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Dec 03, 2023 | John Talcott

Gratitude (3)

I want to go deeper with you into this topic of gratitude, looking at the little epistle of Philemon. The Holy Spirit brought the apostle Paul’s letter to a man named Philemon to my attention several weeks ago because it’s theme of forgiveness demands genuine expressions of gratitude. As the apostle Paul declared to the Corinthian church,

“Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” (2 Corinthians 9:15).

And yet, we live in an ego centered, selfish culture that has become so decadent, so unforgiving, that it celebrates vengeance. But as followers of Jesus an unwillingness to forgive is unthinkable because we ourselves have received God’s forgiveness, and he gives us his salvation based on his unmerited favor and nothing that we have done or deserve.

It is for that reason that the apostle Paul is filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy as he is writing this with shackles around his feet. In other words, he is locked up, he is in chains, he is under house arrest, but he was free because there was no way that they could steal his joy or keep his mind hostage. You see, genuine joy comes because of God’s grace and salvation and so,

“If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).

Therefore, as believers we have the fullest, most enduring, satisfying joy, because it’s derived from our relationship with God. It’s not based on circumstances or chance, but it is the gracious permanent possession of every child of God.

That’s why you never want to surrender your mind, giving up your ability to process thoughts, and to think for yourself because you’re being transformed by the renewing of your mind. And so, you can give somebody whatever they want, giving them the coat off your back, giving them the keys to your car, but you don’t ever give anybody your mind. You love them with all of your heart, with all of your soul, with all of your strength, but keep your mind to yourself,

“You take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

Now, over the past two weeks, we’ve been talking about gratitude, threats to gratitude, and enemies of gratitude; but I want you to notice as we look at this little letter to Philemon, the apostle Paul, never lost his tenacity, his convictions, or his resolve. Even though he was old and gray, locked up in chains, what made him so inexplicably potent, so powerful, was that he still had his mind. And so, let’s begin reading at verse one as we begin unraveling this text. The apostle begins saying,

“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” (Philemon 1-2).

In other words, Paul is under house arrest, waiting for trial, and he doesn’t know how the story was going to end. He doesn’t know whether this is his last day or not, but he resolved to make the best of uncertainty, making himself comfortable in an uncomfortable situation, as he is chained to a Roman soldier.

In that context he expressed his concern and care for Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and the church that meets in Philemon’s home, remembering that they are the legacy that he will leave behind. And so, to them he addresses his attention, sharing what may be his last words, and he blesses them saying,

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 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” (Philemon 3-5).

He encourages the church, which is so important, because often ministry can be a lonely place, and our spiritual enemy wants us to question what we are doing, what we have achieved, and if there is any significance to our lives that will last into eternity. And so, Paul encourages them, he gives thanks for them, letting them know that he has been praying for them, and that he has heard about their ministry and their faithfulness to the gospel. And this must’ve been such an encouragement, because as humans, we desire a life of worth, a life of significance, and yet so often we find ourselves questioning our significance.

Paul tells them, “I have heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the believers.” In other words, he says you’re making a difference, your life is significant, you are impacting the world and I thank God for you.” And then he prays and encourages them saying,

“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” (Philemon 6-7).

In other words, he encourages them, expressing his gratitude for them, telling them that their love has given him great joy and encouragement. He says, their lives have carried a weight of goodness that has benefited not only the world but those that they love. And basically, even though he is locked up under house arrest, possibly enjoying his last meal, he was grateful for them, grateful for their ministry, and that he could leave this world knowing he had served his purpose.

But then he shifts gears and begins to express a higher purpose. I want you to notice that even though he is in chains, under house arrest, he is still giving orders. He says,

“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” (Philemon 8-9).

In other words, he is old and gray, bent over under the weight of time, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, but he is still the boss. He may be old, but he still knows who he is, and he doesn’t allow his conditions to define or diminish his apostolic authority. He said, “I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love” (Philemon 8-9).

“I appeal to you” he says in verse ten, “for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains” (Philemon 10).

In other words, even though he himself was in chains, he was still setting captives free, still birthing souls into the kingdom, and so the apostle says, “It’s not about me, I’m not writing about my situation, but I appeal to you for my son Onesimus.”

“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” (Philemon 11-12).

“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” (Philemon 13-14).

“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…” (Philemon 15-16).

