Sermon series: It's a Miracle!

  1. What's Water Got to Do with It? - John 1-2

  2. Being Biblical - Luke 5

  3. Strength through Authority - Luke 7

  4. When Someone You Love Is Hurting - Philemon

  5. What's in Your Lunchbox? - John 6

Jesus always brought restoration to broken lives. Just as the demon-possessed man of Gerasenes was restored, so was Onesimus. This sermon reveals how broken people are made whole again and the part we play in the process.

Scriptures: Philemon


Hurting people penetrate all walks of life. They are those people we characterize as having "hit bottom," or "made a mistake," or "took a wrong turn." Their offense can range from the minor to the greatest. Some experience marital separation or divorce, others lose their jobs or take a cut in pay, others are entangled in an extramarital affair, and still others lie or cheat or get caught in an illegal or unholy act. Others are hurting not because of something they have done personally but because circumstances change and they get caught in the crossfire - a company merger to a church split. Still others are hurt because they become entangled in the wrong set of acquaintances.

Do you know any hurting people?

The hurting are our spouses, our kids, our neighbors, our friends, our ministers, our leaders. They are people at work, in our family, or in our church.

I. The Portrait of a Hurting Person

The apostle Paul wrote a letter about a hurting person. The letter is the only private letter that we have of Paul’s, in fact; it reads more like a postcard. Yet in twenty-five verses Paul shares some tender thoughts and powerful applications about grace and forgiveness and acceptance.

We can sum up what this book is all about by mentioning three names to remember.

  • Paul was an apostle and the author of this letter. When it was written, he was in prison in Rome.

  • Philemon was Christian slave owner who lived in the city of Colossae in Asia Minor (present day Turkey). He was clearly a close friend of Paul. Perhaps Paul personally led him to Christ. We do know that church met in his house, which means he was certainly a respected Christian leader.

  • Onesimus was a runaway slave who came to Rome where he met Paul who led him to Christ. It is possible - though we cannot certain - that he met Paul through his friendship with Philemon and that’s why he sought him out in Rome. In any case we know that after Paul led Onesimus to Christ, he stayed in Rome, serving Paul with deep gratitude.

That brings us to the central issue of this short letter. Paul now had a converted slave on his hands. What should he do? He decided to send Onesimus back to Philemon his master. But Onesimus was now a believer in Christ - he left a rebel and now returned as a brother. Paul wanted to make sure Philemon understood what had happened. That’s why he wrote this letter.

Before we continue, we need to know something about slavery in the first Century. Although slavery was occasionally practiced in Israel, it was never widespread and was carefully regulated by the Old Testament law. By contrast, the Roman Empire was built on slave labor. Every time the Romans conquered a new province, they added new slaves to the empire. Scholars tell us that in the days of Paul there were far more slaves than Roman citizens. It would not have been unusual for a rich man to own as many as 10,000 or even 20,000 slaves. In short, slavery was so commonplace and so accepted that no one thought seriously to oppose it.

Furthermore, Roman law provided little protection for slaves because they were regarded as property, not as people. Owners could mistreat their slaves and even kill them with little or no legal retaliation. The law specifically provided that owners could put runaway slaves to death - presumably as a warning to others.

Yet Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon. Why? This is the central question of the book. How could he do that? Didn’t Paul know that slavery was wrong in the eyes of God? If he knew that, why didn’t he say that? These are questions that have troubled thoughtful Christians across the centuries. As we begin to delve into these issues, we will discover that the message of this book has amazing relevance for the problems of our own day.

II. The Practice of Healer

This letter reminds us that Christianity has the power to heal hurting hearts and put those people back on their feet again. And you and I can be the link to that power. How do you and I love the hurting?

The first and immediate action they need is for you and me to -

A. Be a friend

A friend has been described in many different ways. A friend knows all about you and loves you anyway. A friend steps in when the whole world steps out. A friend is one who never gets in the way, except when you are on your way down.

