Humility in Christ
Faith Life Christian Center
Sunday Morning Sermon
“Pictures of Humility in Philemon”
God of us all,
Take our ears and hear through them,
Take our minds and think through them,
Take our hearts and set them on fire,
For Christ’s sake we pray.
Philippians 2:1-11 (Read to congregation)
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who…
Today we’re going to talk about humility in Christ.
As I began to think about humility, I knew that I wanted to flesh out this term, to give it color and depth and to take it away from the word itself.
To me, humility has always been one of those abstract words that are hard to get a hold of, hard to grasp onto and really understand. This may be strange to some of you, but I find it to be a difficult word to picture in my mind, not unlike sanctification, justification, or atonement.
One of my favorite theologians captures this thought well, so I’ll read just a little of what he says:
In Christian theology, … phrases regularly act as “portable stories”—that is, ways of packing up longer narratives about God, Jesus, the church and the world, folding them away into convenient suitcases, and then carrying them about with us.
A good example is the phrase “the atonement.” This phrase is rare in the Bible itself; instead, we find things like, “The Messiah died for our sins according to the scriptures”; “God so loved the world that he gave his only son,” and so on. But if we are to discuss the atonement, it is easier to do so with a single phrase, assumed to “contain” all these sentences, than by repeating one or more of them each time.
Shorthands, in other words, are useful in the same way suitcases are. They enable us to pick up lots of complicated things and carry them around all together. But we should never forget that the point of doing so, like the point of carrying belongings in a suitcase, is that what has been packed away can then be unpacked and put to use in a new location.
I find these words to be exceedingly true, not only about difficult words and concepts like “the atonement,” but also for much more common words and ideas like grace, fellowship, and humility.
?Today we are going to talk about the “suitcase” called humility. It’s a word that gets a lot of use in the church and we all know that Jesus wants us to have it, but what does humility look like when it’s unpacked, when the suitcase is unlocked and the contents are displayed for the world to see
Liz and I have been leaders in a weekly Bible study for the past three years. We’ve focused our group discussions around our pastor’s sermons and a couple topical Christian books. This season, we decided to do something different and so I’m leading our group through a class on how to read the Bible. I taught a class called Bible Study Methods for undergraduates while I was working on my master’s degree—it was a class to help students learn to study the Bible on their own—and our Bible Study lessons are a much-condensed version of that class.
For homework one week, I asked our group to read the book of Philemon and to think about what the book as a whole was saying. It led to a fruitful discussion the next week, and as I began to think about humility in Christ, I realized that the book of Philemon is a great example of Christ-like humility in action.
The book of Philemon has three central characters: Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus. We’ll discuss each of the characters in some detail later, but briefly, Onesimus was a slave owned by Philemon. For some reason, Onesimus fled Philemon’s household. At some point after fleeing, Onesimus met Paul and became a believer and he served Paul and the gospel faithfully. Eventually Paul encouraged Onesimus to return to Philemon, who was also a believer that Paul knew and somehow had spiritual authority over—many think from Philemon 19 that Paul himself was the one who led Philemon to faith in Christ. Paul wrote a letter to Philemon encouraging Philemon to accept back his former slave, but to accept him back as more than a slave.
The letter is short; it is only 25 verses long. And if you’ll turn with me, I’d like for us to read the letter together.
Read the Letter of Philemon to the congregation
I find this letter to be an incredible example of Christ-like humility from Paul. In other letters, Paul calls on believers to imitate him as he imitates Christ, and here he gives us an example of what humility from a leader looks like.
According to the OT, Paul did not have to send Onesimus back to Philemon. In Dt. 23:15-16, Moses writes: “Do not give back to his master a servant who has gone in flight from his master and come to you: let him go on living among you in whatever place is most pleasing to him.”
Paul, after having converted Onesimus to the gospel was not under Scriptural compulsion to help Onesimus and Philemon be reconciled. He could have allowed Onesimus to remain in his service without ever telling Philemon about it; and if Philemon asked, Paul could have responded with Scriptural support.
Or, if Paul felt that he needed Philemon’s blessing, he could have commanded Philemon to gift him Onesimus. Paul writes, “though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus.”
Paul could have commanded Philemon to grant him Onesimus as a slave, servant or minister of the gospel. Or he could have commanded Philemon to grant Onesimus his freedom, but Paul didn’t do either.
In fact, “Paul refrained from giving Philemon any command and from urging a distinct demand such as: give Onesimus his freedom. Rather he puts the matter in Philemon’s hands. The decision is his. Paul’s sole injunction to him is the commandment of love as the norm for his conduct” (Lohse, 187).
Instead of commanding and demanding, as would be right for the apostle of apostles, Paul writes this: (read 10-14).
“I preferred to do nothing without your consent.”
The great apostle of the Church has taken on the mind of Christ, acting in humility on Onesimus’ behalf, and yet, as Martin Luther wrote, “he does this not with force or compulsion, as lay within his rights; but he empties himself of his rights in order to compel Philemon also to waive his rights. What Christ has done for us with God the Father, that St. Paul does also for Onesimus with Philemon.”
Paul appeals to Philemon as a brother and equal on behalf of a slave who is also their brother and equal.
