Dale Spencer - Philemon and Onesimus - Durban, South Africa Convention - 2006

The little book of Philemon has been on my mind. One of our sisters mentioned that he was a man that could be depended on. Well I enjoyed the story of Philemon and I would just like to express a few thoughts on this man Philemon. Can you find Philemon? That may be a test if you know where Philemon is. One lady was telling me and she didn’t seem to know much about the Bible but she thought she knew everything about it so I said to her, "What about a certain book and where is it?"  She said she thinks it is in the Old Testament. So I said to her "What about the book of Philemon?" and she said, "It’s in the Old Testament, too." Well, it is not in the Old Testament.  Philemon is just before Hebrews. If you would, I would like you to put a marker in that because we are going to look at this little book a bit. 

Before we talk about the book, I think there is a good bit of background in the Colossian Epistle and in the 4th chapter. We read a few verses here to get the setting of the book of Philemon. Here’s what is says in the 4th chapter and verse 7. Paul writes "All my state shall Tychicus declare unto you, who is a beloved brother and a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord whom I have sent unto you for the same purpose that he might know your state and comfort your hearts with Onesimus, a faithful and beloved brother who is one of you. They shall make known unto you all things which are done here." I think we can understand that quite well. Paul was sending these two men, one was a worker named Tychicus and the other was a new babe named Onesimus.  He was sending them back to Philemon and there was a certain reason for which he sent these men to Philemon. Well, they brought the two letters to the churches and the one letter personally to Philemon.  They brought three letters and it goes on to say a little further on in verse 15 of that 4th chapter "Salute the brethren which are in Laodicea and Nymphus and the church which is in his house." So the church which was in Laodicea met in the house of Nymphus. So that was an interesting point, that is where the church met and so he sent two letters.

"Salute the brethren in Laodicea and Nymphus and the church which is in his house."  When this epistle is read among you, so that it be also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that ye also likewise read the epistle from Laodicea. It is not so terribly important to mention this but isn’t that just like today? We get a letter from one of the workers, especially from Paul who they were very familiar with, who had now for some time been in prison.  They were very anxious about how he is and how things go for him in the prison. So now, here’s a letter from him to these two churches. Now he told these two churches that after they had read their letter exchange it for the letter to the other church. Now I think you have done that on some occasion, you’ve gotten a letter and you’ve shared it with somebody else and maybe they’ve gotten a letter and shared it with you. Well that was going on and things really haven’t changed much from the days that Paul was in the world. This Truth is just the same. It is just the same in our country America, as it is here in your country. I have been so happy to see the exact same spirit and the exact same things here that we see at home and y’all come and see us sometime. I think you would enjoy your time. So this was an introduction to the little book of Philemon.

We will go to that book and read a few verses there.  "Paul a prisoner of Christ and our brother Timothy, unto Philemon our dearly beloved brother and fellow labourer, to our beloved Apphia and Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that is in thy house." Now this is Paul’s shortest letter, I believe.  Although it is a very brief letter, there are quite a few characters involved here that would addressed and that could be discussed. He is telling them "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God making mention of thee always in my prayers." There in the prison Paul wasn’t forgetting that little church.  He prayed for them often and he’s writing to the elder of the church.  Philemon was the elder.  It says he had the church in his home.  What I think the story is all about that I enjoyed is the human relationships that there are in the Kingdom. We read here Paul and Timothy, the two servants of God, companions, and where were they? They were in the prison in Rome and they were writing this letter to the elder who had the church in his home and his wife Apphia. Then there was this Archippus and he was one of the workers who was living there at the time, in the home of Philemon. So we have the picture now. You know a worker wouldn’t write a letter to an elder if there was a visiting worker in his home without mentioning the worker’s name. We understand that very well.  In writing, he was writing to the man and his wife and he mentioned the visiting worker for some reason. We don’t just know why, but he said "Grace be to you from God our Father in the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God making mention of thee always in my prayers."  Now we go on and it is nice where he says "Hearing of thy love and faith which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus Christ and toward al the saints. That the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus for we have great joy and consolation in thy love because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother."  The bowels of the saints. I wonder what language this letter was written in. Written from Rome it could have been written in Latin, it likely was written in Greek but it could even have been written in Arabic. I wouldn’t know what language the original letter was written in but anyway we are talking about some things that were in the letter and they are in English now. Some of these words are a little long and complicated, but in talking about having great joy and consolation in thy love because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee brother.

