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On the Basis of Love (Part 1 of 2)

Truth for Life / Alistair Begg
The Truth Network Radio
July 27, 2021 4:00 am

On the Basis of Love (Part 1 of 2)

Truth for Life / Alistair Begg

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July 27, 2021 4:00 am

It’s easy to be demanding when we’re in a position of authority—but that’s not always the best way to work with others. Discover why Paul used a different approach to reunite Philemon with his runaway servant. That’s on Truth For Life with Alistair Begg.


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When someone is in a position of authority, it is not inappropriate for them to make demands on others. Today on Truth for Life, Alistair Begg explains why the Apostle Paul chose to make a request instead of a demand when it came time to reunite Philemon with his runaway servant. I invite you to turn to your New Testament and to Philemon, which is a tiny letter that you will find nestled in between Titus and Hebrews—Philemon and verse 8. Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I then, as Paul an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus, 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. I am sending him, who is my very heart, back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel.

But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good, no 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.

Amen. I want you to notice, first of all, the tone and tenor of the appeal that Paul is making. Let me give you an overview of it, and then we'll work our way down through the verses. His tone is humble, it is earnest, and it is in terms of genuine endearment. Indeed, he makes this appeal in a way that is, frankly, very difficult to resist.

He points to the fact that he is appealing not on the basis of a demand, but he is making a request. That request in verse 9 is on the basis not of rank or authority but of love. In verse 12, it is clear that it is heartfelt. In verse 13, that it is selfless. And in verse 15, that it recognizes God's providence in the circumstances as they are unfolding. So you have this sense of Paul's genuine affection and sincere care for those to whom he writes, and particularly for the one of whom he writes and on whose part he is making this appeal. Spurgeon, when he gave the lectures to his students many years ago, reminded them that when they went into pastoral ministry, they should make sure that they didn't forget that more flies are caught by a jar of honey than by a pot of vinegar. And he was pointing out that genuine warmth and affection and friendliness on the part of the minister will be of far greater good than a kind of doer insensitivity that looks as though the man has been sucking on something rather distasteful, and his face has been giving an indication of just how difficult it has been for him.

There is every danger for young ministers in particular to drive their people rather than to lead their people. I recognize it in reviewing the years in which I've had the privilege of being a pastor, and I also recognize that old habits die hard. And therefore, that in turning to this particular little letter and recognizing the way in which Paul does what he does, it is a forcible reminder to check our lives and our ministries and our approach to people against the plumb line of the Bible.

It is a relatively easy thing to drive people on, to goad them, to prod them. It is a far more difficult and demanding thing to lead them by way of example, to encourage them by tenderness and by kindness. And those who know me best know my own struggles in this area. Indeed, sometimes when I've been driving in the car of old, when my children were there, if I perhaps reflected on something or said something about a situation and it hasn't been altogether positive, after I have finished my little statement, there would be a pause and then a voice from the backseat from my son when he would say, And that's another kind word from your pastor. And people ask all the time, How do you do what you do and keep an even keel, and so on? Well, he is one of my even keel members and a very important one of that.

Well, I'll look at it here. His entreaty in verse 8 is not on the strength of his apostolic authority, which gave him the ability to be bold and to issue an order. This is not high-mindedness on the part of Paul.

It is an acknowledgment of his place in the purposes of God. We have no apostles today. The apostles were a small group of individuals who had a sight of the risen Christ who were commissioned by him to their responsibilities. Apostolic authority now no longer resides in an individual but resides in the Scriptures themselves, and it is to the Scriptures that we look for our authority. That which the apostles, under the direction of God's Spirit, wrote down has been preserved for us by God's Spirit in our Bibles, and it is to the Bible alone that we look as our sole authority in all matters of faith and practice.

Paul, however, possessing that apostolic authority, chooses not to use it as the basis of his appeal. So he says instead of doing what he had every right to do, rather, he appeals on the basis of love. I appeal to you on the basis of love.

Now, again, this is not something sentimental and squishy. It rather is to recognize what it means to be a Christian. And Philemon, who is described in his opening introduction as our dear friend—which is just one word in Greek, agapetos—this dear friend, Philemon, is now being asked on the basis of the love of Jesus, which has come to fill his life, to operate out of that resource and to respond on the basis of love. Duty is an essential part of Christian living.

It is not wrong, but it is ultimately inadequate as a motivating factor. And both in our service of Christ and in our response to one another, love is absolutely foundational. So he says, I appeal to you on the basis of love, verse 9, I then, as Paul—and look at how he describes himself—an old man, and now also a prisoner of Jesus. Do something nice for this old man, he says. Now, if Paul was about sixty, as is estimated by historians, he's not really very old, is he? At least many of us are saying, Oh no, he's not old at all. In fact, he's middle aged, sixty is the new thirty, and so on. Well, we can kid ourselves all we like, but he was of a certain age, but given the nature of his life and all that he had been through, sixty years for Paul was different from sixty years of ease in the lives of others. And so he may well feel himself to be older than he actually is, and so takes that designation. There is also just a chance that the word which is used here, which is so close to the word for ambassador, is providing Paul with the ability to say, I am actually an ambassador for Jesus and yet at the same time a prisoner for Jesus.

