Lenten Meditation FOUR

Philemon and Onesimus

The first sermon I preached at All Souls, Umhlali – was on this story. We are going to spend some time meditating on it.

Philemon – the shortest book of the bible, 25 verses, and a lovely, crazy story. It is a lived allegory of the life of salvation.

Onesimus – meaning USEFUL – is a runaway slave. Captured and imprisoned alongside the slave to Christ     (St Paul)– who was set free from everything but wearing the chains of the world for the sake of the world.

I might have to repeat that. ONESIMUS – in chains for his sins – and St Paul in Chains for his saviour. Onesimus heading for death as the penalty for disobedience and St Paul heading for trial and possible death as a result of his obedience.

Both sitting in prison in chains.

If you feel imprisoned by the circumstances of life… if you feel restricted … this story is for you.

We all have a better understanding of imprisonment now after COVID 19 when we were locked in our homes, for weeks at a time; something we never knew prior to that.

We can all relate to Jospeh and Daniel and Meshack and Abednego and Onesimus and St Paul, better now, than we did when we had no idea about being locked up, and what that was all about.

Your life, your experiences should be informing your understanding of scripture and your relationship with it.

You cannot relate to the Bible stories of other people’s lives across a time and culture barrier if you are not able to relate to your own life story. And that relating doesn’t begin with understanding it. 

It begins with the questions?

  • Where am I?
  • What am in involved with?
  • How does my faith relate to what is happening in my circumstance?

Once you are honest about your own circumstances you can relate to the circumstances of the people that you look up to in Scripture.

For you are not alone in your circumstances for they are described by and lived out by the personalities of and in scripture…

Scripture is not just the story of others people’s lives that you can read about and marvel at –  scripture is the story of your life, lived in the love and by the grace of God.

The book of Philemon is a book of the pattern of life for all…..   

Onesimus means useful

Philemon means kindness, love, to show warm affection in intimate friendships

So we have two people not living up to their names;

Like every Christian born in the image of and to the glory of God, but being fallen and not living up to our name until we have an encounter with the truth of what God is calling us to…

Christ saves us and sends us right back into the world to be who God created us to be and not who our fallen nature has limited us to be..

Are you a Philemon or a Onesimus today?

For here we have a man; given the name “useful” who had stolen from his master and through the desire for independence runs away and ends up in prison.

There he meets St Paul and becomes a Christian, he is released from his useless sinful character, and I am sure that he wished that it would free him from his bondage to Philemon, but he does not go with Paul, although Paul says that he’d love to have him; He is sent back to where he came from to serve the very person he didn’t want to serve in the first place–

That’s our testimony too. When Christ through whatever means he used, brought us to a situation that we were receptive to the Gospel, and most often it is when we realise just what a mess we have made… he transforms our lives and sets us free, not from our circumstances but form our uselessness, our waywardness, our individualistic selfish self – St Paul writes elsewhere about the nature of our former self – personified by Onesimus – before his prison experience, by Jonah before he had a whale of a time, by Saul before he met Jesus on the road to Damascus.

But now as someone transformed and who is indeed “useful” – someone who will no longer work for Philemon (the family man) out of compulsion but out of love for God.

Your see God saves us to put us to work where we are needed.

 And Philemon, called to live up to his name and treat Onesimus as a brother…

St Paul had been a persecutor of the Christians out of a zeal for the Jewish law – he met Jesus and was sent back to the world as a witness to God’s love for everyone. St Paul in Chains to witness to God’s love and Onesimus a slave to Philemon as a witness to the power of God ;

Power to transform us from the desire to serve self to the desire to serve God

To love the Lord our God and serve each other.

St Paul clearly states that the Christian must be a slave to God  and serve in the world that Jesus came to save.

Now our 17th century ideas of slavery make this whole Pauline concept difficult to understand so let’s back track for just a minute.

St Paul’s use of the word “doulos” “slave” has often been translated as servant in the English bible but I just want to sow a seed as to why ‘doulos’ was a better concept and one we can learn from.

A slave lives for the master, does what the master tells them to do;  and the reward belongs to the master.

We must change our picture of the slave-master – Philemon – caring kind one who gives much comfort and one who refreshes the hearts of the saints – that’s how St Paul describes Philemon –

The slave is fed and provided for and protected and blessed by a loving master, a slave has no desires to do anything other than what pleases the Master. That’s why theft is a terrible thing for a slave to do – it’s a sign of ungratefulness…

A paid servant however – lives for themselves and serves the master for personal gain. They offer their services and skills and the master pays them what they are worth and they live for their own gain. It’s all about their worth and entitlement and self- gratification.

The world corrupted these two ideas when they mistreated slaves and when they treated servants like slave/unpaid labour and got it all mixed up.

But which are you? Do you serve God for your own purposes or for God’s? Do you serve God to build your own kingdom or His?

We are to live for God – we are to accept the chains of the gospel and when that Gospel sets us free we are to accept our task of serving God by serving others in love and for love. RIGHT HERE RIGHT NOW, in the very circumstances that you are running away from God is wanting to heal and bring hope and joy and peace.

In the very areas that you are in your relationship for God for your own benefit, you are to be transformed and serve the Lord and him only….

So are you an Onesimus? – will you return to the world today and become useful – will you embrace a new idea of dying to self and being raised in Christ and with Christ and through Christ serve the world.

Are you a Philemon – will you be kind and intimately affectionate like a brother or sister, reconciling with those whom have offended you, even from within the household of faith.

Let us head these words.

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.


Start with you as an Onesimus and ask God to take you back – Carry this letter to Philemon – picture yourself handing it him -And of Course Philemon is God /Jesus – this is repentance….

Forgive as you are forgiven

Now be Philemon – identify someone or something that has robbed you of joy in your life and ministry – and read this letter asking you to be reconciled and to embrace that thing and welcome it back……

 What changes are required?

Prayer time.

Author: admin

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