THE POWER OF A CHANGED LIFE Philemon especially 8-25 (Onesimus)
New Living Translation
This letter is from Paul, a prisoner for preaching the Good News about Christ Jesus, and from our brother Timothy. I am writing to Philemon, our beloved co-worker, 2 and to our sister Apphia, and to our fellow soldier Archippus, and to the church that meets in your house.
3 May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace.
4 I always thank my God when I pray for you, Philemon, 5 because I keep hearing about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all of God’s people. 6 And I am praying that you will put into action the generosity that comes from your faith as you understand and experience all the good things we have in Christ. 7 Your love has given me much joy and comfort, my brother, for your kindness has often refreshed the hearts of God’s people.
That is why I am boldly asking a favour of you. I could demand it in the name of Christ because it is the right thing for you to do. 9 But because of our love, I prefer simply to ask you. Consider this as a request from me—Paul, an old man and now also a prisoner for the sake of Christ Jesus. 10 I appeal to you to show kindness to my child, Onesimus. I became his father in the faith while here in prison. 11 Onesimus [the name means “useful”] hasn’t been of much use to you in the past, but now he is very useful to both of us. 12 I am sending him back to you, and with him comes my own heart.
13 I wanted to keep him here with me while I am in these chains for preaching the Good News, and he would have helped me on your behalf. 14 But I didn’t want to do anything without your consent. I wanted you to help because you were willing, not because you were forced. 15 It seems you lost Onesimus for a little while so that you could have him back forever. 16 He is no longer like a slave to you. He is more than a slave, for he is a beloved brother, especially to me. Now he will mean much more to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.
17 So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.18 If he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, PAUL, WRITE THIS WITH MY OWN HAND: I WILL REPAY IT. AND I WON’T MENTION THAT YOU OWE ME YOUR VERY SOUL! 20 Yes, my brother, please do me this favour for the Lord’s sake. Give me this encouragement in Christ. 21 I am confident as I write this letter that you will do what I ask and even more! 22 One more thing—please prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that God will answer your prayers and let me return to you soon.
23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you his greetings. 24 So do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my co-workers.
25 May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
Do you sometimes think…
“If I could live my life again, I wouldn’t make the mistakes I’ve made”?
The reality is that we have all made mistakes, exercised poor judgement and said and done things that with hindsight we regret…
It is likely that our actions and decisions were strongly influenced by our upbringing…
- The stability or otherwise of our home life
- Our parents’ behaviour, priorities and preferences
- The school we attended… the friends we made
Ultimately, we all have to take responsibility for our actions… but imagine if your circumstances were those of a SLAVE… in large measure, unable to make your own decisions or determine your life direction!
Such was the situation for the central character in our reading: Onesimus
Background to the letter…
- Onesimus was a slave of Philemon; it seems that he had stolen some money and run away to hide in Rome
- At some point, Onesimus met with or listened to Paul the Apostle and was wonderfully converted.
- Paul wrote to his friend, Philemon in Colossae, asking him to forgive Onesimus, show kindness to him and, significantly, to welcome him as a man and brother in Christ.
It is said that this letter from Paul to Philemon had a powerful influence on the issue of slavery and opened the way for its eventual abolition in the Western World, though sadly, slavery is still rife in certain non-Christian parts of the world today.
There are three main aspects to this letter:
- Forgiveness and restoration (of Onesimus)
- Our standing before God (regardless of worldly status: slave or free)
- New life in Christ (‘transformation’)
I want to focus on the third of these aspects, namely… “Transformation by the Spirit of Christ” or “New Life in Christ”
Many folk outside the church say: “I’m fine as I am… I don’t need to change my ways… Life is generally good and I’m contented…”
Others say… “I’m not perfect but I do my best, work hard and try to be helpful to others. Most people would describe me as a decent person…”
A cynic might say… “I know people who go to church and say they are Christians, who are no better than I am! So why do I need to repent of (what you call) my sins?”
Some religions claim that salvation depends upon your GOOD DEEDS outweighing your bad ones …
Now it’s true that Jesus often spoke of the importance of good deeds… but not as the route TO eternal salvation but as the fruit OF salvation!
And even if we were to strive for God’s approval through ‘good deeds’, we would need to be clear what constitutes a ‘good deed’…
- Putting money in a charity box?
- Serving members of your family sacrificially?
- Assisting an elderly person with shopping?
- Mowing a neighbour’s lawn voluntarily?
- Protesting against (perceived) injustice?
- Supporting a bereaved or unhappy person?
- Paying off someone’s debt?
- Sacrificing a kidney for someone to receive in a transplant operation?
- Giving your life to save another? (The ultimate “good deed”)
Good deeds carried out by persons of any religion or none should be applauded… The difference between a Christian’s good deed and a non-Christian’s good deed is that Christians give the praise to God because He and only He is the source of goodness.
In addition, not every religion or philosophy or ideology would agree with the examples I have quoted. They might say:
- Look after yourself and let others take care of themselves
- The family is to serve my needs, not the other way around.
- Ignore neighbours and keep yourself to yourself
- Don’t spend time and energy fighting injustice … right and wrong is just a matter of opinion.
- Bereaved and unhappy people should simply ‘get over it and get on with it’! Sympathy is for ‘losers’!
- If people owe money, they should pay up or face the consequences!
- Look after “number one” And so on…
Furthermore, are all good deeds of EQUAL worth? Does God give a SCORE to each one depending upon its ‘goodness’?
- The truth is that trying to assess someone’s worthiness to inherit salvation by reference to good deeds is confusing and riddled with difficulty!
