Never has it been more convenient to be a Christian than it has been the last few years in America. The key word is "convenient." The word "easy" is not found in my statement. Listen again carefully: "Never has it been more convenient to be a Christian than it has been in the last few years in America." "David, why would you say that?"

  1. It is legal to be a Christian.
  2. It is readily possible to be a Christian.
  3. Many Christians can and will encourage you.
  4. Christian ministries can develop and be nurtured without hostile opposition.
  5. We live in a neutral environment.
  6. We enjoy the benefits of a high literacy rate and multiple avenues of mass communication.
  7. Readable, understandable translations of the Bible are available everywhere. Everyone can own his or her copy of the Bible.
  8. We have the greatest abundance of Bible study aids to exist in the history of the world.

Contrast those circumstances with the first century world.

  1. Was Christianity a legal religion? No.
  2. Was it readily possible to be a Christian? Only in some places.
  3. Were there many Christians who could and would encourage you? Yes, that was likely the situation where Christians existed, perhaps more so than now.
  4. Could Christian ministries develop and be nurtured without hostility? No, in many places there was political, religious, and economic hostility.
  5. Did Christians exist in a neutral environment? No, they commonly existed in a negative environment. Idolatry controlled the political and economic climate.
  6. Did they enjoy the benefits of a high literacy rate and multiple avenues of mass communication? No.
  7. Were readable, understandable translations of the Bible in their own languages readily available? No. Could the average person own his own copy of scripture? No.
  8. Did they have an abundance of Bible study aids? No.

The same contrast could be made in the period we call the "dark ages" and the period we call the age of the reformation.

Let me show you in real life terms how tough it was to be a Christian in the first century by using Paul's letter written to Philemon.

  1. Let's begin by considering the circumstances that produced the letter.
    1. An overview of the situation:
      1. A prominent Christian named Philemon had a slave whose name was Onesimus.
        1. I refer to Philemon as prominent for two reasons:
          1. First, he owned a slave.
          2. Second, his home was large enough for the congregation to assemble there (verse 2)
        2. Paul referred to Onesimus as being a "useless" slave prior to his conversion to Christ (verse 11). Other translations use the word or phrase "unprofitable" [KJV]; "of no use" [TEV, JB], or "so little use" [NEB].
      2. Onesimus either ran away from Philemon, or deserted Philemon while he was on some mission for Philemon.
        1. By some set of circumstances, Onesimus traveled to the same city that had Paul in prison.
        2. It was not easy to desert your master and be a strange slave in an unfamiliar environment.
          1. You had no rights and no protection, so who did you trust?
          2. All kinds of dangers, both known and unknown, filled you with fear.
          3. Where would you live? What would you eat? What would you do?
          4. What would happen to you if someone found out that you were a slave who deserted your master or if you got caught?
        3. He knew Paul; he found Paul; and he went to prison to visit Paul.
          1. As a result of spending time with Paul, he was converted to Christ.
          2. He formed the ties of a loving relationship with Paul.
          3. He served Paul; he took care of Paul's needs.
          4. Paul's love for Onesimus and Onesimus' helpfulness to Paul was such that Paul wanted to keep Onesimus (verse 13).
            1. But Paul knew that was not right.
            2. Onesimus belonged to Philemon, and Paul had no right to keep him.
            3. If Philemon wanted Onesimus to serve Paul, then Philemon should make that decision when Onesimus was under Philemon's oversight and care.
        4. Paul sent the converted Onesimus back to Philemon with the letter that we call Philemon.
          1. Onesimus was truly a changed person--conversion changed him.
          2. "How could you possibly know that?"
          3. He went back, and there had to be a lot of uncertainty in returning.
          4. Accompanying him was likely another Christian who carried the letter.
        5. Basically, the letter's message was this:
          1. "Philemon, take Onesimus back, and behave as a Christian should when you take him back."
          2. "Please realize that Onesimus is more valuable to you now as a Christian than he was when he left you."
          3. "I hope to be released soon and come visit you."
    2. I want you to focus on the specific challenge in this brief letter.
      1. Philemon was expected to receive this slave who had deserted him as a Christian brother (verse 16).
      2. And you think you have some complicated situations! How would you do that? As a Christian owner, how would you receive a slave who deserted you as a Christian brother?
        1. However that was done, you did not say, "Religion is religion and business is business."
        2. You did not say, "The Christian thing to do is to see that justice is served--he may be a Christian but he must pay the consequences."
      3. How Philemon would handle that situation as a Christian was distinctly different from the way Philemon would handle that situation if he were not.
      4. Paul's encouragement is clear: "Philemon, handle this as a Christian should."

