October 7, 2007
日本キリスト教団 頌栄教会牧師 清弘剛生 Pastor Takao Kiyohiro, Shoei Church, Church of Christ, Japan
Translator M.A.F., Indiana, USA
The Epistle To Philemon
The Runaway Slave Onesimus
1. In today's second reading, we read the brief letter called The Epistle to Philemon that Paul had written. This is one of the ones called "The Prison Epistles." Paul wrote it when he was in confinement. Therefore, at the very beginning of it he calls himself, "Paul the prisoner of Christ Jesus." There are three other epistles like this. They are The Epistle To The Disciples At Philippi, The Epistle To The Disciples At Ephesus, and The Epistle To The Disciples At Colossae. Among these it is Colossians that has a deep bond with the epistle Philemon.
2. So then, there was a character named Onesimus with Paul when he was confined in prison. [Onesimus] had experienced Jesus Christ through Paul and had [come to] faith [in Jesus]. That's what it means in verse ten when he is called, "My son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in confinement." But, to tell the truth, he was a runaway. He is a slave who has run away from his master. Back then Roman society had so many slaves that you can say it couldn't exist without slavery. And he was one of them. Onesimus either stole some stuff from his master or he caused him heavy losses, and he fled leaving things that way. If a runaway slave which had committed an offense were caught, a severe punishment would await him over it. It was even possible that he might be executed. So, he fled. He ran and ran away desperately, [until] he ran away completely. But at the end of [his running], mysteriously somehow, he had encountered Paul in confinement, and then he became a Christian.
3. For a while as a Christian Onesimus looked after Paul's daily necessities while in confinement. Paul must have been thankful for that. But, Paul thought it best to send Onesimus back -- to Colossae, the city where his master was. Please look at Colossians chapter four and beginning in verse seven. "Tychicus will tell you everything in regard to my situation. He is a beloved brother in the Lord, a faithful servant, a fellow man of God. The reason I am sending him to you is so that you might know our situation, and your hearts might be encouraged by him. Also, [I am] sending with [him] one from among you, Onesimus the faithful and beloved brother. They will make known to you the circumstances here [with us]," (Colossians 4:7-9). Thus, Paul sends Onesimus with Tychicus to Colossae.
4. Paul wrote "one from among you." He says to the disciples at Colossae that "This character named Onesimus is one of you, he is your brother, he is an associate of yours." There was [another] of the believers at Colossae and he provided his home for church meetings. They called his name Philemon. Yes, he is the one, the very person himself, who had experienced the losses made by Onesimus the runaway slave, he is the owner of Onesimus.
5. The epistle to Philemon which we read today is for the purpose of sending Onesimus back to this very same Philemon.
Forgiveness And Reconciliation
6. Upon reading this whole epistle you get a feeling right off that Paul is somehow desperate. "So, I should command without reservation in the name of Christ what you should do, but instead I ask of you by appealing to love. [I], Paul, am old and now also am a prisoner of Christ Jesus ... ," (verses eight and nine). He begins with this kind of appeal, then next, he uses every conceivable means of persuasion, and as he chooses his words with all his being, he persuades Philemon [to find it in himself] somehow to forgive and accept Onesimus. At this point in verse eighteen, he even goes so far as to say, "If he is causing you any kind of losses or owes you any debts, please put it on my account as my debt to you. I, Paul, am writing this in my own handwriting. I will pay you myself," (verses eighteen and nineteen).
7. The reason Paul is trying so hard to persuade him so far in the text is most likely that [Paul] is anticipating that Philemon will have a very very hard time accepting Onesimus [back]. One must not think that because Philemon is a Christian, or what's more, because he is a central figure among the believers at Colossae, that he will automatically forgive Onesimus; because in society back then the severe punishment of a slave who had committed a crime was instead considered the duty of the master. When a runaway slave was returned back to the master, it was virtually impossible for him to be forgiving and accepting. Therefore, you could say that this must have been a huge gamble for both Paul and Onesimus.
8. Up to this point so far Paul was trying to send Onesimus back to Philemon. Why [was he trying to do this]? Onesimus himself was in agreement with [Paul's plan] and was ready to go back home to Colossae where Philemon was. Why [was he willing to do this]? I would like for us to give careful thought to this matter.
9. As I mentioned just ago, we don't know the particulars of the story behind Onesimus, who had fled from Philemon, but he had eventually encountered Paul. Paul probably told the gospel of the forgiveness of sin to the fugitive Onesimus. God loves you. God will forgive you. Jesus Christ hung on the cross for you. Atonement for sin has already been accomplished. By believing in Christ and accepting forgiveness of sins, you will be able to live with God. You can be born again. -- Onesimus believed on Christ who had hung on the cross as the atonement for sin, he received baptism, he received forgiveness of sin, and as a born again man, he was serving God and serving humanity.
