In Prison For Christ

Selected highlights from this sermon.

Paul spent a lot of time in prison, but was still able to minister for Christ. He met a runaway slave named Onesimus and led him to Jesus. Onesimus’ master, Philemon, was a Christian.


Taking us through the story in the book of Philemon, Pastor Lutzer shows us how the Gospel continues to transform people and societies today just as it did during Paul’s ministry.

Start taking notes today: Log in or create an account!

It is fast and easy. Log in or create an account, and we'll save your sermon notes for you.

I’m going to begin today by asking you to turn to the book of Philemon. Now the question is how can you find Philemon in your New Testament? It’s very difficult to find because it’s a book of only 25 verses, but here’s a clue. Find the book of Hebrews. That’s usually very easy to find with all of its chapters – a much longer book – and then when you get to the book of Hebrews, turn to the beginning and then go a little beyond that because Philemon is the book just before the book of Hebrews. That’s the way you find it. It’s necessary for you to have the text in front of you, given what we’re going to talk about.

The Apostle Paul spent a great deal of his life in prison - now at least two years in Caesarea, and another two years in Rome, and in between also there were other imprisonments so we don’t know what the total is. But with the book of Philemon before you, notice how he begins. He says, “Paul, a prisoner for Jesus Christ.” Do you notice how Paul believed that God was sovereign over him, that even what the devil did was actually done for God’s glory, even if it meant unjust imprisonment. Imagine that faith. And I want to emphasize that when we hear today that Christians are being persecuted, we should do all that we possibly can to pray for them, to intercede for them, that they might know that even they, as believers, are there by divine appointment. That takes faith, but Paul had that kind of faith.

Now what we’re going to do today is to look at this very short letter that the Apostle Paul wrote, and I believe that for many of us it’s going to be very interesting and enlightening. You know, the Apostle Paul here in this short letter reveals his heart like he does not do in any other of his epistles. I mean here is a letter that he writes where we see and when we also learn how to ask someone to do a favor for you. It’s all here in the text. But there’s another reason why this book is so important, and that is that it deals with the problem of slavery.

Now it’s fashionable today to say, “Oh you know the Bible condones slavery, and because it condones slavery and we don’t accept slavery any more, why should we accept the biblical view of sexuality?” That’s the narrative that is in our culture, and we’re going to end up dealing with that narrative today. And then, in addition to that, we’re going to see the power of the Gospel in individual lives, and in your life as well, and you are going to leave encouraged to trust in the Lord. That’s where we are going.

I believe that this very short book has within itself the power and the message that is necessary for the church, which in and of itself could wipe out slavery. Well, we’ll see whether or not it is so.

Now here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to give you the context of the book, and then we’re going to walk through it, and then we’re going to deal with the issues that I have raised. This happens to be number five in a series of messages titled The Legacy of a Converted Man. When you are converted, the change is so transforming, as it was in the life of the Apostle Paul, that everyone notices it. Your whole priorities change and suddenly even your desires because conversion is a great work of God.

Well, with that background, what is the background of the book of Philemon? The answer is simply this. There was a runaway slave by the name of Onesimus. His owner was Philemon, and Philemon was a great man in the church in Colossae. The church, in fact, met in his house. And somehow, and we don’t know exactly how, this slave by the name of Onesimus left Philemon’s residence and made his way to Rome. And there he met the Apostle Paul. Paul leads him to saving faith in Jesus Christ, and then sends him back to his master.

Now with that background, let’s walk through the text and we’ll see as it develops. The Apostle Paul says for example: “Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia (his beloved wife) our sister and Archippus (perhaps their son) our fellow soldier, and the church in your house; Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

And now Paul begins to thank God for Philemon. Notice he says: “I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints.”

Could I just stop there for a moment? Today there are so many people who say, “Well, you know, I’m into Jesus (or I’m into God). I have the personal relationship with God but I have really no connection to God’s people.” You may go from church to church. You never sink down roots. You never become involved, and you think that this is okay. Notice that the Apostle Paul says, “Your love of the Lord Jesus Christ and the people of Jesus Christ, his sons and his daughters.”

