In 30 years of going to church I have never heard a sermon on Philemon. It sits tucked away in the New Testament hidden behind the Pastoral Epistles; just one chapter, Paul admonishing Philemon to accept the return of his runaway slave named Onesimus. What do we know about Philemon? Well for starter’s he was wealthy. How do we know that? The Bible gives us a couple indicators – he owned at least one slave (Onesimus), and he had a house large enough for the church to meet in (Phil. 1:2); in fact, it was the church at Colosse that met in his home. We know this because in Colossians 4:9 Paul tells the church that he is sending Onesimus back to them, and in 4:17 he sends greetings to Archippus. We know from Philemon 1:2 that Archippus is with Philemon and the rest of the letter deals with Onesimus’ return. What we have in the example of Philemon is a man who used his wealth for the benefit of the church and the expansion of God’s kingdom. Philemon’s reputation had become known to Paul all the way in Rome:
“I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints….Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.” Phil. 1:4-5, 7
Paul commends Philemon that his faith in the Lord Jesus has led to a tangible expression of love toward fellow believers. In v. 7 Paul says that Philemon has “refreshed the hearts of the saints”, an interesting phrase; the word used for refreshed in Greek means to cease from labor, to give rest after toil. A plain understanding of Paul’s admonition is that Philemon was using his resources to bring relief to fellow believers. Perhaps he was opening his home to them, providing food, clothing, shelter. Remember, believers in 1st century Colosse would have experienced persecution for the belief in and proclamation of the name of Jesus, and would have had nowhere to turn for support. It would have been up to members of the local church to take care of their own, and this is exactly what Philemon was doing; this supportive activity would have put him at risk – (1) financially, because these Christians could not pay him pay back, (2) physically, because he would have been openly associating with the persecuted believers, inviting persecuting into his own life.
Having pointed out Philemon’s love for the saints, he admonishes him to accept his runaway slave Onesimus back as a brother in Christ. After running away from Philemon, Onesimus found his way to Rome, where he met Paul and became a Christian.
“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” Phil. 1:15-16a
As the owner of a runaway slave Philemon was entitled to deal with Onesimus as he saw fit, which included beating or even killing him. Paul points out to Philemon that the running away of Onesimus led to his salvation, which has now fundamentally transformed their relationship from owner/slave to brothers in Christ. The forgiving of a runaway slave would have directly contradicted every cultural norm, and at the same time most vividly demonstrated the gospel. Paul adds in v. 20 that accepting Onesimus would have refreshed his heart.
This is one example of how relationships in Christ supersede every earthly relationship. Paul says it this way in Colossians:
“Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” Col. 3:11
Because we are brothers and sisters in Christ, and on equal footing in Him, it is right and necessary for us to give ourselves fully to one another, whatever the cost. It is right and necessary to forgive and accept one another, just as Christ has forgiven and accepted us. In the letter and person of Philemon we get a glimpse of this ideal, don’t miss it.
Today’s author: Joey Sutton