And suddenly, our understanding of the context, the depth of our understanding has exploded, because now we understand that Onesimus was Philemon’s property. And Paul says, “My hope is 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” (Philemon 16).

And so, he says, “the value or the affection you feel for Onesimus is based upon how you receive him.” In other words, “he could be dearer to you, closer to you as a believer, as a brother, than he was to you as a slave.” And so, it’s a matter of perspective, consider changing your way of thinking. He says,

“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” (Philemon 17-18).

In other words, he says, we are in this together. When you see Onesimus, act like he is me. When he walks in the door, welcome him as you would welcome me; treat him as you would treat me.

That is so practical because so many things in life really only become real when they happen to you. In other words, when you experience it personally, and so you don’t pay attention to people wearing pink for breast cancer month until it happens in your house. When they find a lump in your breast, all of a sudden it becomes very personal and very real. In the same way, when our parents get older, suddenly Alzheimer’s becomes very real, because it’s not just your neighbor, now it’s your own father, now it’s your own mother.

What I love about this text is that the apostle addresses this complicated situation head-on with love and grace. He says, we are partners, and I think that maybe if we understood this as the body of Christ not only would we think differently, but we would respond differently to our own situations. You see, few people do anything that doesn’t personally affect them, and so we don’t make changes until it is too late. Instead of being proactive we are reactive, which is why we are always late, because we react individually to everything, taking everything personally, rather than practically.

The apostle Paul, however, who himself is in chains, is trying to negotiate a settlement in this conflict, negotiating freedom for a slave while he himself is imprisoned. And he says, “I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand,” and he addresses Philemon who is a church leader and disciple of Christ. He appeals to him for Onesimus who had just been recently saved and is now trying to work out the mistakes of his past and he says,

“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” (Philemon 19-21).

In other words, he says, encourage me, humor me, refresh my heart, and even with shackles around his feet, locked up in his house, he negotiates freedom for Onesimus. These two men are in conflict, two opposing parties, and these two rivals are free, while Paul is in chains, separated from them, but nothing could restrain him. Nothing could keep him, holding him hostage, and even from a distance he had great influence. And so, he says to Philemon,

“Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do” (Philemon 8).

In other words, they took away his freedom, but they couldn’t take away his apostolic authority. His authority and who he was in Christ had nothing to do with his location or how near or how far he was.

And so, Paul is in Rome negotiating with Philemon who is in Colossae, about Onesimus who was a fugitive, a runaway slave, who had a Damascus Road experience when the apostle Paul had led him to faith in Jesus Christ. His salvation experience was so pronounced and powerful, so transformative that the apostle had sent Onesimus back to Philemon to make restitution. Paul writes to Philemon he said, “I am sending him, Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains.” He says,

“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” (Philemon 12-13).

In other words, not only do I love him, but if I could have, I would have kept him in your place, because he is just as helpful as you. He says, “You couldn’t see his gifting because you thought of him as a slave. You thought of him as property, and so you saw yourself suffering loss, functioning in a deficit, and…

“He was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me” (Philemon 11).

This verse is an interesting play on words, because the name “Onesimus” means profitable, useful, beneficial, or helpful. And so, the one who is named “helpful” was on the run and Philemon is angry because not only has Onesimus run away, but there were allegations that he stole something from him when he left.

And so, Philemon is upset and rightfully so, and that is the circumstances of which the apostle is negotiating. From a distance he is appealing to the heart of Philemon for Onesimus whom he had sent back to him. And he says to Philemon, “I believe Onesimus is more valuable to you as a brother than he ever was as a slave. In fact, he was so beneficial to me that I wanted to keep him for myself, but understanding your situation I sent him back to you with the hope that you would see him as a brother.”

Now, let’s look at it from Philemon’s perspective, because he was a man of influence, and he has been publicly humiliated by his slave because in that culture if you can’t keep what is in your own house people will throw it up in your face. In fact, Paul wrote to Timothy,

“If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God's church?” (1 Timothy 3:5).

And so, he has survived this loss, even if his influence in the community is somewhat diminished, and he has overcome because he was also a man of great faith, having established the church in Colossae.

In fact, that may add some context to another letter the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Colossae. In spite of Philemon’s power and his net worth, there was still something missing, and Paul says,

“Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:12-14).

I wanted to teach from this letter to Philemon with this complicated situation in the Colossian church so that we might learn something that God wants to teach us about grace.

