Let us come to Philemon. Our subject this morning: reconciling believers. This is of course the shortest of all Paul’s letters, 335 words in Greek. I find it intensely depressing that a new commentary on Philemon has just been published which is apparently over 560 pages. This is evangelical scholarship gone mad. I mean that brethren. That strikes me as quite absurd. Paul was satisfied with 335 words.
He must have written many letters like this. Perhaps dozens or hundreds of letters like this were written by the apostle. This is the one the Holy Spirit has chosen to place within the Scripture. It is often neglected because it is so small. Lenski says, “It is the loveliest epistle written by Paul.”1 Rabbi Duncan said, “It is the most gentlemanly letter ever written.”
Context of the Letter
Paul writes from prison, probably in Rome, to Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and the church meeting in their house in Colosse. Philemon is Paul’s spiritual son. Apphia is probably his wife and Archippus their son. Archippus may well be leading the church at Colosse during the absence of Epaphras.
A slave of Philemon has run away, a man called Onesimus. Apparently he has stolen some property or money from his master. He has found his way to Rome, somehow he has come in contact with Paul, and he has been converted through Paul’s ministry; and he has been helping his spiritual father, in some way. Paul is now proposing to send Onesimus back to Philemon. He is going to go with Tychicus, who’s carrying Colossians. The appropriate reference can be found in Colossians, Onesimus is mentioned there also.
This little letter is simply to pave the way for this runaway slave to be received back into his master’s household; that’s why Paul’s writing. So, he is dealing with quite a complex, pastoral problem. It involves two believers, Philemon and Onesimus; and they are at odds with each other. There is something between them, and they need to be reconciled. Philemon has been wronged: he has been robbed. He has a legitimate grievance against Onesimus. Onesimus has been in the wrong, but he is now a new creature in Christ. Surely that must make a considerable difference to their relationship; and yet this may well be the first that Philemon has heard of Onesimus’ conversion.
Six Characteristics of Paul’s Approach
So how are these two men going to relate to each other? What will be the basis of their new relationship? They are master and slave. One has wronged the other. They are also now brothers in Christ. How are they going to live together in the fellowship of the church?
I am not going to attempt an exegesis of the letter, but I want to look at it from a pastoral perspective and ask: what can we learn about shepherding people from the way in which Paul handles this particular case? This is a unique example we have to watch this pastor at work. Here is a case study dealing with two, real Christian people, and the pastor is dealing with the situation. It is surely valuable for us to sit beside this pastor, and watch him working with these people. What can we learn for our pastoral responsibilities? The implications of course are wider.
A Positive Approach
Let us begin with one or two preliminary points. We note first that Paul’s approach is positive. In other words, he does something about the situation. He takes action. The very existence of the letter is a witness to the importance Paul gave to this matter. Here is this great apostle. He has the burdens of many churches on his shoulders. He has lots of things to think about. He has great responsibilities. There are problems in the Colossian church. There is a heresy coming in, and he has to deal with that. He has all these matters to deal with; and yet what is he doing? I would suggest he is spending a large amount of time, effort, prayer and thought, resolving a difference between two individual believers.
It would have been so easy for Paul to avoid the whole issue. It doesn’t need to be dealt with in a sense. Philemon is in Colosse and Onesimus is in Rome. There are hundreds of miles between them. He could just simply have written to Philemon and said, “You’ll be pleased to know that Onesimus has been converted. He’s very useful to me, and I’m going to keep him here to help me.” Yet Paul apparently considers it vital that the relationship of these men be restored. He is not willing to let things drift, and he is not willing to leave it simply up to them. He does not say, “Well now Onesimus, you’re a Christian, you two go on home, and you and Philemon settle it between you.” It is his responsibility as the pastor to do something about it.
Now normally we don’t go around looking for pastoral problems to solve. We don’t wake up in the morning and say, “What pastoral prob…” They usually come upon us unbidden. Issues arise, they claim our attention, and we can’t ignore them; we have to deal with them. And you might think, “Well, we have enough issues that we have to deal with without going around looking for issues to deal with.” And so, we can tend to accept these sort of things as an unfortunate fact of life: “It’s part of human nature. There are some people in our church that don’t get along with each other. I have lots of other things to do. It’s not causing much trouble in the fellowship at the moment. I hope they get it sorted out soon.”