  2. Let me call your attention to some specific insights.
    1. Let's begin with Onesimus.
      1. He was a useless slave of little or no value to Philemon, and he deserted Philemon.
      2. He visited Paul in prison and was converted.
      3. I do not believe that it was accidental that Onesimus found himself in the same city in which Paul was in prison.
        1. Speaking for myself, it would be wrong for me to refer to that as "luck," "good fortune," or "a wonderful accident."
        2. That situation existed because it was a God-created opportunity.
        3. God created the opportunity.
        4. What Onesimus did with the opportunity was strictly his choice.
        5. Onesimus' reactions to the opportunity were strictly Onesimus'.
      4. I do not believe that Brad, Ted, Roy, and I are here by accident.
        1. We are here because God created and presented us with the opportunity.
        2. What we each do with the opportunity is our personal choice and decision.
      5. I do not believe you are here by accident.
        1. I believe God created the opportunity for you to be here.
        2. What you do with the opportunity is your decision, but the opportunity can change your life as totally as it changed Onesimus'.
    2. Let's look at Paul.
      1. Paul wanted to keep Onesimus because in practical ways Paul needed him.
      2. But Paul understood that keeping Onesimus was not his decision to make.
        1. He understood that is was not Onesimus' decision to make.
        2. It was Philemon's decision, and Philemon was the one person who should make it.
        3. Paul understood that it was not a real decision unless Onesimus was there with Philemon.
      3. In Paul's' thinking (and he wanted this to be in Philemon's thinking) it was possible that Onesimus deserted Philemon as a "useless" slave to return to Philemon as a committed, valuable slave.
      4. No one understood this truth better than did Paul: God constantly uses evil, undesirable situations and conditions to create opportunity for good to occur.
        1. The issue is not, "Why does evil happen to me?" The answer to that question is fairly simple: evil happens to each of us because of Satan.
        2. The issue is: "Will I allow the evil that occurs in my life to become God's door of opportunity for me?"
    3. Consider the enormous pressure that Paul placed on Philemon in challenging him as a Christian to use the situation to do good.
      1. Paul asked, "Is it not possible that God was at work" (verses 15,16)?
      2. Paul promised, "I personally will repay you anything that Onesimus owes you" (verse 19).
        1. It was quite possible that a slave who deserted his owner caused his owner losses in the act of desertion.
        2. It is also possible that Onesimus told Paul about his act of desertion and what it cost Philemon.
        3. What kind of pressure did it place on Philemon for a Christian friend in prison to promise, "I personally will pay you back?"
      3. Then Paul reminded Philemon, "You owe me. I converted you to Christ" (verse 19).
        1. Paul taught Philemon about Jesus Christ.
        2. Paul said that Philemon owed Paul his life.
      4. Paul made a request, "Refresh me in Christ."
        1. Here was the man who taught you about Christ enduring the hardships of prison simply because he belonged to Christ.
        2. This man made this request: "Refresh me in Christ."
      5. Paul expressed confidence in Philemon: "I know you will do what is right" (verse 21).
        1. "I know you will be obedient to my request."
        2. "I know you, and you will do even more than I ask of you."
      6. Paul made a promise: "I will come see you soon; get ready for my visit" (verse 22).
        1. Philemon would have to explain his actions to Paul in person.
        2. Onesimus would be there to confirm or deny the explanation.

  3. The typical view of Paul held by many Christians is that Paul was a hard-nosed confrontationalist.
    1. From a number of evidences, I am convinced that this view of Paul the Christian is inaccurate and incorrect.
      1. When Paul talked about his work with the Thessalonian Christians, he wrote about his encouragement, his gentleness, his affection, his example to them--they knew he worked with them as a nursing mother does her child (1 Thessalonians 2:1-12).
      2. He told Timothy that a Christian should correct people who are wrong with kindness and patience (2 Timothy 2:24-26).
      3. He told Galatian Christians that the spiritual person should restore the disobedient person in a spirit of gentleness (Galatians 6:1).
    2. When Paul wrote Philemon,
      1. He said that he had the right and the confidence to "order" Philemon to behave in the way Paul wished (verse 8).
      2. However, because they loved each other, Paul appealed in that love to Philemon (verse 9).
      3. He simply asked, "Take care of my child" (verse 10).

Faith in Christ does not make life easy. Faith in Christ does not simplify the world. Faith in Christ makes people God's children. God's children do not belong to or in this world. Belonging to God makes it possible for God to guide us through life's complex situations.

David Chadwell

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Evening Sermon, 7 May 2000

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