Have you ever read through the Book (or should I say page) of Philemon? Yeah me either. Except for having to know it falls between Titus and Hebrews for my New Testament exam, I haven't spent significant time in its 25 verses. But in my study of a few of the shorter Pauline epistles, I could not understand why I had kept skipping over it. About a month ago, I read through the book of Titus during each of my quiet times for a week. It was something I haven't done before but it proved to be very beneficial. Reading through something I've read before gave me the opportunity to reflect on what I had read and let God show me anything new that I might not have picked up on. At the end of the week I had a pretty good handle on what Paul was writing to Titus to both instruct and bless him. If you've never taken the time to read through one of the shorter books of the New Testament multiple times, I'd highly encourage you to do so. But I'm not going to use this post to talk about Bible-reading techniques or the Book of Titus. This post is about Paul's letter to Philemon, a story of the transforming power of the Gospel and the role it should take when we think about reconciliation.
According to my ESV Study Bible, "Philemon was a wealthy slave-holding Christian who lived in the city of Colossae." He was involved with the church located in Colossae who received their own letter (Colossians) from Paul. Philemon also opened his home to the other believers to regularly meet. Now the letter is addressed to Philemon but the majority of the letter speaks on another person. That person is Onesimus.
Onesimus was one of the slaves that served under Philemon in Colossae. Now if Philemon was a Christian while Onesimus was working for him, I am not entirely sure, but I do know that Onesimus was not a believer according to Paul's words in verse 10-11:
"I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.)"
Onesimus ran away from Philemon and it is assumed he probably took money or property from Philemon with him. So not only was Onesimus a thief, he was also a runaway slave. For a slave to runaway from their master it was a very grave offense, even punishable by death if the master saw it worthy of the crime. Onesimus had no plans of returning to Philemon in Colossae, but it was in God's plan for him to run to a certain part of Rome where he would run into none other than the Apostle Paul.
Paul is writing to Philemon to tell him of the great transformation that has taken place within Onesimus as a result of him hearing the truth of the Gospel. In verse 12 Paul writes that he is "sending [his] very heart" when he is returning Onesimus to Philemon. As I am studying Greek right now, I've come to realize how important the Greek is for understanding the true meaning behind the words of the New Testament. The word Paul uses to describe his heart is not the typical word "καρδια" (heart) but is instead the word "σπλαγχνα" (internal organs). Now why would Paul choose to use this word (σπλαγχνα) instead of the other (καρδια)? Because the emotion he put forth with his heart would not suffice to detail Philemon with the love he has for Onesimus. Paul was sending such a great and severe compassion for Onesimus that the typical "heart" would not accurately describe the situation.
Onesimus had found Christ by what Paul had revealed to him. In finding Christ, his life had been completely changed, so much that Paul felt comfortable sending Onesimus back to Philemon despite the crimes he had committed. Paul writes in verses 13 and 14:
"I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord."
Now does this sound like the same runaway slave that Paul deemed "useless" just a few verses earlier? Paul was willing to keep Onesimus with him, even though he was there illegally, to assist him for the cause of the Gospel. Paul believed that Philemon would welcome back Onesimus with open arms simply because Philemon had also been changed by the gospel.
Paul entreated Philemon to "receive [Onesimus] as [he] would receive [Paul]" in verse 17. Obviously we would expect Philemon to welcome the great Apostle Paul into his home warmly, but how could Paul expect Philemon not to kill Onesimus, the runaway slave and thief, upon returning to his doorstep? Paul had faith in the power of the Gospel. Paul believed that the sacrifice paid by Christ would be more than enough to reconcile a runaway slave and his master. Paul reveals what he thinks is God's divine plan in verse 15 where he writes:
"For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother---especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord."
Who would have thought one of the greatest examples of reconciliation would come in the form of this Pauline epistle to Philemon? I mean seriously, how many of us have actually read through Philemon? I know for a fact I haven't ever folded down the corner of this page in my Bible. But here it was, one of the many great examples of the transforming power of Christ crucified, right between Titus and Hebrews.
Reconciliation is difficult, there's no doubt about that. Not only is it marked by a complete elimination of pride, but it involves complete forgiveness. But how acquainted should believers be with forgiveness? Do we not fully understand how much we have been forgiven? Do we not understand that God is perfectly justifiable in condemning us to eternal separation from him? If anything, we as believers of the One true Lord should be the ones leading all efforts towards reconciliation. It is not only illogical but contradictory to call ourselves a follower of Christ when we are weighed down by grudges and the people that have wronged us.
Paul describes the new life we have in Christ and how we are to act in light of this new life in Ephesians 4:17-32.
He concludes Chapter 4 by saying:
"Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you."
If you think I'm saying reconciliation is easy and that I have everything figured out when it comes to my own reconciliations, you are seriously misguided. In all honesty, reconciliation is one of the largest inhibitors of my spiritual walk. Too many days have I spent dwelling on the wrong that has occurred at my expense and too many times have I fallen to sin at the hands of my own anger and inability to forgive.
But when I reflect on how much I have been forgiven, how much my Lord has cleared me of, my shallow and unwarranted anger seems rather petty. My grudges slowly begin to fade away when I look at what I truly deserve. What gives me the authority to harbor bitterness? What gives me the right to deny someone else forgiveness?
I have no authority. I have no right.
Christ humbled Himself by leaving His place in Heaven for me. With His sacrifice on the cross, He declared He was willing to forgive me of my sins, even though I was the one that nailed Him to His place, even though I was the one that twisted the crown over his brow. He has all the right to be angry at me, harbor bitterness towards me, and send me away from His presence, and yet He loves me. Be reconciled to God.