What do you suppose he means by the bowels of the saints? What I noticed is that there is a lot of ‘Kingdom language’ in this letter. I told you when I made my choice on the Saturday night after a real search and a hard battle in my soul.  I went to the older worker the next morning at 9 o’clock.  I said "Now I won’t be able to go out today but I’ll be ready to go out with you in the morning and preach with you folks on Monday morning." Well you all laughed and so did he because that was so ridiculous, but you know what he did tell me? He said, "Well you have to be a disciple before you can be an apostle." Well I understand that perfectly now but I didn’t understand it then because I said, "Weren’t the twelve apostles and the twelve disciples the same people?"  Now he was telling me that there is a difference between a disciple and an apostle. I didn’t know one thing about the ‘kingdom language.’  I didn’t understand that there was a difference between a disciple and an apostle. I understand very well that these who are labouring with us in the Gospel are apostles and you are disciples. These that are now apostles were once disciples but I didn’t understand a thing about it then. He said another thing to me.  He said "You’ll have to learn how to take part first."  I looked at him and said, "I will have to learn how to take part of WHAT?"  I didn’t have a clue what taking part meant.  I had never been in a Sunday morning meeting.  I didn’t know what it meant to take part and it was all a great mystery to me. I didn’t know a thing about this ‘Kingdom Language’ but, you know, we learn a little as we go on about this ‘Kingdom Language.’ 

I am grateful that I have learned a bit of the ‘Kingdom Language’ and we get a lot of it in this book.  He says, "The bowels of the saints are refreshed by you brother."  Well, we don’t use the word bowels, we’d use the word hearts.  Your hearts, their hearts are refreshed by you brother. We have a couple that we met about 30 years ago and they live in that city down on the Gulf Coast that nearly washed away. Well they have the little church in New Orleans. New Orleans is a place where Americans often go for their summer vacations. It is nice and warm down there and anyway they go down there and visit this little church. Well hardly a month passes that somebody doesn’t come and say "You know, we were down in New Orleans and we met your friends down there.  We went to their meeting and we had such a pleasant time down there.  Our hearts were surely impressed.  We were refreshed to be in their meeting." That word comes back to me.  I remember him when he had hair that you couldn’t get a bushel basket over it. You talk about an ‘afro.’  Well, I never saw a white man with an afro that big before in my life.  While we were preaching the Gospel, he would come faithfully and the friends would say "Do you think the ‘hair’ would come back again?"  I said, "I just don’t know but he listens well."  He told me not so long ago, "Do you think I could leave my home and go to those meetings and listen to all that you guys were putting out without that I had a big glass of wine before I left?"  He said "I guess not."  He wasn’t the most promising-looking character that ever entered a Gospel meeting but he’s turned out to be a handsome young man.  He’s made a wonderful elder and we often hear this remark, "We enjoyed being in the meeting in their home down in New Orleans."  Paul was hearing and how was he hearing about the faith of this man?  Well, people in the days of the Roman Empire, like people today, they were travelling all over.  Even business people, I suppose, would have been passing through Colosse. They would have visited in that meeting and come away back to Rome saying to Paul, "Well, we visited your friends at Colosse.  We had a great time at their meeting and our hearts were refreshed."  Only they said our bowels, our inward parts were refreshed – Kingdom language. Now he goes on to say, "We have great joy and consolation in thy love because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee brother."  What does that tell Paul? That tells Paul that they are doing alright spiritually and that they are helping others.

