Although it’s a short book in the Bible, only 25 verses in English or 335 words in Greek. It is a powerful book on how to deal with issues between friends. Here’s the backstory. Philemon is a slave owner whose slave, Onesimus, had stolen from his master, Philemon, and had run away. Onesimus had made his way to Rome where he crossed paths with the imprisoned Apostle Paul. Paul led Onesimus to faith in Christ Jesus and is now sending him back to his master, Philemon, presumably bearing this letter. Thus Paul is writing to Philemon as one friend to another.
How would Philemon receive Onesimus? Would he put him to death, the accepted fate of runaway slaves in the first century? Paul’s letter of intercession is a masterful treatise on how Christians should deal with one another. It is the most personal of Paul’s letters. Here are several important principles that emerge from it:
1. Grace is more effective than Law in interpersonal relationships. vv. 8-10
Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to order you to do that which is proper, yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you—since I am such a person as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus—I appeal to you for my child, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, Onesimus.
Did you catch what Paul is writing to Philemon? He says he could order him to not kill Onesimus but that would be living under law. Christians are under grace and go above and beyond the letter of the law. Instead of demanding Philemon spare Onesimus, Paul appeals to him out of love, Philemon’s love for Paul and Paul’s love for Philemon. He’s saying, “Philemon, don’t kill my child, Onesimus! Please receive him back for he’s become more than a slave; he’s now a brother in Christ Jesus.” It’s no coincidence that Onesimus means “useful!”
I often hear people use the phrase, “I’m gonna lay down the law to him/her.” Really? Perhaps you would be more successful using grace than law. Remember Paul says the law produces wrath. (Romans 4:15) Law makes demands of the flesh and, when they aren’t met, produces anger, rebellion, and punishment. Grace appeals to the goodness of the person to do the right thing. Law will give grudging compliance but grace will give willing (hopefully even joyful) obedience.
2. Goodness should flow from freedom not constraint. v. 14
But without your consent I did not want to do anything, that your goodness should not be as it were by compulsion, but of your own free will.
Paul writes to Philemon asking for his consent because Onesimus belongs to him. Most probably Philemon bought him from the slave market. Onesimus is Philemon’s property. So, what Paul is saying is “I don’t want to press my apostolic authority to demand that you spare Onesimus’ life or release him. Rather I appeal to you as a brother in Christ to treat Onesimus well because he has become a brother and it is the right thing to do.”
People need to be able to choose to do good of their own free will, not because of arm-twisting or guilt-tripping. We need to give them the freedom to do the right thing. That’s risky because they might choose to do the wrong thing! That is the risk grace has to take. The law gets the job done but with the wrong heart attitude.
3. God is sovereign over the affairs of men. v. 15
For perhaps he was for this reason parted from you for a while, that you should have him back forever . . .
Paul is saying, “Look at the big picture, Philemon. God knew Onesimus would steal from you and run away to Rome. God orchestrated his meeting with Paul in jail. God knew he would be saved. You now have him back not only as a slave but as a brother in Christ.” God wanted Onesimus in His forever family and He had to get him to Paul to lead him to salvation. Now Philemon will be with Onesimus forever in heaven!
What we wish to retain we must release to choose. The story is told of the man who lost his pet parakeet in his house. Another in the house caught it in his hands. He approached the owner with it and asked, “Is the bird dead or alive?” The owner replied, “The choice is in your hands.” We all have a choice. Children grow into adulthood and parents must consciously choose to release them to make their own choices. That’s not easy especially if they choose wrongly. The good news is that God is still on his throne and He is sovereign over the affairs of men. “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” He can bring good out of bad decisions. He did with Onesimus.
Onesimus is a type of all of us who were slaves to sin, running from God only to be saved by His grace and returned home to the One who loves us. There is more Gospel gold to be mined from Philemon but that’s enough for this article.