Title: Becoming Useful to the Lord
Text: Philemon 1-14
Date: September 17-18, 2016
And if you would, open Philemon 1. Actually, there's only one chapter easy to find, right before the book of Hebrews. The title of our message this morning is “Becoming Useful to the Lord.”
All right, this is a letter that Paul wrote. It's really one of the shortest books in the Bible, one of the shortest letters that he wrote and that he's writing to this man, named Philemon, and the church that he meets in his house. Now, the background to the story is this: Paul is a prisoner in Rome. It was during his first imprisonment. I say during the first because many believe he was released and traveled a bit and then rearrested when the emperor Nero had a persecution against the church. He was rearrested and executed.
But in this first imprisonment, he was given considerable amount of freedom. When, though, he is under Roman guard, he's allowed to rent his own quarters. He is allowed to receive many visitors. And, the fact, whole groups of people would come and visit Paul and he was really instrumental in bringing about a great Revival in the in the city of Rome. In fact, he said the entire praetorian guard heard the Gospel of Jesus, right.
Now, there's a story right there it's amazing. One day a fellow is brought to Paul. And he is a slave. He is a runaway slave who is in trouble. What it happened was that his… he was living in Colossae there. His master was there and he stole from his master and ran away. And where better to run to than the largest city in the Empire, in which you could disappear. And who should he run into but none other than the Apostle Paul, the great apostle that is leading revivals and has brought revivals in many cities and someone brought him to visit Paul.
Little did he know that Paul actually knew Philemon, his master, quite well. Because Paul had led him to faith in Christ Jesus. So he receives Onesimus - that's his name - and leads this runaway slave, who is in trouble, he leads him to faith in Christ Jesus. And such a move of God, such a turnaround in his life - he becomes zealous for the Lord. He continues on with Paul, ministering, helping Paul, as you can imagine what a help it would be because he's under arrest and so he's got someone to help him run errands and run messages. And it's a great help and a great team, and he loved this young man.
But here's the thing: Paul knew that Onesimus had to make things right, had to make things right with Philemon. He had wronged him by stealing from him and from running away, so he must go back, he must make it right. So that's why Paul writes this letter. He is writing to Philemon to appeal in behalf of Onesimus. He's asking Philemon to forgive the offense, to let go of the offense. And Paul is even willing... he says I'm willing to even pay whatever amount it was. I'm willing to pay it out of my own account if necessary. I'm asking you to forgive this man, to set him free and willingly return him back to Paul to continue ministering the gospel with Paul.
And that's a beautiful story. There's a lot to really learn from the story, both from the life of Onesimus and of Philemon. Let's read it, the first 16 verses:
“Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon, our beloved brother and fellow worker, and to Apphia, our sister, and to Archippus, our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
And he begins by just building a personal connection with Philemon.
“I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and your faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints.”
Philemon is a great man, love and faith is evident in him.
“And I pray that the fellowship of your faith may become effective to the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for Christ's sake. For I have come to have much joy and comfort in your love because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother.”
Now, he begins to press in. Verse 8:
“Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to order you to do that which is proper, I won't do it. For love’s sake, I'd rather appeal to you, since I am such a person as Paul, the agent and now a prisoner of Christ Jesus.” I appeal to you - now it gets specific – “I appeal to you for my child, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment.” Led him to faith, in other words. “Onesimus, who, formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me.”
Now, you probably don't know it, verse 11 actually is filled with good humor. You say, I don't get it, I don't see the joke. I don't get it. It's not there for me. Well, it helps to know some Greek here because the name of Onesimus has a particular meaning in the Greek. And it means "useful". That was the name that his mother or father gave him at birth. Let's call this boy Useful. And so, in verse 11, Paul is making a joke. He's playing on the name, so he says: I am talking to you about Onesimus, he who has formerly useless to you but is now useful both to you and to me. And they would have read this and started chuckling. Paul is using humor. And they would have started laughing a little bit, because he is lighting it up. He's lighting the mood; you might say because he's leading somewhere grand.
“I have sent him back to you” - In fact, Onesimus carried this letter in his hand and have it to Philemon. I send “him back to you in person, that is sending my very heart.” This Onesimus “who I wish to keep with me, that in your behalf he might minister to me in the imprisonment for the gospel, but without your consent I did not want to do anything” - get this phrase – “that your goodness should not be as it were by compulsion but of your own free will.” I wanna look at that verse because it has great application. Verse 15 is interesting for its logical implication.
“For, perhaps, he was for this reason parted from you, that for a while, that you should have him back” - Instead “forever, no longer as a slave, a beloved brother.” Ah, he's come to faith. – “especially to me, and how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”
I. Don’t Run from God
So this is a great story and it's a lot for us to learn by looking at the life of Onesimus from the life of Philemon. Looking at Onesimus, one of the great
lessons we can learn and apply to our lives is don't run from God. This is what Onesimus is doing. He's not just running from Philemon; he is also
running from God. And this is how we know this because he's writing to Philemon and the church in his house.
