Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the Content


Home > Sermons

Testing the Limits

Spiritual friends challenge us to move past our selfishness and impatience in order to live out the power of the gospel.
This sermon is part of the sermon series "Living Close". See series.


For the past couple of weeks we've been talking about friendship. And what we're learning is that our friendships play an important role in forming us; spiritual friendships are significant, because they form the deepest parts of who we are. So friendships usually do their work over time—moment by moment, encounter after encounter, conversation after conversation. Most of the time, we don't even realize that they're having an effect on us. They are like water that slowly carves its way through rock, carving away one fraction of a millimeter at a time, until years later a deep gorge is carved into the rock bed. Or like wind that blows through the terrain of sandstone, creating a work of art as it carves intricate patterns throughout the landscape. That's what friendship does to us slowly over time.

But it doesn't always work that way. Sometimes God uses a friend in our life to transform us, seemingly overnight, a friend who speaks a word of challenge that, if responded to favorably by us, has the potential to help us grow exponentially. The tricky part is that a challenge like this also has the potential to test the limits of our friendship. Have you ever had an experience like that? It often comes as an intervention of sorts, a conversation, a letter, an interaction that challenges us to move beyond the threshold of our comfort zone and to step out into an area of living that we're not accustomed to, that tests us, tries our patience or our selflessness.

Spiritual friends challenge each other

Well, nestled in the pages of the New Testament is an interesting little document. It's on one thin piece of paper that is sandwiched between Titus and Hebrews. It's a six-paragraph letter that gives us a window into a compelling story about a friend challenging another friend, asking him to take a bold step, asking him to make a fundamental change in the way he naturally operates. He knows he's testing the limits of this friendship. As we read this story, we see the tension in this relationship.

The author of this letter is the apostle Paul. Paul is a significant leader in the church at this time in history. He's getting older and he's actually writing this letter from a Roman prison. He's under house arrest. He writes this letter to his friend, Philemon. Now Philemon is a man of means, who lives in a small town called Colossae, somewhere in Turkey, Asia Minor. Now we're not sure how or where Paul met Philemon. They may have met in Ephesus, which was only about a hundred and twenty-five miles from Colossae. Paul had never traveled to Colossae, but he spent a lot of time in Ephesus, a larger port city. It is likely that Philemon would have made his way as a businessman from Colossae to Ephesus. No matter how they met, it is likely that Paul led Philemon to Christ through his ministry in Ephesus. And so Philemon, this wealthy man who owns a large home in Colossae, is now one of the leaders of the house church that meets in his home.

This is where the story gets interesting: the letter that Paul sends to Philemon is carried by the hand of a runaway slave and thief, named Onesimus, who came from the same town in Colossae as Philemon. Now, slavery back in those days wasn't exactly like slavery here in America during the nineteenth-century. Slaves were more like servants. They served in various capacities and they came from various backgrounds. But like every other slave, their lives weren't their own. Like any other slave, Onesimus wanted more out of life. Apparently when his master and family were out of the house one day, Onesimus robbed them blind and ran as far away as he could, making the trip from Colossae all the way up to Rome, where any young man could spend his newfound freedom liberally. Well, Paul and Onesimus met in Rome while Paul was under house arrest. And from Paul's letter to Philemon, we come to discover that Paul and Onesimus have become good friends.

Eventually, this runaway slave surrendered his life to God, and he committed himself to the wellbeing of Paul, caring for him and keeping him company. One night, Onesimus shared with Paul his story, that he was a runaway slave. Eventually, Paul and Onesimus realized that they both knew a particular person. You see, it turns out that Onesimus' former master was also Paul's good friend, Philemon of Colossae. Can you imagine that moment of revelation?

Well, we don't know who suggested it first, Paul or Onesimus, but somehow they came to the conclusion that Onesimus should go back to his master and make things right, no matter what the cost was. I can imagine Paul saying to Onesimus: Listen, I know Philemon. Let me write a letter to him on your behalf. Let's see if we can't resolve this conflict, maybe even bring some good out of a bad situation.