I asked a group of teenagers once to define friendship. One of the students wrote, "Friendship is knowing there will always be someone around to lift you up, when all others let you down." When I read her response tears came to my eyes. Just three months earlier she had been arrested for shoplifting. It was a prank. She knew it. But when word about her misdemeanor reached school her so-called friends rejected her. They would have nothing to do with her. As a part of her sentence she was to talk with a Pastor or Youth Pastor. Since her family had visited our church she requested an appointment with me. We talked. She recognized the error of her way. She also shared with me the hurt of her friends at school rejection. I encouraged her to come to the youth group in our church. She did. And there she found a supportive and caring community of friends who were willing to love and accept her. They were willing to lift her up when all others let her down.

This was exactly what Paul was asking Philemon in reference to Onesimus. Philemon had been a friend to Paul, “Paul . . . to Philemon our dear friend” (Phil. 1), and a friend to believers, “I hear of your love . . . for all the saints” (Phil. 5). Now, Paul asked Philemon to be a friend to Onesimus, “For perhaps this is why he was separated [from you] for a brief time, so that you might get him back permanently, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave - as a dearly loved brother. This is especially so to me, but even more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (Phil. 15-16).

It has been my perspective that people distance themselves from hurting people. When faltering saints need love and acceptance and encouragement and help the most they are shunned. This should not be. It is at those times they truly need the support and affirmation of their friends.

What does a friend do? A friend refreshes the wounded. Philemon has that gift. Paul said of him, “For I have great joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother” (Phil. 7). The word refresh means to give intermission from labor or to give rest. It most commonly denotes the refreshment of the inner person.

A friend comes along side the hurting individual to offer support and encouragement. They help the struggler by assisting and comforting. They lighten their load of burden and pain. They bring refreshment like an ice-cold glass of water on a scorching hot day. They remind the wounded of hope and of God.

In the movie The Color Purple, the character Sophie spends several years unjustly incarcerated for a minor offense. When she is released from prison, she is a broken woman who can barely function. Sophie's mistress casually hands her a shopping list to fill. The lead character, Celie, a woman who has endured great pain, sees Sophie staring at the grocery shelves and understands her vulnerability. She protects Sophie by quietly filling the grocery order for her.

Months later, when Sophie begins to awaken from her deep trouble, she says, "I want to thank you, Miss Celie, for everything you done for me. I remember that day in the store - I was feeling really down - I was feeling mighty bad, and when I sees you, I knows there is a God, I knows there is a God. And one day I was going to get to go home."

That is the kind of refreshing friend I want to be to the hurting people in my world. So, you and I need to be a friend, but, also, there are times when we must -

B. Be a forgiver

We humans have a great ability to recall old injustices, dredge up insignificant slights, and reopen old wounds. We tend to be unforgiving and unforgetting. One would think that Christians would be different, a more kinder and gentler tribe - a people who having experienced the grace and mercy of God now pass that forgiveness on to others. But often that is not the case. The reality is often summed up in the poignant statement, "Christianity is the only army that shoots its wounded."

Often, the people with wounded hearts need a second chance, to be forgiven. The gospel is the good news of the second chance, to start over, to grant a new beginning. Jonah, the one who disobeyed God and lit out on his own course, was given another chance. Peter, the one who denied Jesus, was later reinstated for service in the Master's business. Paul, the one who attacked and persecuted the Christian community, was granted a new lease on life to further the cause of Christ.

Now, Paul was requesting of Philemon to grant Onesmius a second chance. “I am sending him - a part of myself - back to you . . . accept him as you would me” (Phil. 12, 17). Onesimus had done a wrong. He made a mistake. He had committed a crime. But he deserved a second chance.

Roy Riegals played football for the University of California. In the 1929 Rose Bowl, he picked up a fumble, was spun around, and then headed for the end zone - the wrong end zone. He would have scored for the opponents if he had not been tackled by one of his own teammates on the one yard line. This happened just before halftime. At the intermission the California players silently filed into the dressing room and found places to sit on benches, all except Riegals. He wrapped a blanket around his shoulders, sagged to the floor in the corner, put his face in his hands and cried like a baby. Coaches generally have a lot to say during intermission, but California Coach Nibbs Price was quiet. Finally, the timekeeper stuck his head in the dressing room and announced, "Three minutes till playing time."

Coach Price looked at his team, glanced over at Riegals and said simply, "Men, the same team that played the first half will start the second." All the players moved quickly to the door, except for Riegals. He didn't budge. The coach looked back and called to him again: "Riegals." Still he didn't move.

