Paul’s Heart For One Sheep
Key Verses: 10,11
By Michael (John Mike) Pitts
“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.”
This short passage of Philemon is one of the shortest books of the Bible. But the Christian forefathers included it as one of the 66 books of the Bible. They did so because they found in it the heart of the Christian faith. In this letter, Paul does not instruct Philemon in the Christian doctrine as he does in most of his epistles. Instead, Paul teaches him how to put his Christian faith to practice. He instructs him to accept, and to love and to serve one repentant sinner with the heart of Christ. In other words, he teaches him the heart of the Christian faith— which is to shepherd one undeserving person with the heart of Jesus. To shepherd one person with the heart of Jesus must also become our own conviction as well, and the torch of faith that must never go out as long as we live.
Read verses 1-31. There are several things we can learn from Paul about his relationship with Christ Jesus as well as his relationship with his fellow coworkers. Paul was not always a Christian. In fact, he used to be archenemy of Christ and of the Christian faith. Once when he was on his way to Damascus to capture Christians, Jesus stepped into his life and showed him undeserving grace. Jesus forgave him all his sins and called him to be a shepherd and Bible teacher for his sheep. Since then Paul lived every day in the grace of Jesus. Most Christians easily forget the unmerited grace of Jesus upon their lives. After a short time of passionate love towards Jesus, the cares of life replace their love for Jesus and their zeal to serve him, and they join the horde of Christians who live no longer to please God, but only to please themselves. There are many such people who were in God’s history. Young people who have received the undeserved grace of Jesus and who had at the moment of their conviction made a sincere promise to love and to serve Jesus. But for one reason or another, they soon forget the undeserved grace of Jesus, and turn their whole lives towards serving their own purposes. Their petty problems and their daily complaints are disgusting. The tone of self-righteousness they carry about in their self-justification is disgusting. Their pride in refusing to take advice, believing themselves to be better than their teachers is also disgusting. Humility which once was their brilliance of spiritual growth, is no longer considered necessary. It is evident that they have forgotten the undeserved grace of Jesus in their lives, since they have no heart to serve Jesus’ sheep. They have no heart to serve Jesus’ sheep, because though they continue to have faith in Jesus, they no longer have the heart of Jesus. The grace of Jesus is everything. It is a terrible thing to forget the undeserved grace of Jesus in our lives. When we give ourselves to the cares of this world and to the cares of our lives, we are bound to forget the undeserved grace of Jesus. And when that happens, we lose the one thing that makes our Christian lives beat with life, which is the heart of Jesus.
From the day that Paul received the undeserved grace of Jesus in his life, he committed his love to Jesus and his life to Jesus and to serving Jesus and his sheep. As long as his heart beat with the undeserved grace of Jesus upon him, his heart also beat with the life of Jesus and with Jesus’ heart for the lost sheep. When he wrote this short letter to Philemon, Paul identified himself as a prisoner of Christ. Of course, the grace of Jesus set him free from the power of sin, which had once filled his heart with hate and murder. But Paul willingly made himself a prisoner of Christ Jesus. It was a life decision he made to give his life to Jesus and to serving Jesus and his sheep. It was a life decision Paul hoped that Philemon had also made, because unless Philemon had made that decision of life to be a prisoner and slave to Jesus, he could not possibly act upon the faith he needed to obey what Paul had to say to him.
Paul, whose relationship with Christ Jesus was a relationship based on a life commitment and bondage to Christ, wanted to appeal to Philemon a fellow Christian to act on his faith and exercise the heart of Jesus for one runaway slave. But first, Paul wanted to give thanks to God for Philemon’s faith. Read verses 4-72. Philemon was no ordinary Christian. From verse 2 we see that he had used his house as a house church. The persecution of Christians had already begun in the Roman empire. Anyone who was found to be a Christian was arrested and possibly put to death. Paul himself was in prison for preaching the gospel. But Philemon opened his house to be used as a house church to preach the gospel of life to all people. At a time of uncertainty and fear, Philemon showed remarkable faith by offering his home as a house church for the work of God. A house church is born whenever there is a believing family who are both committed to Jesus and to serving Jesus and his sheep. There are many Christians in this world, most of whom reserve their homes for themselves. But there are Christians who open their homes to be used as House Churches, to bring in the needy and to serve them with the word of God. Philemon was such a man. So Paul commended him for his faith, which had been a source of encouragement to many, especially to Paul.
At the same time, Paul had a serious concern about Philemon. Philemon’s faith was active enough to open his home as a House Church. But Paul also wanted him to be more Christ-like in his faith. He wanted him to take a much deeper step of faith and act out his faith in the most difficult of ways, in a way in which most people are unable to act. Christians are called by Jesus to be forgiving and loving. There is no room in the Christian heart for anger, for grudge, for hatred, and for all the other vices, which drive away the heart of Christ from the believer and replaces it with the hardness of a worldly heart. Paul saw that there was a danger that Philemon, a true Christian at heart, might not be willing to forgive a man who had betrayed and wronged him in a terrible way.