The result of this letter also produced humility within Philemon. As Paul appealed with Christ-like humility to Philemon to act in love, so also Philemon’s response to Paul’s letter was an act of Christ-like humility.
As with Paul, Philemon had options that were open to him that would have allowed him to keep Onesimus as a slave.
For example, Philemon could have argued that he needed Onesimus to remain a slave in his household because he needed the help. After all, Paul didn’t command Philemon to release Onesimus; Philemon was under no compulsion to let him go. In fact, there are no direct orders in any of the NT writings that call for masters to release their slaves. And the direct orders that we do have are from Paul calling for masters to treat their slaves well.
Or what if—as often happens when churches ask for things that deal with people’s money—Philemon had told responded to Paul that he was free to do what he wanted with his own property—after all slaves were only considered property? If he released Onesimus, his income would be hurt and it wasn’t Paul’s place to call for him to give up property.
Though, one has to ask if Philemon had responded with anything less than the release of Onesimus, do you think we would have the letter in the NT? I could see this being a letter that was “mistakenly” left too close to the cooking fire or thrown out with the trash.
But that didn’t happen.
Church history tells us that Philemon—whom Paul spoke of as one who had refreshed the hearts of the saints—later became a key leader or bishop in the church at Colossae, and that he released Onesimus, his new brother in Christ.
Philemon heard the words of Christ through the humility of Paul and released Onesimus from his debt and his slavery. Then, imitating Paul as Paul imitated Christ, Philemon took on the mind of Christ and looked to Onesimus as a brother and equal member in Christ. Philemon released Onesimus and as verses 15-16 say, he lost a slave and gained Onesimus back forever, “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother.”
Onesimus was Philemon’s slave. According to Roman law this meant that Onesimus was considered less than a person. During the first century, free, land-owning men were considered people and women, children, and slaves were considered less than human.
And Philemon, took on the mind of Christ and as Philippians 2 says, he didn’t act from selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility regarded both Paul and Onesimus as better than himself. Philemon did not look out for his own interests, but for the interests of Christ, Paul and Onesimus.
He took Onesimus, who was not even considered a man, and made him his brother and equal.
If we take a step back, even before Paul or Philemon could act in humility, Onesimus had to become an imitator of Christ’s humility. Paul calls Philemon to do the right thing and Philemon responds in the right manner, but if Onesimus hadn’t agreed to return to Philemon, this letter could not have been written.
The letter of Philemon doesn’t give the reasons why Onesimus had run away from his position of slavery. All we have is the end result of his escape. Sometime after running away, Onesimus met Paul and, as Paul shared the gospel with Onesimus, Onesimus responded and was joined into Christ’s Body.
Sometime after this, they decided that Onesimus should return to Philemon and be reconciled. But what if Onesimus had decided to quote Paul back to Paul? What if he had responded, as Paul writes in Galatians, that “in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all [who believe in Christ] are one in Christ Jesus?”
Or what if he had quoted Dt 23:15-16 and asked Paul to honor that Scripture and allow him to stay “wherever is most pleasing to him?”
Remember earlier how I told you that women, children and slaves were not considered to be full people; they were not decision makers or moral agents; they were not addressed in letters or official communication. Only freemen and citizens were addressed. But if Onesimus had been around the Christian community for any length of time, especially the church in Ephesus, where many scholars believe was where Paul wrote this letter, then it is likely that Onesimus had heard Paul’s teaching as found in Ephesians 6:5-8:
“Slave, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling… as you obey Christ, not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.”
One commentator writes about this whole passage, “For the apostles to encourage slaves and women to be subordinate, there must have been some specific reason for the them to have been tempted to behave otherwise… There must have been something in the experience of their becoming Christians, or in their education as new members of the Christian community… which had given to these subjects a vision… of a new kind of dignity and responsibility. This must already have occurred if they were tempted to rise above their station” (Yoder, 173).
What this means is that for Paul to have even addressed women, children, and slaves as moral agents—as whole people—there must have been something in the gospel of Christ that gave them freedom from the chains of their society. Women, slaves, and children understood that Christ had called them and that when He called them, He called them out of their current slavery and into His freedom.
So Onesimus could have legitimately responded to Paul that in Christ he was free and that he didn’t have to go back.
But that was not his response. Instead, Onesimus responded with a voluntary submission. Onesimus, as Paul and Philemon would later do, considered the interests of others above his own interests. Onesimus was willing to submit himself to slavery again, even after tasting a literal freedom and a spiritual freedom in Christ.
Onesimus was willing to submit to an earthly master because he knew that Christ called him not to look out for his own interests, but to the interests of others. And so Onesimus emptied himself and took again the form of a slave, being again submitted to an earthly master.
Again church tradition tells us that Onesimus eventually rose from this position of willing slavery, because of his and Philemon’s humility, to become the leader or bishop of the church in Ephesus.
I’m going to read Paul’s letter to Philemon again, and this time, as I read the letter, think about Paul the apostle, Philemon the wealthy pastor and slave owner, and Onesimus the less-than-human slave turned believer who each give the Church a picture of what it looks like when Christians adopt the mind and attitude of Christ, humble themselves, and look to the interest of others above themselves.
Read the Letter of Philemon to the congregation