And so with Paul's letter firmly in hand, Onesimus makes a 1,500 mile journey from Rome to Colossae, to see the man that he once wronged, to lay himself at the mercy of Paul's words and the mercy of his former master. And so now with all this in mind, let's listen to the letter that Paul wrote to Philemon.

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker, to Apphia our sister, Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home:
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. 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.
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—I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. 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. 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. 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, 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.
So 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. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. 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.
And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

Testing the power of the gospel

How's that for a carefully worded letter? Paul knows full well how much he's asking from Philemon. With the words of his letter and the presence of Onesimus at Philemon's doorstep, Paul is marshalling all of his persuasiveness to encourage Philemon to allow the full force of the gospel to be unleashed in his life. He wants Philemon to open himself to the possibility that the gospel doesn't only provide salvation and freedom and a personal relationship with God, but that it actually calls people to change their lives in order to effect change in the world. Paul is not only testing the limits of his friendship with Philemon, he's also testing the power of the gospel. Paul doesn't believe that the gospel is merely an ideology without any real teeth. Paul believes that the work and teaching of Christ have real power. He believes that the gospel has the potential to transform his friends and the world around them.

Paul is doing what spiritual friends do: they challenge each other to let their lives be shaped by the pattern of the gospel rather than the pattern of the world. Paul challenged Philemon by sending Onesimus with a letter. Philemon was forced to make a decision. He was being challenged to live out the gospel on a whole new level. It was a defining moment brought about by a challenge from his good friend.

Do you have a friend like that, someone who knows you well enough to know when to prod and push you along? Do you have a friend who knows how to encourage you to let go and surrender when you need to? Do you have a friend who knows that you might need to forgive someone in order to move past it and get over it? Maybe that friend knows that you need to love someone that is fundamentally different than you, that you have an area of prejudice in your mind or in your heart that you haven't identified or recognized. Maybe your friend is challenging you to use your talents for God, not to keep them all to yourself, but to start leveraging them for the kingdom. Maybe your friend is encouraging you to take a great risk, to willingly let go of something that you're holding onto so dearly. Maybe your friend is urging you to develop a regular routine of prayer and study of Scripture. Do you have a friend like that, who comes into your life and challenges you to live out the gospel more fully? If so, be thankful and respond favorably to that friendship.

So what was the specific nature of Paul's challenge to Philemon and Onesimus? He was encouraging both of them to see themselves and to see each other through the lens of the gospel rather than through the lens of the world. He wanted them to change fundamentally their perception of one another.

In Greek, Onesimus' name means useful. In his letter, Paul makes play with Onesimus' name. He says to Philemon, "Formerly he [Onesimus] was useless to you, but now he has become useful." You see, Philemon saw Onesimus primarily as a servant, a slave, one who is supposed to be useful. But he failed to be useful to Philemon. He robbed him blind. He probably kept him up at night worrying about whether or not he'd come back and do something harmful. He was useless, because he most likely cost Philemon a considerable sum in order to replace his services with another slave. But Paul saw Onesimus differently. In Paul's eyes, and through the lens of the gospel, this useless man had truly become useful. He became a comfort to Paul in his chains and he became a partner in ministry, encouraging Paul along. Onesimus probably wasn't doing anything different from what he used to do in the past. He was probably doing the same household functions that he used to do in Philemon's home. But now he was doing it for God.

Paul desperately wanted Philemon to have the same understanding of Onesimus' value that he had. He knew it was an important part of Philemon's growth in the gospel. And so there was Paul, sitting in chains, not only wanting Philemon to release Onesimus, but wanting Philemon to be emancipated by his own shortsighted view of Onesimus, to open his eyes to the real value of his former slave. He wasn't asking Philemon simply to forgive Onesimus and then send him back. He was asking for more. He was asking him to receive Onesimus as a brother in Christ and as a partner in ministry.