I’m sorry, but if you become a member of God’s family you have to put up with His kids. And sometimes they’re not easy to put up with. But just think of your family, and you’ll understand that families sometimes have their squabbles, and they have their weaknesses, but the commitment to God’s family follows a commitment to Jesus Christ.

And Paul goes on to say, “I hear of your love for the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints and I pray that the sharing of your faith – the generosity – may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.” And then he says, “For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.”

Have you ever met anybody like that? I know I have in my life. They are people that you long to be in their presence. You want to connect with them because when you leave you are encouraged, you are refreshed, and you’re so much better for having met them and connected with them. I hope that you have friends just like that, and even our small group ministry is designed to help people to connect, and all of our other ministries.

Remember the statement that we have. It is a promise statement. “Moody Church is a trusted place where anyone can connect with God and others.” And through that connection we are strengthened. Paul says in Colossians that as you are strengthened with one another you enter into the inheritance that is yours in Christ. And I don’t think that we can get to that inheritance without that kind of involvement. So Philemon is a great man, a great Christian, and evidently quite wealthy because the church meets at his house.

But now we get to the matter of Onesimus. Let’s read what the Apostle Paul has to say here as he begins pleading for this boy. I call him a boy. We’re not sure that he was a young man, but I tend to think he was.

So let’s read the text. Verse 9: “Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love's sake I prefer to appeal to you — I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus — I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the Gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother — especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”

We have to stop right here for a moment. The Apostle Paul says that this young man met him there while Paul was in prison in Rome. Now when the Gospel of Acts ends, the story of the early church, it ends with Paul in Rome, and he’s actually living there at his own expense under house arrest. And the Bible says that people were coming and going.

So let’s try to pick up the story as best we know it. Here’s Onesimus who was a slave in Colossae. Now Colossae is in the land of Turkey. That’s a long, long way from Rome, but we can imagine that this young man decided to steal some goods from his master. He took some money with him so that he’d be able to make it all the way to Rome and blend in with a large population and nobody would know about it, and he’d find his own way. But somehow, and we don’t know how, he connected with the Apostle Paul while Paul was in prison. And Paul led him to saving faith in Christ.

Paul says, “I have become his father in the Lord, and he is now my son.” That’s imagery in the New Testament for indicating that when you lead someone to Christ you become their father or their mother, as the case may be, because of the family relationship. And you are the key to them coming to faith in Christ. So Paul says, “I have led Onesimus to the Lord,” and notice that the text says (and this is very important) in verse 11: “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.” You don’t get this in English, but in the Greek text there’s a play on words because the name Onesimus means useful. People used to name children in accordance with the meaning of the names, and there was a time when Onesimus was not at all useful to his master. In fact, evidently he stole from his master. But now because of his conversion he’s beginning to live up to his name, and even though he was named useful and was useless, now he is really useful both to Paul and to Philemon.

You know, this young man must have really been quite an encouragement to Paul because Paul says, “I wish I had been able to keep him here because he serves me here in prison.” You’ve met those kinds of people. You can depend on them.
Their faith is evident and they are willing to play the role of a servant, and that’s what Onesismus was willing to do under the good hand of God. So Paul says, first of all, that he’s a convert. Yes, he ran away, and now Paul begins to seriously plead for Onesimus, and what we must do is to see how he does it.

First of all, he says (and we read the text a moment ago) that he should be welcomed back by Philemon (verse 16) no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, as a beloved brother. Now that he’s been born into God’s family he is a brother, and he’s a beloved brother.

Yes, I know he had a history, but the fact is there is restoration, there is forgiveness, and he is to be received as a brother, and more than that, but especially to me and to you both in the flesh and in the Lord. Verse 17: “So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me.” Could you imagine what Philemon and his wife, Apphea might do if the Apostle Paul were to get back to Colossae, and at the end of the book he suggests he might be able to. In fact, Paul writes in verse 22, “Prepare a guest room for me.” And they would because this, after all, was the famous Apostle Paul whose reputation was known throughout the then known world, and of course they would welcome him greatly. Paul says, “Receive him as you would receive me.”

You know what that means? That means Philemon says to his wife, “We have to prepare the guest room because that’s where Paul would sleep, and that’s where Onesimus is going to sleep tonight.”

