As I sit here preparing to teach one of our Connect Groups at Southern Calvert Baptist Church, I am amazed to see how much God values relationships. As a pastor, one of the most frequent problems that I help people deal with is broken relationships. Building and maintaining relationships is very difficult because of our sin nature. God created us to be social creatures. He is social. He has always existed in a perfect relationship as the Holy Trinity. The Father has always had a perfect relationship with the Son and the Holy Spirit. When He created mankind, He created us to be in relationship with Him and with each other. The reason that we have difficulties with relationships is because we are broken by our sin nature. Even after we are born again through faith in Jesus Christ, we still have a sin nature that taints us. Our sin nature causes us to be selfish. By nature, we are egotistical. This egoism causes relationships to break down. God knows of this and He wants to help us learn to live in good social relationships with others. This is the topic of this lesson. We are going to learn how to invest in relationships with others.
In order to understand this, we need to read Philemon. This is a short epistle in the Word of God but, it has much to teach us about establishing and maintaining relationships.
I. Paul understood the value of relationships
The letter begins with Paul. He is writing to Philemon and the church that meets in his home.
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved brother and fellow worker,
and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Philemon 1-3)
In order for relationships to grow, communication must exist. Paul understood this and he demonstrates this understanding by putting forth effort to communicate with Philemon and the rest of the church. This was not easy for Paul but, it was necessary. He was current with what was happening in the church that met in Philemon’s home. Paul loved these people and he expressed his love in communication via the written word. If you value relationships, you communicate with others because it is vital to the health of relationships. We live in a modern society that worships being busy. This busyness is destroying our ability to build and maintain relationships.
I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers, (Philemon 4)
Relationships are spiritual in nature because our Creator is a Spiritual Being. This is another reason why relationships fail. We do not realize that without a spiritual understanding, relationships will fail. Paul understood this important truth and therefore, he was thankful to the Lord for his relationships with others. He prayed for those relationships, that they would grow stronger. When was the last time that you prayed for your relationships with others? Paul also let Philemon know that he was praying for him and that he valued his relationship so much that it was a motive to be grateful to God for this relationship.
and I pray that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for Christ’s sake. (Philemon 6)
Paul also understood that the best way to build and maintain relationships was around faith in Christ through the Word of God. Paul began a relationship with Philemon when he shared the Gospel with him. The foundation of their relationship was fellowship around the Word of God. As Paul grew in his faith by studying and applying the Word of God, and, as Philemon grew in his faith by studying and applying the Word of God, their relationship with each other also grew stronger. Are you building relationships with others with fellowship around the Word of God?
For I have come to have much joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother. (Philemon 7)
Relationships have to be a two way street. Paul does not encourage Philemon only. Paul is also encouraged by Philemon. Relationships are like a game of catch. In order to play catch, each person involved has to do his part. Paul does his part. Philemon does his part. Are you doing your part to build and maintain relationships with others?
Sometimes, in relationships, difficulties will arise. The way that you deal with those difficulties demonstrates if you value relationships or not. Paul and Philemon have come to this moment in their relationship. In order to get to the heart of this difficulty, I need to give the back story of why Paul wrote to Philemon. Paul led Philemon to Christ and discipled him to the point where he was able to plant and lead a church in his home. Philemon was obviously a wealthy man because he had slaves (servants). One of those slaves was Onesimus. While living and serving in Philemon’s home, Onesimus was exposed to the Gospel but, he never accepted it. At some point in time, Onesimus ran away. He had escaped, but, somewhere along the way, he was caught and it was revealed that he was a runaway slave. During the Roman Empire, slaves were common and runaway slaves were caught and imprisoned, especially if the authorities did not know who the master of the slave was. Onesimus was imprisoned and one of his fellow prisoners happened to be Paul. God had orchestrated all of this to lead Onesimus to faith in Christ. Paul shared the Gospel with Onesimus and this time, it all came together and Onesimus received Christ as Lord and Savior. Onesimus was born again and he started helping Paul share the Gospel in prison. Paul discovered that Onesimus had run away from one his own disciples, Philemon. Paul is torn now because he wants Onesimus to stay and help him but, at the same time, he does not want to ruin his relationship with Philemon. This is why Paul writes to Philemon. Ironically, Onesimus is the one who delivered the message to Philemon.
8 Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to order you to do what is proper,
9 yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you-since I am such a person as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus –
10 I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment,
11 who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me.
12 I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart,
13 whom I wished to keep with me, so that on your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel;
14 but without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will.
15 For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever,
16 no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
17 If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me. (Philemon)
Paul had the right to command Philemon to allow Onesimus to remain with him and continue serving in the ministry. Philemon had the legal right to receive Onesimus back as a slave. Paul chose not to command Philemon. Instead, Paul made an appeal to Philemon for the sake of their relationship. Paul values his relationship with Philemon. Paul values his relationship with Onesimus. Paul wants Philemon and Onesimus to have the same relationship in Christ that he has with both of them. Also, Paul wants to respect the laws of the land. Once he discovered who Onesimus was and to whom he belonged as a slave, Paul was obligated to share this information. This is how Onesimus is able to get out of prison and travel back to Philemon’s house.
18 But if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account;
19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand, I will repay it (not to mention to you that you owe to me even your own self as well ). (Philemon)
Again, we see that Paul values the relationship with Philemon so much that he is willing, while in prison, to pay any of the acquired debts that Onesimus has due to running away. Paul is willing to sacrifice financially in order to build and maintain good relationships. Are you the same way? Do you value relationships this much? Finally, Paul reminds Philemon of the debt that he (Philemon) owes to Paul. Paul brought the Gospel to Philemon and rescued his soul from the fires of Hell. Philemon already owes Paul a huge debt and that is why Paul would have been able to command Philemon to act properly. Paul chose not to do that because he wanted to teach Philemon the value of relationships and the value of doing the right thing. Philemon now has a choice to make. He can do one of three things:
- Accept Onesimus back as a slave.
- Accept Onesimus back as a brother in Christ.
- Send Onesimus back to Paul as a free man to serve him in the Gospel.
We do not know which one Philemon chose but, I would like to believe that it was number 3.
II. Philemon and Onesimus learn the value of relationships
Paul not only taught the value of relationships, he also demonstrated the value of relationships. This is very important because there are two disciples who are learning from Paul. Philemon learns the value of relationships by seeing Paul react the way that he does. Philemon learns the value of sacrificing for the benefit of personal relationships with others. Philemon learns a very valuable lesson from Paul. A person’s personal relationship with the Lord is manifested in the way he builds and maintains relationships with others. Paul was willing to sacrifice for the sake of relationships. Paul learned that example from God, Himself. God sacrificed the life of His only Son in order to have a personal relationship with His fallen creation. Onesimus watched Paul in action. He learned the value of personal relationships. He learned the value of obedience. He is willing to go back and be a slave to Philemon in order to help Paul and Philemon maintain their personal relationship. Do you value relationships this much? Are you willing to but forth this much effort to build and maintain relationships with others? Are you willing to sacrifice your desires in order to build and maintain relationships? We have much to learn from this short epistle that we can apply to our daily lives. Does your relationship with God impact the relationships in your life in a positive way? Are you teaching others to value relationships through your own example? Are you teaching the Word of God to others so that they can learn to build and maintain relationships? It all begins with a relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ. Do you have a personal relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ? Today is the day of salvation. Begin a personal relationship with God today through faith in Christ so that you can build and maintain relationships with others.