This morning we begin a new series through the letter or epistle to Philemon. Let’s call this morning’s sermon A Letter of Reconciliation for a title. The Christian message is a message of reconciliation, and we will see this as we progress in the sermon. We will consider the title under two sub-headings: (i) Reconciliation To God (ii) Reconciliation To One Another.
In the first century, in the life of the people of the biblical times also, they wrote letters just as we write letters today. Most of the 27 books of the New Testament are letters or what is commonly called Epistles. Paul wrote 13 letters out of the 27 New Testament books, and these are called Pauline epistles.
Paul wrote these letters to address issues arising in churches he planted or planted by others. Paul’s letters, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon, are prison epistles or letters. As the name implies, these were letters written in or from Prison while Paul was in Rome, under house arrest.
For a period of 2years, he was under house arrest and had the opportunity for gospel ministry without hindrances. I want to encourage you that sometimes the things that happen to us negatively may present great opportunities for gospel ministry (Acts 28:16-31)
As we have seen, Philemon is one of Paul’s prison epistles written during this time of Paul’s imprisonment. In the ancient world, their letters differed slightly from ours. While we write our names at the end of the letter, they write theirs at the beginning. Listen to this:
Letters in the ancient world, as in the modern world, tended to open in a very conventional way. But in one respect at least, the style was more sensible than ours. When we write letters we do not give our name until the very last word… In the ancient world, however, they followed a more sensible practise. Letters began with three words (i) The name of the writer, (ii) the name of the recipient (iii) greetings (Let’s Study Philippians, Sinclair Ferguson)
We see this clearly in the verses we read
(i) The name of the writer
Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother (v.1)
Let’s clarify that when Paul described himself as a prisoner for Christ, he wasn’t describing himself spiritually. He was speaking of his situation on the ground. He was in prison for the course of the gospel. There are other proofs in the text that this letter is from prison.
I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment (v.10). IN MY IMPRISONMENT: Paul identifies a situation that happened in his imprisonment
At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that I will b,e graciously given to you (v.22). Paul here expects his release from prison.
(ii) The Recipient
To Philemon, our beloved fellow worker and Apphia, our sister and Archippus, our fellow soldier, and the church in your house.
The letter was Philemon, whose name is the name of the epistle. Who is Philemon? He was a believer in who has opened his home for church. The New Testament church met in homes because of the circumstances prevailing, not because churches are to meet in homes.
Again, we see the following characteristic of ancient letters
3. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,
Like in the pleasantries, the ancient world extends greetings and well wishes in our letters. Paul followed this same pattern and greeted Philemon.
We have identified the writer of Philemon as Paul. We have specified the recipient;
Philemon. And we have seen the Greetings. Now, why was the letter written? For the rest of today’s sermon, we will consider the reason for the letter and what we can learn from it.
Question: Why was Philemon written?
Philemon, the recipient of this letter, had a slave named Onesimus. Onesimus stole money from Philemon and ran away. He encountered Paul and became a Christian. Paul now wanted to right the wrong, so he sent Onesimus back to Philemon with this letter (Philemon 1:8-19)
Paul writes to appeal to Philemon to receive Onesimus back. Philemon, a believer, had a slave? This needs addressing.
A particular difficulty is presented when words in biblical Hebrew and Greek refer to ancient practices and institutions that do not correspond directly to those in the modern world. Such is the case in the translation of ‘ebed (Hebrew) and doulos (Greek), terms which are often rendered “slave.” These terms, however, actually cover a range of relationships that requires a range of renderings—“slave,” “bondservant,” or “servant”—depending on the context. Further, the word “slave” currently carries associations with the often brutal and dehumanizing institution of slavery particularly in nineteenth-century America. For this reason, the ESV translation of the words ‘ebed and doulos has been undertaken with particular attention to their meaning in each specific context…. In New Testament times, a doulos is often best described as a “bondservant”—that is, as someone in the Roman Empire officially bound under contract to serve his master for seven years (except for those in Caesar’s household in Rome who were contracted for fourteen years). When the contract expired, the person was freed, given his wage that had been…The ESV usage thus seeks to express the most fitting nuance of meaning in each context (ESV notes on slaves).