Well, what about the money that was stolen? You’ll notice that Paul says, “If he has wronged you (verse 19) or owes you ought (verse 18), charge that to my account.” Paul says, “Put it on my credit card. Whatever it is that he took, whatever wrong he did, whatever money you lost as a result of the fact that he was running away, charge it to me.”

This wasn’t just simply talk. The Apostle Paul had lots of resources. In fact, as I mentioned, in the book of Acts (I read it last night.) it says Paul lived in Rome at his own cost, so he had resources. And he says, “Now, if you want to be paid back, you know, just let me know how much it was and I’ll cover for him.” So the Apostle Paul makes this incredible statement. “Charge that to my account. Put it on my credit card.”

Well, he ends this short letter by talking about his plan, and now I’m in verse 21. He says, “Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.” We don’t know whether or not Paul ever filled this request, or whether he ever got out of prison in Rome. There were, I think, two imprisonments. It gets a little complicated because the book of Acts isn’t clear exactly how Paul’s life ended, though tradition says that he eventually was beheaded in Rome under Nero. So that was his history. But here’s the Apostle Paul pleading for a runaway slave.

Well, I’ve walked you through the text, but what does this have to do with us, and what are the seminal lessons that are transforming that we should remember? First of all, this is a marvelous illustration of the power of the Gospel. When Paul says, you know, “He was useless to you but he’s become useful, he’s living up to his name,” what he accentuated was the fact that somebody who really was disobedient and evidently a thief, has been changed by the power of the Gospel, so that he lives differently. And you can depend upon him now, Philemon.

And that’s what God wants us to do. You know, in the Bible God is constantly saying to us, “Live up to your name. If you say that you are a Christ follower, then follow Christ and live accordingly.” There are some people, and maybe some are listening to me right now, that it would be better if nobody knew that you were a Christian because you are not living up to the name of Christ.

Do you remember what Jesus said to Peter? He said, “You are called Simon (This is in John 1.) but you shall be called Peter. You’re going to be called a rock.” When God saves you He renames you, and gives you a whole new sense of identity as to who you are. That’s what God does to those whom He saves.

You know there is a story that comes to us from the days of Alexander the Great. Evidently there was one soldier in the army that was really a coward and backed out of a difficult situation. And that soldier’s name was Alexander. So this meant that Alexander the Great was enraged, and as the story goes, he went up to the soldier and he shook him and he said, “Either change your character or change your name. If you’re going to be called Alexander, then you have to be a warrior with bravery; you have to live up to the Alexander name.”

My dear friend, today, God tells us, “You are a Christian. Live up to that name because you have a huge inheritance.” And so this is what we see.

Now it’s remarkable that the Apostle Paul sent this young man back. Normally slaves don’t want to go back. Of course, in some situations they would have been beaten, and I’m sure that in that kind of a situation Paul would not have sent him back. You’re not supposed to go back where there is abuse, and so forth, but in many contexts what this text teaches us is the need for reconciliation, the need for simply not avoiding your past, but going back to the past and making sure that you have done everything within your own power to make your past right. Now you can’t do everything but there are some things that you can do.

Years ago I told you about a great revival that took place in Canada in the early 1970s, and one of the reasons that the world found out about it is the number of people who were going back and making things right. For example, the Canadian Revenue Service, which is something like our IRS, was receiving all kinds of money, unsolicited from people who had cheated on their income tax. When God works mightily there is reconciliation.

People were going back to stores and saying, “Years ago I stole this.” Now in some instances they couldn’t make restitution. For example, I think of a woman who years ago wrote an essay for which she was awarded some money. Well, you know, who knows where the people are who had the context. She couldn’t make it right so this was called conscience money. When the offering baskets were passed people would actually put in money because it was conscience money and they were seeking reconciliation to the very best of their ability.

God wants you to do that. When we come to God in prayer, and we are totally honest, there are things that we need to confess, and reconciliations that need to be made, and if not, they will always pop up, and they will hinder our relationship with God.

I just heard recently that someone said that a marriage can withstand anything. It can withstand even adultery, and there can be reconciliation, but one thing it cannot stand is deceit. As long as there is this and what is hidden, and there is no attempt at honest reconciliation that marriage simply cannot move forward. And in a different context the Apostle Paul said, regarding young Onesimus, “Onesimus, you go back to your owner, but when you do, I’m really going back with you. I’m sending my heart. I’ll stand in for you.” And that’s your responsibility and mine as well to be the agents of reconciliation.