So Philemon, leading over this church would have brought not just his friends and stuff, everyone in his household, which means Onesimus heard already the Gospel. But something was holding him back. Something was keeping him from receiving the Gospel. He was resisting. There was something wrong in his heart. Whatever that was, whatever that was wrong, with whatever was keeping Onesimus from the Gospel, it became manifested when he stole something; whatever it was, whatever amount it was, a significant enough that he ran for his life. Whatever was wrong was manifested in this.
So he's on the run and where should he go? Rome. And who should he run into? But none other than Paul the great apostle who, coincidentally enough, actually knew his master personally because Paul had led Philemon to faith in Jesus Christ. What a coincidence. You believe in coincidences like that? I don't. I don't. I believe that the sovereign hand of God moves and works and arranges even divine appointments in our lives. I'm convinced of that.
A. God will outrun you
See, Onesimus is not just running from Philemon. He's running from God and God is making arrangements so that he's going to come to the end of this. He
is going to have to come to the end of himself. He's going to have to face this thing and he's going to have to take responsibility for what's happening
in his life. God is going to make a story of a life that's turned around. He's running from God but here's the thing: God will outrun you.
See, I think a lot of people need to hear this story because a lot of people, even today, maybe even in this church, are holding something back from God. Resisting God. Maybe there's some issue. Maybe there's some shame. Maybe there's something that was done and you're not taking hold of it. And you're running from it. And you're running from God. But what you'll find is that God will outrun you. God will make arrangements so that you have to face that thing.
You know, someone once said of God that He is called The Hound of Heaven. It's a great expression. It means He doesn't quit. He's always pursuing. I like the expression but I think it's not quite enough. I think the idea of Him on your trail is helpful but, frankly, He's not just on your trail. He goes in front of you. He is all around. He's making arrangements. He wants you to finally come to the end of it, to the end of yourself, and meet God on his terms. In other words, God's going to outrun you. God knows right where you are, you can't outrun God. You can't run from God, you can't hide from God. And He is going to bring this to the point where we see it and face it.
You know, it reminds me of Adam and Eve when they said - what was the first thing they did after they said? They hid. As if you could hide from God; He knows right where you are.
Reminds me of my grandkids. They love the game Hide and Seek. We can spend hours playing hide and seek, especially our grandson, Ethan. He is four and a half now. Here's the thing - he's just not very good at it. Especially when he was like two, you know, three, he'd been hiding behind the curtain and have his legs are showing, you know. And, you know, at four or four-and-a-half, he starts getting a little bit better, you know; he starts hiding in this box, you know, in that closet or something. Here's the thing - you can always find him. You can always find him. All you have to do is go in the room and say: Where is Ethan? And he starts giggling. He gives himself away every time.
You can't hide. See, this is why David - I love what he wrote in Psalm 139. "Where can I go from Your Spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to Heaven, You are there. If I make my bed in Sheol,” the place of the dead, “behold, You are there." You cannot outrun God. You can’t hide from God. He will make arrangements so that we come to the end of it.
You know, one of the... probably the most well-known biblical examples of running from God would have to be the story of Jonah. Remember his story. He was directed of the Lord to go to the city of Nineveh, where the Assyrian people bring a message of repentance from Jehovah. But he despised those people and did not want them to receive the blessing of repenting and turning around. And so he, he went down to the port of Jaffa, booked passage on a ship going in the exact opposite direction. But here you get, you see the sovereign hand of God. The ship runs straight into a massive storm. You know, God often uses storms, various kinds of storms to bring us to the end of ourselves. And, of course, Jonah recognized right away… he’s wrestling now. He's resisting, he's running and so God is bringing him to the end of it.
You know the end of the story - they throw him in the seas, he's taken by a great fish or a whale, and summarily belched up on the beach, you know, three days later. And God spoke to him a second time: "Get up and go to Nineveh". But what you have to see is that God allows a person to get to the crux point. The crux point is that point when you come to the end of it. You come to the end of yourself. You finally call out to God. It's a beautiful point. A beautiful point. Because it is at that point when a life is turned, the direction is turned. No longer resisting, no longer running from God, but now calling out to God. It's a beautiful point, turning point of life. This is what Jonah did - Jonah 2:1-2. Got to that crux point, we got to the end and Jonah prayed to the Lord, his God, and he said: "I called out for my distress to the Lord and He answered me. I cried for help from the depths of Sheol; and You heard my voice".
