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From Ruthless to Generous and Enslaved to Empowered

Summit Life / J.D. Greear
The Truth Network Radio
February 3, 2023 9:00 am

From Ruthless to Generous and Enslaved to Empowered

Summit Life / J.D. Greear

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February 3, 2023 9:00 am

The gospel is the power for the Christian life. And in the book of Philemon, we see a real life example of the gospel transforming two first-century believers who couldn’t be more different.


Today on Summit Life, a picture of the gospel at work from J.D. Greer. Welcome to Summit Life with Pastor and Author J.D. Greer.

I'm your host, Molly Vidovitch. If you've been listening for a while, you've probably heard J.D. say that the gospel isn't just a philosophy that we believe or a program that we practice. It's actually the power for the Christian life. And today, we'll see a picture of that in the lives of two first century believers.

In fact, it's a fascinating account that you probably flip right past as you read the Bible. You're joining us in a teaching series called Everyday Theology. To hear previous messages in this study or learn more about our scripture memory cards, go to

But for now, let's get started. Pastor J.D. titled this message From Ruthless to Generous and Enslaved to Empowered. Today, we are going to briefly look at a New Testament book that I think captures the heart of our vision. It is the book of Philemon in your Bible.

So, if you have a Bible, I want you to take it out and begin to open it to Philemon. The book comes right after the book of Titus. So, if you have been here the last few weeks and have gotten good at finding Titus, it's the very next page. We just finished our study through Titus. And really, Philemon is an extension of the thought in Titus.

So, you could consider this like a bonus track. Philemon is one of the shortest books in the Bible. Only one page, 335 words in Greek. It's actually a postscript that was attached to the book of Colossians. A really interesting story behind this book, Philemon was a Roman nobleman who lived in Colossae whom Paul had led to Christ on a mission trip there. Well, Philemon was really wealthy and he had a bunch of servants and one of them named Onesimus had stolen a bunch of stuff from Philemon's house and then ran away to Rome. Well, in a crazy twist of providence, Onesimus runs into the apostle Paul in Rome.

Rome was a huge city but he just happens to run into Paul who is being held in a minimum security prison there in Rome. So, Paul leads Onesimus to Christ. Then he finds out that Onesimus is a runaway slave who had stolen a bunch of stuff from Paul's friend Philemon. So, Paul sends him back to Philemon to turn himself in. And as he is going, he says, hey, as you're going to turn yourself into Philemon, I want you to take this letter to the church in Colossae which is the book of Colossians in your Bible. And then he attaches this little postscript to that letter as a private letter to Philemon.

That's the book of Philemon. And so this is what Paul says in a private letter to Philemon, verse 6 is where we'll pick up. Paul says, I'm praying that you, Philemon, will put into action the generosity that comes from your faith as you understand and experience all the good things that we have in Christ. Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ who commands you to do what is required, yet for love's sake, I prefer to appeal to you. So I, Paul, an old man now, and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus, I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. And he led him to Christ.

That's what he means. Formerly, he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful. There is a play on words happening in Greek because Onesimus in Greek literally means useful.

Onesimus as a thief had become useless. Now, Paul says, he's living up to his name useful, but he's not just useful to you. He's also useful to me. More than just his previous usefulness as a servant in your house, Philemon, God has a role for him in his kingdom.

He's gone way beyond his previous usefulness. God has chosen him to be an instrument of blessing. Verse 12, I am sending him back to you and sending my very heart when I do so. I would have been glad to have kept him with me in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel.

But I prefer to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion, but of your own accord. For this is perhaps why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever. Not as a bond servant, however, but more than a bond servant, that you would have him back as a beloved brother. Verse 17, so if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me.

If he's wronged you at all or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand. I will repay it to say nothing of you owing me even your own self since, after all, I led you to Christ. All right, so Paul is pretty good at the guilt trip.

Basically Paul says, so Philemon, while you languish around in your luxurious house with all your servants, I, an old man, am here in prison for the gospel. I led Onesimus to Christ and now he really feels a call toward ministry and I could really use his help. But if you really want to take him back, I guess you can. By the way, did I remind you that I led you to Christ and without me you would be on your way to hell? Well, if you can find it in your heart to do that, great. If not, when I get out of prison, I'll personally come pay his debts. It's up to you, Philemon. And then Paul concludes with this, verse 22.

One more thing. Please prepare a guest room for me for I am hoping that God will answer your prayers and let me return to you soon. In other words, oh yeah, I'm actually going to be there in a few months and this is going to be really, really awkward if you do not do what I am saying. Furthermore, this letter is going to go in the Bible, which means that for the rest of Christian history, if you don't do what I say, you're going to be known as that guy.