You know, when you have babes, I’m talking about us workers now, that is another word in this Kingdom language. Well, if you have babes involved in the Gospel and you’ve had a little part in bringing them the Gospel, it does you a lot of good to hear about your kids, your children. Don’t you parents love to hear good things about your kids, your children, and you grandparents? You certainly do and, in this Kingdom, the Servants of God are glad to hear good reports of those that they may have been a help to, their children in the Gospel. He makes this comment in verse 8, "Wherefore I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee that which is convenient yet for love’s sake I rather beseech thee, being such a one as Paul the aged and now a prisoner of Jesus Christ. I beseech thee for my son Onesimus whom I have begotten in my bonds." Now what does this mean, "Whom I have begotten in my bonds?"  That’s Kingdom language isn’t it?  I think we understand what that means. I’ve had people ask me what in the world does that mean "Whom I have begotten in my bonds?"  Well that simply means that while I’m here in prison, in bonds Onesimus has come to our meetings and he has now professed. He is now professing. Plain English but a bit of Kingdom language again but not so much as this "Begotten in my bonds."  I think we all understand what Paul meant. Well now it is a nice little picture here when he says in verse 19, "I Paul have written it with my own hand I will repay it but I do not say unto thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides." Now what on earth does that mean? How come Philemon and his wife owes himself to Paul? Well we understand what that means. Paul had brought them the Gospel and he was their father in the Gospel that’s why he says you owe your own selves to me also. So that’s a nice little picture and he’s writing to his converts and he’s been hearing good things about them and that is bringing him joy.

So now what we want to do if we can, as we go through the letter is to see what Paul had in his mind when he says "I’m not going to enjoin thee that which is not convenient." Now I don’t think even most English speaking people ever heard of that word enjoin. Do you know what that means? I doubt if many do. I looked that up in the dictionary and it means "Demand or command." He says, "I might, as your father in the Gospel and as an old brother, I might come and demand something of you but I would much rather beseech you, that which is convenient."  Is there any difference between a command, demanding, and beseeching? Beseeching is just simply begging or asking a favour. He says "I’d like to ask you a favour."  I doubt very seriously if Louis has ever come into your home and said "You have got to have a Sunday morning meeting here now. We are going to start a Sunday morning meeting here now."  I don’t think that’s the attitude the workers would have towards an elder or even anybody. It wouldn’t be a command or a demand but it would be like Paul who said, "I would like you to do a favour for me."  Then that verse says, "That I know you will do even more than I say."  What do you think that is based on? I know these elders, we have them, too, and we love them. We appreciate them and we work with them and sometimes we need help. I’m talking about workers now, and we go to the elders and we ask, "Would you mind helping us? We have a little problem here and would you mind helping us?"  You know, the elders, they just can’t do enough. Just like this man "I know you will do more than I say." 

