Relationships Can Change The World: The Letter To Philemon

What does the Gospel of Jesus Christ have to say about your relationships with other people?

That’s an important question, but don’t answer it just yet.

Answer this one first:

Is the Gospel of Jesus Christ primarily about going to heaven when you die, or is it about having every aspect of your life, both now and forever, transformed?

If you’re a Christian, how you answer that question will significantly influence how you live. More specifically, your answer will require you to evaluate decisions, finances, ethics, etc. by completely different criteria.

If the Gospel is simply about getting to heaven when you die, then this life is of secondary importance. So long as you check the boxes marked “heaven” on your final destination ticket, you’re free to live however you want, or at least however your culture pressures you into living.

If, however, the Gospel is about much more than that, indeed is about transforming everything about you, then its implications for the here and now are massive. Instead of filtering every decision through a “me” or a “culture” filter, you have to filter it through a “Jesus” filter. This means that you give Jesus shot-calling power in your finances, ethics, etc.

It especially affects your relationships.

So, back to the original question: What does the Gospel of Jesus Christ have to say about your relationships with other people?

Put succinctly: everything.

We see this comprehensive impact of the Gospel on relationships very clearly in the New Testament book of Philemon.

Whereas most of the letters in the New Testament are written from a leader to a congregation, Philemon is different: it is primarily written from a Christian leader to another Christian leader. Not only that, but it’s from a friend to a friend. Paul is the author and Philemon is the leader of a house church. It’s a very personal letter.

Paul most likely wrote the letter from Rome while sitting in prison. And Philemon was likely a well-to-do leader of a house church in one of the towns that Paul had visited on his missionary journeys.

He was also a slave owner.

That’s a shock to our 21st century sensibilities, so we need to understand what slavery was like in first century Rome before we can understand this letter’s impact on how we understand relationships under the Gospel. In first century Rome, there were so many slaves that they outnumbered the Roman citizens. It was not uncommon for a wealthy Roman citizen to own upwards of ten thousand slaves.

And then gospel gets introduced into this mix. And, frankly, the message spread very quickly amongst the slave community. The hope and grace and joy in the message of the Gospel gave new meaning and purpose to the lives of those who found themselves in bondage.

But the Gospel also began to reach those who owned slaves. And this was a new thing. Slavery was so common in that day it was just kind of the air they breathed, the water people were swimming in: people just kind of took it as a fact and never really examined it.

But one commentator on the book of Philemon said no other writing was more instrumental in the downfall of slavery than it was. Why? Because Paul says that just because something is culturally assumed it is not necessarily going to stand in light of the gospel.

Why does all this talk of slavery matter? Because Paul is writing to Philemon about an escaped slave, Onesimus. That may not mean a whole lot to us modern readers, but in Rome, where slaves outnumbered the citizens, there was constant fear of a slave revolt. Consequently, the punishment for any slave who disobeyed their master or who ran away from their master was very serious. The master could, at their discretion, beat as runaway slave. They could imprison them. They could even kill them. As a matter of fact, one of the means of death that was available to the Roman citizen who owned a runaway was crucifixion.

So, when Paul writes to Philemon about Onesimus, he knows the seriousness of the matter.

He writes knowing Philemon’s rights as a slave owner.

But, he also writes knowing that the Gospel has the power to transcend the law and transform relationships.

He knows that because he has experienced it.

Paul is one of the most fascinating character studies in the Bible. When we first meet Paul, he is persecuting the new Christian faith. He was really focused on his Jewish heritage, he saw this new church that was starting, and he said, “absolutely not.” He began to persecute the church: he was there when Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was stoned. He threw believers into prison. He even got permission from the religious leaders to take the show on the road and begin threatening the church in Damascus.

But something changes. He has an encounter with the risen Christ.

Now you talk about an unlikely convert: that’s Paul! But he is changed: he goes from being a persecutor to being a preacher to being a prisoner for Christ.

When Paul writes Philemon, he starts by referring to himself as “a prisoner for Christ.” As I understand it, he’s giving testimony to the extreme power of the gospel to transform your life and your relationships. He was antagonistic to Christ and now all of a sudden he’s willing to suffer for Christ.