I remember many years ago there was a woman who lied at work, and the way she did it is she punched in hours that were fraudulent. She didn’t work the hours that she indicated that she had, and she came to me as a pastor and said, “You know, would you go with me back to this place, back to this organization, back to this company, and would you put in a good word for me?” And I did, and I urged the staff to give her another chance. And she worked there many years, and as far as I know she never fell into that sin again.

So the Gospel, you see, with all of its power, desires transformation of heart. It’s a Gospel with power that brings about reconciliation, so there’s the personal power of the Gospel. But let me speak also about the social power of the Gospel.

Let’s take out a moment and let’s speak about slavery. You may not know this, but the Bible is often attacked on this basis. “Oh, it’s just an ancient book. It condones slavery, and because it condones slavery, you know we can’t trust it. It is socially repressive.” That’s the narrative that’s out there.

Now let’s talk about that. Did you know that there were sixty million slaves in the Roman Empire, and that meant that every third person was a slave. One third of the population during this time were slaves. So what were the options? Should Paul have said, “Now, leave your masters?” To do what, may I ask?

Here you’d have all of these people unemployed. They’d have no place to stay and so this was a much bigger issue than you and I realize that it really was. So on the one hand, you know there’d be no place. The other thing is if Christianity were seen as a religion whose primary message was the disruption of the culture by having all of these slaves leave their masters, the message of the Gospel would have really been lost. There would have been a lot of confusion as to what Christianity really stands for.

So this is the way in which the New Testament deals with the issue of slavery. What it deals with is that the Gospel itself is so transforming that slavery therefore, by nature and by definition, is unacceptable. That’s why in the church, in the New Testament church, what you will find over and over again is that we have references to the fact that slaves are to be treated just as well, with just as much honor as anyone else in the church, anyone who is rich, anyone who had status. Slaves were to be treated in the very same way.

I can quote many verses, but one that comes to mind is 1 Corinthians 12:13, “For by one spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jew or Greek, whether we be slaves or free, and are all made to drink in one spirit.” So the Bible would indicate that Christian charity and the Christian Gospel is powerful enough to so change the human heart that people realize that slavery is really unacceptable. And that’s why when England became Christianized, despite its decadence during that period of time, Wilberforce was mightily used of the Lord to prick the conscience of the nation so that slavery would be abolished.

You say, “But what about the Civil Rights Movement in the United States? Where was the church at that time?” Well, there’s no doubt that the church was AWOL during that period of time, but isn’t it interesting that if you read the sermons of Martin Luther King, what was he doing? What was he appealing to? He was always appealing to the Christian Scriptures and the higher calling of all believers. And because of that, we recognize that the kind of racism and the kinds of horrors of American slavery in a Christian context are evil and completely unacceptable. And the seeds of that lie here within the pages of the New Testament. Yes, you can clap if you want, by the way. (applause)

The Apostle Paul is putting slaves in an entirely different category. “Receive him no longer as a slave, well yes, a slave, but a brother. Receive him as you would receive me.” You put me in the guest room – you put him in the guest room because the relationship has now changed.

So there’s the personal power of the Gospel, and the transformation of lives. There’s the social transformation of the Gospel. But there is also the price that must be paid for the Gospel. I think that we have here in this passage a marvelous example of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Here you have the Apostle Paul saying two things regarding Onesimus. “First of all, Philemon, I want you to receive him as you would receive me.” And that’s our inheritance as believers. When you die as a Christian you’ll be welcomed into heaven as if you were Jesus because you were found in Him. God says, “I’ll receive you as I’ll receive My Son.”

Not only that, but the Bible indicates that when Jesus died on the cross He paid our debt. That is to say that Jesus is the one who, on His credit card, paid what we owed God.
2 Corinthians 5:21: “He (that is, God) made Him that knew no sin (Jesus) to be made sin for us that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.” Jesus got what He didn’t deserve, namely our sin, and we get what we don’t deserve, namely His righteousness. So I can imagine, as it were, that Jesus stands before the Father and says, “Father, these have sinned and they owe you plenty, but You’ve charged that to My account. Receive them as You would receive Me. Put them into the guest rooms of heaven because that’s where I belong, and that’s where they belong, too, because You have welcomed them as if they were Me.”