Well the tricky part about the letter is, what is he really asking for anyway?  It’s about Onesimus and he is coming to the home there. You need to read the whole letter to get the gist of this, but Onesimus seems to have been a servant bought and paid for and he was Philemon’s property. Seemingly he had left the home and run away and he was a runaway bondservant down in Rome, maybe a thousand miles away.  He was as free as a bird but for some reason or other Onesimus hears about Paul and he goes to his Gospel meetings. Do you remember Paul’s circumstance while he was in prison? You remember he had his own hired house and they didn’t hinder anyone from coming to his house to hear what he had to say.  They knew that they didn’t have any case against him but the Jews had brought him up there from Jerusalem and for two years he was locked up in his own hired house. Sometimes it talks about a chain as if he was chained to the building and sometimes it talks about a soldier who guarded him, but whatever, he had liberty to speak to anyone who came to his house. Now what do you suppose prompted this Onesimus to go to the house of Paul and listen to the Gospel? Why would he go and hear the Gospel? He is a free man now and he goes and hears the Gospel and he makes his choice. Well, do you know what the penalty was to a bondservant like this?  To a runaway bondservant?  He was a slave actually and he was a runaway but he had been purchased. You know, the custom was for the Roman army, when they were conquering those nations when they were conquering the world, they would bring the choice young men and women back to Rome and sell them as bondservants. That’s what they tell in history that much of the salaries were paid when they bring back these young men and women and sell them as bondservants to the Roman householders.  This man Onesimus must have been one of those kind. He must have been captured in a war somewhere and sold as a bondservant. Well now he had escaped and what was the penalty if they found a runaway and brought him home?  Do you know what the penalty was?  They stripped them to the waist and tied them to the hitching post and they got their 39 stripes, 40 less one.  The Roman lash. So now here comes the runaway Onesimus with Tychicus and knocking on the door of his master. How do you think his back was feeling at this time?  He may have thought, "I wish I hadn’t have come."  You know he
found a warm welcome when he came. We can read the rest of the story there.  It says that Paul said of him, "Whom I have sent again that thou receive him as mine own bowels."  Now there is a little difference than when he went away, he was a bondservant and he didn’t know much about the Lord, if anything, but now Paul said, "Whom I would have retained unto me that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in my bonds in the Gospel but without thy mind would I do nothing that thy benefit should not be of necessity but willingly. For perhaps you therefore be parted for a season that thou shouldest receive him forever. Not now as a servant but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me how much more unto thee, both in the flesh and in the Lord. If thou count me therefore a partner receive him as myself."  Now do you think that was much of a request?  Here comes the runaway servant and he’d been unfaithful. He evidently took a little something from the house. He stole something of value, it would appear, and he left and went his way down to Rome and now down in Rome he was a street person and he was free as a bird but he began to think, :Those people at my master’s house, they have something that I don’t have."  Don’t you think that came into his mind?  It must have been what he had seen that caused him to go to those meetings. Well he went to those meetings and he made his choice and now he is going back to his master to turn himself in and Paul says, "He’s coming back and whatever he owes thee put that on my account."  He said that he had written it with his own hand and he will repay it, "Albeit I do not say unto thee that thou owest unto me even thine own self."  Now he said, "If he has wronged thee and oweth thee aught put that on mine account. Yea brother let me have joy of thee, refresh my bowels in the Lord."  Now what really is his request?  What did he write this letter for?  What was his purpose?  It is about Onesimus of course and he says, "When he comes to your home receive him as you would receive me."  Now where do you suppose they’d have put Paul if he had come to them?  Out in the servants quarters?  I think not. I think they’d have put him in the best room in the house just like you do us when we come to your home. He said, "Receive him as you would me."  Now that is quite a request and some people would say that is what he was asking them to do and that is so. That is what he was asking them to do but that really is not the whole gist of the matter, there is something beyond this. 

This debt that Paul said he would repay, did Paul have the money?  He was living in his own rented house and he had no money but his friends had rented for him this house and they maintained it for him, but now he is telling them about this man and to receive him as they would himself and I believe that that was easy for them to do. I like to read between the lines in a story like this. Say he knocked on the door on Friday afternoon, come Sunday morning, what kind of meeting would they have had that Sunday morning?  Well here’s this runaway and he’s professing and here’s this visiting worker. You know how that is in your church when a visiting worker from afar comes and there’s a pair that had just come from Paul and they all knew about Paul. Well anyway that must have been a very touching meeting. Do you know what I think that elder did?  He must have had a wife that was a good cook but I have a feeling that Sunday afternoon they had a little meeting and I wouldn’t be surprised if they had dinner together, a potluck of some kind. I should think that everyone was invited because they would all like to meet Onesimus. Now what kind of questions would you have asked Onesimus?  How’d you ever find Paul?  What’s he doing down there?  What made you go to those meetings?  I can think of a dozen questions I would have asked Onesimus.

