PHILEMON: Substitution Simply Applied

A story of one man, Saint Maximilian Kolbe is an interesting story, first raised to my attention by John Stott in his book, The cross of Christ, in his explanation of ‘substitution’. he died2During Second World War, Kolbe was arrested for hiding Jews and sent to Auschwitz detention camp.

One morning, one of his fellow detainees escaped and the authorities decided to starve 10 of the detainees to death. As they walked out, one of the culprits sobbed, ‘My poor wife! My poor children! What will they do?‘ When he uttered this cry of dismay, Kolbe stepped forward silently, stood before the commandant and said, ‘Let me take his place. I am old. He has a wife and children.‘ What a man, Kolbe, volunteering to die in place of a stranger.

In my reading about Kolbe, I was moved by the statement of the man whom Kolbe died in his place.

“I could only thank him with my eyes. I was stunned and could hardly grasp what was going on. The immensity of it: I, the condemned, am to live and someone else willingly and voluntarily offers his life for me – a stranger. Is this some dream? I was put back into my place without having had time to say anything to Maximilian Kolbe. I was saved. And I owe to him the fact that I could tell you all this. For a long time I felt remorse when I thought of Maximilian. By allowing myself to be saved, I had signed his death warrant. But now, on reflection, I understood that a man like him could not have done otherwise.”

As a Christian, I can relate to this. Someone was substituted and died on my behalf. The notion of substitution is that one person takes the place of another. This is what Paul does in his letter to Philemon, as he tries to reconcile him with his runway servant, Onesimus. In verse 18-19, he tells Philemon:

If Onesimus has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me…I will pay it back to you… (Philemon 1:18-19)

Every time I read these verses, I am moved! What does Paul say here, that he is ready to pay everything Onesimus had stolen from his master? This is a great sign of commitment in reconciling these two brothers in the Lord.

Paul here drives home an important point for all Christians- Substitution!  We all need to appreciate and should be forever grateful to God for substituting our wrath with Jesus, making one who had no sin to become a sin for us, the righteous dying for the unrighteous. He paid our debt; he laid his life as a ransom for us.charge that

Paul shows Philemon what it means to lay down one’s life for another. “Charge everything he owes you to me,” he says confidently reminding Philemon that he preached gospel to him too.

There is no other better and simpler way to say it than that Jesus died on our place, he took the wrath we deserved and imputed on us his righteousness. We, just as Onesimus can stand before Philemon, owe our righteous standing before God entirely to the cross of Christ, through whom our sins are forgiven.

At the cross of Christ, we have our pride broken, our guilt removed, our love kindled, our hope restored and our character transformed. We join Isaac Watts in saying,Us and Cross

At the cross, at the cross where I first saw the light,
And the burden of my heart rolled away,
It was there by faith I received my sight,
And now I am happy all the day!

Was it for crimes that I had done
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!

(This is the third article on a series on Philemon, click the link to find the others: Philemon: A letter worth a thought and Philemon: A Rich Prison Epistle)

By Kenneth Irungu
iServe Africa apprentice placed at DOVE Christian Fellowship, Kawangware.





Philemon: A Rich Prison Epistle

Philemon is one of Paul’s ‘prison epistle’—a letter written while he was imprisoned for preaching Jesus Christ as Lord. Even in the face of persecution, prison bars could not contain Paul’s zeal for the gospel. letter penIn this letter to Philemon, as we noted in last post here, he pleaded for mercy and forgiveness for a runaway slave.

Paul urges Philemon to accept back his servant Onesimus as a brother in the Lord, though he was once useless to him. Useless since he probably have stolen from him some large amount of money and then ran away. From this letter, we note few things.

God’s Sovereign Choice

First, we see God acting sovereignly in separating Philemon and Onesimus so that the latter would meet Paul, and be transformed by the gospel. The separation of the master and the servant, even before the latter had finished his term of service to Philemon shows God’s sovereignty in everything. It is through the separation that Onesimus meets Paul, who preaches the Good News of Jesus Christ.

