“Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother, unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellow laborer” (Phile. 1:1).
Paul’s letter to Philemon is a masterpiece of Christian correspondence. It is a prime example of how to deal with a sensitive issue in the proper manner. In the New Testament the epistles mark a new form of revelation. As we know, in time past the will of God was made known through the law, the prophets, the Psalms, and the Gospel narratives. When God introduced the format of the epistles, He adopted a more personal and direct method to communicate His will.
Like the facets of a diamond, this particular letter is a demonstration of God’s grace from different perspectives. The narrative opens with an affectionate greeting—”Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellow laborer.” Paul had a special place in his heart for Philemon, having led him to the Lord. This joyous occasion probably took place while the apostle resided at Ephesus, where it is said “all they which dwelt in Asia heard the Word of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:10). This is what Paul means when he says with all humility, “albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides” (Phile. 1:19).
Little wonder he addresses him, not simply as “beloved,” but “dearly beloved.” So Paul and Philemon had a very special relationship, but grace doesn’t take advantage of a brother in Christ on the basis that a debt of gratitude is owed. Grace is never presumptuous; it always takes into consideration the feelings and preferences of others.
YOU CAN RUN, BUT YOU CAN’T HIDE
The story of Philemon unfolds against the backdrop of slavery. Sadly, slavery was a fact of life in biblical times. There were at least four ways to become a slave: If a thief was unable to pay restitution he became the property of another; parents often sold their children into slavery; a man could sell himself into slavery to pay a debt; and one could be born into it. For the sake of the gospel Paul never advocated the abolition of slavery, but he did perceive the gospel would eventually eradicate it, which indeed it has for the most part.
Since slavery was woven throughout the fabric of the ancient world, it should not seem unusual that Philemon was a slave owner, even though he was a believer. While we tend to envision slaves chained together treading through the mud pits of Egypt, many were trusted servants who were given a wide range of responsibilities in their master’s affairs. This was the case with one of Philemon’s slaves named Onesimus. A seemingly trustworthy member of the household, Onesimus took advantage of his position by stealing from his master and fleeing from Colosse. Consequently, Paul says to his friend in the faith, “Which in time past [he] was to thee unprofitable” (vs. 11).
Why Onesimus ran away we are not told. Surely it could not have been that Philemon was a cruel taskmaster. Quite the contrary, he had the reputation of being an honorable man. In fact, his faith and love are crowning virtues in these opening passages. Paul says of him, “For we have great joy and consolation in thy love” (vs. 7). Philemon had received the saints into his home to worship, and, if nothing else, he was at least fair with his servants. It seems more probable that Onesimus had rebelled against his master who had faithfully shared with him the good news that Christ died for his sins. 1
What’s in a name? Back in biblical times names had great significance attached to them. Onesimus means profitable or helpful. But he was anything but helpful. He was a rebellious sinner who hardened his heart against God, betrayed his master’s trust, and ran away. You can run from God, but you can’t hide! God has unique ways of bringing the sinner and the gospel of salvation together. In this regard, I have had more funerals than I care to remember over the years, but one thing I’ve always been conscious of at such occasions is the providence of God. With one turn of the wheel, God alters the path of a sinner who would rarely darken a church door, to bring him under the sound of the gospel.
Charles Spurgeon, the prince of preachers, relates this account from his years of ministry at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, England:
Some three years ago I was talking with an aged minister, and he began fumbling about in his waistcoat pocket, but he was a long while before he found what he wanted. At last he brought out a letter that was well nigh worn to pieces, and he said, “God Almighty bless you! God Almighty bless you!” And I said, “Friend what is it?” He said, “I had a son—I thought he would be the stay [support] of my old age, but he disgraced himself, and he went away from me, and I could not tell where he went, only he said he was going to America. He took a ticket to sail for America from the London Docks, but he did not go on the particular day he expected.”
This aged minister bade me read the letter, and I read it, and it was like this: “Father, I am here in America. I have found a situation [employment], and God has prospered me. I write to ask your forgiveness for the thousand wrongs that I have done you, and the grief I caused you, for, blessed be God, I have found the Savior. I have joined a church here and hope to spend my life in God’s service. It happened thus: I did not sail for America the day I expected. I went down to the Tabernacle to see what it was like, and God met with me. Mr. Spurgeon said, `Perhaps there is a runaway son here. The Lord call him by His grace.’ And He did!”
“Now” said he, as he folded up the letter and put it in his pocket, “that son of mine is dead, and he is in heaven, and I love you, and I shall do so as long as I live, because you were the means of bringing him to Christ.” 2
While some may conclude that Onesimus ended up in Rome by chance, Paul seems to suggest it was according to the providence of God when he says to Philemon: “For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever” (vs. 15). Interestingly, the apostle tells us Onesimus departed, but he does not give us the sordid details of his sinful ways, which were best left unsaid. A good lesson for us to remember!
As Onesimus made his way to Rome he apparently came under deep conviction of his sin. He may have had his liberty, but he was still in bondage to his sins. Unable to function with the heavy burden he was carrying, he recalled that the saints at Colosse had been praying for the Apostle Paul who was a prisoner at Rome. Therefore, he may well have sought out the apostle. Whatever the case, Paul had an opportunity to lead Onesimus to the Lord (vs. 10). He was wonderfully saved by the grace of God! Grace reached down and unshackled him from the burden of his sins.
