Philemon was a slave owner. He had at least one slave that was not a good slave and had run away. His name was Onesimus. Onesimus must have been a rather worthless person and always getting into trouble because of how he met the Apostle Paul. Paul was in prison at the time which makes me think that Onesimus must have been in prison also. I have always felt a little sorry for anyone who was in prison with Paul because he had all the time in the world to work on their soul. Well I have to admit he didn’t actually do the work as much as the Holy Spirit does the work of convicting sinners that they need to repent and love and obey God. But Paul was a tenacious little guy and I can’t see him give up on someone who didn’t really want to hear about Jesus, can you? Take the letter that Paul wrote to Philemon concerning Onesimus and you will see what I mean.
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker—also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home: Grace and peace to you 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 love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people. Philemon 1:1-7, (New International Version or NIV).
So far this letter to Philemon is pretty much the same as any opening salutation of Paul’s. It is his style to say who he is, where he is, and why he is writing. We know that he is in prison but he is not alone as Timothy is with him. He sends greetings to two other people, a woman named Apphia and a man named Archippus and to the people who attend church in Philemon’s home. It was quite common in the first years of the church of Jesus Christ being established on earth to have house churches rather than large buildings like we have today to hold church. Usually someone who had a large home would hold the church meetings in their home. It was certainly a more intimate group than some of our churches today. Also I think this opening greeting of Paul’s is quite a normal greeting for him but if I were being a little analytical I would say that he might be getting some witnesses on board with his agenda. He even says a prayer for them and reminds them that he thinks of them often and praises God for their fellowship with him. So far so good I would say. Now what comes next might have been a bit of a surprise for Philemon.
Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— that 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 would not seem forced but would be voluntary. 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. 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. Philemon 1:8-21, (NIV).
Excuse me? Isn’t death the normal outcome for a runaway slave if they are caught? And now you, Paul, are telling Philemon that you met his slave and brought him into the brotherhood and now Onesimus is a follower of Jesus Christ? Onesimus is standing there waiting as Philemon is reading the letter I would imagine. Paul is rather cunning in how he writes this letter because he gives virtually no way for Philemon to say no to Paul’s wish that Onesimus be returned and welcomed rather than punished by death. Paul reminds Philemon of his own debt to Paul and even calls Onesimus his son!!! Who in their right mind would want to harm a man who Paul considers as a son? The pressure is on poor Philemon to take the slave back and to treat him as a brother in Christ! Wow! I wonder how Onesimus must feel. If I were him I sure would be nervous to go back and yet with such a glowing recommendation by Paul how could Onesimus do otherwise? How does Paul know that the slave will return to his master and not just run away? Well, I think we can be sure that Paul would have made sure that Onesimus was a sincere Christian and not a lip-service Christian who would run away again.
But this teaches us something about the love of Christ, doesn’t it? When we have done wrong to another person and at some point we turn our life around and become a Christian, we owe a debt that needs to be paid. When Onesimus became a Christian his sins were forgiven and yet Paul tells the former slave that he needs to go back to his master and make amends for his running away. We don’t hear that message often enough today; we hear that we are forgiven and that the person we wronged must forgive us as well. But Paul in this situation counsels Onesimus to return to his master and be a good servant because that is what is right for him to do. Paul not only prepares Philemon to receive Onesimus the runaway servant, but he also prepares the runaway servant to return to his master. I find this example not only interesting but vital for true Christians to know and to see and to possibly follow the example set forth here. Let’s read the rest of the letter.
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. Philemon 1:22-25, (NIV).
Oh, and just one more little thing I want you to do Philemon…don’t you just love it? Paul is coming for a visit which means that he will be checking on the progress of this reconciliation between slave and master. Poor Philemon! Poor Onesimus! They must do what the Apostle Paul has asked regardless of what the other slaves think and regardless of what the community of friends and family of Philemon think. Why would Paul require this reconciliation when it goes against the cultural norm of the day? Because we don’t live our lives as Christians based upon the culture of our time’s view of right and wrong. We follow God’s law first and foremost and in God we are all equal regardless of our social position (Galatians 3:28). As equals we are to love and serve one another because that is the model of relationship we see between God and His Son Jesus. Even though Onesimus had been gone for a while from the household of Philemon, Onesimus was not a free man. Philemon still owned Onesimus and therefore the bonds of slavery were not removed from Onesimus, thus he owed a debt to his master. I ask you in your own life who is your Onesimus? Who is your Philemon? Which one are you? Have you followed the example that Paul has set forth to be reconciled with another Christian? Sometimes we are not given the chance to do so. Sometimes the person we may long for reconciliation is not right with God and doesn’t want to reconcile. Do we give up and walk away or do we wait for God to soften their heart and when they make that first move toward reconciliation, will we be available and willing?