Paul teaches us to apply different standards. He feels that it is a monstrous thing, that two followers of Jesus Christ should be estranged from each other. He feels the pain of it. He feels the damage it could do to the integrity of the church. We need to learn from him and see that it is our responsibility to become involved. Paul’s approach is positive.
A Credible Approach
Secondly, Paul’s approach is credible. One of the sub-themes of this letter is that Paul himself is in prison. In verse 1 he says, “…a prisoner of Jesus Christ…” Verse 9: “…now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ…” Verse 10: “…Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains…” Verse 13: “…in chains for the gospel.” Verse 23: “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner…” There are many, many references in a very short letter to his imprisonment. Why does he do this?
Some respected commentators suggest that he is aiming at pathos. Lightfoot says, “How could Philemon resist an appeal penned within prison walls by a manacled hand?”2 In other words that Philemon would feel sorry for Paul, and would then be likely to accede to his request. I think it is much more likely that Paul is reminding Philemon that he himself knows what it is to suffer for Christ. He is asking hard things of these men. He is asking Philemon to surrender his legal rights. He is asking him to sacrifice his pride. He is asking Onesimus to give up his freedom, and to return home at great risk to himself. And so he is saying, “You can’t accuse me of glibness. I know that it costs to follow Jesus.”
H. M. Carson comments, “Here is a principle involved in any true pastoral work. The pastor can only appeal to his people for self-sacrifice and discipline if he knows the meaning of discipline in his own life. Otherwise, his call is empty and lifeless.”3 So here is a man who suffers for Christ. And he is reminding Philemon of that, so that when he asks Philemon to do hard things, and when he asks Onesimus to do hard things, they know that he does hard things.
Brethren, that is the challenge to us in our ministry. We cannot ask our people to live by a standard that we do not in great measure exemplify. We need to be able to say to them, “I, too, am a man under authority.” We need to watch our personal relationships. We need to watch against the flash of temper, the spirit of resentment, the attitude of pride. When we are corrected, can we take it? When we are criticized, can we take it? Can we forgive? Do we show a humble spirit? There is no point in expecting our people to live by standards that we are not prepared to live by. And so Paul, when he urges this among these men, has credibility and authority because he has exemplified it in his own life.
A Tactful Approach
Thirdly, Paul’s approach is tactful. The commentators all remark on the skill with which this letter is composed. It is a very, very clever, subtle, persuasive piece of writing; not only in the argument and the way that the argument is built,—we will look at that in a moment—but in Paul’s actual Greek style, his choice of words, and in the actual position in the sentence in which he puts individual words.
Let me give one or two obvious examples to give the flavor. He relieves the rather fraught situation with gentle humor. The Greek word Onesimus means “useful.” Remember the play on words in verse 11. He is talking about sending back “useful,” and he says, “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to me. He didn’t really used to be an Onesimus, but now he is an Onesimus.” What is interesting is the words he uses for useless and useful. Useless is “achrēstos” (ἄχρηστος), spelt with an eta, not an iota; “achrēstos”: useless. Useful is “euchrēstos” (εὐχρηστος), useful. So, he is playing with the word Onesimus. Onesimus means useful. He used to be “achrēstos,” useless; he is now “euchrēstos,” useful.
But those two Greek words sound exactly the same, as words which would mean “outside Christ or without Christ,” or “well with Christ,” if it were spelt with an iota, instead of an eta. He used to be “achrēstos”; he used to be useless, and he used to be without Christ. But now, he is “euchrēstos”; he is useful, and it is well with him and Christ.
There are many other such puns. In verse 20 he says, “I want some benefit from you”; the verb is “oninēmi” (ὀνίνημι). It is almost identical with the word Onesimus. It is an unusual word, and Paul is striking the verbal echoes. There is enough to show us that, in the words of one commentator, “this is a carefully crafted and sensitively worded piece.” I ask you brethren, are our pastoral conversations with our people carefully crafted and sensitively worded? Is it not true that we often give attention to what we need to say, but we give comparatively little attention as to exactly how we are going to say it? We may even suspect that sort of thing as playing with words, rhetoric. “I’m a blunt sort of fellow. I call a spade a spade. I tell it like it is.” But the apostle took great pains to express himself as persuasively as possible.
