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Are You Useful
Scripture: Philemon 1:15-17; John 15:18-20; Galatia...
Track 3 of 8 in the Slaves of Christ series
There is one stunning truth found in Philemon that many American Christians find hard to deal with; Paul refused to force Philemon, a Christian to release or forgive Onesimus, a Christian. In fact Paul follows the Roman law realizing that Onesimus actually is property of Philemon. His appeal is based solely on the fact that both are brothers in Christ.

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Mike Nobis Speaker: Mike Nobis
Sunday School Teacher, Former Elder at Madison Park Christian Church. Mike is President of JK Creative Printers & Mailing in Quincy, IL. He is married to Pam and has three children, Tom, Tyler and Jennifer. Mike has three grandchildren: Ryne, Ivy and Alicia.

View all sermons by this speaker.

Are You Useful?

In your house, what portion of all you own do you consider useful objects?
What are some of the things that aren’t useful anymore? What makes them useless?

The church in the first century had some real obstacles to overcome. First there was the conflict between a Jew won over to Christ worshiping with a Gentile won to Christ. Now that might seem trivial to you but to the orthodox Jew, sitting in the presence of a Gentile was hard enough but to worship with them and even consider them a spiritual brother or sister was almost too much to bare. It is evident in the letters to the churches that there were struggles within the church to breakdown the cultural barriers, Jews to Greeks, men to women, free and the slave. As the church won people to Christ, in many cases the home slaves as well as the home servants were won as well.

Philemon 1:15-16 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good—16no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.

Christianity cut through the cultural barriers like no other force. Two men, one a slave and one a master would be won to Christ, both culturally and economically different but in the kingdom of God, brothers in Christ and equal. When Onesimus ran away from his master, he simply wasn’t fleeing from one man to another; he was fleeing from world into another. In the Jewish world of Paul, the Torah dictated that runaway slaves were to be sheltered. In Philemon’s world, Roman law decreed that runaway slaves be severely punished along with the person who offered them shelter.

The African American slave would have been in an identical situation. But in Paul’s time there was no underground railroad for someone like Onesimus. He would have been totally on his own. We have examples from the ancient world of letters of appeal for runaway slaves. There were people who had cultural standing actually write on behalf of a slave to the slave owner asking for forgiveness. In most cases the appeal was based on the depth of repentance of the runaway. But the letter of appeal written on behalf of Onesimus by Paul was based on something more powerful, the appeal was based on the mutual relationship they both had in Christ.

How many of you if you found yourself a slave to someone else would consider fleeing from your master? What would your motivation be? How much danger would you endure to find freedom? How many of you would just stay a slave out of fear?

“Do you see this head? Do you see these hands? I stole them from my master”
Frederick Douglas

Every time Douglas would introduce himself, he would say these words. During the time of slavery in America, a runaway slave was considered to be a thief who had literally stolen himself from his master. If caught he was liable for wages he would have earned during the time lost as well as the price that had been paid for his own bondage. In the time of Douglas, a runaway slave could literally flee north toward freedom due to the underground railroad. In the first century, there was virtually nowhere to run.

What do you know about the one chapter letter from Paul to Philemon? What is the background?

By understanding the background of this letter, the reader gains an insight into the life of a slave and how important it was for Onesimus to be forgiven by Philemon. We know that Philemon was a member of the house church in Colossae. When Paul wrote the letter to the Colossians, the actual letter was delivered to the church by Onesimus and another slave named Tychicus. In addition to that letter, the two slaves also carried the letter of Paul to Philemon. Philemon was won to Christ by Paul during one of Paul’s missionary journeys. Onesimus also was won to Christ by Paul while in prison in Rome.

There is one stunning truth found in Philemon that many American Christians find hard to deal with; Paul refused to force Philemon, a Christian to release or forgive Onesimus, a Christian. In fact Paul follows the Roman law realizing that Onesimus actually is property of Philemon. His appeal is based solely on the fact that both are brothers in Christ. Tucked away in the heart of this letter is something that is powerful beyond imagination and quite ironic. Most often we read right past it without seeing the importance. I believe Philemon caught what Paul was saying:

Philemon 10-11 I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.

What is ironic and powerful about what Paul wrote?

The name Onesimus was a very common name for a slave. In fact, this probably wasn’t his real name but a name given to him by Philemon. It was common to remove the real name and substitute it with a name given by the master. Onesimus means “useful”. As Philemon gave the slave a new name in slavery, Paul gave him a new name also, “my son”. In addition Paul writes this:

Philemon 17: So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.

