Philemon: Love in Action
Tucked away between the pastoral epistles and the weighty letter to the Hebrews is one of the most personal letters in the canon of the New Testament – Paul's letter to Philemon. Along with John's letter to Gaius (3 John), it ranks as among the most heartfelt and affectionate pieces of writings in all of sacred literature, and serves to remind us, among other things, that the faith of Jesus Christ is an eminently practical thing.
Like many such short writings from the ancient world, the letter to Philemon as not without problems, but its occasion seems clear. Philemon was an important figure in the early New Testament church, whom Paul knew, or at least had heard of (v5). He was a patron of the church, offering his home as a meeting place for some of the early Christians (v2). The saints had been refreshed by him (v7), such was his kindness, generosity and concern for the Gospel of Christ.
Philemon had a servant named Onesimus, who had stolen from him and had subsequently ran away. Although the details are obscure, Onesimus somehow had come into contact with Paul while Paul was under house arrest. He had witnessed to Onesimus, with the result that the runaway slave had been converted – begotten by Paul in chains (v10). Together they enjoyed sweet fellowship in Jesus, and Paul could have wished that Onesimus would remain with him to minister to him in the things of the Gospel (v13).
But Paul knew that the wrong caused to his master had to be rectified, and he sent Onesimus back with this letter to his master, in which Paul pleads to Philemon to receive Onesimus back as a brother. He also undertakes to wipe the debt by acting as surety for Onesimus so that Paul will make good what Onesimus has stolen. With a play on the meaning of his name, Paul says that the runaway slave will now be 'profitable' for Philemon's service.
It seems likely that Paul's requests were granted. Had they not been, it is doubtful whether the letter would have made it into the canon of Scripture. What happened thereafter remains a mystery, but there are some historians who are prepared to argue that a second-century Onesimus, who was bishop of Ephesus, was none other that Philemon's former servant, now himself become a servant of Jesus Christ. It has also been suggested that since the first collection of the Pauline corpus of literature was most likely made in Ephesus at the turn of the century, Onesimus may have been responsible for it, as a token of his own debt to Paul's writings. What a remarkable Providence that would have been, if the former slave who owed his position and restoration to Paul, subsequently placed the whole Christian church in his debt by bringing together as the foundation for the canonical New Testament the writings of the great apostle! That could have been no more remarkable than the Providence that brought Onesimus to the imprisoned apostle in the first place.
Righting the Wrongs
The size of Paul's letter to Philemon belies its great significance. Not only does it open for us a window on the social setting of early Christianity; it also alerts us to the practical consequences of our theology. What a predicament Onesimus found himself in! A runaway slave with stolen money, now suddenly born again! Heaven had freed Onesimus from a greater debt than anyone could compute, and because that was so, and despite the obvious pain in losing him, Paul knew that he had to send him back to Philemon.
Complex questions of guidance still concern believers. In God's remarkable Providence, he allows things to happen in our lives sometimes prior to conversion, which must be dealt with on our conversion to Christ. There are old wrongs which must be put right; old faults which must be rectified. Zaccheus knew that to his cost: "If I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold" (Luke 19:8), which was proof enough that salvation had come to the house of the tax-collector. Similarly in Onesimus' case, salvation, while dealing with the root of his sin, called on him to deal practically with the consequences of his action.
It could not have been easy for Onesimus to contemplate the meeting with Philemon. Like the prodigal son returning to his father, the prodigal servant must have rehearsed a thousand times what he would say to Philemon. Yet into the breach had stepped "Paul the aged" (v9), concerned that the threatened break to the relationship between master and servant would not be realised, and pleading that Philemon would welcome Onesimus into his household again.
The letter is one of the great documents of practical Christianity. It serves to remind us, first, that grace makes demands upon us to evaluate our lives and conduct in the light of God's standards. Up until his meeting with Paul, God had not been much in the mind of Onesimus. Now the thought of God dominated, and the claims of truth were paramount. A change of heart meant a change of direction, and a return to the home which he had wronged. It is impossible to be a Christian without seeing our conduct from a new perspective and changing the course of our lives as a result.
Second, it reminds us that Christianity does not ignore our relationships. We are social beings, who must live and work in the world. The friendships we make, and the relationships we forged even while unconverted are of God. We are not called to wipe them off, but to bring God into them.
And thirdly there is love's greatest effect: the forgiveness of sins. Love covers a multitude of sins. Without forgiving others we cannot be forgiven of God. If Philemon tells us anything, it tells us that there is no debt too great to be wiped out by God, and there is no challenge more honourable than to pray "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us".