Read verses 8-213. Onesimus had been Philemon’s slave. Maybe Onesimus was a slave of Philemon much before he became a Christian. But after becoming a Christian, Philemon kept Onesimus as his slave perhaps to shelter him from the world. But this young man was ambitious and thought to try a new and exiting life in Rome as a free man. Taking advantage of his master’s new faith and call to love, he stole money from Philemon and went to Rome looking for adventure. But somehow, he was arrested and put in prison for an unknown crime. He ended up in Paul’s prison cell.
Onesimus was a man who was bruised at heart, smashed by the poor choices in his life. One might say he deserved to be in prison as he sat smoldering in his sins, weak in his infirmities. He was too feeble to do anything but languish in his grief. He was an emotional mess, overwhelmed by despair, having a loss of ambition. He longed to be with his master Philemon where it was safe, where he belonged. Perhaps he felt as if that bridge had been burned, never to be mended. It was at this low point when he experienced undeserved grace through God’s servant Paul. He came to truly understand that he was a sinner in need of healing. He now tasted the patience of God who longed for Onesimus to discover his urgent need of a Savior. Paul understood the heart of a sinner in need of a Savior since he, himself, survived a devastating sinful past life. His self-righteousness and religious zeal was a spiritual disaster. When he met the Savior, Jesus, personally, Paul was not reviled nor rejected. Rather, Jesus showed him that his life of religious ambition for self-glory, was rebellion towards the very God he thought he was serving. Paul was devastated upon the realization of how wicked his sins were in the sight of God. He trembled upon understanding that his old life only merited condemnation. But because of God’s grace to Paul he could associate with the weaknesses of a sinful man like Onesimus. He could embrace him with the same compassion that Jesus once had for him. He could love and nurture Onesimus until this once useless man had become a great asset to the work of God. From Paul’s example we can see how God can restore one broken sinner from the valley of sin and make him or her useful to God.
Paul was a prisoner in a Roman cell but this did not hinder him. As long as the grace of Jesus beat in his heart, his heart also beat with the shepherd heart of Jesus. Even in prison he was a shepherd. Even in prison his heart beat with the heart of Jesus for the lost sheep. He took frightened Onesimus under his wings and shepherded him until Onesimus accepted the gospel. Onesimus then confessed his sins and revealed to Paul who he was and what he had done. Paul, the man who tasted the grace of Jesus every day, showed Onesimus the love of Christ and his forgiveness. He taught him the Bible like a son until Onesimus became a true son in faith to Paul. Paul loved him so much that he called him in his letter to Philemon “my very heart”. In other words, Paul’s heart was beating with the heart of Jesus for one sheep. Who can be like this? Only those who do not allow themselves to forget that marvelous and undeserved grace of Jesus given to them. There have been many who have received this undeserving grace and enjoyed it for a while, only to later abandon it for the attractions of this world. This world is a trap for unwary Christians who do not know how to remain rooted in the word of God and in prayer, in order to taste the grace of Jesus every day. They do not mean to abandon the grace nor to abandon the heart of Jesus for one sheep. But when they give in to the small attractions of this world, sooner or later they too become worldly. We know them through their actions. Their thoughts become worldly. Their perception even of spiritual things becomes worldly. Their speech becomes worldly. Their appetites become worldly. Their aspirations and hopes become worldly. And because of the pride, which filters into their hearts to take the place of Jesus’ grace, they no longer listen to truth. They are fools who do not know how far they have fallen from that priceless grace which they have so easily deposited in some abandoned corner of their lives.
Paul was known for building up the church of God and leading entire congregations to follow the Christian way of life. Although he was a shepherd for the church, he did not hesitate to be a shepherd who would serve one sheep at a time. Paul had the heart of Jesus to take care of one man who needed a new break through in his sinful life. Paul had the heart of Jesus for this one ungrateful and treacherous thief. He took him under his wings because it is what Jesus would have done. He took him as his sheep, because Jesus himself had taken Paul when no one wanted anything to do with him. He embraced him as his son because it was the Christian thing to do. Paul’s heart for Jesus was not filled with empty words and confessions, nor with promises he did not intend to keep. His heart for Jesus was filled with the grace of Jesus which compelled him to take the most unworthy of sinners, one at a time, into his heart in order to serve them with the words of life. When he took Onesimus, Onesimus did not look hopeful. He did not look trustworthy. He did not look like a potential leader. He looked like a criminal full of fears and anxieties over what would happen to him. The world is full of such people. They are unlovely. They are not promising. They seem like trouble. But it is the heart of Jesus that compels the Pauls among us to embrace them with the love and hope of Christ for a lost sinner. When Paul took Onesimus as a sheep, he committed himself to serving him to the end, regardless of what the consequences may be. Onesimus may believe or not believe. But it did not stop Paul from accepting him as a son. Finally he believed and his life was changed. Paul called him a once useless man. But now he tells Philemon that he is no longer useless, but useful. What did he mean?