Can you imagine how Philemon must have felt when Onesimus showed up on his doorstep, knowing that he had been wronged by this man? According to the laws, he could have sent Onesimus to prison. He might have even been able to put him to death. Paul placed the decision right in front of Philemon. But Paul said to Philemon,

Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever—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 fellow man and as a brother in the Lord. So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me (15-16).

And as if Philemon forgot how he might welcome Paul back, he asked him later in the letter to prepare a room for him. You see, Paul was saying, Philemon, don't put Onesimus in the servant's quarters. Bring Onesimus into the guest room, that same one you'd prepare for me.

Reorienting our lives to the gospel

It must have been hard for Philemon to do this, to reorient his outlook on this young man, to see his value through the lens of the gospel. The fact is it's hard for any of us to do that with anyone. We live in a world that is hard-wired, sending us messages of value for the people around us. In the world, we see people through the lens of their net worth, through their standing on the pecking order, or through what box they fill in the organization chart. We measure other people by the square footage of their home or by who they spend time with on the weekends or by the numbers of their zip code at the end of their address or by the degree of their productivity. But the gospel does away with all that nonsense. No matter what we are in the world's eyes, no matter who we are or how we measure up, in Christ we have unending worth and value. Our economic statuses, our positions, our jobs, or our countries of origin don't matter. We can be male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free. In Christ, we have unending value.

The amazing thing about the gospel's reach is that it finds a runaway slave in a small room in Rome in the same way it finds a wealthy landowner in Colossae. It meets them both at their point of need, at their point of recognition for their own need of a Savior, freedom, forgiveness, and connectedness to God. Christ offers to meet a laborer living paycheck to paycheck the same way he meets a CEO who has everything but yearns for more. The gospel finds the heart of a frazzled mom as easily as it finds the heart of a hardened criminal. This message resonates deeply within the heart of the lowliest person or the person of highest position. The gospel has met people throughout all ages, on every continent on the globe.

You see, the ground is level at the foot of the Cross. We all stand there as equals. And when each of us receives the love and forgiveness that Christ has to offer, we are brought to God as we are brought into the community of the redeemed. When we look around, we see brothers and sisters who are different from us. But when we put the lens of the gospel on and when we see others through that lens, we understand each other's value, including our own.

If life is really about demonstrating the message of the gospel, if that's really what our lives are about, then the opportunity that stood at Philemon's doorstep was tremendous. If Philemon responded positively to Paul's challenge, then he and Onesimus could have become some of the most compelling witnesses of the gospel that ever lived.

Well, a few years before Paul wrote this letter to Philemon, he wrote a letter to the church in Corinth while he was in ministering in Ephesus. Listen to what he wrote:

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ [if anyone is in Christ], he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come. All this is from God, who reconciled us [who reconciled us] to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that God was reconciling the world to himself … not counting men's sin against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:16).

I wonder if these words weren't ringing in Paul's head when he wrote his letter to Philemon. I am sure he was yearning to see these principles become more than just propositional truth. He wanted the truth of the gospel to become personal, active truth in the life of Philemon and Onesimus.

You see, it's one thing to speak the gospel and to believe the gospel and to read the gospel, but it's another thing to live out the gospel in our lives, to really test its limits. That's what the world needs more than anything—people who are courageous enough to embody the gospel with the decisions they make and with their relationships.


We've been telling friendship stories throughout this series, and I came across one just this week that reminded me of this Philemon story. It's a story from Claire Sullivan. She's a Grace Chapel partner who works in Lynn, Massachusetts, with Straight Ahead Ministries and with the House of Hope Church that she founded. She works to bring restoration and reconciliation to rival gang members on the streets of Lynn. She shared with me this week the story about two men that she'd been working with, Cisco and Jauron. One was a former Crip and the other was a former Blood—notoriously rival gangs. Cisco served two years in Middleton. When he was there, he experienced a three-day conference that Straight Ahead facilitated, where they brought together thirty-two gang members from rival gangs to bring reconciliation.