This simply means that there are many different contexts by which a person can be considered a slave in the Bible. Notice that the ESV translates the word here as “bondservant”, which supposed that what’s in view here is someone under contract to serve for seven years and has some liberties.
The most important lesson we learn in this letter is the lesson of reconciliation. Firstly, it is
Reconciliation To God
When we go back to verse 3, the greetings, we will notice something unique. It is a greeting that assumes a relationship between the writer and the recipient: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Note the phrase “OUR FATHER AND THE LORD JESUS CHRIST. Here is a shared family tie among all the characters in the text. One way or the other, all of them have come to a point in their lives where they call Godfather and Jesus Lord.
Grace is God’s love for the unworthy, revealed in the coming of Jesus and his self-giving on the cross; peace echoes the familiar Hebrew greeting Shalom, spiritual and physical well-being. That is why Paul says it comes from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ…Salvation means experiencing God’s grace and peace; such blessing has its origin in the love, plan and power of the great triune God. Thus, in one simple greeting, Paul assumed some of the deepest and richest truths of the Christian gospel. No ordinary greeting this! (Let’s Study Philippians, Sinclair Ferguson)
You may have heard the grace and peace of God over and over. But question: Is this grace and peace of God a reality in your life? Do you have Jesus as your saviour? Do you have peace? Is the peace of God a reality in your life? If it is, you have these beautiful promises of the forgiveness of sin and justification before God.
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1).
Jesus is a mediator of peace between God and man. This means there’s a problem between God and man. A problem of separation. A separation was brought about by sin and we subsequently declared enemies of God. But Christ comes in by his death on the cross to mediate peace on our behalf. Peace for all those who will come to faith in him throughout all human generation (Ephesians 2:13-18).
Jesus reconciles sinful humanity to God. As you read through this epistle, there is this one common tie that binds all of them together. And that tie is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is central to this epistle “for Christ” (v.1), “For the sake of Christ” (v.6), “In Christ” (v.8), “For Christ” (v.8), “In Christ” (v.20), “In Christ” (v.23), “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” (v.25).
My point is that every relationship present in this epistle is a relationship that has been made possible by Jesus reconciling sinners to God. Paul was once an enemy of the Christian church, he was reconciled. Philemon was reconciled to God by Jesus Christ through the ministry of Paul. Look at v.19
I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self.
Commentators take this to mean that Philemon was converted under Paul’s ministry. Onesimus, the subject of this letter himself was also converted to God through Paul’s ministry: “I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment.”
So clearly, these are all people who have been reconciled to God through faith in Jesus Christ. And this conversion places them in a community of believers. This brings us to our next and final point
Reconciliation With One Another
Christianity redefines our relationship with one another. When Christianity entered the Roman world, it changed the societal structure. One of the boldest statements is found in Galatians 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
This statement is significant because, in the then world, this was an affront to the Roman society which flourished on elitism. Christianity bursts on the scene and says you are all one in Christ. And this is what Paul drives at in his appeal to Philemon concerning Onesimus. Onesimus is no more a slave, but a brother to Philemon: “no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” (v.16).
The characters in Philemon were real people. Real people who had a life. Real people who experienced pain. Real people who had to deal with disappointments in their lives. And there is this beautiful connection between them. They referred to themselves with these words of a family: our brother, our sister, our beloved brother, fellow worker, fellow soldier, my child…all these points to the unity and oneness that exists among them. Note that, though the letter is to Philemon, it is also addressed to other persons and the church. What this means is that the letter will be read to the church and people will learn a lesson of reconciliation.
Often people have said that Christianity is a personal relationship with God. and often when they say this, they mean to say Christianity is a private matter between themselves and God. But dear friends, as much as Christianity is a personal relationship with God. It is not a private matter. When we become believers, when we are reconciled to God, we are placed in a body where we call ourselves brothers and sisters, God been our Father. We are brought into a family relationship where we strive together in unity to build the KIngdom. We are brothers and sister. We are fellow workers and we must not allow offence to fester in our midst.
This family unit is not limited only to our congregation or only to our friends. THis family union is universal. Anyone who calls upon the name of the Lord and believes in Christ alone for salvation is a brother or sister.
The most crucial question then is. Are you reconciled to God? Or you are still an enemy of God? Those reconciled to God are placed in the family of God and have escaped the judgement and wrath of God. We are God’s family