Another example of running from God in the Bible would have to be the prodigal son in Luke 15. Maybe you know that story. Young man received his inheritance early; had a vast fortune with him. He went into the city and blew the entire fortune. He spent all of it. The whole fortune on worldliness, sinful things, all the things that are available in the big city. And he lost the entire fortune. Then you see the sovereign hand of God. Famine hits the land. Storm. Different kind of storm. Now he's out of money and because of the famine there are no jobs. He can't even get a job. Finally, he gets a job but it's the most offensive job a Jew can ever have. It's feeding pigs. Does it get worse? Oh, it gets worse because he comes to the point where he actually is jealous of the pigs. How can he be jealous of pigs? Because they have food and he doesn't. That's how bad it got. But it tells us an interesting phrase. “When he came to his senses” - and that's a great phrase - came to his senses, he decided: "My father's servants are treated better than this. I'm going home. I'm going back. I'm going to turn my life around. And I'm going to say to my father: Father I have sinned. He's going to own it. Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Just make me one of your hired men; give me a job". And you know the story. The father received him, fell on him: "My son, who was dead is now alive. Bring the robe, put it on my son." It's a beautiful story of a life turned around.
B. It’s much better to run with God
How encouraging it is to know that God does not quit on you. God never gives up on you. He is making stories of lives turned around. See, here's the point.
It's just so much better to run with God, not to resist, not to wrestle, but to run with God, run the race God has set before you. Be in agreement
with God. Knowing that He runs with you. His favor is upon you. He will accomplish what He desires.
For Onesimus, this meant he's got to make things right. He's got to go back; got to take responsibility for what he's done. But here's the thing you got to see in the story. God is going to now help him. He's going to own it. He is going to take responsibility, but God's advocating for him. God's favor is upon him. You say, how is that seen? It is seen in this: the greatest apostle alive at the time was none other than Paul the Apostle who wrote a letter in his behalf. You wanna talk about an influence. Paul is advocating and, of course, God is using it to pour out His favor.
See, here's the thing. Taking responsibility for what you've done may be difficult but God blesses it. His favor is upon you. He blesses the heart that trusts and it's a process of maturity of faith because what He does, takes faith and it begins to press it into practical areas of our lives where He wants to mature our living by applying our faith.
See, if you've accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, He has begun a good work, a wonderful work. But He's going to complete it. He's going to bring about a process of transforming into maturity. Let me give you a verse; Philippians 1:6, “I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work is going to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.”
See, verse 11, He, Onesimus, who was formerly useless is now useful to you and to me. He's fulfilling the very meaning of his name. Here's the point. We need meaning in our name. We need meaning in our lives. We need significance. We need purpose. There's no greater purpose in life than being useful to the Lord, to be used of the Lord. Whatever purpose and meaning that God wants is found in God's will, God's purpose, God's way. Don't resist, don't fights against, say yes Lord, you order my life. Make my life a turnaround story. It may be useful.
You know, one of the most inspiring turnaround stories has to be the famous Story of Roy Riegels, otherwise known as “Wrong Way Roy”. It's actually a football story and it unfolds in the Rose Bowl 1929. You probably don't remember the Rose Bowl in 1929 but it was famous because of “Wrong Way Roy” Riegels. What happened was this: there was a fumble and he picked up the ball, and in the process of pivoting and spinning to get away from his opponent, he lost his bearings. And he started to run in the wrong direction. The problem there was open field in front of him and he ran for 69 yards until his own quarterback had to tackle him.
In the in the locker room, at halftime, he said to the coach: "I quit. I'm done. I've ruined my life. I've ruined you. I've ruined this University. I'm ashamed. I can't go back out there. I can't face those people. I quit. I'm done". And the coach said: "I can't let you do that". The coach knew. The coach knew, you do that you'll be running all your life from this shame. “You get back out there and you're going to play with all you've got.” Which is exactly what happened. He went back out there and plead the best entire football career. It's the famous turnaround story.
But here's the point. In this room, right now, in this very room there are many turnaround stories. God delights in turnaround stories. He gives them such glory. Someone came up to me after one of the services this weekend and said, "This story touched me very deeply because I was doing that for thirteen years. And I am sitting in church, and I'm growing, and I'm being blessed, and that is me. That's my story".
God is turning lives around right here. And God's not finished turning lives around either. He's in the business of turnaround stories. That's what He's doing now. That is what He is doing. That is what He desires to do it in many people's lives.
When the Prodigal Son came to the end of himself he came to his senses and he went to his father. When Onesimus turned his life around he went back and he owned it. He took responsibility. We have every reason to believe that Philemon blessed him, set him free to return to Rome and continue ministering, now in the freedom that is living his life right. The beautiful turnaround story.
II. Willingly Let Go of Offenses
But there's a lot to look at in Philemon’s story because he had been offended. And here's the thing: willingly let go of offenses is a lesson, frankly,
we all need to learn. Philemon had been wronged and so Paul sends this letter in the hands of Onesimus himself, appealing that he forgives. Let go
of this offense. If necessary I will pay from my own account but I'm asking you to forgive him. I have the authority to command you to do it. But I
want you to do it willingly, freely, not under compulsion. Let go, and set him free and return him back to me blessed and free.