I can’t resist giving you a couple more examples. In verse 7, he leaves to the end, right out of place, the word “brother”: “For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother.” Do you see the power of it? He is thinking.
People say, “It’s what we say that’s important, not how we say it.” But Paul is concerned. He is supremely concerned with content, and that is precisely why he is concerned with how he says it. It is because what we say is important that we have to say it in the best possible way. Isn’t that basically the argument of Dabney’s, Sacred Rhetoric? Isn’t that what Dabney is saying? We have to pay attention to how we say things.
So in the pastoral work, when you are going to visit someone on a difficult issue, you have to sit down beforehand for an hour and you have to put yourself in their shoes, in their position. Imagine yourself walking into their house with your bible in your hand to deal with them about their sin, and if you were they, what would appeal to you? What would impress you? How would you want to be spoken to? All too often we go blundering in, and then when we have pastoral problems made worse, we say, “Well that was because I was faithful.” Well maybe it was because I was clumsy, or inept, or said things the wrong way.
And here is this great apostle, dealing with this piffling, little incident—two little nobodies. And I imagine him, whether rightly or wrongly,—and I think it is congruent with the inspiration of the Spirit—making drafts of this, and working at it, and changing it, and laboring over how he is going to say what he has to say. “No, I’ll not say or put that word there…” It is to say it in the best way he can say it. Would that not help us in our pastoral work, if we tried to develop this sensitivity and tact? “I’ve something hard to say, but God if they’re going to be offended, let them be offended at what I’m saying and not at the stupid, insensitive way I say it.” Paul’s approach is tactful.
A Christological Approach
Now we come to the body of our study. Paul’s approach is Christological; and this brings us to the basis for pastoral work. The basis for pastoral work is not psychological insights, it is not common sense,—valuable though these may be—it is theology; and specifically the person, work, and present activity of Christ in His body. Paul exercised a Christ-shaped ministry. I think the key verse in the letter is verse 6, where he says that, “…the sharing of your faith may become effective by the acknowledgement of every good thing which is in you” —or in us—“in Christ Jesus.”
This is a piece of very difficult Greek, and it is hard to translate; the versions differ. I want to stress that the most important word in the verse, and I think in the epistle, is the word “koinōnia” (κοινωνία). It means fellowship, and sharing. But brethren, I want to put before you that it means much more than that. It means, literally, a commonality. The Latin word would be “communio.” It means mutual participation. It means interchange. And I would paraphrase verse 6 as something like this: “…making mention of you in my prayers” —and here is the key phrase—“…that the mutual participation”—that the interchange, the “koinōnia”—“which is appropriate to your faith, may become effective…” “I want the ‘koinōnia’ to become effective Philemon.” That is Paul’s goal. That is what this letter is about: the “koinōnia” becoming effective. What does he mean? Let us try to unpack it.
In Christ we are one body; we are joined to Him, and we are therefore joined to each other. And at the very heart of our salvation is a “koinōnia,” a union, a mutuality, an interchange. We have received from Him and He has received from us. There has been an interchange. He has taken from us our sin and He has given to us His righteousness, what Luther called “the wondrous exchange.” And that is at the very heart of our Christian living, this exchange, this sharing. “And this ‘koinōnia’ must,” says Paul, “penetrate every relationship in the body”; not only with the head but with every member.
Let me try to show you how Paul works it out in a concrete situation. First of all, in verses 1-7 he identifies himself closely with Philemon. He puts his hand on Philemon. He says, “I love you. I respect you. I honor you.” “Beloved fellow laborer”: verse 1. He prays for Philemon. He thanks God for Philemon: verse 4. He hears of Philemon’s faith and love: verse 5. In verse 6 some recent act of love in refreshing the hearts of the saints has brought Paul joy. He identifies himself with Philemon. In verses 10-16 he identifies himself with Onesimus. “…my son, whom I have begotten in my chains”: verse 10. Verse 11: “…who now is profitable to me.” In verse 12 he says, “…my own heart”. Verse 13: “whom I wished to keep with me…” Verse 16: “…a beloved brother, especially to me…” He identifies with Philemon, and he identifies with Onesimus.