God is sovereign over all. It is good for us to acknowledge him sovereign over our lives.

Reconciliation between brethren

Secondly, we note that Paul develops the theme of reconciliation in this letter more than any other theme. letterPaul opens the letter by expressing his gratitude to Philemon for his love of Christ. Philemon’s love and faith in God, as Paul notes, was immense and had refreshed many. Paul urged Philemon to open his heart and reconcile with the ‘once useless man’ by accepting him back as a dear brother. Though they had some differences, Paul notes that reconciliation is inevitable, just as Christ reconciled both of them to God.

Once we understand the gospel, it will be easier for us to reconcile with others. Paul banked on the gospel to help Philemon reconcile back with Onesimus.

Believers as Beloved brothers!

No other statement in this letter that excites me than verse 16: so that you might have him back, no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother, a brother in the Lord. The earthly distinction between the master and the slave still holds, but more than that, both become brothers. Nothing else but the gospel would make it easier for Philemon to accept ran away servant back. Here, Paul makes it clear that believing in Christ makes both to be brothers in the Lord.

Paul introduces an important thing even for us here and now. Once gospel transforms us, we become brothers in the Lord. We need to be seeing fellow believers as dear and beloved brothers to us in the Lord. Always remembering we are heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, as Paul notes in his letter to Romans.

Keep posted here for the next article (the third) on this letter

By: Kenneth Irungu
iServe Africa Apprentice- DOVE Kawangware

PHILEMON: A Letter Worth a Thought!

Tucked somewhere in the Bible is a small letter from Paul to his dear friend Philemon. A very small letter, only 25 verses, but loaded with a great gospel message. A letter worth reading and rereading!
A letter we will think of here in a series of coming posts.

Background of the letter:
Paul introduces himself in verse 1 as the author of the letter together with his dear brother Timothy. What is most exciting about his introduction is his emphasis, also found in other of his letters, on ‘whose he is,’ a prisoner of Christ Jesus.letter pen

He writes this letter to a wealthy man whom he evangelized to sometime ago, a dear friend to him and a fellow worker. He then copied the letter to two more people- Apphia and Archippus, and to a home cell fellowship. Though, as we will note later, is a personal letter to Philemon, Paul makes it open letter to other individuals and to the church.

In verse 10, we are introduced to a young man named Onesimus, a man who was once useless regardless of his name meaning useful. It is in verse 16 that we learn that Onesismus was a bondservant to Philemon. However, Philemon and Onesimus separated after the latter ran away.

Onesismus is believed to have fled from Philemon after possibly stealing from him. It was during their time of separation that Onesimus came into contact with Paul, who preached to him the gospel and he believed. The gospel transformed Onesimus, making him useful to Paul by assisting him greatly while he was in prison as Paul notes in verse 13 and 14.

Paul knew that Onesimus had fled from Philemon, and as a bondservant, he need to go back to his master. He therefore gives himself to the task of reconciling servant Onesimus to his master Philemon. He writes him this letter, a dear letter from a spiritual father to a spiritual son pleading him to accept back a transformed servant.

Our Reflection:
What a letter?! Just thinking how Philemon must have received the letter, possibly with pleasure rather than with a frown. A letter from a dear friend, the one who preached the gospel to him, pleading with him to accept a man who had stolen from him, now not as a slave but as a dear brother!

It must have been a joyful moment to Onesimus, reconciling back with his master Philemon better than a slave to him- as a dear brother in the Lord. He must have been grateful to Paul, for even accepting to pay his debt or anything he owed to Philemon. But more grateful to Jesus, just as me and you- for dying for all our sins, past, present and future- and giving us an opportunity to became heirs of God and co-heirs with him (Christ).


(Be on the lookout for next Post on Theological Reflections we get in this Paul’s letter to Philemon)
By: Kenneth Irungu
iServe Africa Apprentice 2015/2016
At DOVE Christian Fellowship, Kawangware (Nairobi-Kenya)