When Jesus sent out his disciples, he too used words similar to Paul’s. As they went out He gave them authority as though He were with them. Paul is doing the same with Onesimus.

John 15:18-20 “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.

Do you think Philemon forgave Onesimus? Later we see Onesimus attaining the position of watching over the church at Ephesus. In essence, Onesimus was the successor to John himself. Philemon did forgive Onesimus.

What is fascinating to know about the New Testament, most of the names mentioned by Paul in his letters were former slaves.

There is something missing from the letter to Philemon that many wonder about. What is it? Was Paul against the abolition of slavery? Why wasn’t Paul against slavery?

No where do we see in the letters of Paul any judgment against slavery. He never wrote about the moral aspect of slavery. This fact caused a twisted Biblical justification by some Christians for the use of slaves. Some churches preached the approval of slavery from the pulpit both in the North as well as the South. In spite of this twisted belief, so many African slaves came to Christ and found the true gospel of Jesus despite their chains. Jesus understood their plight and when Paul talked about the Kingdom, he stated:

Galatians 3:28-29 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

Every time Paul proclaimed the oneness every follower of Jesus has with one another, he was in a sense pronouncing slavery null and void. In the light of Christ, slavery no longer existed anymore. But this was not true in the pagan world. Not once do we see Paul protesting against slavery in the Roman world. You don’t see him picketing in front of the capitol steps or protesting against the unfair treatment of people. That wasn’t his calling. His calling was to introduce a new world shaped by a value system derived from the servant life of Jesus. He did not preach to end slavery; he went out and preached about a new kind of slavery that was a new beginning, a better freedom.

Eye-Slaves and People Pleasers

Let’s take some of this stuff about slaves and put this into every day practice. The point isn’t just about the idea of slavery, but the freedom every Christian has in this new kind of slavery, slavery in Christ. So how does this work? How do we apply this to our lives?

Colossians 3:22-4:1 Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favoritism. Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.

So what about you? Are you an eye-slave and a people pleaser working hard when watched or do you work just as hard, even harder when no one is watching you? Do you give your employer a full 8 hours or work?

How many of you have access to the internet at work? How many of you use the internet for personal use during work hours?

According to study surveys, the average employee spends between one and two hours each day using the Internet for personal reasons. Use ranges widely from accessing pornographic and gambling sites to playing games and instant messaging friends and co-workers. People also reported using the Internet at work to perform more innocent, but still personal, tasks such as shopping and banking. The reasoning that many give for using the Internet at work ranges from lack of access at home or having a faster connection at work to accessing the Internet as a result of boredom. Base this trend on a $10 hour job, that equals $5,200 a year per employee not counting all the other employee expenses per hour per employee. Is this stealing?

To the slaves Paul writes to, he uses two words that are fascinating to study. Now we have to remember that Philemon is a member of the church this letter was sent to. Onesimus also is hearing this because he was the one who delivered the letter to be read to the whole congregation. The words Paul uses are compound words with some powerful meanings. Basically they translate as Eye-Slaves and People Pleasers.

Explain to me the mentality of a person who works for someone else who is an eye-slave? What does this mean? Why does Paul consider it bad to be this way? What is a people pleaser? This is a person who deliberately made the decision to please people rather than God.

Plato put it this way: A man should not try to please his fellow slaves but his good and noble masters.”

What happens if you work for someone who is not good or noble? Does the rule still apply? Why?

There are two realities that Paul points out in this passage. These realities are very important and must be placed into every Christian’s heart.

• To the slave, be faithful do your best at all times. Why, they have a master who will reward them.
• To the master, they are too are to remain faithful and treat their slaves fairly. Why, they too have a master they are accountable to.

Paul’s purpose here dealing with slavery is not the abolition of it, but the transformation both in the heart of the slave and the heart of the master. Both are to live with a motivation that displays love, obedience and respect for each other. Why do this?

1 Timothy 6:1-2 All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered. Those who have believing masters are not to show less respect for them because they are brothers. Instead, they are to serve them even better, because those who benefit from their service are believers, and dear to them. These are the things you are to teach and urge on them.

Now you all still might be wondering, what is this lesson series all about especially this lesson? There is a fundamental truth that all of us; both believers and unbelievers need to know or will someday know, there is a master. For the believer, understanding this fact is important to practice. Every day that we live this out we demonstrate to the lost world this truth; God is the master and we are his freedman. We protect the image of a faithful slave.