His relationship with Christ changed and that made a huge difference in his relationships with others. Paul was a pretty intense dude. Paul did not have any problems telling you what he thought.

Except in Philemon, he seems to hold back. Paul had the authority, as an apostle and the one who brought the Gospel to Philemon, to tell Philemon what to do but he softens it.

I would argue it’s the gospel that softens Paul’s words. Paul experienced the love of Christ in his own life and it drove him to demonstrate that love to others. He tells Philemon, “I’d rather appeal to you.” Why?

Love doesn’t demand and command: it encourages and transforms.

The gospel that transformed Paul was not something that Paul came to unwillingly: once Jesus showed up and Paul experienced the love of Christ he began to apply that to his life. There’s a transformation that takes place across Paul’s ministry.

The way Paul relates to people has been transformed by the power of the Gospel.

Paul’s not the only one who’s been changed by the gospel. Philemon has been changed as well. One thing we know about Philemon is that he is a rich guy. Anyone who had a house big enough for a church to meet in and who owns slaves is in the one percent: he’s the upper crust in society. People of his station were not supposed to be concerned about opening their homes up to what was likely a congregation of lower class people.

And yet the gospel has transformed him.

Jesus says it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. Good thing God works miracles. Because Philemon, the rich guy, is a Christian. He’s somebody who’s been transformed. He’s in the Kingdom of Heaven. Why? Because the Gospel transformed his relationship with his wealth. The Gospel took what had probably been the primary concern for him and makes it secondary to the cause of promoting the Gospel.

Philemon’s relationship with Paul is affected by the Gospel. Because of the Gospel, Paul knows that Philemon is someone he can trust. Philemon will listen to the Holy Spirit, he’s a trustworthy kind of guy now because the Gospels transformed him.

But there’s also a relationship that still needs to be transformed by the Gospel. There’s a blind spot in Philemon’s life. His relationship with his slave, Onesimus. Paul wants Philemon to see the implications of the Gospel in this area: Onesimus can no longer be a slave if he’s a brother in Christ.

This is where, if I was Paul Harvey, I’d pause and you’d just have to wait for the rest of the story.

I’m not Paul Harvey, but you still have to wait.

First, there’s a third character we need to look at: Onesimus. A slave who most likely stole from his master the resources by which he was able to escape. He ran away to Rome to hide from his master in the crowds there. And then he meets Paul. And Paul introduces him to Jesus. And Onesimus meets Jesus in the Gospel.

Onesimus, who was willing to risk death to flee slavery, meets Jesus. And what does he do? He begins serving Paul. He begins to willingly do the thing he was willing to die to avoid. The Gospel transformed Onesimus’ relationship with service. This is a guy who said, “I don’t want my life to be defined by serving someone.” Now, after the Gospel, he is submitting to Christ and he’s serving Paul. It’s interesting that there’s a little play on words going on here: Onesimus means “useful.” Paul tells Philemon that Onesimus was formerly useless as a slave, but now he’s useful.

Paul is not saying he’s useful because now he’s just a good obedient little slave. No, he’s saying he’s useful because he’s been transformed by the gospel. Onesimus has changed from wanting what he wants to get out of life to wanting what Jesus wants. His relationship with his very life has been transformed by Jesus coming in.

Note that Paul is not turning Onesimus over to the authorities and having them haul him back. Most likely, Paul is putting this letter in Onesimus’ hand and he is freely and willingly going back to Philemon. The master that he probably stole from. The master that he could not wait to get away from. And he’s going back.

That’s transformation. That’s what the Gospel does in our relationships.

How?

How does the Gospel transform us like that?

The Gospel gives us a call, not to self advancement, not a call to self-improvement, not a call for me to be the best me possible, but for me to be like Jesus. The Gospel transforms us not by giving us a list of things to do but by first and foremost having us see Jesus.

Jesus is all that matters. Jesus is the only one whose vision for your life matters. What you want to be, what you want to do, what you want to become in yourself are entirely and utterly insignificant in the grand scheme of God’s plan for the universe. God’s goal for creation is not that it would revolve around you but that Jesus Christ would be all in all.