But no pressure, man, totally up to you. And of course, Onesimus is the one who actually delivers this letter. So as Philemon is reading it, Onesimus is kind of standing there grinning, like, you know, what do you say, Uncle Phi?

You know, what's going to happen here? All right, before we go any farther, let's deal with an obvious question that some of you had, as I have been reading through this. The question is, does the Bible here condone slavery? Because it seems pretty clear that there is some kind of ownership that Philemon has over Onesimus. In recognizing that, is Paul legitimizing slavery? Great question. Sadly, some Christians throughout history have interpreted it that way, but that is a very simplistic, very twisted, and quite frankly, very wrong understanding.

Three things to remember. Number one, the bondservant here is nothing like what we think of when we say slave. When we think slave, we think you take somebody captive and force them into labor. That kind of slavery is explicitly condemned in the Bible.

Exodus 21, 16, anyone who kidnaps another and sells him shall be put to death. Or in 1 Timothy 1, verse 8, Paul puts slave traders in the same category as those who kill their parents, adulterers, perjurers, or perverts. So that cannot be the kind of servant Onesimus was. This, scholars say, was more like what we think of as indentured servanthood, and it was part of the economic system in Rome. That's why some of your translations say bondservant, some say servant, some say slave. There was one word in Greek that could mean any number of things.

The word was doulos. In those days, if somebody became extremely poor or they had a lot of debt or they couldn't provide for their family, the only thing left for them to sell was their labor. So an agreement to pay off their debt or for the promise of provision, then people would often sell themselves to a wealthy person like Philemon. Now that is not to say that it was a good system or that it was ever part of God's plan. In the original creation, God never intended us to own each other. He told us to have dominion over the earth, not other humans, which leads me to number two.

The New Testament subverts the entire premise of any form of slavery. You could summarize the entire New Testament ethic about how we are to treat one another in love your neighbor as yourself and do one to others as you would have them do unto you. It calls us to treat one another as brothers and sisters and tells us that in Christ, there is neither slave nor free. You can see that he tells us we are all family.

There is no hierarchy in the kingdom of God. You can see that in a verse Paul often uses to close his letters. He will say, greet one another with a holy kiss. As a teenager in church, I wondered, why does no one ever preach on that verse? Because there were several girls I wanted to apply that verse with that very morning. But then my dad explained to me that Paul said it is a holy kiss, which is not what you have in mind when you want to apply that verse. Secondly, he said, you would have to apply it to men and women alike, which took care of any desire that I had to apply that verse at church. But what Paul meant through that command was treat one another like family. When you come into the kingdom of God, there is neither Jew nor Greek, black nor white, rich nor poor, employer, employee.

There is no educated, uneducated, prisoner, free, incarcerate, none of that. He said in Christ, we are one race of people, the human race. We are one class of people, sinner. There is one solution, Jesus. There's one future, the resurrection. There is one fortune and that is the eternal riches of Jesus Christ. So he says, when we come into this place, we leave any distinctions behind because we have been made one in Jesus Christ. We are family.

The ground is level at the foot of the cross. In Christ, masters and servants become brothers and sisters. That new view of humanity would ultimately undo any form of slavery, which leads me to number three. Rather than issuing a political manifesto, God planted seeds, which undid the current order. You see, had God said this system is wrong, get rid of it now, Jesus' followers may have focused exclusively on political action and there is a time to work politically. But God had a different way of going about his agenda on earth. He was transforming the world from within and the place that he started that transformation was in his church.

Eventually, this new vision of humanity would transform the whole society, but God started it through the gospel in the church. D.A. Carson, the historian and theologian, says that the best work on slavery, in his opinion, is by an African American scholar named Thomas Sowell. It's massive. It's three volumes. I've looked through it.

It's really impressive. Sowell points out that slavery was a universal problem going up to about the 17th century. He says, the terrible European slave trade with which we are familiar that trafficked over 11 million Africans, he said twice that many were bought and sold on the Arabian Peninsula during that same time period. Furthermore, he says, almost every slave sold in the European slave trade were taken captive and sold to them by other Africans. So in other words, he says, slavery was a nearly universal problem. Yet, he points out, you have an enormous amount of guilt literature coming out of the West, yet none out of Arabia, and all the efforts to stop slavery came from the West.

Why, he asks, if slavery was universal, what stopped it in the West? His answer, he said, undeniably, it was the Great Awakening. It was the preaching of men like John Wesley and the reforms of Christian statesmen like William Wilberforce. The gospel planted seeds that ultimately undid the broken systems of the world from within. Yes, Christians have been hypocritical about that at various times throughout history. But the point was, when people began to awake to what the gospel actually taught, it undid the entire world system from within. That's what Paul is doing here in Philemon. This is Summit Life with Pastor J.D.