Whether it is one or the other is not really germane to the issue. The fact is, he makes his appeal in a way that is truthful and in a way that is tactful. And it takes until verse 10, before he actually identifies the one who is the focus of this letter, I appeal to you for my son Onesimus. This is the first time Onesimus has been mentioned.

Well, you say, was he holding back the name so as to build his case? Because this will take the wind out of the sails of Philemon. After all, Philemon has been the master of Onesimus. Onesimus has made a run for it, probably taken away some of his master's possessions, and now Philemon is to hear news of him and is actually approached in order that he might take him back as a brother in Christ. Well, of course, if you think about it, presumably the letter arrived simultaneously with Tychicus and with Onesimus, and so Philemon would actually know that it was about Onesimus. Unless, of course, Onesimus hid behind the building, you know, that he arrived, and he said, Tychicus, why don't you go in and read the letter? I'll hide behind the barn, and then you come out and see how it goes with Philemon, and then you can just go, It's okay to come in now.

It's always a possibility, highly unlikely, I agree. But what a striking thing for Philemon to be confronted with the fact that this runaway slave Onesimus has actually become a Christian in his absence. And look at what Paul says. He's become my son while I was in chains. The paraphrase reads as follows, I have become a father, though I have been under lock and key, and the child's name is Onesimus. What does he mean he has become a father? Does he mean that he has produced a Christian, as it were?

That he was able to make Onesimus become a Christian? No, no individual is able to transfer that to another. The grace of God doesn't pass through human genes. If that were so, then we would just be able to pass it on to our children. We would be able to press it upon our spouse. We would be able to make sure that it was true of our siblings and so on. No, Paul understood perfectly that all of the power in seeing somebody born again of God's Spirit is a power which belongs to God. And the instrumentality in this case—if you like, the conduit—was none other than Paul himself.

Unless we're clear about this, we will very quickly go wrong. In seeking to see unbelieving people become the committed followers of Jesus Christ, we are asking God to bring men and women to himself. He chooses, in his purposes, to give us often a part in that. But all we are are voices.

All we are are fingers pointing. And Paul was clear on that. He says, what after all, when he writes in 1 Corinthians, what after all is Paul?

What after all is Apollos or Cephas? Only servants through whom you came to believe. That was the instrumentality whereby they had come to faith. And this notion of becoming a father in the gospel is his privilege in relationship to Onesimus. It is a reminder, is it not, of the fact that if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, the old is gone, and the new has come. And it is this, that he is affirming for Philemon. He has become my son while I was in chains.

And look at verse 11. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. In other words, what you need to know, Philemon, is that Onesimus is not the old Onesimus. I'm not sending back to you the Onesimus who stole your stuff and ran away.

I'm sending back to you a new Onesimus. Now, don't let's miss this. This is what it means to be in Christ. By nature, the Bible says that we are not anywhere close to Jesus, despite our superficial interest in him, our knowledge of him, our awareness of truth in the Bible. By our nature, we are blind to the truth that is conveyed in Jesus. We're actually dead in our trespasses and in our sins. We are absolutely unacceptable before the gate of heaven, and we are absolutely unable to do anything to rectify those circumstances. So unless the gospel is the good news of Jesus doing something for us, what we are unable to do for ourselves, it cannot be good news at all.

But that is it. That the righteousness of Jesus is credited to the account of the sinner on the basis of the fact that the penalty due to the sinner has been borne by Jesus on the cross. And somewhere in the context of Rome, Paul, who had discovered this for himself, had declared it to Onesimus. He would have said clearly to Onesimus, Do you understand that your problem, Onesimus, is not that you're estranged from Philemon? Your problem, Onesimus, is that you are estranged from the living God who made you. And I was estranged from the living God to Onesimus, and I hated Jesus, and I hated anybody who said anything about Jesus.

Well, says Onesimus, why and how have you changed? Oh, says Paul, I have to tell you that when I wasn't looking for him, he came looking for me. And on a day when I was most opposed to him, in the brightness of the noonday sun, there was a light that shone brighter than all of that. And in a great moment in time, I understood who Jesus was and what he had done on the cross and how he was alive from the dead and how he redeemed me. Is that your story this morning? Is that your testimony to faith in Jesus? Would you be able to come and say, I once was blind, but now I see. I once was absolutely useless, and God in his grace has made me useful.

And if not, today is the day to bow before God's amazing grace and goodness and thank him for providing for you a Savior in Jesus and casting yourself upon his mercy. I'm sending him back to you. Formerly he was useless, but now he has become useful. The pun is terrific, because Onesimus, the name Onesimus, means useful. And the irony was that the fellow with the name Useful was useless. So when he would say to his wife, Where's Useful? And Philemon's wife Apphia would say, I don't know where he is.

