Paul sure knew how to challenge his disciples! Who would have thought that such a small, one chapter book could pull such a punch? “Wow Paul!” really sums up the book of Philemon in my mind.
For those not familiar with the book, Philemon was a letter that Apostle Paul wrote to a man named Philemon. He was the leader of a church in Colossae and, most likely, a wealthy man who owned many slaves. One of his slaves, Onesimus, ran away and came to be a disciple of Paul during Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. Onesimus came to know Christ and became like a son to Paul. However, the time came when Paul felt that he must send Onesimus back to his master and seek reconciliation between the pair.
I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Philemon 1:10).
Now consider what it would be like back in the time of the Roman Empire, in 60 AD. Rome was an Empire built upon slavery, but not the slavery we have seen in recent centuries. Slaves were common, but expensive, and because they were expensive, they were usually very well treated by their masters. Not to say it was right, but we need to see what slavery was like during that era to understand why Paul does not simply command Philemon to release his slave, Onesimus.
Imagine being a Roman citizen and a free man in a city where 90% of the population are slaves. Imagine the fear that would creep into your heart at the mere thought of an uprising from slaves. In order to prevent such an uprising, Roman laws regarding slaves that ran away were extremely harsh. Not only could the run-away slave be put to death, but all the slaves of that household could be executed as punishment. Consequences also existed for those who harboured runaway slaves. Paul would have been liable for the time Onesimus was with him and required to pay back, in value, the work that Onesimus would have completed for Philemon during the time of his absence.
Furthermore, the Roman Empire was built upon slavery and their economy depended upon it. If Paul had commanded all Christians to release their slaves, it would have caused chaos throughout the Empire. It could also have had a severe impact on the spread of the Gospel. As an alternative course, Paul chose to challenge Christian masters and slaves alike to see each as being of equal worth in the eyes of God.
For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. (Philemon 1:15-17).
So what message can we get out of the book of Philemon? And what does a one chapter book about a run-away slave mean for today?
Consider what Paul was asking Philemon to do:
- Philemon’s neighbours and community peers would have anticipated that he would harshly punish his slave; his societal standing depended on him doing so.
- Philemon’s household could also have been thrown into chaos if he chose to obey Paul’s words – amongst which is the command that Philemon welcome Onesimus, a slave, as he would welcome the apostle Paul!
- Paul was challenging Philemon to make an incredible mental shift – asking him to move from seeing Onesimus as his possession, to seeing him as a brother!
- Onesimus had wronged Philemon and the punishment allowed by law was severe, even warranting death . . . and Paul was asking him to forgive and be reconciled to Onesimus as brothers!
The book of Philemon shows what true forgiveness looks like. It moves beyond saying “I forgive you”. It moves past holding another to account for their wrongs against you. It requires that one walks in humility and love towards the one who has most hurt you. It demands that you, the injured party, take the first step towards reconciliation. OUCH! But it also brings healing in the lives of both parties.
How many broken relationships exist within the church today, needing such mending? How many people in your life are you bitter towards for wrongs they have done to you?
The message of Philemon remains true for believers today – we are called to walk in forgiveness and seek reconciliation with our brethren. We are all fallen. We have all hurt others. But God has called us to a higher standard of love and given us His Spirit to help us to step up to the challenge and walk in true forgiveness of heart.
Applying the book:
- Is there anyone that you need to forgive? Is there anyone in your church that you need to accept and welcome into your heart as a brother or sister in Christ?
- With whom do you need to walk out true repentance? How will you practically seek reconciliation with this person? It might be over a small matter within your home or a greater matter that has stewed in your heart over many years.