Greer. We'll get right back to today's teaching in just a moment. But first, let me remind you about our latest resource for our Summit Life listeners. You might be wondering why we chose Scripture Memory Cards this month as our gift to you. There's many reasons, but first of all, memorizing scripture allows us to share with unbelievers better. We are urged in 1 Peter 3.15 to always be ready to give a defense for our hope in Christ. We should memorize scripture so we can walk unbelievers through the salvation message and help them understand their sin and need for a savior. Speaking God's words instead of our own will give us confidence in sharing. So we've created a pack of 52 Memory Verse Cards to help on this assignment. Make 2023 the year you truly hide God's Word in your heart. Support Summit Life today by giving us a call at 866-335-5220.

Or you can give online at Now let's get back to the final few minutes of today's message on Summit Life. Here's Pastor J.D. He says in verse 8, I could command you to be generous. That would be required. I could drop the apostle bomb and order you around, but I would rather press the gospel into your heart and tell you to obey the implications because see that's real change.

I would rather see you transformed by love than berated with law because that kind of change is permanent and beautiful and that kind of change leads to an entirely new world order. So that's the way that I am going to press this into your heart. So the question then is, well, what did Philemon do with this letter? Did he obey it?

Never tells us. But ask yourself this, how did this little letter get in the Bible? It was a private letter only sent only to Philemon, which means that he would have had the only copy. To get into wide circulation Philemon would have had to have put it there. And I just don't think the Philemon would have said, hey, here's a letter Paul wrote me with counsel that I completely ignored. He gave it into circulation because he heeded it for himself, forgave Onesimus of his debts and released him, even though it came at great personal cost to himself. He then circulated the letter as a picture of the new world order that the gospel would create in the churches.

And here is where it gets even more interesting to me. A few decades later, a church leader named Ignatius refers to an elderly Bishop of Ephesus, which was one of the leading churches in the ancient world named Onesimus, which scholars say would have been a very uncommon name among people in leadership positions in that day. So many scholars based on the timing and the context of Ignatius' reference believe that to be the Onesimus of Philemon. So what you see in the book of Philemon is a beautiful picture of the gospel and a perfect picture of the mission of this and really any church. Philemon is a self-centered businessman transformed into a beautiful picture of generosity and Onesimus is a pilfering thief transformed into the leader of one of the most important churches in the ancient world. Can you see why I think there is no better picture of the vision of our church than this book?

Write this down if you're taking notes, letter A. We as a church want to see Philemons become radically generous participants in the mission of God. I would say that we have a lot of Philemons in this church who are sincere in their faith like Philemon was, who are regular at the church, the pastor knows their name like Paul knew who Philemon was, but they have yet to ask the really hard questions about how God wants to use their lives in the mission to give and serve where it is costly. It's not that they are evil, just that life for them has been about building their kingdom and so they use people like Philemon used Onesimus.

It's not that it's illegal, it's just self-focused. God wants you to become a person who is characterized by grace and generosity. Where you don't just ask what do I have to give, you start to ask how can I best leverage my life for the kingdom of God? What do I have that is useful for God's kingdom and not just useful in mine? I presented to you something called the generosity ladder. On it we try to chart how people grow in generosity throughout their lives.

The idea is that God has called us to grow more and more in Christ's likeness, that discipleship is not just about meeting some minimum requirement like the tithe that you just check off and are done with. You learn to say to God, God it's all yours. God everything I have is yours. You poured out everything for me.

Where would I be without you? You didn't tithe your blood for me, you poured out everything. So God I don't want to just be faithful with the 10%, I want to be faithful with all of it.

You see that was always my mistake. I was like God here's your 10%, boom checked it off, paid my tax to God, now I can just do whatever I want. God said nope I didn't tithe my blood for you, I own it all. So the question of the believer is God how do I leverage, what do I have that's useful? What resource do I have?

What talent do I have? What time do I have that is useful in your kingdom? Because I want my life like Philemon to be a response not just of their minimum requirement, I want it to be poured out to the measure that Jesus poured his out for me. There's a couple in our church in their mid 30s with young kids about my kids' age that felt led by the Lord to grow their generosity year by year for as long as they can sustain it by 5% per year. Beginning of 2013 they were giving away 12%. In 2013 they achieved 20%.

In 2014 they tried to get to 25% but ended up at 22%. So I asked them how high are you going to go? They said well if we can get our business to the right place we'd like to one day give 100% of our annual income into the kingdom of God.