When released, Cisco came home and began to work across gang lines with volunteers at Straight Ahead, with Claire. He enrolled in college and started to get his life back on track. One day Cisco was working with Claire. They were in a van doing outreach to homeless folks, with other formal rival gang members who were now serving together. Well, Jauron showed up to help out. He had been a Blood since he was eleven-years-old, and he was slowly making his way out, just starting to enter into the program to help out with these activities and projects. Claire said that when Jauron came into the van, tension immediately filled the air. It was thick and palpable. She said, "I had no idea what was going on. I was driving the outreach van in silence, and finally one of them whispered to me that they had a huge beef with the other." It had involved a past incident with a brawl and a stabbing.

Well, they made it through that day, and over the next few months they continued to work in silence side by side. Eventually, things came to a head during a staff meeting. They had to stop everything so that Cisco and Jauron could meet with someone for a time of reconciliation. They met for an hour with one of the counselors and began to talk things through. Clair said that as they talked, they both realized that what they thought had happened years ago wasn't exactly the case. They both discovered that their friends put them up to fight each other. They experienced reconciliation that day. Afterwards, Clair said that things lightened up tremendously in the office and that people laughed and hugged and prayed for one another.

Well, today both young men are on the ministry team of the House of Hope Church. Jauron is an intern at Straight Ahead, and Cisco is on staff. They both support each other at the North Shore Community College and are being discipled at the Sons of Thunder Leadership Discipleship Group. They were here with us during Global Awareness Week this past fall. Once they hated each other; now they're brothers in Christ and partners in ministry.

That's the kind of thing the gospel does when it gets hold of a person's life. Christ's love turns combatants into comrades, enemies into friends, gang members into ministry partners. That's what it means to let the gospel live large within you.

It's happening with Jauron and Cisco. But what happened with Philemon and Onesimus? How did Philemon respond to Paul's letter? How does the story end? Did he begin to see Onesimus through the lens of the gospel? Did he forgive him? Did he embrace him? Did he send him back to Paul to serve with him? Did they reconcile? Unfortunately, we don't know. We never find out. All we have is this letter. We don't have the narrative before, and we don't have the narrative afterwards. But there are some interesting historical footnotes that suggest these two did reconcile, that things may have turned out as Paul had hoped, that Paul's intervention in Philemon's life led to great change.

Commentator William Barkley says that about fifty years after Paul wrote this letter, Ignatius, one of the great Christian martyrs, was being taken from Antioch to Rome to be executed. Along the way, he wrote letters to the church in Asia Minor. He stopped at Smyrna and wrote to the church in Ephesus, and in the first chapter of that letter he had much to say about their wonderful bishop. The bishop's name was Onesimus. And in his letter, Ignatius makes exactly the same play on Onesimus' name that Paul played in his letter to Philemon: "He is Onesimus by name and by nature, the useful one to Christ."

Could it be that the runaway slave became a great bishop in Ephesus? I believe it's possible, not because of Philemon's generosity and his good will, but because that's what the gospel does when it gets hold of people's lives. We don't know exactly what happened, but we do know this: when a spiritual friend challenges another friend with the gospel, anything can happen.

Do you have a friend like that? Are you a friend like that? Are you someone who lovingly and carefully tests the limits of your friendship so that you might test the limit of the gospel's force in your life, the life of your friend, and in the world? If not, find a friend like that, so that together you may see how God can work the gospel in and through you, so that through you the world might see the beauty and truth of Jesus Christ.

Tom VanAntwerp serves as Pastor of Community Life at Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Related sermons

Drafting Buddies

Spiritual friends set the pace for one another, they stick by each other, and they speak faith into each other's lives.

A Tale of Two Women

Spiritual friendships turn the journey of life into a journey of faith.
Sermon Outline:


I. Spiritual friends challenge each other

II. Testing the power of the gospel

III. Reorienting our lives to the gospel