Let me step aside for a moment at this point. There is no doubt that you men often suffer from stress in the ministry; and there is a piece of advice I can give you, which I think will remove a lot of stress from you ministry: Don’t get too close to your people. Keep a distance between yourself. Cultivate a degree of professionalism. Don’t open yourself to them too much. And as we heard the other day, “Your ministry is over.”
Because what comes out here is that the key principal in Paul’s pastoral work is: influence depends on relationship. He has developed close, deep, strong friendships with these men. And when he talks about them, he uses terms of passion and intimacy; and they can hear them without laughing. “…my own heart”, he says. That is how he describes one of his people: “‘…my own heart…a beloved brother, especially to me…’ I love you brother.” This gives him their hearts. This opens the door for his influence to enter their lives.
Perhaps it is easy for those who are younger men especially to depend purely on our status for our influence: “I am the pastor. I should have influence with the people.” Well theoretically that is quite true. You are the pastor and you should have influence with the people. We can hide our shyness, insecurity, and deficiencies under a cloak of professionalism, and keep people at a distance. That is very easy in the ecclesiastical culture in which we live; it is very easy from a “reformed” view of the ministry: “I am the preacher. I haven’t time to get in and out…I have to be in my study preparing.” It’s a far more comfortable way to live than Paul’s vulnerable openness. But what do we lose? We lose any real influence over people. Influence depends, practically speaking, on relationships.
Let us get back to the argument. Paul identifies himself with Philemon; Paul identifies himself with Onesimus; and so Philemon and Onesimus are reconciled in Paul. His argument is this: the welcome that Philemon would have given Paul, he should now give to Onesimus. He says, “Philemon, you love me. And I want to tell you that Onesimus has become part of me. If you love me, you’ve got to love him, because he’s my brother. There has been an interchange. You can’t have me without him.” And probably if we could know what he said to Onesimus, I would guess he said the same thing. Onesimus might have said, “I don’t want to go back home to Colosse.” But Paul would say, “Onesimus, you love me. I love Philemon. You can’t have me without Philemon.” Look at verse 17: “If you count me as a partner”—“koinōnos” (κοινωνός). “If you count me as a ‘koinōnos,’ receive him as you would receive me.”
The basis is this “koinōnia,” this mutual participation in the body of Christ. It is a package deal. You can’t have a relationship with part of the body of Christ, or certain sections of the body of Christ. If you are in the body there is a “koinōnia,” there is an interchange, there is a relationship. There are no exemptions allowed. Paul appeals to the strength of his relationship with Philemon, and then he enlists all that strength in favor of Onesimus. Do you see what he does? He takes it out of his bank account and puts it into Onesimus’ bank account. Look at his triple use of heart: verses 7, 12, and 20. Verse 7: “…the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you, brother.” “Brother, that’s what you like to do. You like to refresh the hearts of the saints, don’t you?” Verse 12: “‘…receive him, that is, my own heart.’ Philemon if you want to refresh the heart of this saint I’ll tell you how to do it.” Verse 20: “Refresh my heart in the Lord.” Paul is going deep down to the essence of the body of Christ.
The Person and Work of Christ
That brings us to an even more profound structure in Paul’s thinking: the person and work of Christ. Why is the church as she is? Why is there this “koinōnia?” It is because she is the body of Christ, shaped by Him in her very essence. And brethren, I will acknowledge to you that with this point I am struggling. Not in the sense that I have any questions about what I am about to say to you, but I am beginning to glimpse vistas of ecclesiology that are certainly new to me, and I’m wondering, are there things that the Spirit is going to show us that I, for one, have never understood or grasped? The church is shaped by Christ in her very essence. You will have noted the soteriological echoes of that marvelous verse 18. It seems to take us back to the counsels of eternity, to the throne room of God, as if we are hearing God the Son speaking to God the Father about the covenant of redemption. “If he has wronged you, or owes you anything, put that on my account. If he owes you anything, I’ll pay it.” It is not accidental that this is the way Paul is thinking and working. He is reconciling these two men. They are estranged from each other. There is a difference between them, and he identifies closely with them both, with the offended party and with the guilty party. He puts his hand on the offended party and on the guilty party, and he mediates between them. He says to Philemon, “Philemon, I have a certain righteousness in your eyes. You honor me. You love me. You respect me. I have a righteousness in your eyes; and I’m taking my righteousness and I’m imputing it to Onesimus. I’m giving all my righteousness to him. And I want you to regard Onesimus as if he were me, because he is me. He’s my heart.” Do you see what he is doing?
