus the Christ.
When the Holy Spirit directed Paul to write the Letter to the Colossians and the Ephesians, He also moved the Apostle to write this very personal letter to Onesimus’ master, a man named Philemon. While He might have prevailed on Philemon – who had himself become a believer through Paul’s Proclamation of the Gospel (Philemon 19) – to forgive and release Onesimus, He refused to be a legalist and demand it. He appealed to the man in love.
8 Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting, 9 yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you—being such a one as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ
If the Apostle Paul had simply told Philemon to forgive and release Onesimus, the man would probably have done so as a favor to the Apostle. But Paul didn’t want to lay a ‘guilt trip’ on him or make him feel obligated as a personal favor.
He wanted Philemon to do it because the Love of Jesus had been poured out in his heart and in his slave’s heart.
Paul appealed to Philemon with love, not pressure. He didn’t call himself the Apostle, but referred to himself as ‘an old man and a prisoner of Jesus Christ. He wanted the Love of Jesus to be the motivating force…not a personal demand.
It’s the same way that Jesus wants us to live today. He wants us to do the right thing no matter who is watching. He wants us to do it for Him, not to make a name for ourselves. He wants us to give to support this mission because it is our mission, given to us by God. He wants us to be willing to show up and paint and clean and serve…because we are motivated by love for Jesus…and nothing else.
The Apostle also appealed to his old friend on behalf of Onesimus:
10 I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, 11 who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me.
It’s not evident from the word order in our Bible Translation, but Paul first called the slave ‘my son’ then ‘whom I have become the father of in chains’ and then mentioned his name: Onesimus. I wonder what Philemon thought when he came to the name, Onesimus? Did he think, ‘that worthless slave who stole from me’? We don’t know, but we can see that the Holy Spirit softened the blow of that name by speaking of the changes that had occurred.
What changed? The unprofitable slave with the name profitable had become Paul’s Son while he was in chains. Paul didn’t become his biological father. He didn’t adopt Onesimus. He spoke to Him about Jesus’ sinless life, sacrificial death and glorious resurrection. He told the runaway slave that Jesus took his sins upon Himself and paid for them. He rose again that he might also rise to live a new life. Paul became His ‘spiritual father.’
Please notice that Paul didn’t defend Onesimus’ actions! He didn’t claim that the end justified the means. He didn’t sugar coat his sin. Paul led the runaway slave to the foot of the cross of Jesus, where he found forgiveness and became a child of God.
Let’s not defend our actions either. When we sin, let us confess our sins and seek God’s forgiveness. Let’s not be impenitent and hide behind foolish statements like, “I can’t help it, I’m only human.” “It’s not my fault.” No one is to be blamed for our actions…but we ourselves.
The amazing thing about our gracious God is that when we confess our sins, He holds His Son accountable for them, and he has paid the price!
It was Jesus, not Paul, who made Onesimus profitable. It was Jesus that moved in Onesimus to serve Paul and also desire to return to his master and serve him in a godly fashion.
It’s Jesus, who makes us profitable servants. We are naturally self-centered, self-promoting, self-gratifying. Jesus is the only one that can change that, making us self-less, glorifying God.
In what way had Onesimus become profitable?
12 I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, 13 whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel. 14 But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary.
The Gospel of Jesus changes human hearts. After hearing what Jesus’ life, death and resurrection accomplished for him, the Holy Spirit moved Onesimus to serve Jesus by being a helper for the Apostle Paul. Onesimus didn’t just say, ‘I believe in Jesus.’ It showed by the way that He served Jesus.
So…do our actions say the same of us? Do they show that we serve Jesus or do they sometimes call into question just who is our master? May God grant that we not send mixed messages to our friends and acquaintances…about who we serve.
Paul would have loved to keep Onesimus for his service. He might even have convinced himself that the runaway slave might be a good work on Philemon’s part. But…integrity is doing the right thing…no matter who is watching. So, Paul sent Onesimus back to his master, Philemon. Onesimus willingly returned, because Jesus had changed his heart and his destination.
The Holy Spirit, through the Apostle, only asked Philemon to consider God’s hand in this matter:
15 For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, 16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
The Destiny of a Runaway Slave…was death on a cross. Onesimus obtained mercy when the Holy Spirit worked faith in his heart and gave him a new will to serve Christ. Onesimus was delivered from death eternal through the cross…the cross of Jesus.
We really aren’t that much different from Onesimus. When we were born, we were born slaves of sin destined for eternal death. We still find it easy – because of our sinful nature – to turn away from our duties and run away from the right way.
Jesus found us. Jesus changed our hearts and minds. Jesus made us His own people by grace through faith.
Jesus even defends us with the Father, pleading his own life and death as our redemption! He stands up for us like Paul stood up for the Slave Onesimus, offering even to pay our debt, the debt we have incurred against God.
We shared the same destiny as the runaway slave, Onesimus. We deserved to depart to eternal death, but we have been delivered from our personal cross by the cross of Jesus. We look forward to going to our Heavenly Father’s house and singing his praise forever.
In the meantime, we will live in this world remembering we are destined for heaven. We are no longer slaves of sin, but servants of God through Jesus Christ.
God help us to remember this every day.