Philemon 1:1-3 shows us a perspective on love: Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (ESV)
July 18th was Nelson Mandela Day, who was imprisoned alone for 27 years. His crime? Opposing Apartheid. He was even willing to die for the cause.
Mandela’s love for the cause of his people mobilized his country to pursue freedom, peace, and reconciliation, and eventually, it brought an end to the apartheid system.
Love is a strange thing. If it is self-less it can bring forth hope, life, and goodwill. It can unite and mobilize people behind a cause, and it can inspire generations to carry the cause. But if love is selfish, it causes disappointment, division, and destruction.
What cause are you so committed to that you are willing to die for it?
In John 15:13, Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (ESV). For Christians, the cause that triumphs over all others is the cause of Christ.
Throughout history, men and women have willfully laid down their lives even when they had the option to give up and renounce their faith in Jesus Christ. They were tortured, imprisoned, and killed but they did not renounce their love for their Lord and savior.
Growing up in Pakistan I had that option. My family had that option. Millions of believers around the world living under Islamic, Hindu, Secular, and Communist regimes have that option. But they choose Christ over a life of comfort, freedom, and security.
It is the love of Christ in us that changes our perspective on our circumstances and the challenges of our lives when we are committed to the cause of the Gospel.
Philemon’s Perspective on Love
In Philemon 1:1-3, love plays a prominent theme. Paul appeals to that very love to have Philemon do the right thing by forgiving, receiving, and reconciling with his runaway slave Onesimus who is now a brother in Christ.
First of all, Paul addresses Philemon as “our beloved fellow worker.”
Interestingly, Philemon already means beloved in Greek. Plus, “our beloved” in Greek is agapētós, which refers to the divine love by which all Christians are bound together as one in Christ.
The Bible says we love God because He loved us first, and therefore we are called to love each other. Paul is telling Philemon to do as his name says, for the divine love has made him and his slave equal and one in Christ.
In Colossians 3:12-14, Paul outlines the motive for agape “…as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (ESV).
Church, agapé binds us, agapé defines us and agapé unites us.
The Power of Love
This unique perspective on love has the power to set us free from the bondage of our circumstances in life and the challenges of life.
Circumstances in Life
Perhaps your circumstances are so overwhelming right now that it seems they are drawing you down. Our text teaches that the Sovereignty of God covers all circumstances.
We are not defined by our circumstances. Notice how Paul refuses to allow his circumstances to define him. He is defined by his love for the Lord and his witness.
We cannot be held hostage by our circumstances. Notice, that Paul’s freedom is in Christ, therefore he says, he is a prisoner of Christ rather than a prisoner of Rome. The Roman empire was the most powerful empire that ever existed, yet Paul refused its power and authority over him. Paul intentionally put the focus on the authority of Jesus because of the sovereignty of God.
We should never give in to our circumstances. Do you see, how by declaring that he is a prisoner of Christ, Paul takes back control? How often do we give in to our circumstances thinking that there is nothing that we can do? Paul is a prisoner, yet he is advocating for the freedom of Onesimus. He is also evangelizing, encouraging other churches, and confronting false doctrines. Whether he lives or die matter not, Paul is in full control of his circumstances despite the challenges of his life.
Challenges of Life
What are the challenges of Paul’s life? Well, he is a human being, isn’t he? Both in Colossians and in Philemon he says Luke is with him. Luke was a physician. Why would he acquire the services of a physician unless his health was deteriorating? All the hardships, beatings, shipwrecks, imprisonments, and travels must have taken a toll on his health. Yet, Paul’s unique perspective guided him through the challenges of life.
Like Mandela, Paul is in prison for a cause and not a crime.
But unlike Mandela’s cause, Paul’s cause has eternal significance for him and the world around him. Nelson Mandela’s cause was indeed a worthy one.
There is no doubt his work for freedom, peace, and reconciliation made a difference in South Africa and in the world, but in a broken world the forces of darkness are at work. The world is divided around race, injustice, inequality, poverty, and the subjugation of the weak continues to grow, not only in Africa but around the world. The only hope for lasting freedom, peace, and reconciliation is in Christ.
Mandela’s love for his people gave him the strength to go on for 27 years and helped him overcome the challenges of his life. Paul’s love for Christ propelled him to turn the challenges of life into an opportunity to preach the Gospel.
Commitment to the Gospel
Paul wishes grace and peace to remind Philemon and his household of how they were reconciled with God.
Grace is the unmerited favor of God towards sinners. Peace is the outcome of the reconciliation between God and man.
We do not get what we deserve–that is, God’s wrath. Instead, we get what we do not deserve—that is, God’s grace, the Gospel truth for which God became man and came into the world and died on the cross to reconcile us with God and with each other.
The foundation of all of this is agape, the love that drove God to the madness of sacrificing his own son. Agape is incomprehensible without Christ in us, and if we do not exercise agape toward others, we are nullifying the transformation that the Gospel brings in us.
Paul expects Philemon to exercise agape by forgiving Onesimus, receiving him, and reconciling with him. In this process, he invites his family as well. He wants this to be a family decision because all of them have been transformed by the Gospel.
Agape love changes our perspective on our circumstances in life and the challenges of life. When we are committed to the Gospel love we can be assured that God will turn our life challenges into an opportunity to love Christ more and love His people more.
Three Questions to Think About
How committed are you to the Gospel proclamation in your words and actions?
Has your commitment to the Gospel brought a change in your perspective on life?
How has Gospel Love changed your perspective on your circumstances and challenges of life?
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