Background: Philemon is a letter from the Apostle Paul to a man named Philemon. After Paul became a Christian, he spent his life as a missionary going from town to town telling people about Jesus. During this time, Paul preached the Gospel and planted a church in the city of Ephesus. As Christianity grew in Ephesus, some people from the neighboring town of Colossae. Philemon was one of the converts to Christianity who was influenced by Paul in Ephesus but then lived in Colossae, apparently led to faith in Jesus by Paul himself. Philemon was apparently a man with some wealth, and he owned slaves.
Our first reaction is to get angry, because of our understanding of slavery. Most of the slavery mentioned in the Bible is vastly different that the forced slavery of African people in American history. Slavery in the Roman world usually revolved around debt and financial issues. A person who owed a sizable amount of money, or could not afford to support his family would sell himself into slavery. He became more than an ordinary employee, but not the same as a slave as we know it. Onesimus was a slave in the household of Philemon, but for some reason, decided that he did not want this arrangement any more. So he stole from Philemon and then fled to Rome.
While in Rome, he came into contact with Paul. We are not sure how, but Paul was under house arrest at the time. Paul didn’t have freedom to come and go, but he lived in a house and had visitors come and go. During this time, Onesimus became a follower of Jesus. As a follower of Jesus, he must do what was right, which meant returning to Philemon to seek reconciliation and forgivness. The book of Philemon was a letter written by Paul to Philemon that was carried by Onesimus as he returned to the man that was his master.
Application: If it wasn’t for relationships, Christianity would be easy. It’s those pesky little relationships that make things so tough. When we have been wronged, we actually enjoy the right to be angry, hold a grudge, and make sure the other person gets what’s coming to them. When we did the wrong, we want to take the path of least resistance, which means we usually run from the relationship and rationalize our actions. But the Gospel does not allow this! A person who has been transformed by Jesus must demonstrate grace and repentance to others.
I believe God gave us this little letter and the story of Onesimus and Philemon as a demonstration of how the good news of Jesus transforms the relationships of those who follow Him. Onesimus is compelled to repent and return to Philemon. Under Roman law, Philemon could have him severely punished or even executed for being a thief and a runaway slave. The cost of repentance was great. On the other hand, Paul challenges Philemon to live the Gospel, and receive Onesimus as a brother and not as a slave. This means Philemon was being called not only to forgive Onesimus for stealing and running, but also to forgive the debt that put him in slavery to begin with.
The call to be and do what happens in this little letter is impossible. Think about it. All of us are probably on both sides of this relational issue somewhere. You probably have someone in your life who has hurt you, robbed you in some way, left you, abandoned you, and trampled your very goodness to them. And you probably have someone in your life that you hurt, angered, and wronged. More than likely you avoid that relationship and find ways to rationalize what you have done. As a follower of Christ, we are called to make both relationships right. But this is only possible when we understand Jesus and look to Him; when we realize the incredible offense our sinfulness was to Him and the unbelievable price He paid so that we could come back. As a follower of Jesus understands God’s grace in deeper ways, he or she will be drawn to making relationships with other people right.
So what’s the end of this story. The letter does not tell us, but the history of the church indicates that Onesimus became a significant leader. Philemon apparently forgave him, and accepted him. Eventually Onesimus became the Bishop (pastoral leader) of the church in Ephesus, one of the most influential churches of the time. Oh the beautiful and wonderful power of grace!