Martin Luther was a flawed man, but he saw this very clearly. He saw what it was like to strive against the righteousness of Christ and seek somehow our acceptance before God on our own. And one day he wrote a letter to a man by the name of George Spalein. There’s also a George Spalatin to whom he wrote, but this is Spalein. And I want to read it to you. This is a letter of council to a man who was overwhelmed by his own sin and trying to somehow rectify it by his own righteousness.

Luther said this: “Now I should like to know whether your soul, tired of its own righteousness, is learning to be revived by and to trust in the righteousness of Christ. Are you weary, by the way of trying to live the Christian life, and always failing, and trying harder next time? Is your soul revived by the righteousness of Christ, for in our age the temptation to presumption besets many, especially those who try with all their might to be just and good without knowing the righteousness of God, which is freely given to us in Jesus Christ. They try to do good of themselves in order that they might stand before God, clothed in their own virtues and merits. But this is impossible. While you were here (that is, when Luther and his friend were together) you were the one that held this opinion (or this error I should say, and so did I, and I’m still fighting it). Therefore, dear brother, learn Christ and Him crucified. Learn to pray to Him and just despairing of yourself say, ‘Thou, Lord Jesus, art my righteousness. I am Thy sin. (I love that. What is my contribution to my salvation? I present my sin. That’s my contribution.) Thou has taken upon Thyself what is mine (namely my sin). Thou has given me what is Thine (namely Thy righteousness). Thou has taken upon Thyself what Thou was not, and has given to me what I was not.’”

And Luther goes on to say, “Beware of aspiring to such purity that you will not wish to be looked upon as a sinner nor to be one (In other words, beware of working so hard that you think of yourself no longer as a sinner. That’s really dangerous and wrong.), for Christ dwells only in sinners.”

Remember I told you how I met a very self-righteous woman on a plane one day, an elderly woman who was so full of self-righteousness. And I don’t normally speak this way to people, but sometimes you need strong medicine. I said to her, “Would you consider yourself to be ungodly?” She said, “Oh no, I’m not ungodly.” I said, “I feel so sorry for you because the Bible says that Jesus died for the ungodly so He didn’t die for you. I mean you know you’re in trouble.” (laughter)


Luther says, “Beware of the kind of righteousness where you no longer think that you are a sinner. Christ dwells only in sinners. (Isn’t that good news that Christ dwells only in sinners?) (applause) Meditate on this love of His and you will see sweet consolation. Why was it necessary for Him to die if we can obtain good conscience by our works and afflictions? You will find peace in Him and only then when you despair of yourself and your own works. Besides, you will learn from Him that just as He has received you, He has made your sins His own. Your sins no longer belong to you if you are a believer. They belong to Christ and He has made your righteousness His.” What beauty there is in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. “If they owe Thee, and they do, charge that to My account. Father, I will repay,” and on the cross He did.

Have you trusted Christ as your Savior? Are you still striving, or as a Christian, you are striving with moralism, always trying to do the right thing? There’s a place for that, and we’re thankful that you try to do the right thing, but doing the right thing does not obtain the righteousness of God. You attain that through faith in a Savior who paid it all.

Let’s pray together.

Father, we want to thank You today for the power of the short letter – 25 verses. Thank You for the heart of the Apostle Paul. Thank You that history records that Onesimus apparently later became a bishop in Ephesus, as you lifted a slave out of his situation, a sinful slave, and honored him.

Show us, Lord, Your grace. Help us to be reconciled in those areas where reconciliation is possible, and thus prove that we belong to You. We love You.

And before I close this prayer, if you’ve never received Christ as Savior, you can do that right now. Believe on Him. Accept His righteousness as yours, and you will be saved. Amen.

Start applying what you learn today: Log in or create an account!

It is fast and easy. Log in or create an account, and we'll save your reflection and application notes today.

Tell us why you valued this sermon.

Listen to our
Live Webcast

Join us Sundays at 10:00am CST for our live service.

Search