So even if good deeds were the means of gaining God’s approval, we could never be sure if we had reached the necessary standard… not least because what constitutes a ‘good deed’ to us might not be seen that way by God!
- Thankfully, our salvation does NOT depend upon good deeds or merit points or “indulgences” … but upon the death of Jesus Christ upon the Cross of Calvary
- However, the way we live is a “barometer” of the progress we have made on the ‘transformation’ journey towards Christ-likeness.
BACK TO ONESIMUS… the man who moved from slavery to apparent freedom… only to find that he was still a slave… to sin! He thought that he was free from his “chains” but there was a greater transformation needed in his life
- And when he met Paul and was converted, the process of transformation really began
- Note the use of ‘process’… Being transformed into the likeness of Christ takes time, perseverance on our part and allowing the Holy Spirit to do His work in and through us…
- The process will not be complete until the end of time, though if we are “in Christ”, God sees us as if the transformation IS complete!
Gordon MacDonald (2012)* argues that there are 12 indicators of a transformed life… I have used his work (but not necessarily his precise headings or wording) as a framework for the following summary and comment:
- The person is totally devoted to Jesus Christ… He or she has a determination to follow Christ and live for Him, no matter what happens… This is no casual commitment … For some people, it leads to suffering and extreme sacrifice.
NB Notice MacDonald’s use of the word “devotion” rather than “love”, as love can mean so many different things in the English language.
- The person pursues a biblically informed view of the world… Not relying on Christian TV personalities or the latest popular book or even preachers (!) … but on a deep, intensive knowledge and understanding of life and its priorities, based on the Bible, interpreted by the Spirit of God.
Charles Spurgeon: “Visit many good books but live in the Bible”
- The person is intentional and disciplined in seeking God’s direction in life… Self-discipline, diligence and responsible life-habits are developed that prepare the person for battle in a world that largely prefers the wide road instead of the narrow one that leads to life…
Discipline is not a dirty word unless it becomes a straitjacket and restricts us from being sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s leading and guiding. The “we’ve always done it this way” syndrome!
- The person has a spirit of continuous repentance… There’s a need for constant ‘refreshing’ of one’s relationship with God… To keep an eternal perspective in view … To find peace and joy through singing, praying and other expressions of worship that re-connect us to the Holy Spirit.
NB Worship is not for entertainment but to be re-energised in the Spirit
- The person builds healthy, reciprocal relationships… Swift to admit wrong … forgiving others when offended … bringing the Person of Christ with him/her into every situation. Helping others to grown in maturity and love…always humble.
NB Resentment and gossip have no place in the life of the transformed believer.
- The person engages with the larger world… Not becoming institutionalised but rather being salt and light in the world … Maintaining a well-informed and prayerful view of local and national affairs … Acting decisively against wrong practices and decisions … not passive.
NB There is a balance to be struck: We are in the world but not “of” it… It is possible to become so caught up in contributing to community initiatives, however laudable, that we are ‘absorbed’ into a worldly way of thinking and behaving… “Wise as serpents” as well as “innocent as doves”!
- The person is aware of his or her unique ‘calling’ and gifting… The transformed life becomes sensitive and responsive to the fact that God gives ‘good gifts’ to those who seek Him … Determined to use the skills, attributes and insights that the Spirit places in each individual to help achieve Kingdom purposes …
NB We are all called to use our talents to serve God … Some people are specially gifted…more will be expected of them! But no one can be a conscientious objector!
- The person is merciful and generous… The transformation involves thinking of others … not harbouring petty jealousies or being harsh about someone who stumbles … Willing to step aside if God chooses another person before him or her … Giving of time, energy and finance to assist those in need.
- The person accepts that faithfulness to Christ may involve suffering… The Apostle James writes: “Count it pure joy [if you suffer]”… Many people have commented that they learned more about themselves and about God during difficult times than when the path was smooth and rosy!
NB The ‘transformed’ believer doesn’t complain and moan that life is unfair… or become bitter … rather s/he is able to help and encourage others who are experiencing similar difficulties
- The person is eager to express and share his or her faith… Sharing does not require an evangelistic gift or superb oratory… Many of the most effective witnesses would sooner die than stand up the front and preach! No, sharing is done simply, naturally, sincerely and (vitally important) motivated by love for others.
NB It has to be admitted that we all fall short when it comes to sharing our faith, partly through embarrassment, partly through not wishing to ‘put someone off’ and partly through difficulty in conveying eternal truths in language that the listener can comprehend.
We read that the ‘common people’ heard Jesus gladly because He spoke plainly with words of wisdom and authority.
- The person overflows with thankfulness… The transformed person is basically cheerful, bright-eyed and positive about life, always giving the glory to God …
NB He or she seeks things about which to be grateful, rather than finding things about which to complain! … The person is serious when necessary, not flippant… but she or he brightens your day and is a pleasure to have around.
- The person champions peace and reconciliation… S/he is a peacemaker, drawing people together rather than causing divisions … The transformed person exhibits the characteristics of Jesus Christ in lifting the fallen, comforting the brokenhearted and valuing every person, regardless of status, creed, background, race or ability.
HOW FAR ALONG THE TRANSFORMATION ROAD did Onesimus travel? We don’t know!
- Did Philemon accept Onesimus as a brother in Christ? We don’t know
- Did Onesimus continue to allow God’s Spirit to transform him? We don’t know
But forget Onesimus! How about you and me?
The question must be faced: How far are WE allowing the Spirit of God to transform our lives into the likeness of Christ?
- What areas of our lives need further transformation to bring glory to God and make us more effective as His disciples in a broken world?