So I think they would have had a visit that afternoon and it would have been a very wonderful time in the Kingdom for this church to meet this runaway that has now come back and now what is the real gist of the matter?  I skipped over it pretty fast but you’d have to go back to that 13th verse and I want to read it again and you can think about it with me. It seems to be the centre and the purpose of the letter, if I’m not mistaken. He says, "Whom I have sent again, thou therefore receive him as mine own bowels,(this is Onesimus) whom I would have retained with me that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in bonds of the Gospel but without thy mind I would do nothing that thy benefit would not be of necessity but willingly."  Now we are getting to the request. He said, "I’m going to beseech you, beg of you a certain request. I would like to have him come back to me to minister unto me in the bonds of the Gospel."  Now what do you get out of that?  Did Paul want a servant?  To minister unto him?  Of course not. This young man Onesimus must have offered his life for the work of the Gospel, and he could not go into the work because he was a bondservant and he was like an escaped prisoner, he’d run away. He was a runaway servant but he belonged to Philemon.

Paul says, "I’m sending him back and Philemon, you can keep him if you would like, but I would like to have him come back and join me in this work of the Gospel."  What do you suppose happened?  I think Onesimus would have given his testimony and said, "I want to go out and preach the Gospel because it means everything to me now."  Well I have a feeling that the elder took him down to the store (I’m reading between the lines) but I know these elders and he would have bought him a new suit of clothes befitting to a worker. I don’t know what sort of clothes he would have as a street person just coming off the Roman streets but I just have a feeling that he would have bought him a new suit of clothes and a new pair of shoes. Do you think so?  I think so. I do believe that he also bought him a ticket on the next ship out and I don’t think he bought him a third class ticket. I think he bought him a first class ticket and sent him back to Paul with his greetings. I wouldn’t be surprised if they sent along a letter to Paul with a little something in it to help him in his work. What do you think?  What do you think about Apphia?  What do you think she did?  I have a feeling she washed his clothes all up. I know what these elders’ wives are like. You should have seen where we’ve been for 3 or 4 nights. "Well bring your dirty clothes down here."  We’d come back and there they are on the bed all fresh and clean. I know these elders’ wives. How kind. Anyway the day they left, can you picture the size of the lunch basket that Apphia would have fixed for those boys?  Ah I think it was a big one and a good one, full of good things and she would have sent them on their way rejoicing. No doubt that is what happened. Well just reading a little and picking out that this young boy had offered for the work and that Paul would like to have him come back and go with him. Well I just enjoyed the reality of that little letter.

I see the time has gone and there are a few more things I could say but I think you have probably gotten the idea and now you can read that chapter and you can see for yourselves what it was, why he came, and how he came. It was because Paul asked him to come and he couldn’t take him into the work when he was still a slave. How was it that the Jews identified some servant that was freed?  The ear pierced by the awl. Isn’t that right?  We sang that hymn about the ear pierced by the awl at the doorpost but there had to be something. In our country you can’t do anything if you come in from a foreign country.  We have the Mexicans who swim the river and we call them wetbacks. They swim the river and they come in by the thousands and they want to work and they want to find work but they are illegal. But there are ways and means (and some mean ways) whereby they can get a green card and if you have a green card then you can work for anyone in America, but not without a green card.  Now this young man needed a ‘green card.’  He needed his release and this was to come from his master. Well it is a beautiful picture and I’m not going to try and tell you any more but I did enjoy this little story and when those two servants came and knocked on the door and there was this runaway servant and he was offering his life to go with Paul in the ministry. Paul didn’t want a servant, he wanted to take him forth into the work and I’m sure that’s what happened even though we don’t read about him in the scripture again.
I can just imagine the conversation. "Do you remember Mr Green, the day I opened that big green gate and you were talking to me at that gate?  I remember those words. Do you remember Mr Brown that time your horse was causing trouble and I helped you calm him down?  Yes, and you spoke so kindly to me."  You know maybe he’d seen a lot of things. Maybe he’d served the tea and different ones had been kind to him. Amongst the saints there is a spirit you don’t anywhere else and it moved that young man to search for Truth. When he heard about Paul he went and listened to the Gospel and he got saved and that little story tells us about his salvation. I’m sure he went back to Paul and went forth to preach the Gospel.