He would say, You know what? Useful is useless. And his uselessness had been made most obvious in his rebellion and in his runaway. And now he gets a letter from Paul saying, Onesimus is back with Tychicus. It's not the same Onesimus. It's a new Onesimus. If any man or woman is in Christ, they are new creations. The old is gone.

The new has come. Not the attachment of religious exercises from the outside, but the transformation of God's grace on the inside, thereby working its way out through every element of life. And it is because of that that Christianity knows nothing of hopeless cases. There are two reasons why people stay away from Jesus as a Savior on the cross. One, because they think they're too good to need him, and two, because they think they're so bad that he could never cope with them. And in this room right now, those who are not in Christ are apart from Jesus on the strength of one of those two things. And here's the wonderful thing. Unlike every other religion in the world, which either creates in our minds pride, whereby we're doing everything we should, or despair, whereby we cannot do what we think we ought to do, Christianity deals with both our pride and our despair.

What is the standard for entry? Absolute perfection. Okay?

How do you feel you're doing on that basis? Exactly. Was there ever anybody who kept God's law in its totality? Yes, one, namely Jesus. So unless I am placed into Jesus and credited with all that he has done in the keeping of God's law, I have no place before him. And to the person who feels himself in absolute or herself in absolute total despair and ignominy.

You look up there upon that cross, and bearing shame and scoffing rude, in the sinner's place condemned he stood, taking all of the punishment that my sin deserves so that I might be accepted before the Father. All of this is wrapped up in what has happened to Onesimus. People might have said of Onesimus, when they went for their shopping, they said, I believe Philemon's slave has buzzed off.

Oh, yes. Yes, he's away now. Apparently, he took some of his stuff.

Maybe they went to the church in Philemon's house. And they said, well, he was always a bad egg anyway, that Onesimus character. Funny that his name would be—funny he would be called Onesimus, you know, because he frankly was useless when he was here, and he's useless now that he's gone.

How could he ever come back useful? I don't have time this morning to rehearse stories out of pastoral ministry where I can tell you about guys who couldn't hardly read, write, or do arithmetic, who, for them, the starting point of the total transformation of their lives was the discovery of Jesus as a friend and Savior. And those who apparently couldn't complete high school went on not only to graduate from college but to do postgraduate degrees in theology and are now successful and erudite pastors today. But it all started not as a result of a college course, but it all started as a result of acknowledging that they were absolutely useless and they needed someone, namely Jesus, to come and change them from the inside out.

That is what has happened to Onesimus, and that is what must happen to each one of us. It's the acknowledgement of our need for forgiveness and our need to be transformed that is the first step in making us useful in God's service. That's from today's message on Truth for Life with Alistair Begg. If you listen to Truth for Life regularly, you know that our passion here is to teach the Bible with clarity and relevance.

In addition to Alistair's teaching, we put a lot of time and thought into the books we recommend to you each month. When you support the mission of Truth for Life by becoming one of our monthly Truth Partners, both of the books we offer each month are yours when you request them. The benefits of being a Truth Partner are twofold. First, you get to strengthen your own understanding of the Bible by reading books that supplement Alistair's teaching, and then second, you enjoy knowing that you are giving the gift of the Gospel to others by providing the needed financial support for this daily program. Signing up to be a Truth Partner is easy.

Simply visit slash truthpartner. You may have heard me mention this before. We are currently offering a book that was not hard for us to choose. It's a book by Alistair. The title of it is Pray Big, Learn to Pray Like an Apostle. The book takes a close look at the prayers the Apostle Paul wrote from prison to the Ephesian church.

You may be surprised to learn that his difficult circumstances were not the focus of his bold and yet humble prayers. When you read the book Pray Big, you'll discover that Paul prayed with confidence for the Gospel to spread and for the church to grow. In fact, what Paul prayed for was for God's will to be done through the work of the Gospel. And we can pray this same way. We can emulate Paul's pattern of prayer. Professor Wayne Grudem said of this book, On the morning after I began reading the book, I found out my own personal prayer life had been enriched and deepened by Alistair's challenge that we pray big by imitating the Apostle Paul's God-exalting, God-trusting, God-glorifying pattern of prayer for the Ephesian churches.

The book Pray Big will help you revive your prayer life whether you pray privately or with your family or in a Bible study group. You'll also be able to dive deeper into the content as you work through a study guide that accompanies this book. Both the book and the study guide are yours as Truth Partners or with a generous one-time donation. To find out more, visit slash truth partner or call us at 888-588-7884. I'm Bob Lapine. Thanks for joining us. We want to invite you to listen again tomorrow. We're going to find out what happened to a seemingly useless runaway slave who discovered God's providence is inescapable. The Bible teaching of Alistair Begg is furnished by Truth for Life where the Learning is for Living.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-09-19 16:51:26 / 2023-09-19 17:00:02 / 9

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