How was he once useless? He was useless as long as he was not in Christ Jesus. He may have been useful in a worldly sense. But Paul who judged everything from a spiritual point of view regarded him as a once useless man. Any person who is not in Christ who is not forgiven in Christ, who has not tasted the grace of God, and who is not serving God and fulfilling his God-given purpose in life, is useless. Whoever is not availing themselves to the service of God and to the service of God’s kingdom is a useless person. God created us to serve him. We may be doctors and teachers and presidents and janitors serving the society and the world. But if we are not serving God with our lives, we are useless to God. In the end, all that matters after we die is whether we have known Jesus, whether we have accepted Jesus, and whether we have served Jesus and his sheep. Nothing else will matter on that day, not even if we have saved the world from an invasion, nor from terrorist attacks. The gospel is clear about this. Once Onesimus was useless even to Philemon though he served him with coffee and breakfast and made his bed in the morning. He was useless to Philemon because he had no spirit of God in him, and all his service was self-oriented and for self-preservation. He did nothing from his heart. But now he was a useful man, a thankful man. He was useful to God because the grace of Jesus beat in his heart. He was useful to God because he wanted to serve God with his whole heart. He was also useful to Philemon because he was no longer his property but his brother in Christ. He was useful to him because now he wanted to make things right with him, and serve him as if he were serving Christ. Paul taught Onesimus well. Now Onesimus was a man who can be used by God because he no longer followed his own dreams and plans like a worldly man, but he now followed the will of God. He learned from Paul the best lesson of how to remain in the grace of Jesus. He learned that he had to go back and serve Philemon as a sheep.
Now Paul was only concerned about Philemon. It was not easy for him to forgive a man who had betrayed him. We can all understand this. There are Christians whose love of Jesus is wonderful. But they hold bitterness against those who have wronged them for years. They oscillate between feelings of forgiveness and of unforgiveness. But as long as they hold something in their hearts against another, they cannot have peace. And when they have no peace, they have a hard time to serve Jesus and his sheep. Jesus commands us that as we had received the undeserved forgiveness, so also we too must forgive. More than that, we must forgive those who wronged us and accept them in our hearts as our dear brothers and sisters. There is no escaping this Biblical truth. Paul commanded Philemon to accept him. But Philemon has to forgive him first. He has to forgive him as Jesus forgave him. He has to regard him as a brother, equal in every way. He has open his heart to receive him as Christ opened his heart to receive every sinner who ever repented. It was hard for Philemon to do so since Onesimus not only left him but he betrayed him as a good Christian master. But he must accept him with the heart of Jesus. To do so, he must have a heart beating with the grace of Jesus. Then he could accept him back in Jesus’ name.
Read verses 22-25. After appealing to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus, reminding Philemon of his great debt to Jesus and to Paul himself who was his shepherd, Paul was confident that Philemon would receive Onesimus back as a fellow Christian. He would forgive him in Christ, as Christ had forgiven him. And that Philemon was a man after Jesus’ own heart. He only needed to remember the undeserved grace of God. And by remembering he would also be a good shepherd to Onesimus. It must have been hard for Onesimus to return to Philemon too. Once he was a man of the world, and had no conscience. But now he was a man in Christ and his conscience was alive with thanksgiving to Jesus and gratitude to Paul. But his conscience was also shameful for what he had done. But he would return to Philemon by faith and live with him as a fellow believer and coworker in the work of disciple raising in that small house church.
The world is a trap for unwary Christians who sometimes feel as if God owes them a break or the world owes them something they had been missing. The world is also a trap for Christians who think that the human affairs of their lives give them an excuse for putting aside the grace of Jesus and for abandoning their mission to give their hearts to Jesus’ sheep. And many unintentionally fall into these seductive traps when they begin to abandon the prayer life and the life of Bible reading and Bible study. We cannot hope to hold on to the grace of Jesus if we do not discipline ourselves to take hold of the grace of Jesus. Christian means a man or woman in Christ, or a man or woman of Christ, or of the likeness of Christ. And of all the images the Bible paints of Jesus, there is no image more beautiful and compelling than that of the shepherd. To be like Jesus, to have the heart of Jesus, we must have a heart to feed his sheep, to take care of them, one at a time, until like Paul, we win their souls to Christ, and until like Onesimus they receive the grace of forgiveness and change from a useless person into a useful person to God. May God bless us not to be entrapped by the world and its cares. May God help us to find the way back to that underserved but wonderful grace which never stops flowing from the heart of Jesus, and to be empowered through it to have the heart of Jesus beating within our own hearts. May the grace of Jesus beating within our hearts also convict us to take care of his sheep with the loving and serving heart of Jesus. Amen.
1 “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
2 “I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.”
3 “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. So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back–not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.”