Philemon's New Brother in Christ
There is a short letter in the New Testament often overlooked. But putting some thought into its message will gain some fine and noble insights to some principles relating to our association together with one another, as well as the working of God's providence in the affairs of men to advance His
purpose on the earth. This letter is addressed to Philemon, a Christian, in whose house the church may have met . "Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus,
and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved brother and fellow worker, and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." (Philemon 1:1-3).
It is a letter of commendation of a servant (slave?) of Philemon, who had left his master. This was considered a great crime in the Roman world, often punishable by death at the master's discretion. The servant turned out to be Onesimus (vss. 10-22). In his letter to the church of Christ at Colossae, Paul also referred to Onesimus as a "faithful and beloved brother" Colossians 4:9).
Runaway Onesimus was converted by an imprisoned Paul, and had become a Christian. That fact is one of the basis upon which Paul makes his appeal to Philemon; "I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment,." (Philemon 1:10). Paul suggests that Onesimus would be even more profitable to Philemon because he is now a brother in Christ; "...who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me. I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart." (Philemon 11,12).
Paul urged Philemon to receive Onesimus back even as he would receive Paul himself (vs. 17). Onesimus may have wronged Philemon when he
left (perhaps theft in taking money from the house to make his get-away) and so Paul offered to repay the damages (vss. 18,19).
Finally, Paul informed Philemon that his kind reception of Onesimus would make Paul very happy (vs. 20-21). Consider some things we learn in
this first century event.
Equality in Christ
In the world, all things are not equal. Some are richer, prettier or smarter than others. We come from different places, and have differing
opportunities. But in Christ we are brethren, equal in the eyes of the Lord. The richest man is considered no more or less a child of God than the
poorest. It is true that Philemon had temporarily lost a servant, and this may have brought him some hardship; but now he had gained a brother for
eternity. Only the most carnal, selfish person would not understand this to be a wonderful blessing. Recall what had been written to the churches of
Galatia: "For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you
belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's descendants, heirs according to promise." (Galatians 3:26-29; see also James 1:9-11).
There simply is no room in the kingdom for arrogance of one brother or sister over others. Jesus said, "But Jesus called them to Himself and said, 'You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but
whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.'" (Matthew 20:25-28). Philemon had lost a servant for a little while, but had gained a brother for eternity.
Stimulating Others to Love and Good Deeds
Paul saw an opportunity for Philemon to make a good choice and grow in his faith. Rather than come down hard on Philemon by commanding him what to do with Onesimus, he encouraged him by appealing to his spiritual values and characteristics. We, too, should consider carefully how to best
accomplish similar good in our brothers and sisters today. The Scriptures say, "and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good
deeds." (Hebrews 10:24). Notice that Paul did not merely encourage Philemon to do the right thing, but to do the best thing. And we can well imagine
Paul carefully choosing his words so as to encourage the making of the best choice on Philemon's part. He "considered how to stimulate" Philemon to
"love and good works."
The Scriptures urge us to "...encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called 'Today,' so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin." (Hebrews 3:13). Paul's letter to Philemon is not heavy-handed. He seeks to win Philemon's heart. That should always be our aim, and choosing our words and actions needs to be based on a careful consideration on how to best accomplish encouraging one another unto greater
Do The Right Thing Because You Want To Do It
It is no great thing to do the right thing when forced to do so. It is not enough to give what we ought to give in a grudging way. The Bible says, "Now this I say, he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed."(2 Corinthians 9:6-8).
Philemon would benefit greatly in doing what Paul was pleading for him to do in receiving Onesimus back as a brother. It is truly a more blessed thing to give than to receive. We all have opportunities to give and to grow in the joy of the Lord.
Paul suggests something about the providence of God. He says, "For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord." (Philemon 15,16).
Providence is not something that is readily discernible. It is God working behind the scenes to answer prayers and to do his work. Paul suggests that perhaps it was part of God's plan to bring Paul and Onesimus together in Rome and not just coincidence. Maybe God had a hand in all that.
We don't know for sure. Paul didn't either and so uses the word "perhaps". But when opportunity arises, it is good to ponder; "Perhaps God has put me here right now for a purpose, and I need to choose to do the right thing." Some things are not just coincidences. Some things are meant to be.
By Jon W. Quinn
From Expository Files 11.9; September 2004