Tucked into the back half of the New Testament is a one-chapter letter written by the apostle Paul. The letter is only 25 verses, and it is curiously unconcerned with presenting theological or doctrinal concepts, church instruction/correction, or a treatise on any specific issue.
This letter was, in fact, written to one person: a Christian brother named Philemon.
Philemon was a faithful Christian man, and a member of the Lord’s Church. In fact, the local church met in his house (Phm. 1:2). He is likely a husband and father, in the process of raising and providing for his own family (Phm. 1:2). He was a man of “love” and “faith,” who lived out these qualities in front of “all the saints,” refreshing them as a result (Phm. 1:5-7).
Paul is counting on these qualities as he sends this letter to Philemon. The “twist” of this story is that Paul has sent this letter to Philemon by way of a man named Onesimus (vs. 12), and Onesimus is Philemon’s returning runaway slave (cue the dramatic music). Paul is hoping that Philemon will forgive Onesimus and accept him back as a brother (vs. 16).
In “twist #2” of this story, Onesimus and Paul had crossed paths at some point (evidently, in prison), and Paul had converted him to Christ. Onesimus had gone from being “useless” to being “useful” (Interestingly, Onesimus’s name actually meant “profitable or useful”). So Paul is appealing to Philemon’s “goodness” (vs. 14) to “receive him [Onesimus] as you would receive me” (vs. 17).
Paul then subtly (but importantly) slips in this little piece of information: “…prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you” (vs. 22). In other words, “Whatever you decide to do about this, I’ll be seeing you soon.”
So, after reading this letter again, I have a question for us:
How do you think Philemon REACTED and RESPONDED to Paul?
Try to picture Philemon as he saw Onesimus “pulling into the driveway” for the first time since he ran away…
What did Philemon think when he saw Onesimus? What did he say to Onesimus? How would he feel towards this man who had wronged and robbed him of so much? What would he do about this situation? In this culture, a runaway slave was deserving of death, and all of these men – Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus – would have known this.
As the facts of this situation unfold, we could truthfully say that it would have been a very revealing thing to observe the reaction and behavior of this so-called loving, faithful Christian man when his runaway slave returned home.
But how do you think his countenance and attitude might have changed as he read this letter from Paul? The information in this letter may be even more unexpected than Onesimus’s return!
As an experiment in human behavior, let’s speculate as to what Philemon could have thought, felt, said, and done in this situation:
POSSIBLE THOUGHTS & FEELINGS TOWARDS ONESIMUS:
“Well, well, well, look who it is… I can’t believe the nerve of this guy, coming back home after running away! Doesn’t he know what I can do to him? Does he have a death wish? Doesn’t he realize that he belongs to me, and that he has cost me a lot of money! I have every legal right to prosecute and punish this man to the fullest extent of the law, and since this situation has absolutely nothing to do with my faith, I think I’m going to make an example of this kid. After all, I can’t have anyone thinking that I’ve gone soft.”
POSSIBLE THOUGHTS & FEELINGS TOWARDS PAUL:
“I can’t believe the nerve of this guy, writing me this letter! I have every right to be angry with Onesimus, and this has nothing to do with Paul, God, or the Church! This is business, not personal. In fact, how dare he use our friendship and faith in this manipulative way! This is MY decision, and I can’t believe he is trying to ‘guilt’ me into something like this! I’m the one who has been wronged, not him! And he wants me to prepare a GUEST ROOM for him??? Well, that’s not going to happen. Paul has crossed the line. I’m done with this relationship.”
Can you picture any of this? Would it be a possible scenario to see Philemon tearing up this letter and throwing it into the wind? Would it be reasonable to think that Paul may have indeed crossed the line in their friendship, and that this could spell certain doom for Philemon’s relationship with Onesimus AND with Paul? Is it possible that this could even drive Philemon away from the Church, and from God? Stranger things have happened among Christians, and still do!
A more important question might be…
What would WE do in this situation if WE were in Philemon’s position?
Let me rephrase…
What have we already done in these situations?
That’s right, you and I have already BEEN Philemon, which is probably why the Holy Spirit saw fit to include this letter in the New Testament. We have all been wronged, robbed, betrayed, and sinned against, and we have all subsequently come face to face with the choice to either forgive the people who DID those things to us, or to “prosecute and punish” them as we see fit.
So, what did we do? Did we allow our pride to tell us to “separate our faith from the situation” and give those people “what they deserve,” or did we live out what God has done for us and forgive them, from our heart?
Here are the stakes: there will be eternal punishment for all of us who “do not forgive [our] brother from [our] heart” (Mt. 18:35). I don’t want that. Do you?
May we all determine to not only accept and forgive the “Onesimus” in our lives, but to humbly listen to the loving voices of our “Paul,” who might actually be the voice of someone who has considerably more authority.