Therefore I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.
Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus — that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.
I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever — no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.
I was re-reading Philemon this week. That doesn’t take long; the “book” (letter) is only 25 verses long. You can read it in five minutes, probably. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Philemon’s so short that you could miss it if two pages in your Bible stick together. It’s in some ways an odd little letter, stuck between Paul’s longer letters to Timothy and Titus and the much longer anonymous “letter” to the “Hebrews”. It’s probably Paul’s most personal letter. He isn’t trying to correct bad theology or practice in a church, as he usually is in his letters. He’s just writing to a man named Philemon, a man of high social standing, on behalf of a man named Onesimus who he’s met.
The story, as nearly as we can reconstruct it, goes something like this. Philemon is a householder, probably in the area of Colosse (compare the name “Archippus” in Philemon 2 and Colossians 4:17). He owes his conversion to Christ to Paul, who seems to have met him personally and brought him to the Lord. A church meets in his house, which means he is wealthy enough to have a good-sized home. Paul considers him a “partner in the faith,” has been encouraged by reports of Philemon’s love for the church and his faith, and compliments him on how he has “refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.”
But Paul and Philemon have a mutual acquaintance: a man named Onesimus. Paul considers Onesimus his “son” and “his very heart.” Onesimus is “dear” to Paul and has become “useful” to him in his current circumstances: he is in prison. In his day, that would have meant that a friend or family member would have to supply his food and other needs, and that seems to be what Onesimus has been doing for Paul.
At some point during Paul’s relationship with Onesimus, he has brought Onesimus to Christ. And the story has come out: Onesimus owes Philemon a debt. He is an escaped slave. He has perhaps even stolen some of his master’s money. In any case, he has violated the law by running away. No doubt trying to hide in whatever city Paul is imprisoned in, he has met the apostle and come to Christ. And, together, they have come to a difficult decision: Onesimus should return to Philemon.
This letter isn’t just about the relationships between these men. Primarily it has to with the question of what demands the gospel makes on the way we deal with one another — especially in the church. It may seem strange to us that Paul sends Onesimus back. Wouldn’t it be better, more compassionate, to hide him? Maybe in the short term. But you’d also be sentencing him, wouldn’t you, to a lifetime of hiding? Pretending to be someone else. Not to mention that the gospel calls us to repentance. How else can Onesimus repent of this crime of defrauding Philemon besides returning — especially now that Philemon is not only his master but also in Christ is his brother?
But that’s also true for Philemon. Paul wonders in the letter if God wasn’t at work in these events so that Philemon might “have [Onesimus] back forever — no longer as a slave, but…as a dear brother.” Paul doesn’t sanction Onesimus remaining a runaway. But neither does he sanction Philemon keeping him as a slave. The clear intent of his writing Philemon is to plead for Onesimus’ emancipation. Based on their relationship as “partners” in the gospel, he asks Philemon to welcome Onesimus back “as you would welcome me.” That is, not with a set of chains, or punishment for his misdeeds, but with the same love Paul has heard that he has shown for other believers.
Paul sends Onesimus back in the end, because, dear as he is to him, he is “dearer to” Philemon “both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.” He’s “dear” to Philemon as the embodiment of the idea that the gospel creates family and equalizes status.
Paul could use his status as Philemon’s older partner in the gospel, suffering in chains for Christ, to compel him to free Onesimus and even send him back to continue to minister to Paul’s needs, but he doesn’t want to force Philemon into anything. He wants whatever favor Philemon might choose to do him to come from his experience of the gospel, from a transformation in his heart of the way he sees Onesimus through the cross of Jesus. He wants it to come from Philemon’s understanding of “every good thing [they] share in Christ”. He wants it to come from his longstanding love for Paul and a newly discovered love for Onesimus that comes from their new status as brothers in Christ.
I’m reminded in this little letter that a gospel that doesn’t change the way we see the people around us is no gospel at all.
If it doesn't cause us to liberate people from the chains of our prejudices and selfishness, then perhaps we don’t understand it. If it doesn’t lead us to see others as family in Christ or as fellow human beings, it isn’t the gospel of Jesus.
If we can hold grudges for offenses others have committed against us, then maybe we don’t grasp it
If we can worship and serve with people in a church for years and not come to love and care for them, then perhaps the gospel hasn’t really done its work in our hearts. If, especially, we can’t listen to believers older than us with love, respect, and deference, then I wonder if we’re partners in the same gospel that Paul experienced and spent his life proclaiming.
The gospel, when believed, experienced, and turned outward, should “refresh the hearts of the Lord’s people.”
May we refresh the hearts of the people around us in an oppressive world of brutality, bitterness, prejudice, and slavery.