Coach Price walked slowly over to the corner, looked down and asked softly, "Roy, didn't you hear me? I said, 'The same team that played the first half will start the second.'"

Roy Riegals lifted his head. His eyes were red, his cheeks wet. "Coach," he said, "I can't do it. I've ruined you. I've ruined the University of California. I've ruined myself. I couldn't face that crowd in the stadium to save my life."

Coach Price reached out, put his hand on the player's shoulder and said to him, "Roy, get up and go on back; the game is only half over."

Roy Riegals went back out on the field. And the players of opposing team said afterwards that they'd never seen anyone play as hard as Roy Riegals played that second half.

What does a forgiver do? A forgiver releases the sin. In other words, he lets it go, she doesn't keep a record of wrong, he doesn't harbor grudges, she forgets the mistake, he allows the other person to get on with life. Forgiveness means to cancel a debt in order to provide an opportunity for repentance and reconciliation of a broken relationship. What Jesus did for us we are to do for others.

Being a friend sustains the hurting one in the present, being a forgiver wipes the slate clean of the past, but what about the future? To love the hurting we also need to -

C. Be a future-giver

Christa McAuliffe, the high school teacher killed in the Challenger explosion had adopted as her motto: "I touch the future. I teach." That statement is true for every teacher - good or bad. That maxim also fits those people who want to bring health to wounded hearts. We touch their future by giving them a hope of a new tomorrow. We restore their dignity by acknowledging their importance.

Onesimus was a runaway slave owned by Philemon who came into the company of Paul, and, as a result, was converted to Christ. Now, Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon, appealing for his acceptance and forgiveness of Onesimus.

Philemon had Onesimus's future in his hands. By law he could have him executed. Or, as a believer he could restore him to an exalted place of brotherhood and service. What would Philemon do? It is interesting to note that the name Onesimus means useful. Paul played on that name by saying, "Once he was useless to you, but now he is useful to both you and me" (Phil. 11). Paul knew that Onesimus had a great future. But that future was dependent on Philemon's action.

What did Philemon do? It would be nice if there were a postscript on this letter to indicate Philemon's decision. But there is none. However, a church father named Ignatius, writing fifty years later in a letter to the Ephesians, addressed their wonderful minister, their bishop - his name: Onesimus. In this letter, Ignatius referred to Onesimus as the one "who formerly was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me." He used the very same Greek words that appeared in verse 11 of Philemon.

What does a future-giver do? A future-giver restores one's spirit. Paul wrote to the Galatians, "Brothers, if someone is caught in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual should restore such a person with a gentle spirit, watching out for yourselves so you won't be tempted also" (Gal. 6:1). The word restore was used to describe the mending of fisherman's nets in order to be used the next day. It communicates the idea of putting people back into workable and useful shape. It reminds people how valuable they are to God and to society. Jesus restored the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, the man with the withered hand, and the demon-possessed man of Gerasenes. Jesus restores us who believe.

Restoring the spirit of an individual can do marvelous things for their future. When Thomas Edison was improving his first light bulb, to the astonishment of the onlookers, he handed a finished bulb to a young helper, who nervously carried to upstairs step by step to the vacuum machine. At the last step, the boy dropped the bulb shattering it into a thousand pieces. Consequently, the whole team had to work another twenty-four hours to make the bulb again. When Edison looked around for someone to carry it upstairs, he gave it to the same boy. The gesture probably changed the boy's life. Edison knew that more than a bulb was at stake.

Who do you know needs a friend? A second chance? A new future? For many hurting people you may be the person who can turn their life around by offering them friendship, forgiveness, and a hope-filled future.

The letter of Philemon reminds us that Christianity has the power to heal hurting hearts and to repair broken people, putting them back on their feet. It instructs us that when given the chance we are to participate in a revolutionary thing called grace and forgiveness, leading to reconciliation. We can stem the tide against cruelty and hatred by doing for others that Paul has asked Philemon to do for Onesimus.

Will you be a friend by refreshing the wounded? Will you be a forgiver by releasing the sin? Will you be a future-giver by restoring one's spirit?

Rick Ezell is the pastor of First Baptist Greer, South Carolina. Rick has earned a Doctor of Ministry in Preaching from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Master of Theology in preaching from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Rick is a consultant, conference leader, communicator, and coach.