“Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” Matthew 16:24
In Philemon 1:17 the Apostle Paul addresses Philemon with these words: “If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself.” He is referring to Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave who had been touched and changed by the Lord after Paul had preached the gospel to him in prison. Philemon himself had got saved under Paul’s ministry; and here Paul is telling him to accept back his former slave.
Seen in proper perspective this was a tall order indeed for Philemon. In the first place, Onesimus was not just a slave who had run away from Philemon, but apparently he had done his master much harm.
But the hardest part was that Paul was asking Philemon, not to simply take back this slave, but to welcome him as a brother in Christ. Just picture that. He tells him, “…receive him as myself.” And that was not all. Paul tells Philemon that he expects him to “also do more than I say”! (verse 21) All in brotherly love, of course!
It couldn’t possibly have gotten tougher for Philemon. In plain terms, Paul was charging him in the Spirit to not only let go of any grudge he may have had against Onesimus but that he should do good to Onesimus.
If Philemon thought the gospel was about making ‘faith confessions’ and singing Hallelujah, he was mistaken. Paul was making it clear to him what it involved to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. It involved carrying the heart of Jesus, which meant walking in true forgiveness, humility, and a desire to love your brother as yourself. In other words, Philemon was confronted with the reality that he needed to deny himself, take up his cross and follow Jesus. In even clearer terms, it meant he literally had to die to self.
This is the attitude we are called to carry if we are to proclaim the gospel. And we are not just called to relinquish our rights in a legalistic manner. Rather, we are to carry the heart of Jesus, who loved us unconditionally and gave His life for us.
Probably Philemon was saved, but he carried a hard, unforgiving, judgmental heart toward Onesimus. Probably in his own eyes he considered himself an important man because he owned slaves. These are the kind of attitudes that show that we do not know God, in spite of any proclamations we may make to the contrary.
Probably Philemon was an elder in his church, and he thought that was something. But God, in His inscrutable wisdom, allowed the slave Onesimus to bring him to a place where he would walk the way of the cross – where he would take the same road of brokenness that Jesus took.
We cannot just float through our salvation as if we were riding a broomstick. We must deal with the condition of our hearts, for that is what the gospel is all about. Whoever we are, whatever our position in this world, if we have answered the call of God, then we should tighten our seatbelts because God will bring us to a place where our pride and our individuality will be confronted. He will show us the way of humility, but we must choose to walk that road. He will bring us to realize that He has called all His children to be one in the Spirit, and that no one should consider themselves of any worth beyond another. He has called us to walk together as brothers and sisters, as a team; and we have only one captain – Jesus Christ.
Paul puts it well in this manner: “…there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all in all” (Colossians 3:11) and,
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
Paul is making it clear to Philemon (and to us too!) that with the gospel there is no place for compromise. Either we agree to take up our cross and follow Jesus, or we remain holding onto our lives, but carnal Christians. We can only do this by looking deep into our lives, and being honest with ourselves and with God.
Philemon appears to have been a benefactor of Paul’s, for he tells him: “But withal prepare me also a lodging…” (verse 22). But don’t be fooled. Paul was not building a relationship with Philemon in the flesh. He would not preach to him any other gospel than the one that Jesus Himself preached.
I love the gospel that Paul preached to Philemon. It allowed him to direct him and confront him when he needed to. Today, there are a thousand gospels floating around, but only one gospel can make the difference: Jesus Christ and Him crucified. The Cross of Christ sets a firm foundation for our lives to be confronted, for His death to work in us, that we may live His resurrection life.