Though many others are involved, the letter from Paul to Philemon comes down to the relationship of two people: Philemon and Onesimus. A master and his slave, and how that relationship was affected by the gospel. Yet, what flows out of this then has implications for our relationships today. Specifically, it has implications for how we view each other and treat each other. This letter shows us how the gospel should transform us and our relationships.
Onesimus was Philemon’s slave who had been useless in his service. More than that, he has deserted his master. But in running away he encountered Paul, and more importantly, Paul’s God and Savior–Jesus Christ. Paul says that Onesimus believed and found life with Christ. The result is that he has been serving Paul and his ministry for the gospel.
In Christ, Onesimus has become useful, especially to Paul. Yet, Paul believes it is right to send him back to Philemon, his legal master. Listen to what he says, “(Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) 12I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. 13I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord” (11-14).
From what we read, Paul has obviously grown fond of Onesimus. He says in sending him back to Colossae, it’s like sending his own heart with him. He’s not only been useful, but one worthy of the affection and friendship of the apostle himself. In fact, the love that Paul has for Onesimus has come even as Onesimus has shown love for Paul. Paul even says that it’s the same kind of love and care that Philemon himself would have shown Paul had he been there with him. Paul is explaining all of this because he wants Philemon to know the facts about Onesimus when he arrives. Think about it: if he has run away—perhaps with a good deal of his money (cf. v. 18), as many suppose—Philemon wouldn’t be too happy with him. Moreover, this would just be the icing on the cake has Onesimus hasn’t been all that useful beforehand!
But Paul says, ‘Look, I’m sending him back to you—his rightful, legal master. And you need to know he’s coming back a changed man. He’s not the same slave he once was, he’s not the same man he once was. But more than that—now he’s your brother.’ Paul says, “For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (15-16).
Paul wonders that maybe it was the providence of God that led him to run away in the first place. What seemed like something terrible for Philemon has in fact turned out to be something good for everyone. Onesimus has been found by Christ and his life is changed, Paul has had a useful helpful to take care of him and enable to continue the work of ministry, and now Philemon is getting a new slave back; more than that, a new brother.
Now, why is telling Philemon all of this? Is it just to get him to rejoice in Onesimus’ return? No, it’s more than that. It’s to get him to think through the change in their relationship. Notice what Paul says, “Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, 9yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— 10I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus . . . . 17So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me” (8-10,17). He could have just said, this is what you need to do. But he doesn’t. He wants Philemon to think about the change that was brought about in himself by the gospel. He wants him to think through the implications of the fact that this man is no longer just his slave, he’s now his brother in Christ.
And notice how Paul sets the example in this. He says, “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it” (18-19). Stop and think about that. How long has Paul known this man Onesimus? A few months? Maybe, a year? It’s hard to say, but notice the lengths he is willing to go to ensure reconciliation between these two men—he’s willing to pay for any amount of loss Philemon has suffered, either by Onesimus stealing directly from him, or from simply having one less slave to do work for him. And Paul says he is willing to make the sacrifice to see them live in harmony together as brothers in Christ.
Likewise, he puts godly pressure on Philemon to follow his example: “I, Paul, write this with my own hand” Look at this: my own name in my own, large chick-scratch. This is important, Philemon. “I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self.” Remember it was me that God used to bring salvation to your soul. Your life with God came through me. “Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.” Give me some encouragement, by doing the right thing. Minister to me by making the godly decision here towards Onesimus. “Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.” I know you, Philmeon. You are a good and godly man. I know what you’ll do. In fact, I know you will not only receive Onesimus back, but you will do more that. You will follow my example, and go above and beyond in serving God and his church.
Many scholars wonder if Paul wasn’t all but asking Philemon to simply forgive the debt owed to him. Or, perhaps even more than that: to give Onesimus his freedom. We cannot know for sure, but one day, we will, as we stand with all three men and more before the Lord himself, worshipping and serving him forever in the news heavens and the new earth. But until then, we need to see that the gospel transforms our responsibilities and relationships. When Christ begins to change our life, it’s not just what involves our immediate lives and family. He calls us into something bigger—a life lived completely under the lordship of Christ. Therefore, every relationship is affected.
We can begin asking the obvious: how do you think about and treat the people in this church? But let go beyond the obvious: how do you treat the waitress who drops the Coke in your lap, or brings you a burned steak? How do you treat the neighbor whose dog always does his business in your lawn? How do you treat the co-worker who slags off work, giving you more to do? How do you treat the guy grabbing carts in the parking lot of the grocery store, or the guy cleaning the bathrooms there?
You see, because everything is under the lordship of Christ, then every part of our lives will be transformed. And as we see from this letter, a major way we’re changed is seen in the way we relate to people; people who are like us and people who are nothing like us. Do we remember the love and mercy of Christ towards us when we didn’t deserve it? Or do we think only of what we believe we deserve?
In October of 1989, Erich Honecker was deposed as the ruler of East Germany. He was not only a hated man, but a sick man. He had malfunctioning kidneys, cancer, and needed medical attention. Yet he and his wife, Margot, were forced to leave the official residence immediately. But, no one was willing to take them in. They had devoted their lives to the Communist party, but now no one of their party would help them.
In fact, the only person to offer to take them in was a Lutheran pastor named Uwe Holmer. He and his wife had suffered under the Honecker regime because their Christian faith. Their children had been denied higher education under the very policies Margot Honecker had established as Minister of Education. His telephone had been routinely tapped for years, his mail monitored, he and his family followed. But the Holmers understood that their Lord and Master had commanded them to love their enemies and so they took the Honeckers into their home, January 31, 1990. The public was outraged. Crowds of angry protesters gathered outside the Holmer residence, the telephone began to ring incessantly, hate mail poured in, bomb threats were received, and all the while, the police said that they could not guarantee the Holmer’s safety.
At one point Pastor Holmer wrote a letter to explain to the people why he and his wife had taken in the Honeckers. He said: “It has become clear to us in a new way that to forgive is not an easy thing. Injustice is a reality. And the remembrance of it grows easily in our hearts, turning to bitterness and dividing us from one another. In light of that, God’s forgiveness becomes even greater for me. It was not easy for HIM to forgive either. His holiness demanded fair justice and punishment for our sins…. To make forgiveness possible, he laid our sins and our punishment on Jesus, his son. Only then was the path to forgiveness cleared. Forgiveness is granted to everyone who asks for it—very single person! In recent days it has become apparent to me in a new way how much it cost God to forgive my sins…. We want to live by Christ’s example.”*
Christ transforms our relationships and responsibilities.
*In Candles of Hope (pp. 239-242), as cited by Robert Rayburn.