Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.
Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love's sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 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.
So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, I want 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 say. At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
Our work is deeply significant because we are created in God’s image and God is a worker. This is where our identity ultimately stems from and what defines us. However, there is a notion that work is actually now a bad thing. A massive amount of marketing is directed at us which says that the goal in life is to work hard, retire young and live a life of leisure for the rest of your life. This viewpoint seems to indicate that work may be something that God does, but to really enjoy life, you need to be free of work. That work in essence is not a good thing, but rather a stepping stone of sorts to a better life, usually leading to greater levels of security, safety and leisure. Is this the way we are to think about work? Does this viewpoint align with Scripture and is it supported by the Gospel?
There is a story deep within the New Testament that may shed some needed light on these questions and others related to work and the Gospel. This is the story of Onesimus (a servant) and Philemon (a master). Philemon was also a Christ-follower and helped to lead a congregation in his city. One day, Onesimus does something wrong against Philemon (likely stealing money) and flees to a far away city to escape the wrath of his master and pursue freedom. During his time in the big city, Onesimus comes into contact with Paul–who was in prison during this time–and places his faith in Jesus. He works with Paul in this city and the Gospel continues to have its transforming work on his heart and mind. One day, Paul writes a letter to Onesimus’ master, Philemon explaining that Onesimus is coming back to work for him and that he should accept Onesimus as a brother and not merely as a worker. The contents of this letter is the book of Philemon in our Bible. This story of the Gospel change has radical implications for us as we think about our work and the significance of our vocations.
The Gospel changes our view of the worker (8-11)
Depending on what type of work you operate within, you may at times feel like a small cog in a large machine. You may not feel significant or that your contribution matters to the world, much less to God. However, God says something very powerful to us through the words of Paul here. The Gospel actually changes the way we view ourselves as workers and the way we view others as workers. As the Gospel saturates our thinking, our opinion about other people ought to shift and change. At one point, you may have thought negatively about certain groups of people, but as Jesus renews your mind, you may find that your negativity starts to give way to compassion or love or generosity.
Paul seems to not only appeal to this in Philemon, but almost expect this type of thinking to have taken root. Paul tells Philemon that Onesimus (whose name means “useful” or “profitable”) is someone filled with dignity, purpose and is useful to many–not just Philemon.
The Gospel is immensely personal and never private (12-16)
It would be one thing if Paul had said to Philemon that Onesimus was going to pay some recompense for whatever wrong he had done, but he says that he is sending Onesimus back to Philemon. Philemon will have to confront his anger and frustration in a worker that broke trust and Onesimus will have to walk humbly into the consequences of his past decisions, hoping for mercy.
This Gospel is serious business! You may not yet realize the deep implications of the Gospel in your life, but if you have followed Jesus for any length of time, you likely know the way Jesus’ good news changes your thinking and your behavior. This work that God has done for you is not an impersonal work done for just people in general, but he has and is working in you. God is personally involved in your life, changing you from the inside by the power of his Spirit–whose presence in you guarantees that God’s work will be complete one day (ref).
The Gospel calls us to work as unto the Lord and in this we make our profession in Jesus known–our hope causes us to serve others to the best of our ability because Jesus has served us best. This means that if you are a boss, you seek to serve your employees to the best of your ability. Conversely, if you are an employee, this means honoring your boss with honesty and integrity–whether or not you are recognized for it. These are very public acts, but all stem from a very personal God who is changing you from the inside out. You may be seen for these things or these actions may go largely unnoticed. Regardless, know that God knows and sees the way you serve him as you do your job well and steward faithfully the vocation he has entrusted to you.
The Gospel transforms us from self-centered to others-oriented (17-21)
This may be the hardest pill to swallow. Imagine the significance of your work as this: The way that God serves others. You collect trash–this is how God cleans our neighborhoods. You practice law–this is how God brings justice. You deliver furniture to a warehouse–this is how God provides for people’s homes. Your work is larger than you and perhaps shows us an active God who is providing, protecting and cultivating his world–through the hands of the image-bearers that he created.
With this understanding, Paul’s words are not that difficult to deal with. He views himself as a servant of Jesus and so he tells Philemon that whatever Onesimus owes, Paul will pay. Paul incurs the cost on himself. The generosity of Paul is not just some altruistic sentimental statement, but rather a bold confidence that a life lived for others is both costly and joy-filled. Paul’s orientation is directed at Onesimus, but really he is calling Philemon to be obedient to the Gospel. He is saying, “I realize the law would let you severely punish this man for what he has done, but look at Jesus, the man who took your punishment–consider this good news as you receive back your brother/servant.”
What you do Monday - Friday matters deeply. A self-centered approach to work says: Work is the way I provide for me. A Gospel approach says: Work is one way that God serves his world (including myself). Work is a good thing to be stewarded well.
This week, as you reflect on the message, utilize this section to help you apply what has been taught to your life. Think of friends, co-workers, neighbors, family etc., that you could meet with to have a time of mutual sharing to discuss the implications of the message.
This simple acronym (BLESS, B - Bless, L - Listen, E - Eat, S - Speak, S - Sabbath) should help you to frame your life according to the great commandment “love God” (Matthew 22:37) and the expression of that commandment in loving your neighbor (John 13:34). Each time you meet, start by discussing the rhythms of your life according to B.L.E.S.S.
Intentionally bless: Christ-followers, non-believers and those different than you.
Listen to what God is saying to you, through His Word and others.
Share a meal with a Christ-follower and also a non-believer.
Talk to God through prayer and to others about Jesus through witness.
Be intentional about taking time to both rest and recreate.
An Examined Life
As we continue to reflect on the sermon, allow these questions to guide your discussion with others concerning the conviction points and what you sensed God’s Spirit was doing in you through the preached Word. Jot notes to help you remember.
What was God doing in you through the message on Sunday?
Describe how you’ve grown in your understanding of the Gospel?
How are you going to respond to God’s Word in your life?