At Gateway Church in Austin, we concluded our series called One Hit Wonders.
All around each of us are things that can make us feel bound and stuck in our lives. And if we really dig deep, inside of every human being we’ll find a hole in our lives that can only be filled by the love of God. How can we begin to truly trust that the key to feeling both whole and free comes through saying yes to Jesus?
Work through the following questions and Scriptures on your own, and get together with your running partner, life group, or friends and family to talk through what you are learning.
You may recognize this song — Lovin’ You… but do you know the story behind the song?
- The song “Lovin’ You” was written by Minnie Riperton Pic and her husband, Richard Rudolph… produced by Stevie Wonder, and released in1975.
- You may know the song from when it came out because it featured some of the highest notes of ever sung by a human being!
- Minnie had a five-octave range and could sing in what’s referred to as the whistle register which is higher than falsetto.
If you weren’t listening to this song in the 70’s… you may know the song because it’s been featured in Burger King commercials – in movie soundtracks for Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason and Megamind from Dreamworks – It was even featured in an episode of the Simpsons in 2008. I even heard at Starbucks yesterday!
Just a few months later, in January 1976, tragically Minnie was diagnosed with breast cancer and tragically, she died in July of 1979, at just 31 years of age.
Her daughter Maya was only 6 when her mother died.
You might know Minnie’s daughter, Maya Rudolph Pic from SNL, Bridesmaids, or the Amazon series… Forever.
Before “Lovin’ You” was released as pop love song in the 70’s… the song actually originated as a lullaby that Minnie Riperton would sing to her infant daughter… Maya. In fact… at the end of the song, Riperton specifically references her daughter, chanting her name “Maya, Maya, Maya, Maya” as the song fades out.
I’ve found it amazing, that once I heard Maya Rudolph tell that story… it’s changed the way I hear that song, ever since.
Isn’t it amazing, just how much more connected we feel to something or someone once we’ve been exposed to a bit of their backstory? …the contextual backdrop that set the stage for a work of literature, a sculpture, a poem, or a song.
The same is true when reading Scripture.
It’s incredible how just a little bit of context can completely change our relationship to a verse, or chapter, or entire book of the Bible… especially when that “book” of the Bible is actually just a letter somebody wrote… and that letter takes up only one page of the Bible.
As we wrap-up our One Hit Wonders Series – I want to share one such letter with you… one page of scripture that has changed my life.
Paul’s Letter to Philemon
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker— to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints (God’s holy people). I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints. Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I than, as Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good—no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord. So, if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask. And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers. Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Philemon 1-25
Do you see how important this letter is?
Can you see why I count it among my favorite books in the entire Bible?
My guess is… for many, if not most of you… the answer is probably “no”.
And for those of you who were nodding your head in agreement with me… you either know the context of Philemon or you’re probably just a “2” or a “9” on the Enenagram… and you didn’t want me to feel bad.
If you don’t know the context,
- you probably didn’t have your breath taken away by this letter, right?
- Maybe this was the first time do you ever read this letter… or for some of you this is probably the first time you realized there’s a book called “Philemon” in the Bible.
- I get it! Philemon doesn’t get a lot of air-play in our culture.
In fact, a couple members of our arts team hit Kenny Green our central campus pastor up this week and said, “hey Kenny… we heard you’re teaching about ‘Filet-Mignon’ (have this appear first) this weekend… cool.”
He had to explain to them: “no, no… it’s “Philemon” (Have this appear right under ‘filet-mignon’)
Anyway, let’s get better acquainted with this letter that a 1st century church-planter named Paul… wrote to a guy named Philemon… about a guy named Onesimus.
Who is Philemon?
- Wealthy land owner in the small town of Colossae
- Sometime, someplace he met Paul (somewhere else) because, apparently Paul had never visited Colossae
- Philemon probably met Paul while he was ministering in Ephesus for three years – (140 miles away)
Paul told Philemon the good news and Philemon became a follower of Jesus.
Philemon was so excited about his new found faith, that when he returned to Colossae… He planted a church that met in his home.
We can reasonably assume Philemon had some wealth:
- He had a home that was large enough for a house-church to meet there.
(Followers of Jesus only met in homes until 300CE when Constantine the emperor of Rome became a Christian and his mother started building cathedrals and buildings.)
- Also… Philemon and his wife had slaves.
Slavery in the Bible
Slavery was not immediately abolished in the church in the 1st century… but this letter was a ticking time bomb written by Paul that would go off and lead followers of Jesus to become advocates for abolishing slavery.
There are other NT texts as well… like Eph 6; Col 3; 1Tim, but Paul is advocating for a subversive undoing of an institution in daily life.
You have to realize, in the ancient world no one was talking or writing like Paul who was advocating on behalf of women, Gentiles, and slaves. The early house churches bore the fruit of that as they became the most inclusive, diverse, and free communities on the planet!
There’s a couple of things you should know about slavery mentioned in the New Testament. It’s not like the African slave trade where families were separated, kidnapped, taken hostage on a boat and sent across the ocean to a new world where they knew no one and were mistreated. Instead, up to 80% of the Roman Empire was enslaved… and in those days, slavery had nothing to do with race.
