People Can Change

This past Sunday, I preached on the book of Philemon.  The book of Philemon is a single chapter book with only 25 verses.  However, the information contained in those verses is life changing.

The book begins by Paul encouraging Philemon, letting him know that he has heard all of the positive work Philemon is doing in Colosse.  Philemon was one of the leaders of Colosse.  In fact, it is safe to say that Philemon was well to do.  He had slaves that worked for him.  One of those slaves is named Onesimus.

According to the text, Onesimus was a slave who may have stolen from Philemon.  During that time, slaves who were thieves were not considered worthy of life.  We know this because Jesus was crucified between two thieves.  In this letter to Philemon, Paul says that whatever Onesimus stole, place on his account to be repaid. 

As I read this and prepared my sermon on this text, some things came to light that are worthy of sharing.  First, the overall idea of this text is “Do you love God more than anything or anyone?”  Although Paul doesn’t explicitly ask this question to Philemon, Paul does imply this by way of encouragement, reminding Philemon that he was transformed by salvation through Jesus Christ.  Then Paul says to accept Onesimus back not as a slave but as a brother.

Think about that for a moment.  Here we have a boss, who’s employee stole from him and the penalty for that, according to the law is death.  However, Paul encourages Philemon to forget what the law says and show grace and mercy to Onesimus.  If Philemon truly loves God more than anything or anyone, then Philemon would have to accept the fact that Onesimus was a new man in Christ.  Therefore, the law of man no longer was in play here but the law of grace and mercy was.  

Second, Onesimus was considered useless before but useful to Paul now.  In the Greek, Onesimus means profitable.  What Paul did here was to play on Onesimus’ name and let Philemon know that this man, whose name means profitable was originally useless to Philemon, but now that Onesimus is a brother in Christ he has become useful.  Paul explain this by using words like “formerly” and “once was” and “has become”.  All of these are words of transformation.  Paul expalins to Philemon, that just like him, Onesimus has been changed because of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Here is what I thought about when I read this.  Philemon is in Colosse when Paul preaches there.  Philemon converts to Christianity and becomes a leader in Colosse.  Philemon has a thieving slave who runs away, aware that his sin’s penalty means death.  Then this same slave runs into Paul, IN PRISON, and then becomes a convert as well.  Paul works with this slave and then returns him to Philemon.  The same man who brought the Gospel to Colosse is the same man who helped in saving Onesimus.  Which brings me to my third point.  Sometimes we need to be removed or those around us need to be removed for the sake of the Gospel.

It wasn’t a coindence that Onesimus ran away and ran into Paul.  In fact Paul let’s Philemon know that there is a very strong possibility that the reason why Onesimus ran away was because he needed to hear the Gospel from Paul.  There is another side to this as well.  Sometimes those who have wronged us need to be separated from us because we will get in the way.

If Onesimus stayed, Philemon would have probably had him killed because the law allowed it.  This would mean that Onesimus would have died and suffered in hell for all eternity because he had not heard the Gospel.  However, because of God’s providence, Onesimus was allowed to escape only to find Paul who led him to Christ.  Then after working with Onesimus, Paul sends him back to Philemon.

How many times do people in relationships run away?  How many times have we run away because we have wronged the one’s we love and care for?  As sinful human beings, we all have a tendency to run away from conflict.  However, what we need to do is the opposite.  We need not to run away, but listen for the voice of God and work out our problems with those we love.  

There will be times, where God will allow separation for a time, but only to point that person back to the cross.  Never is this separation supposed to be permanent.  At the same time, if we are separated from those we love, we may need ot consider that it is us who need to run to the cross and take time to learn who God is and what He has done for us.  

If we are the one’s who were hurt, have been separated from that relationship for a time, there will be a moment where we need to restore that relationship.  We need not look at their past but how God has transformed them into a new creation.

Paul had told Philemon to accept Onesimus back.  Paul told Philemon that Onesimus has been transformed by the same power of God that transformed him.  We need to take the same approach with others that have hurt us.  Was Philemon going to accept Onesimus based solely on Paul’s words?   Probably not.  But Paul encouraged Philemon to look at Onesimus with they eyes of transformation rather than his past.

When relationships fall apart and want to be restored, we have the right to be careful concerning the other party.  However, we need to stop for a moment and ask God to show us the transformation He made in that person’s life.  If God has truly transformed that person, the fruit of the Spirit will show.  However, we need to give them a chance.  No matter how long we have been hurt or how badly, we owe it, not to the other party, but to ourselves to allow God to show us how He can transform lives.

As we face hard times and harder relationships, let us consider that the other party or ourselves, needs to evaluate our own relationship with God and consider that God can and does change people for His glory.  People can change.  All we are asked to do is give them another chance like God has given to us.

God bless and encouage someone today.

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3 thoughts on “People Can Change

  1. I enjoyed reading this. I will read this section of the Bible too to get a complete understanding. However, I don’t believe we are sinful humans as you mention. I am a joyful human of the Unitarian Universalist faith. We believe we are born with original blessings. We do read the Bible though and study and discuss it.

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