Nothing By Chance

adapted from PCC Prayer Meeting Exhortation on 13 Friday 2012

The Epistle of Paul to Philemon, is perhaps the most personal letter in the entire Bible. Paul wrote it originally to intercede on behalf of Philemon’s runaway slave Onesimus, whom he was sending back to Philemon. This is a beautiful letter to show us how we may mediate on behalf of others, and also to teach us what genuine Christian love and forgiveness is all about.

While there are no explicit promises in it, we should realise that part of Paul’s attempt to persuade Philemon involves an appeal to the promise of God’s sovereign control over all things in our lives. We see this in verse 15, where he says:

 For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever” (Phlm 15)

Paul is referring to Onesimus. He has been trying to intercede for him that peradventure Philemon might forgive him and receive him as a brother.

It is to further strengthen his argument to Philemon, that Paul turns his thoughts upwards to give a theological reason for the current situation. In doing so, he answers a couple of questions that Onesimus might ask as he reads the letter: “If Onesimus is so good, why did he run away?” And “why did God allow him to run away in the first place?” Paul does not reply dogmatically or presumptuously, but suggests that Onesimus’s running away was part of God’s plan for him and for Philemon. It is in God’s sovereign design that Onesimus should run away for a while from his master.

But now, what has this got to do with us? Well, it has much to do with us because we are here given a pair of biblical glasses to look at the events surrounding our life. There are many such biblical glasses in the Bible, but our text is one of them.

Let us consider the three principal parts of this pair of glasses. First, we must look at the sturdy frame of the sovereignty of God. Secondly, we must examine the lens of the goodness of God. Thirdly, we must appreciate the other lens of the wisdom of God.

1. The Sturdy Frame of the Sovereignty of God

What is the basis of Paul’s appeal? What is the basis of his suggestion that there is a reason or higher purpose for Onesimus’s escapade? No doubt, the basis is the sovereignty of God. What is the sovereignty of God? It is the fact that God is in control over all things, events and even actions of man.

When Paul suggests an explanation or reason for Onesimus’s departure for a season, he is saying that God is ruling and overruling.

He was suggesting to Philemon that it had happened according to the sovereign plan of God. He does not mention God directly here,—just like the book of Esther does not mention Him. But in suggesting an intelligent purpose for what happened he is essentially reminding Philemon that God is in charge.

Of course, when Onesimus ran away, he was not acting on any impulse from God nor was he aware of God’s sovereign hand directing him. He ran away perhaps because he could no longer endure the hardship and contradictions he had to face from Philemon or from his supervisors. The work was just too hard. He had to make a hard choice.

He had to run away from Philemon. It was a serious crime for slaves to run away in those days. Roman law forbade the harbouring of runaway slaves, and professional slave-catchers were often hired to hunt them down. Those who were caught were often severely punished with whipping, branding with hot iron and even death. Those who survive were often made to wear metal collars to indicate that they had run away before, and that anyone who returns them would be rewarded.

It was Onesimus’s choice to run away. It was perhaps the failure of Philemon or his slave supervisors that provoked that choice. But while a man’s heart deviseth his way, it is the LORD who directs his steps (Prov 16:9).

Thus, the ultimate reason for the initially unhappy turn of events did not lie in Onesimus’s heart or in Philemon’s failure. The ultimate reason laid in God’s sovereignty.

This, it should be noted, does not diminish responsibility on the part of Onesimus or Philemon, but it should temper their judgement and mould their attitude and feelings towards what happened.

Let us remember to put on this pair of biblical spectacles whenever we would look at the things happening around us and to us, especially things that bring us heartaches and sorrows. Let us understand that things happen according to the sovereignty and providence of God. Therefore, let us walk and interpret everything by faith and not by sight.

Indeed, let us,—as we put on this pair of biblical spectacles,—look at all things through the lenses of God’s goodness and wisdom.  Consider first…

2. The Lens of the Goodness of God

God is not just sovereign. He is good. And all He does that affects His children are always good for all His children who are affected by them (Rom 8:28).

It was bad that Onesimus had run away. It was bad for him. It was bad for Philemon. It was a costly loss for Philemon, and it also reflected badly on him. To the world, it would have been considered bad luck. But Paul wanted Philemon to think otherwise.

Onesimus thought evil of Philemon when he ran away, just as the brothers of Joseph thought evil of him when they sold him to Egypt. But God meant it for good to him.

This is what Paul is implying as he seeks to persuade Philemon. He had begun by humorously noting that Onesimus whose name means “useful” had become useless to Philemon, but has now become useful to both of them (v. 11). Onesimus might have become useless either because he was a poor worker, or because he had run away; but now as a changed person, he has been helpful to Paul, and Paul is confident that he would be very useful to his master.

Onesimus was just an ordinary slave, and perhaps a trouble-making slave. But now he is completely different. He has become a brother-in-Christ. He is still a slave, but he is a Christian slave. As a Christian slave, he would probably be meek and hardworking because he serves the Heavenly Master.

Oh the goodness of God! Only God can make a city out of a rubbish heap, fragrance out of dunghill, and a saint out of a criminal.

Upon this encouragement, Paul is urging Philemon to receive Onesimus, and not only to receive him, but to receive him warmly (v. 12).

Thank God we can look through this glass of the goodness of God when we are faced with difficult circumstances in our lives. Thank God that He is good and always does good to His children.

Some situations in life may appear to be a win-lose situation so that if it is good for Jack, it is bad for Jane; or if it is good for Jane, it is bad for Jack. But in God’s hand this will never happen if both Jack and Jane are believers.

What is impossible for man is not impossible for God. What appears to be bad in man’s eyes can ultimately be good in God’s hand!

But let us meditate a little more on what our text reminds us, for we are reminded not only that God is sovereign and good, but that he is wise.

3. The Lens of the Wisdom of God

The fact that good could come out of an apparently bad situation surely testifies of the wisdom of God. Philemon could not have imagined the outcome, and probably neither could Onesimus.

The same might be said of Joseph and his brothers, or Ruth and Naomi, or even of the Lord Jesus himself. The Jews did evil against the Lord and crucified Him. But God had a higher purpose. By the inscrutable wisdom of God, the Lord Jesus would redeem His people by the way of shedding His blood on the cruel Cross. By the same wisdom of God Ruth would become the grandmother of David through the death of her first husband. Likewise, Joseph saved the nation through being sold as a slave. And so by this wisdom Onesimus would be saved eternally and become a brother-in-Christ and be a blessing to both Paul and Philemon through a risky escape.

These are the ways appointed by the Lord. There could not be a better way.

Now, what was true of Onesimus, of Ruth, of Joseph and of the Lord is also true for us for God does not change.

Therefore, let us learn not to question God, but to trust him through all the changing scenes of life. Is there something in your life that you find difficult to understand at the moment? Remember that God is sovereign. Remember that He is good. Remember also that He is wise. He knows what the best way is. He knows what He is doing. Trust Him. He will yet bring you to a point in your life where you will see His wisdom and goodness.

We don’t know how long this journey will be, but we know that He knows your every step. He has marked out your path in His infinite wisdom and goodness.


Paul says of Onesimus:

For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever.

Can you, by faith, say the same of your present trial? “For perhaps what happened to me, has turned out in sovereign wisdom and goodness of God so that…”

But even if you cannot yet look back to your own trial and see God’s wisdom and goodness, look back at the life of Onesimus, of Ruth, of Joseph and of the Lord, and let your faith lift you up and give you joy. Believe that nothing happens by chance. All things happen according to the sovereignty, goodness and wisdom of God.

“Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee” (Is 26:3). Amen. W