You know, there's a lot of people who carry offenses. Maybe you're carrying offenses. Some people carry offenses for years, years they carry it with them. All their lives they carry it. Can I become very practical and, if you don't mind, very intimate? You know where this is often seen? Marriage. People get hurt. Offenses, they start to build up. They are like rocks in a wall, they just start building and building and building. And unforgiveness begins to mount, and offenses begin to increase. And the marriage is filled with these offenses and walls and it's not the marriage that God wants at all. And so He's telling us, it's a great point, "I want you to forgive" - no, the Lord would say: "I have the authority to command you to do it. But I'm asking you to do it willingly". See, it makes a very big difference, don't you think?
If somebody, you know, is offended and they come to the other person and they say, “Now listen. I don't really want to forgive you. I don't really want to let go of this thing but God is commanding me, so I have to do it. Okay. So here it is. I forgive you. There it is. There you go.” I don't know about you. It just doesn't have the same punch.
A. Have compassion as a fellow sinner
But if you come from your heart, it means something completely different. And I think the perspective is this: have compassion as a fellow sinner. See,
we can have compassion because we recognize we are sinners ourselves, then we can graciously forgive and extend that same forgiveness.
That's one of the main points we just studied in Titus 3. Looking at those verses at the beginning of that chapter is that he wrote, “Remind them to be ready for every good deed, showing every consideration for all men, for we were once foolish ourselves.” It gives us that perspective. We need to see it. We have compassion.
See, Mathew 18. Jesus gives a parable and that parable makes His powerful point, then I think any place in the Scripture. The parable goes like: "There was a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. One owed him $10,000 talents. You've got to know that is a humongous amount of money. A gargantuous amount of money. And he's unable to repay. So he calls him to account. The servant falls to the ground and pleas with them. Have patience with me and I will repay you everything. Well, the King has compassion. Releases him, forgives him the entire debt.
But then, that same servant, went out and he found another servant that owed him some money. 100 denarii, which is like nothing. It means a fraction. It's like a minute fraction of the amount. And the parable goes on. He took hold of him. Actually, it says he seized him by the throat, that's what it says. And he said, “Pay back what you owe.” The fellow servant falls to the ground, begins pleading with him, “Have patience with me, I will repay you.” But the other servant was unwilling. Even threw him into debtors’ prison until the entire amount was paid.
Well, word got to the master, the lord, the king. And they called that first servant back. Matthew 18:32. “Summoning him, the lord said to him, ‘You, wicked servant. I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant in the same way that I had mercy on you?’” You are not going to find a more powerful verse than that.
But 2 Peter 1:8-10 speaks to it, “If these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you” - listen to this – “neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But he who lacks these qualities is blind, short sighted, having forgotten his purification from his former sins.” We have compassion when we recognize we were sinners ourselves. So then we forgive.
B. Forgiveness should come from a willing heart
But see, he shows us a point. Forgiveness should come from the willing heart. Verse 8, “I have the authority to command you. I am not going to do it. I
appeal to you from love.” See, Philemon 14. Goodness, your goodness should not be as it were by compulsion but of your own free will. See? God's asking
us, in a similar way, let go. Let go let go of these offenses that you have been carrying so long. God would say: I have the authority to command you
to do it. I am not going to. I'm asking you to willingly and freely, from a heart that is transformed.
See, notice Ephesians 4:2. “Be kind to one another.” That requires a kind heart. ‘Be tender-hearted”, speaking to the heart there. “Forgiving each other just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” The point is this; God is wanting to bless your life. And we are the ones that are blessed when we let go of the offense.
But in the similar way we are the ones who pay the price if we won't forgive. So, really, what's the price? Bitterness. Bitterness is not a blessed way. It's not a pleasant way. It's not the way God wants us to live our lives. Bitterness, here’s the problem with bitterness. A person who carries bitterness in their heart is going to find that they bring that bitterness with them wherever they go. You know why? Because you bring you with you, pretty much, everywhere you go. And you bring that bitterness with you when it's going to start to affect every aspect of life. You are blessed when you let go. And you do it willingly because you trust. With a heart of faith, I trust you, Lord, I trust you.
See, Hebrews 12:14-15, “Pursue peace with all men. See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled.” See, this is the key to be useful to the Lord, meaning purpose, significance to life. Don't wrestle with God. Don't resist. Don't run. You go with God. The blessing, the favor, the meaning, the purpose, the significance.
What are you holding onto? Holding onto shame? Stop. Let go. He will rebuild. He will turn your life around. God delights in turnaround stories. Holding onto offenses? Let go. He'll make you useful, give you meaning and purpose and significance. What are you holding onto? Let go. He'll bless you.