More Than a Slave
Read Philemon 1:15-19 (ESV)
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. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self.
How is the Gospel portrayed in the situation between Onesimus, Philemon, and Paul?
Stories highlighting forgiveness and reconciliation seem to be in short supply these days. Instead, when people have wronged us, we often focus on what they deserve and what we are entitled to as the victims of their wrongdoing. But when we go back to the Bible and flip to the short letter of Philemon, we read a case that Paul made arguing in favor of forgiveness and reconciliation.
In approximately 62 A.D. Paul was under house arrest in Rome where he met a man named Onesimus. Onesimus was a runaway slave who had stolen from his master, Philemon. But Philemon was more than just a wealthy slave owner. Philemon had heard the Gospel and was a fellow believer in Christ. He lived in Colosse where he hosted the church in his own home. In Philemon 1:4-7, Paul expressed his prayers for Philemon as well as his love and appreciation for Philemon’s faithful and loving service to the saints.
But next, Paul had to speak frankly to Philemon regarding Onesimus. Under the laws of ancient Rome, Onesimus was deserving of just punishment. He was a slave who had deserted and stolen from his master. Under the law, Philemon was entitled to punish him as he saw fit and was justified to seek to recover any financial loss. But that isn't what Paul asked Philemon to do. Instead, Paul appealed to Philemon to forgive Onesimus and take him back, not just as his bondservant, but as his brother in Christ.
Paul acknowledged that because of his apostolic authority, he could command that Philemon accept Onesimus and not punish him. But instead, Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon with a letter that urged Philemon to freely choose to do what was right “for love’s sake” (Philemon 1:8-9). He expressed just how much Onesimus had changed now that he was a believer. Paul had led Onesimus to Christ and had a spiritual father/son relationship with him. He referred to Onesimus as “his child” (just as he did with Timothy and Titus) stating that he became his father while he was in prison (Philemon 1:10). He wrote: “I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart” (Philemon 1:12).
Because Onesimus had been so helpful to Paul’s ministry and because Paul felt so much fatherly affection for him, Paul would have loved to keep Onesimus with him. But, he acknowledged Philemon’s authority over Onesimus and didn’t want to act without his permission. He even offered to pay Philemon for any financial loss in this situation. In a beautiful picture of what Christ has done for us, Paul interceded on Onesimus’ behalf and paid the debt that Onesimus owed but could never repay.
No doubt that Paul’s willingness to do this, even for a slave, was personally challenging to Philemon. Philemon had once been guilty as well and deserving of punishment by a holy and just God. He had owed God a debt that even in his wealth, he could never repay. And he had been a slave to sin. But Philemon had been a beneficiary of forgiveness and had been reconciled to God through Christ. The implication of Paul’s appeal was that Philemon would forgive Onesimus in Christ just as he had been forgiven in Christ (Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:13). Paul urged him not to consider Onesimus merely as his slave but as his brother in Christ.
Friends, before Christ, we were all slaves to sin and deserving of just punishment. But in His great mercy, God didn’t give us the punishment we deserved. Instead, He offered us forgiveness and a restored relationship with God that didn’t deserve. In light of this, let’s be ready and willing to forgive as we have been forgiven, especially to our brothers and sisters in Christ.
~ Pastor Nat Crawford
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