Even still, because of the teachings of the Scriptures… church leaders advocated for the end of slavery as early as the 600s and William Wilberforce of England became anti-slavery after becoming a follower of Jesus. John Wesley, a pastor wrote his friend Wilberforce encouraging him to keep up the fight against slavery:
“Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? O be not weary of well doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.’” John Wesley – 1791
So now 2000 years ago, if Jesus and Paul had advocated for a slave rebellion, even if it had worked… it would have been localized and short term. Slavery is how the economy worked. Scholar NT Wright equated the importance of slavery to the economy of the ancient world to the way we depend on electricity today. Slavery is also how most people survived. They needed a place to stay and a job to do and a way to take care of their family.
That’s one of the reasons this letter is so powerful… that in a cultural context where slavery is still so commonplace… Paul advocates for freedom!
Both Jesus’ and Paul’s approach were a spiritual and long-term approach rather than a short-term fix that may not have had any lasting effect. Jesus came to free all the captives and that freedom included freedom from all sin. Paul tells slaves to become free, if they can… and conversely tells free people to not become slaves.
Anyone who has used the Bible to promote racism or slavery has manipulated the meaning of the Scriptures for their own evil intentions and have not actually looked at the words being written and the context of what was being shared.
So again, Philemon was wealthy and had many people (family and servants alike) living with him and dependent on his provision to make it in this world… and one of those people was a guy named Onesimus.
Who was Onesimus?
- He was working as a slave/bondservant in Philemon’s home.
- I’d imagine he didn’t like being a slave and one day… Onesimus decided to change his condition… he decided he’d take his chances and leave the country and escape to the big city… but how would he fund such a trip?
- One day while his masters were away… Onesimus went in to the house… robbed his masters… and fled for Ephesus a large city near Colossae or possibly even all the way to Rome.
- Rome was 1700 miles away – it was the capital city.
- It was said in those days, “All roads led to Rome”.
- It was a great and thriving city… full of strangers crowding it’s city gates… a perfect place to live in relative anonymity as a run-away slave.
I’d imagine Onesimus thought that if he could just get to Rome or Ephesus for that matter, he could hide his wealth and crimes in the anonymity of the crowd.
He got there and I am sure enjoyed it for a while… the wine, the women and song… all of the great attractions in trappings that the big city had to offer a young man from a country town.
We don’t know how, but he meets Paul in prison… (only that it was God’s provision). (Paul was imprisoned so often we aren’t sure which time he was in prison when he met Onesimus – either in Ephesus or Rome).
My guess is that he probably got himself into some trouble with the law… and ended up in prison.
Next thing he knew, he found himself incarcerated with some old guy named Paul.
If you’ve ever taken the time to read any of the New Testament letters for yourself… than you probably know what typically happens when someone meets Paul.
Paul told Onesimus the good news of Jesus… and he too became a follower of Jesus… and from that moment on, his life was completely changed!
The Message of Jesus
One of the amazing things about the gospel (the message of Jesus), is that it appeals to all kinds of people.
- The same message that appealed to Philemon, also appealed to Onesimus.
- The same message that appeals to a scholar at a university also appeals to a farmer in a Third World country.
- The same message that appeals to a woman in west Texas who deals with her problems by going to a bar in the corner of her living room… also touches a woman who is slinging drinks at a nightclub in downtown L.A.
Because inside of every human being… we all have a hole in our hearts that can only be filled with Christ’s Love.
- Underneath the skin, where we have secrets we haven’t told another person…
- Underneath the skin where we deal with all the brokenness in our lives…
That’s where the gospel does it’s best work! Just like with Onesimus.
Onesimus went to Rome with all of his problems and secrets in-tow… and quickly became part of the problem – but after being transformed by the message of Jesus… he became part of the solution.
- He began to care for Paul in prison
- In-turn, Paul disciples him and strengthens his faith as a disciple of Jesus
- They developed a closeness like father and son.
Then one day, I imagine Onesimus had a conversation with Paul… explaining to Paul, where he’d come from… and what had happened… and how he financed his trip to Rome with the money stolen from his masters.
When Onesimus mentions his master’s name… Paul would’ve been like, “PHILEMON?!?” …well, there’s a name I haven’t heard in a while.
“You know Philemon?” …Onesimus would’ve asked.
“Yeah, I know him.” …Paul replied.
Onesimus: “Look Paul, I’d like to go back and make things right, but you know that the law of Roman government says that if a slave steals and runs away, that’s a capital offense!! Again, I’d like to go back… but when it comes to being arrested or crucified for this… I’m not sure I’m up to that.”
Paul says to Onesimus, as a guy who’s found a whole new way of life as a follower of Jesus, “You know what you have to do, Onesimus… you know you gotta go back… you gotta make this right…
But I’ll tell you what I’m going to do, I’m going to write a letter to Philemon and I’m going to send it with you.