And Onesimus admits that he has an indebtedness towards Philemon. He has wronged him. He has injured him. Paul takes that indebtedness and he says, “Philemon, I’ll pay it.” He gives his righteousness to Onesimus, and he takes Onesimus’ obligation upon himself. He asks Philemon to deal with Onesimus in the light of this interchange, this commonality. Old Martin Luther understands Philemon better than any modern commentator—and I’ll guarantee better than 560 pages. Listen to what Luther says:
Here we see how Paul layeth himself out for poor Onesimus, and with all his means pleadeth his cause with his master, and so setteth himself as if he were Onesimus, and he had himself done wrong to Philemon. Even as Christ did for us with God the Father, thus also doth Paul for Onesimus with Philemon.
Luther says, “We are all Onesimi, to my thinking.” Here we see the person and work of Christ.
Three Guiding Principles
How should we apply this to our pastoral work? Well certainly not mechanically. We are not likely to find ourselves in the same sort of situation, but let me briefly mention three important guiding principles. Christ reminds us of the importance of reconciliation. He came to reconcile us to God, to bring us together, to make us one; and His church is to be a living demonstration of that reconciliation. My brethren, we should hate and fear splits and division. We should loathe them. We should dread them.
That’s what haunts me. That’s my nightmare: that my congregation may be divided. I see the devil, round and round, looking for a split. He’s prowling around, looking for a chink. “I’ll separate some of these people from the others. I’ll get in among them.”
And if we can’t be reconciled to each other, what message do we have? What can we say to the world? Schaeffer said, “Love is the final apologetic.” “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35) [emphasis added]. Christ reminds us of the importance of reconciliation.
Secondly, Christ provides us with the dynamic of reconciliation. What is the dynamic? It is the experience of salvation wrought into our beings. We are forgiven people. We have been redeemed. And when we urge our people to be reconciled with one another, we are urging them to act in conformity with that which has happened to them on the most profound level of their being. “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Mat. 6:12). And when you go among your people who are estranged from each other, it’s not just about the credibility of the church, it’s not “what people should think,” it’s not to make life happier in the fellowship. No. God forgave you, guilty sinner that you are. Are you going to forgive this brother or sister? Are you going to be reconciled with them? Because if you are not, how are you going to say your prayers tonight? It’s as basic as that. And we can hope and pray that if they are true Christian people, when they go on their knees and ask for forgiveness, the Holy Spirit will say to them, “Yes, but you must forgive.”
And thirdly, Christ provides us with the pattern of reconciliation. We talk about a “Christ-like” ministry. By that we usually mean kind, pure, loving, patient—all that’s valid. But I think there is a more basic Christ-like ministry because we see that Paul here identifies with both parties, and he puts himself into the equation. He uses his own credit with these men. He says, “Do it for my sake.” And if you do that, you are going to get really, badly hurt. But I think that is a Christ-like ministry. Not at arm’s length, get right into the situation, and become part of the situation. I leave that with you to think over. Paul’s approach is Christological.
A Liberating Approach
Fifthly, Paul’s approach is liberating. He never actually spells out what he wants Philemon to do, and that has caused comical and dogmatic differences among the commentators. Is Philemon meant to set Onesimus free? Is he meant to send him back to Rome? Is he meant to take him back as a slave? We are not told, and perhaps that’s the whole point. Paul is treating Philemon as a responsible human being.