But how does that happen?

Jesus becomes a slave.

Is that not the most counter-cultural counter intuitive way of doing things you’ve ever heard?

If we want to get ahead, we imagine that we’ve got to promote ourselves. Jesus example says, “No.”

Jesus is God. He didn’t need to come as a human. He didn’t have to give up the privileges that he had as as God eternal and come to earth as a human being. He didn’t have to do that but he did.

Because the fundamental truth of the Gospel is this: a life lived for yourself is a life that is not worth living. A life lived for others is a life that will endure forever.

Jesus comes and he dies on a cross not because it was good for Jesus, but because Jesus wasn’t worried about Jesus: he was worried about his Father, he was worried about us. That’s why Jesus came and Jesus died and that sacrifice opens up the hope for us to be transformed and for us to be redeemed. If we will submit to Christ, the Bible says we will be saved. If we confess Him as Lord and believe in our hearts that God raised Him from the dead we will be saved.

And being saved doesn’t just mean getting to go to heaven when you die. Being saved means that one day you’re going to look like Jesus. Getting saved means God starts remaking you, beginning the process of transforming you from a wretched rebel to a son or daughter who looks like Jesus.

Part of that process will necessarily involve transforming your relationships.

The gospel transformed Paul from a persecutor to somebody who was willing to be a prisoner. It changed his relationships with those called Christians and with the Christ they took their name from.

The gospel transformed Philemon from “that rich guy” to somebody known for being generous, loyal, and a disciple-maker. It changed his relationship with his stuff and how he used it.

The gospel transformed Onesimus from a runaway slave to a faithful fellow worker. It changed his relationships with those around him from what he could get to what he could give.

That’s radical. That’s change that everyone can see. That’s testimony to the power of the gospel.

So, how is the gospel changing your relationships?

Because here’s my fear: that we, as Christians, are so tempted to make our relationships about us that we miss the life-transforming power of the gospel in them. When we approach relationships saying, “what am I going to get out of this, what’s in it for me?” then we miss the heart of Jesus in the gospel.

Not only that, but the world misses a chance to see real, practical evidence for the truth and power of the gospel.

The gospel is not inert. It isn’t just a good story. It’s not about morality.

It’s about transformation.

You don’t know the ripples that will spread out in the lives of those who see the gospel transforming relationships.

And now for the…rest of the story.

We don’t get it from the New Testament, but there’s something very interesting that happened in the story of Philemon and Onesimus after Paul’s letter. A guy named Ignatius of Antioch writes years later about the Bishop of Ephesus. His name? Onesimus.

Now, it’s possible that there was another Onesimus, but the fact he is also referred to as the Slave Bishop seems to indicate that it’s the same guy. And, as we trace the story through various authors, we get the idea that Philemon took Paul’s hint and set Onesimus free. Then, Onesimus went back to Paul and serves with him. He serves the wider church faithfully and eventually becomes the bishop of Ephesus.

Some scholars also think Onesimus is the one who assembled Paul’s writings. That’s important. There wasn’t a printing press, so preserving the letters would have to be an intentional act. It seems Onesimus may have been the guy doing it. So, why do we have a New Testament that includes Paul’s letters? Ultimately, it’s the inspiration of the Holy Spirit but he could have been working specifically through transformed relationships.

That’s pretty cool.

So, based on the example of Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus, begin to think intentionally about how you can demonstrate the gospel through them. Start today by changing the way you think about relationships.

Don’t ask: “What do I deserve?” Ask: “How can I serve?”

Don’t ask: “What’s the least I’m required to do?” Ask: “What will show the most love?”

Don’t ask: “What do I want to do?” Ask: “What would Jesus do?”

When you change your approach to relationships, they are transformed. When relationships are transformed, its evidence for the truth of the gospel. When evidence for the gospel is seen, the gospel spreads. And when the gospel spreads, the world is changed.

How are your relationships looking in light of the gospel? Because they have the power to change the world.

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