It’s very important that you give this letter to Philemon immediately upon seeing him… and don’t worry, Onesimus… I think Philemon will be alright once he reads my letter.
Thus, we have this letter… this “one page wonder” that we know as the Book of Philemon.
You see the message of Jesus is one of reconciliation – not just reconciliation between God and humanity but also reconciliation between people. People who follow Jesus are called to a supernatural level of love. You cannot say you love God and harbor bitterness in your heart towards your spouse, your extended family, or anyone! Loving God transforms us enabling us to love others as He intends.
Onesimus Meets Philemon
I can imagine the scene upon Onesimus’ arrival… after traveling all of those many miles back to Colossae, he probably would’ve been walking down a really long road where he started to see Philemon’s home up-a-ways in the distance.
I picture Philemon sitting on the porch with his wife, smoking a pipe and drinking tea or whatever they would’ve been drinking that morning… when suddenly, Philemon says to his wife, “hey, who is that coming up the road off in the distance? “
Then as Onesimus gets a little closer to the house, I’ll bet Philemon’s his wife would’ve been like, “you’ve got to be kidding me… is that Onesimus… the one who robbed us and then took off?”
Philemon would’ve been like, “not a chance… there’s no way that guy would ever have the nerve to come back here!”
But as Onesimus got a little closer to the house, they could finally see that it was actually him. And I am sure that Philemon would’ve jumped up off of his chair and ran out to the road to intercept Onesimus before he could get any closer to the house.
“Philemon, it’s me Onesimus! Now, I know that I am the last person you expected to see today… and I know you must be furious at how I left… but before you do anything, you got to read this letter. I promise I’m not going to run away again.“
So with one eye on Onesimus and one eye on the letter, Philemon begins to read…
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother… Philemon 1
Philemon: “Paul? You’ve seen Paul?… Is he in jail again?”
Onesimus: “Yeah, I just left him before I came here to Colossae… I don’t know if you heard, but they locked him up in Jerusalem… he pled his case before Cesar… and now he’s a prisoner in Rome.”
To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker— to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Philemon 1-3
Apphia: believed to be Philemon’s wife (Imagine her response)
Archippus: Archie was believed to be their son… and according to Colossians 4:17… probably a pastor in their house church.
I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints (God’s holy people). I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints Philemon 4-7
Paul exhorts and encourages Philemon first. (will add humor about my own manipulation tactics)
Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I than, as Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus—I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Philemon 8-10
Philemon: “Paul seems to think that you’re some kind of ‘changed man’ …he’s seems to think you’ve become a follower of Jesus – but I think you should know that I’m not going to be impressed until I know that Paul knows what you did to me .”
Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. Philemon 11
Really cool play in words going on here – Onesimus means “useful”
Paul is saying, “The guy you knew before… he didn’t live up to his name. But the guy standing in front of you now is an entirely different person… he’s a new creation!”
Philemon continues reading the letter from Paul:
I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good—no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord. So, if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. Philemon 12-17
Not as a slave who hurt you or wronged you in some way that injured your pride… but as you would welcome me your friend who led you to Christ!
Paul is asking Philemon to forgive Onesimus!
If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. Philemon 18
There it is!! Paul knew what he’d done… and now Philemon knew it!
Paul: “Philemon, take whatever he’s stolen from you… and whatever you feel he owes you… and put it on my account.”
I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask. And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers. Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Philemon 19-25
“Whatever wrong he’s done… whatever debt is owed to his master… charge it to me and I will pay it!” It’s like, Paul is illustrating the gospel… because Paul took on a debt that Onesimus couldn’t pay… and that’s what Jesus has done for all of humanity… he taken on the debt of sin and payed-it-off for all who say yes to him and put their trust in him.
You and I owe a debt to God’s holiness… a debt we could never pay. But on the cross, Jesus payed what we owe to God! When we say yes to Jesus… we are set free!
We are set free from sin and set free from bitterness!
Philemon is a biblical cliffhanger as we are never told what comes of the situation… but the greater cliffhanger is what do you choose to do with what you learned? Will we live free or slip back into what enslaves us?
Paul, who once persecuted and killed Christians for breaking religious and a Roman law, now standing in the gap on behalf of them when they’ve overtly broken said laws… modeling the Gospel in its promotion rather than trying to snuff it out. That is the very life change we all long for..
NO LONGER SLAVES to sin… or circumstance… or our past… or anything else!
And just as Philemon is to look upon Onesimus, as if he were Paul – we are reminded that when God the Father looks at us who are in Christ, he doesn’t see us and our failures, but what he sees is his own son… because anyone who says yes to Jesus and puts your trust and confidence in Him… you’re Forgiven!
I mean, FULLY – FINALLY – FREELY – FORGIVEN (have these appear one-at-a-time into the same frame on screen)
… and you’re accepted in God’s beloved family! And all that God the father will do for his own son he does for those who put their trust in him!
The letter to Philemon reminds us that…
- We are not defined by our socio-economics
- We aren’t defined by the worst decisions that we make.
- We are defined by who we are in Christ and who He’s created us to be!