Centuries later, John Newton, that once old wretched slave trader who was also saved by grace, wrote a hymn to which each of us former Onesimi can surely relate:
“Amazing grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.
“I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
HOW GRACE CHANGES US
Although some seem to think that grace gives us a license to sin, quite the opposite is true. It teaches us to deny ungodliness and to live righteously in this present evil age. The actions of both Paul and his new convert illustrate this—grace changes lives. Like anyone who comes to Christ, Onesimus looked back on his past life with regret. Clearly he had shared with the apostle how he had wronged his master (vs. 11 & 18). A life touched by grace is always characterized by honesty. It was now his desire to set the record straight with Philemon in spite of the consequences, but how to accomplish this was another matter.
Here the apostle intercedes for his new friend. He could have merely instructed Onesimus to return home, throw himself on the mercy of his master and pay restitution. But instead Paul acts in accordance with the mind of Christ. He offers to pay the debt on behalf of Onesimus. “If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account; I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it” (vs. 18 & 19). That’s grace! Grace is acting on behalf of another who is unworthy and undeserving. If Onesimus got what he rightfully deserved, he probably would have been put to death, or at the very least endured hard bondage the rest of his days.
But Paul makes a compelling argument to Philemon. “I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds” (vs. 10). The law commanded, “this do and thou shalt live,” but grace beseeches—I beg you! Philemon forgive Onesimus for the wrong he has done, “even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Eph. 4:32). Then the apostle adds:
“Whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel: But without thy mind would I do nothing; that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly” (vs. 13 & 14).
Paul could have reasoned that the slate of Onesimus was wiped clean; therefore, I will use him here at Rome to minister to my needs. Think how much more I will be able to accomplish in the Lord’s work if I retain him. Surely Philemon will understand! But Paul valued the fellowship of Philemon far too much to take advantage of him. The apostle knew that Onesimus was the property of his friend, thus he would allow him the courtesy of making that decision. You see, grace always does what is right.
It literally takes years and years to earn the respect of others, but it can all be destroyed in a moment of time. This is why it is so essential to maintain a consistent godly testimony, as exhibited by the apostle. In his book, Ten Mistakes Parents Make with Teenagers, Jay Kesler describes a conversation he had with a young lady at a Youth for Christ summer camp:
This particular camp was in Ohio and after one of the services some kids came forward, but one young woman was having a difficult time so the counselors asked me if I would speak to her. We sat down in the front row of the Chapel, and through many tears her heartbreaking story began to unfold. She’d been molested by her father since she was four years old. She had never told anyone about this and carried a great sense of guilt, as though she were to blame for her father’s actions.
As she told me her story, I noticed that both of her wrists were scarred. (If you work with youth today, you see these marks often.) “Tell me about your wrists,” I said. “Well, I tried to kill myself.” “Why didn’t you do it?” I asked. Killing yourself is a relatively simple thing if you really want to do it. If it is just a bid for attention, the attempt is usually feeble. She said, “Well, I got to thinking…we have a youth pastor at our church….”
Oh no, I thought, now I’m going to hear an ugly story about her getting involved with some youth pastor. But that wasn’t it at all. She said, “He’d just gotten married before he came to our church, and I’ve been watching him. When he and his wife are standing in line at church he holds her hand. They look at each other affectionately, and they hug each other right in church. One day I was standing in the pastor’s study, looking out the window and the youth pastor walked his wife out to the parking lot. Now there was only one car in the parking lot; nobody was around; nobody was looking. And that guy walked all the way around the car and opened the door and let her in. Then he walked all the way around and got in himself. And there was nobody even looking.”
That was a nice story, but I couldn’t make the connection between that and her problem of incest and suicide. So I asked why this seemed significant to her. She said, “Well, I just got to thinking that all men must not be like my dad, huh?” I said, “You’re right. All men are not like your father.” “Jay, do you suppose our youth pastor’s a Christian?” “Yes,” I said, “I think he probably is.” “Well that’s why I came tonight. I want to be a Christian, too!”
Why did she want to trust Christ and become a Christian? Because she saw a believer being affectionate and respectful to his wife—when he thought no one was looking. That’s the power of a consistent life in Christ. 3
A FINAL THOUGHT
The love that Paul and Philemon had for each other was mutual. Thus, he beseeches his friend on the basis of “love’s sake.” This was another opportunity for Philemon to demonstrate his love for the Lord and his apostle. So it is touching to see how Paul desires that Philemon receive Onesimus as himself. In short, “If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself” (vs. 17). The grace and kindness you would show to me when I visit, show to our beloved Brother Onesimus. Put him up in the best lodging, give him my seat at your table, and provide for his needs, as you have done so generously for me. Accept him, even as the Father has accepted us in the Beloved. That’s grace!
In essence the aged apostle says to Philemon, Onesimus may have departed from you wearing the garments of a runaway, thieving slave, but I am sending him back to you clothed in the righteousness of Christ. Therefore, receive him, “Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord?” (vs. 16). The gospel transforms lives! Onesimus returned a trusted servant and a steward of the mysteries of God with whom Philemon could now fellowship. As the hymn writer has said, “Grace ’tis a charming sound!”