He says, “Philemon, I could use my apostolic authority with you.” Verse 8: “I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting.” He says, “I could tell you what I want you to do, but I’m not going to tell you. I’m not going to command you. I’m not going to use my apostolic authority.” Why not? Because he has a pastoral concern for Philemon, and he wants this to be a process of growth for Philemon. He could give Philemon an order and Philemon could obey, but he would not grow through that. Paul says, “Philemon, this is a complex situation. There’s no clear, right answer here. I want you to think this through for yourself. I want you to face the issues. I’m setting out the facts of the case and I want you to work through the conclusion which God would have you reach.”
Now we react a bit against this, I suppose. We think it sounds a bit Rogerian or a bit relativistic, but Paul wants Philemon to grow up. He wants him to mature. He wants the mind of Christ to be developed in him. He wants him to consciously reflect: “what does the Lord want me to do?” Look at verse 14: “…without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary.” And I would speculate that perhaps the final decision is not as important to Paul as the process through which Philemon passes to reach that decision. And ultimately it is not so important whether Onesimus stays a slave, or is set free, or is sent back to Rome, as that Philemon forgives him and embraces him and treats him as a human being.
Brothers is this not our real pastoral purpose? It is to develop maturity in our people, to free them from our apron strings, to encourage them to depend on Christ alone. Many evangelicals want a little pope, and many pastors are happy to apply for the post. In some respects it is much easier. When I look at these zombies in the cults I sometimes think, “I wish I could have a few zombies.” Just people who would do whatever I would say, without any question or discussion whatsoever!
But that’s not what we are at. If you want your child to cross the road safely, the simplest, quickest way is to take her across by yourself. The only thing is that you have to keep doing that for the rest of your life. A better way would be to teach her to cross the road safely by herself, and when she has done that she has something.
And I would suggest to you that the fact that this letter is preserved in Scripture suggests to us that Philemon reached a good decision. It is interesting to me that Ignatius, writing at the start of the second century, mentions a bishop of Ephesus named Onesimus. Is it the same man? We would like to think so.
I would say brethren, if we treat our people as kings and priests, they will often pleasantly surprise us. The Spirit of God is in them, and He is guiding them. We don’t need to fanatically watch over them and in a paranoid way think, “If my hand’s not on them, they’ll go wrong.” That is nonsense. They are Christ’s sheep. Paul’s approach here is liberating.
A Realistic Approach
And lastly, Paul’s approach is realistic. One of the vexed questions in this little letter is asked by modernists: why does Paul not just write a one-sentence letter? Why doesn’t he just say, “Philemon, keeping slaves is wrong” —or—“Set Onesimus free and don’t ever keep slaves again”? Why does he not launch a wholesale attack on slavery? Just tell Philemon to set Onesimus free, end of story. How do we answer that?
I want to be careful when I say this. I hope you won’t misunderstand me. I think it is probably true to say that first century slavery was not as hideous or as evil as we sentimental modernists like to think. I hope I am not offending anyone in saying that. I am not minimizing the awfulness of owning a human being. But the fact of the matter is that many slaves were well-cared for and well-treated. They were provided with a home, work, shelter, and clothing. There was no social security in those days. There were no safety nets. People were starving to death. And perhaps Paul is seeing this in context.
Others argue from a pragmatic point of view. Derek Tidball in his Introduction to the Sociology of the New Testament says that it simply was not pragmatically possible to argue for the abolition of slavery then, as much as Paul would have liked to. He pictures Paul as saying, “I wish I could argue for the abolition of slavery, but there would be wholesale starvation, no employment, and no housing for these people. It’s just not a practical necessity.” I don’t feel happy with either of those reasons.
I think the answer is to be found in Paul’s pastoral realism where back in 1 Corinthians 7, where back in the “not yet,” Paul is very aware of the stage of redemptive history in which he is called to minister. The fact is we do not live in a perfect world. We live in a fallen world, and we have to live and suffer in an evil world system. In this world people are going to exploit their fellow men, and they are going to oppress their fellow men. We cannot escape from social structures that are being unjust and unequal. We are called to change that situation.