You see, the truth is it is hard to change your mind once you have decided that somebody has hurt you. Once they have become your enemy, your adversary, it is difficult to form an alliance with them, but the gospel requires that we see things differently. In other words, we must be willing to change our way of thinking, to forgive as we have been forgiven, recognizing the possibility that the relationship we have now could be greater than the relationship that we had before.

My hope and my prayer today is that we can get over offenses, because if we are too petty to be able to forgive and change our way of thinking, we will remain shackled, incarcerated in a prison of our own making. But we know that Jesus came,

"To proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed” (Luke 4:18).

And so, I want you to embrace this opportunity to experience true freedom, to come out of bondage, out of captivity, so that you are released from resentment, anger, and hostility. You see, some of you have been kept hostage in your own mind but the Scripture says,

“If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).

And if we’re ever going to see revival in our lives and in this church, it doesn’t matter how much you cry at the altar, it doesn’t matter how bad you feel about what you did, because we have to change the way we have been thinking.

That’s what the Bible calls repentance, it’s disruptive, it’s bigger than being sorry for our sin. It’s so much deeper than that, more comprehensive than that, it means to change your mind, to turn around and go the opposite direction. In fact, I am reminded about a young man, we don’t know his name, but he had disrupted his family, his relationships had fallen apart, and having squandered his inheritance on wild living. He was bankrupt, alienated by his own culture, and he was about to do something really crazy.

The Bible tells us he became so desperate that, “He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating” (Luke 15:16).

In other words, he had lowered himself below the pigs that he had been raised not to eat, and not to even touch. Dirty, hungry, and ashamed, he finally came to his senses and said,

"How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death” (Luke 15:17).

He came to his senses, came to himself, right there in the hog pen, realizing that he had made a great mistake. He changed his mind about himself and his situation, recognizing that he had so much to be thankful for. And he rose up with repentance and said,

“I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you” (Luke 15:18).

The reason I am preaching this message is so that you might come to yourself, because I want to encourage you that there isn’t a demon in hell that can hold you back once you have changed your mind. The Bible says, nothing in all of creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:39). But progress is impossible without change, repentance is required, and those who won’t change their minds cannot change. And so, you’re going to have to do the hard work, and changing the way you think is not easy, it’s not a plug-and-play, but we can’t change our trajectory in life if we don’t disrupt the way we are thinking.

Some of you have experienced great loss and because of your pain you won’t change your mind. But I come before you this morning just like the apostle Paul, trying to negotiate a settlement, because God loves you and has a plan for your life. In other words, you are useful, you are valuable, and if we could come together, recognizing that we are partners, that we’re in this together, and loving one another just as Christ loved us, we could change the world.

Paul said, “I appeal to you on the basis of love.” He says, I came to negotiate a settlement, to disrupt your thinking, to encourage you to stop being resentful over stuff that doesn’t even matter anymore.

“I then, as Paul — an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus” (Philemon 9).

You see, if we could just slow down and recognize God’s grace in our lives it would make all the difference in the world. Our lives will be characterized by gratitude because God’s grace is all around us, his grace is in us, and working through us.

And so, our gratitude expresses our willingness and desire not just to receive God’s grace, but to give God’s grace to others. That is what makes our lives significant, that is what is most important, and not just living out God’s grace, but expressing gratitude for God’s grace. As Cicero once said,

“Gratitude is the mother of all the remaining virtues.”

And so, living a life of thankfulness, a life filled with gratitude is the virtue that surpasses all other virtues. And therefore, to live a meaningful life, we must begin by accepting what is freely given and offering this grace back to God and others by living a life of thankfulness.

We know there is satisfaction in our work, our accomplishments, our investments, the acquisition of things, and even our service to our families, our community, and our nation, but if we want to add true lasting satisfaction, contentment, value and significance to our lives, the Bible says,

“Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

It’s an attitude of gratitude, the practice of living a life of thankfulness, which creates within us a deep sense of happiness and satisfaction. Gratitude enriches all of our relationships, nurtures the formation of new friendships, and inspires the very foundation of the gospel.

Graphics, notes, and commentary from LifeChurch, Ministry Pass, PC Study Bible, Preaching Library, and Sermon Central. Scripture from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.

Series Information

Other sermons in the series

Nov 26, 2023

Gratitude (2)

If you have the Holy Spirit, you have all you need to do the will of God