Now I'm not saying that your plan has to look exactly like theirs. But you see a mentality and that mentality is God I'm not just meeting a minimum requirement and then going back to figure out how life becomes useful for me. God I want to leverage what I have, all that I have for yours, it's all yours God. I want to grow yearly in my generosity. I want to become more and more like Jesus because I think about and I understand where I would be without him. It's the same place millions of people are in the world without me leveraging what God has given to me.

Become a Philemon and by the way this applies to all areas of your life not just your resources. What if you begin to look at all of your life as time, treasure, talents, what do I have, what Onesimus do I have that would be useful in God's kingdom and God do you want to use that in your kingdom show me how. You see what I realize as we do this is there's a lot of Philemons in here that need to actually get engaged in the mission of God because Jesus listen Philemon Jesus did not save you to sideline you. He saved you with the intent of putting you in the prime spot in his game. He doesn't save believers just to bless them he blesses you to be a blessing. And so the question you got to start asking yourself is God I am Philemon how do you want to use me? I've told you before that I mean yes I love you know how God has grown in our church but I've told you that often I feel like a quarterback in a huddle. So this is so I'm Tom Brady okay and you guys are the huddle all right. We come in here each week and as the quarterback in the huddle I call the play and I feel like what happens is a lot of people are like whoo man that was an awesome play now I wrote that play down that was a great play and they talk to their friends about it and then they all kind of run back over and sit down on the bench leave me out on the field by myself and then like a couple minutes later you run back onto the field and you're like call us another play so I call another play and you're like wow that was an awesome play man I got goosebumps when you were calling that play you're the best play caller in this city I never heard somebody call a play like you I'm gonna podcast that play throughout the week I'm gonna listen to it again and again and back you go over and sit on the bench and this is what we do week by week and at some point I want to say the point is not me calling the play the point is you're running the play I only call the play so that you will run the play so I'm not excited about how many people come to hear us call the play I'm excited about how many people throughout the week are actually running the play in the place that God has placed them to run the play so it's like my old pastor used to say a bunch of y'all need to get off your blessed assurance and start doing something you need to you need to start standing on the promises he would say not just sitting on the premises he said you need to cease to be spectators and start to be movers in the movement it starts with small steps giving financially to the kingdom for the first time reaching out to somebody in your neighborhood or workplace and inviting them to come with you in this journey of faith here volunteering joining a small group but I would counsel you with what Paul said to Philemon I am praying that you will put into action the generosity that comes from your faith as you understand and experience all the good things we have in Christ generosity that comes from your faith translation what kind of generosity does your faith demand think about how much your life is owing to grace you really feel like you're a self-made man Philemon where would you be without Jesus where would you be had God not sent me to preach the gospel to you where would you be y'all listen I'm an American through and through I believe in personal initiative and that God has given us the ability to prosper and do great things and that the government should mostly just stay out of our way but think for a minute about how much of your success you owe to others you had no real control the talents you inherited that was just in your DNA that your parents gave you you didn't control the country of your birth you didn't really control the the makeup of your body and your health these things are a gift that's not even to mention the price that Jesus paid to free you from sin and Paul would say to Philemon and I would say to you that demands something those who have received that kind of grace those who feel how helpless they were no longer look at lie at their lives as something to acquire to put into useful service for them they say God how does what I have how can it bless someone else's you have blessed me let me make sort of a an extreme statement here or harsh self-made men go to hell why because what you made by yourself was a mess of condemnation what Jesus gave to you when you were helpless was his grace you're like well I don't like the concept of handouts you better learn if you're going to go to heaven because God's grace was God giving you what you could never earn on your own you were helpless you were dead and God saved you and he says if you have received that kind of grace you will give that kind of grace as he loved you brothers and sisters we ought also to love one another we are not self-made we are blood bought and that makes us grace-filled you are not your own you were bought with a price a powerful reminder from Pastor JD Greer on Summit Life there are only a few more days to get our latest resource I shared about earlier it's a handy set of 52 scripture memory cards if you want to carry God's promises in your heart these new Summit Life memory verse cards make it easy and convenient to memorize scripture it's a whole new set of verses for 2023 that we are committing to our hearts and minds it takes friends like you partnering with us to make Summit Life possible so that more people can hear gospel-centered Bible teaching on the radio tv and web will you join that mission today either with a one-time gift or as a committed monthly gospel partner the suggested donation is $35 or more call 866-335-5220 or you can give online at and if you aren't signed up for our email list yet be sure to do that today it is the best way to stay up to date with Pastor JD's latest blog posts and to make sure that you never miss a new resource or series it's quick and easy to sign up at I'm Molly Vidovitch inviting you to join us next week for the conclusion of this series have a wonderful weekend of worship and we'll see you again soon right here on Summit Life with J.D. Greer.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-03 12:25:38 / 2023-02-03 12:35:56 / 10

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