But how do we change that situation? Paul would say to us, “We do not change it by grandiose schemes of public reform. We do not change it by high flown, idealistic rhetoric. We do not change it by great schemes, by rhetorical denunciations of evil. We change it by living the life of the new age in our homes and in our families and in our churches, piece by piece and bit by bit and stage by stage.” Paul aims to change the world by appealing to two men in a little house church in Phrygia…and he did change the world. Where is slavery now?
Brethren, we need this biblical realism. It will keep us from heartbreak, from discouragement, and from depression. There is no point in having unattainable ideals. We are serious men and we have work to do for God. We are not dreamers, we are not visionaries. You and I have to go out tomorrow into our churches and do it. There is no point in me living in the never-never land. There is no point in fancy rhetoric that sounds good to our audiences and shows how noble and spiritual we are. What does it accomplish? It doesn’t accomplish anything. Some of the people who have most bitterly denounced slavery in history have done absolutely nothing. In fact, they have exacerbated the situation; they have made it worse. They have, in effect, proved themselves as selfish and cruel and wicked as the system they denounced. It was mouthing off.
We need to be willing to work in an imperfect situation; in an untidy, messy, confused situation. We need to accept that there are gray areas. I didn’t used to think there were. I thought there was only black and white; and now many is a night when I go to bed and say, “Lord, I may have done the wrong thing today. I may have made the wrong decision today. But Lord, you know my heart. I tried my best, and if I’ve been wrong, overrule and forgive it.” We need to set limited goals.
I was helped by something that William Still once wrote. He said:
When some of the Lord’s people are saved they’re very odd, and they stay very odd all their lives; and they’re very odd when they die. When they’re in glory no doubt they’ll not be odd anymore, but you’ll never straighten them out.
That may sound defeatist. I think it is realistic.
There are some people that we are not going to be able to help much. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, but we have to be realistic. There are some people who have just been so crippled and damaged that all we can do is love them, put our arms around them, and help them along, and be thankful for every little bit of encouragement we get. That is the way to sanity. Here is this realistic man who wants to help, who wants to make a difference.
I find this enormously encouraging; because the fact of the matter is that most of us pastors will spend our lives in the backwaters. Brethren, you and I at times we will be overwhelmed by a sense of futility at the limited scale of the work we are doing; and the devil will come to us and say, “Here you are, with a couple of college degrees, and all your experience, and all your ability, studying, working, preaching deeper, better, more biblical sermons than 99% of men who call themselves ministers, and you’re preaching to 30 people, week after week, in the back of beyond—nowhere. What are you doing with your life?”
Men, we are not going back to the mountain tops when we return to our churches. We are going back to the nitty-gritty. Here we have one of the greatest and most gifted human beings who ever lived; a genius. And what is he doing? He is trying to fix a relationship between two anonymous little nobodies. How big an accomplishment is that? Well, maybe it is bigger than we think. Jesus says that the gift of a cup of cold water will be remembered to all eternity, and there is joy in the angels of heaven for one sinner who repents. Let us get back to the Philemons and the Onesimi. Let us do the pieces of work God has given us to do. Amen.
Let us pray:
Father, your servant Paul was taken up to the third heaven. He had vistas of your glory and majesty. He had a genius and a power which outstrips ours like the sun a candle. He was a man of such gifts and talents. We have seen him here in this study, trying to bring two people together, and happy to do it. Lord, who are we that we should turn up our noses at any piece of work which you should give to our hands? So, each of us here thank you today. We thank you now from the bottom of our hearts for our churches, and our people: our silly, unreliable, irritating, straying people; and all the confused situations we have to work in. We thank you oh God that you have preserved us from the perils of greatness; that it has been given to us to give cups of cold water and to bring the sinners by ones and twos into the kingdom. Lord, if we can bring one sinner to heaven, our whole lives will be worthwhile. Help us then, to be good pastors of the sheep you love, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
1. Richard C. H. Lenski, Interpretation of St Paul’s Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, Augsburg Fortress, 2008, pp. 974
2. Joseph B. Lightfoot, St Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon: A Revised Text with Introductions, Notes, and Dissertations, Macmillan, 1880, pp. 333
3. Herbert M. Carson, The Epistle of Paul to the Colossians and Philemon, Eerdmans, 1983, pp. 104
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