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  • Writer's pictureWes Van Fleet

The Gospel Ethic: A Look at Philemon

Two and a half years ago we preached through the tiny book of Philemon. It is small in size (25 verses) but large in its depth. I think of this book often and am still meditating on how Paul uses the gospel message in this book. I think the one thing that sticks out the most is how Paul expects those who believe the gospel to make decisions based on the gospel. For example, in verses 8-9, he writes,

"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."

Paul knows that as being an Apostle he has a certain authority that he can use in the churches. Yet, does he choose to flex that authority? No, he appeals to Philemon for love's sake. Where does he get this type of ethic? He gets it from Jesus who did not count equality with God as something to cling to, but he let it go and descended low into humility for the sake of love (Phil. 2:6-8).

Paul's decision making and teaching are so beautifully formed by the gospel that they seem like second nature to him. And he expects it of others as well. We see this clearly later in the letter. Before we look at that though, some of you may be unfamiliar with the book. I encourage you to sit down and read it; it will only take 4 minutes. The letter is written to a man who hosts a church in his home, a man named Philemon. Philemon had a slave named Onesimus. Something happened that caused him to flee from Philemon, which was punishable by death in the first century. Onesimus found Paul in prison, shared everything going on, became a follower of Jesus, and because Paul cares so deeply about unity and reconciliation, he sends Onesimus back to Philemon. It's like a made for TV drama!

Now, we can guess that Philemon is pretty upset by the disappearance of Onesimus. But Paul expects the gospel to shape the way followers of Jesus make decisions and live their lives. Well, in Philemon 17-18 Paul writes this to Philemon, "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."  Wow! This is stunning. Trust me when I write that this was as counter-cultural as it gets in the first century. Paul knows the personal cost Onesimus' running away would have caused Philemon. He knows Philemon has rights under the Roman government to execute Onesimus, but Paul also is reminding Philemon that he is under a new authority; King Jesus' authority.

Imagine being Paul. He is in a prison cell and tells Philemon to charge anything that Onesimus owes him to his account. Paul is willing to take on the financial and relational debt that Onesimus caused. What better picture of the gospel? Did Jesus not take on our mounds and mounds of debt? Did he not pay for it with his own life? Paul has been so shaped by the gospel that he makes decisions and lives with the gospel flowing through his veins.

After years of missions and planting churches, the gospel is still great news to him.

What about us? Are we a people that are still being shaped by the gospel? Do our relational, financial, and emotional decisions flow from the good news of Christ's life, death, resurrection, and ascension? Kaleo Church, let's strive to breath in the good news of the gospel and exhale good works that glorify Jesus and cause others to get a glimpse of our King. 

Here are the Philemon sermons for those that are interested: Philemon Sermons

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