10. That's right. Onesimus was certainly forgiven by God and had obtained peace with God. His relationship with God was straightened out. But, that was not everything. There was something that still remained. If a person's relationship with God is restored, is it all right for one's relationship with others to still be broken? Paul doesn't think so. God's forgiveness had certainly already been given to Onesimus. Reconciliation with God was given by means of God's sovereign grace. However, since reconciliation with God was given, God wills that it will now bear the visible fruit of person to person reconciliation. For that reason, come what may, Onesimus absolutely had to go back to Philemon, and Philemon, after already receiving God's forgiveness and becoming a Christian, had to come face to face with the difficult subject of forgiving Onesimus.
11. Actually, in the scriptures it not only speaks repeatedly about God's forgiveness but also about forgiveness by people. It is about that even in today's gospel reading. Jesus said, "Be careful, even you. If your brother sins, warn him. And if he repents, forgive him. Even if he sins against you seven times in one day, if he comes to you seven times saying, 'I repent,' forgive him," (Luke 17:3-4). You might be thinking, "Don't be so crazy! Can I do such a thing as that?!" It's even worse if you have some faces of hard to forgive people flickering in and out of your mind. Or, we might feel like saying something like, "If I forgive like that many times, it won't be for the person himself." But, why [do we say that]? Did God quit forgiving you and say, "If I forgive you more than three times, it won't be for your sake, will it?" Today, after this, we will take part in the Lord's Supper, but how many times has it been that we have repented seeking forgiveness of sin and come before [His presence]? Will God have quit granting forgiveness?
12. It's really hard. I think it is truly hard to forgive. Yet, God wills that the forgiveness which God has given to us will bear fruit visible as forgiveness among ourselves. Thus, to have reconciliation and forgiveness with God in a visible form among us is the subject that we must always come face to face with as persons who believe in Christ. Onesimus must meet with Philemon, and Philemon must come face to face with the subject of forgiving Onesimus.
13. Well, what did Philemon do? Was Onesimus forgiven? Did Onesimus get accepted as a beloved brother like Paul had desired? What does the fact that this epistle still remains, even more, the fact that it is left in the scriptures mean? It means most likely that Onesimus was forgiven by Philemon, was accepted as a beloved brother, was accepted even by the believers at Colossae as one of them. This brief epistle also bears witness that God's forgiveness and reconciliation between God and a person will give fruit in the form of forgiveness by people, in reconciliation between one person and another.
14. And then there is something else we must not overlook. [We must not overlook] the role that Paul and his epistle had fulfilled, namely, "mediation"; because without his "mediation" neither this forgiveness nor reconciliation would have ever come into existence.
15. I quoted it earlier, he went so far as to say to Philemon, "If he is causing you any kind of losses or owes you any debts, please put it on my account as my debt to you. I, Paul, am writing this in my own handwriting. I will pay you myself." Just before those [verses] he said, "Please welcome Onesimus as you would me." When we read each of the words from the mediation of Paul, when he even calls Onesimus "my own heart," (verse twelve), we can see in that "the mediation of Christ" overlapping. In a certain sense, we can say that it is as we should expect it to be because it is none other than the love of Christ, that Christ had graciously done the work of mediation for Paul, which has subsequently stimulated Paul in this.
16. The duties which Paul had fulfilled, the duty of mediation, is nothing other than the visible fruit which the mediation of Christ had produced. The Lord has graciously done the work of mediation on our behalf and now he wills that we yield forth the same kind of fruit. That is, anyone who has received peace with God through the mediation of Christ is now expected to become a peacemaker between other persons.
17. So, as a person for whom things were mediated and as a forgiven person, what had become of Onesimus later on? His name only appears in the scriptures in the epistle to the disciples at Colossae, which I quoted earlier, but in the second century his name appears in correspondence addressed to the church at Ephesus by Ignatius the overseer [or bishop] in Antioch. "Onesimus is a man of inexpressible love, and in the flesh he is your overseer, and I humbly pray that you love him in obedience to Jesus Christ, and that everyone of you becomes like him. You ought to honor the one who blessed you and made you worthy to have this bishop."
18. The blessings of God remake a slave who had sinned and run away and turn him into the bishop of the church at Ephesus and into "a man of inexpressible love." God's great works truly proceed in a way that goes far beyond human imagination. However, they also proceed through the forgiveness of God and the mediation of Christ [which] yield forth the visible fruit of forgiveness and mediation by other humans. When the fruit of reconciliation with God is yielded forth among us, even though it may be small fruit, when we forgive, when we mediate for [someone else] it is never a small thing in the plan of God.