We live in a day that has no use for forgiveness. Our society is replete with the doctrine of the personal offense. We have a former Canadian political leader by the name of Lucien Bouchard, a Quebec separatist, politically, and founder of the federal Bloc Quebecois, who typifies this with several of his speeches in the late 1980s and early 1990s. There was a period of time where a day could not pass that the national news would not report some soundbite of his that started with the phrase, “I am offended…” or “I am incensed…” South of our border for decades now, and slowly leaking up into our own culture is a very litigious culture. That is, we want to sue everyone for damages for these personal wrongs suffered. Now in Mr. Bouchard’s case, it was a show put on for political leverage. In many cases of litigation today, it is really all about the money, regardless of which side of the Canada-U.S. Border you happen to be on. This chapter is about how a real Christian should handle a real and damaging offense – with forgiveness.
1: Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved brother and fellow worker,
- We can see that Paul begins his letter in the classic style of the day, starting with the author’s names, and then proceeding to the names of the people to which the letter was addressed. In this case, it is Paul, and Timothy is with him. Timothy’s inclusion at this time, you may recall was to give Timothy a nod as Paul’s second-in-command as apostleship goes, and to put him out there as the heir-apparent if anything should happen to Paul. It was also a name that Philemon likely would have known for that reason. It also seems likely that Philemon would have met Timothy in Ephesus where Paul led him to the Saviour.
- What is missing are Paul’s apostolic credentials. He simply identifies himself as “a prisoner of Christ Jesus.” Not a prisoner of the Jews, not a prisoner of Rome, but a prisoner of Christ Jesus. Paul knew who was in charge, and who could ultimately set him free if that was His desire. It had happened before. Acts 16:22-30 tells the story about how Paul and Silas were thrown into prison in Thyatira, and miraculously released – the jailer was even saved. Read that for yourself, but there is some evidence later in this book that Paul believed that his liberation was at hand (v.22). The word prisoner literally means “one who is bound” in Greek, and Paul knew it was really the Lord that had the ultimate authority, a nod at the sovereignty of God if you will. Besides, Paul was not writing this letter as the Apostle. He had a very different purpose.
- Philemon here is called a “beloved brother,” a term that Paul used in association with individuals as well as groups, and “fellow worker,” which implies a ministry connection with Paul, and that he had somehow worked beside him. I suspect this was in Ephesus or some nearby locale because at this point, Paul had never been to Colossae.
2: and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
- Apphia was likely the wife of Philemon from the position in and overall structure of the sentence.
- Archippus is a name we have seen before. He is called “fellow soldier” (see 2 Tim. 2:3, where Timothy is exhorted to “suffer hardship as a good soldier of Christ Jesus”), and is even mentioned by name by Paul in the letter to the Colossians (4:17) and encouraged to take heed and fulfil the ministry the Lord gave him, perhaps suggesting he was a pastor in the area of Colossae, which would include the cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis.
- Also addressed is “the church in your house.” Not only is this a window into early Christian practice, the meeting in homes of the saints for what would presumably be worship, fellowship, prayer, and study of Scripture, but was also I think to give what is coming some public exposure within the church. More on that as we go.
3: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
- Paul’s typical greeting to churches when he writes them. It is a fountain of insight in and of itself. Grace is that unmerited, undeserved favour of God, peace is that state of wellbeing that only God can give in spite of difficult circumstances. Note it is from God OUR Father AND the Lord Jesus Christ. Thank God we can call Him OUR Father! And that the Lord Jesus Christ is mentioned at the same time, and in the same sentence, is a nod to his position in creation – He is GOD, WITH God the Father, a separate person and yet still the same God.
4: I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers,
- Paul here starts his statement, letting Philemon know that he is both thankful to God for him and that he prays for him.
5: because I hear of your love and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints;
- Has anyone noticed that Paul has begun the main text of his letter to Philemon by praising Philemon? I can tell you with a guy with about 35 years of experience in sales that something is coming that Philemon isn’t going to like already, but that’s me.
- I doubt Paul’s point was to “butter up” Philemon with flattery, however. I do not think of this action as some mere “sales pitch.” Paul would have known that legitimate praise not only feeds virtue but provides an antidote for sin, serving as at first a reminder to the hearer and then something on which the words of Paul can form a foundation for something. Toi me, this is not reflective of some pitch to manipulate Philemon into forgiving Onesimus, but rather confidence that Philemon would.
- Paul’s statement of fact about Philemon includes love [agape, in this case] and the faith held about the Lord Jesus – and that same love and faith held toward all the saints. As a salesman, this is where my natural man says, “here comes the pitch.” In that new nature granted by Christ through the Holy Spirit, I ask, okay, what is so important, Paul? Why the soft-sell?
6: and I pray that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for Christ’s sake.
- Paul’s prayer for the effectiveness of the fellowship of Philemon’s faith was probably very real. He prays that fellowship would be founded on Philemon’s knowledge of every good thing that is in Philemon for the sake of Christ. Paul is gently reminding Philemon that Christ has done a very great deal for him to bring him to this point.
- Paul is stating here that the Christian life, with all its joys, duties, and responsibilities is “for Christ’s sake.” This is a reminder to Philemon that the goal of all actions we perform, all the words we speak, and even all the very thoughts we think, should be to glorify Christ. This is a basic motive to forgive, incidentally – it can restore relationships, but it is also the reason that Christ died – to restore OUR broken relationship with God!
7: For I have come to have much joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother.
- We know a few things about Philemon’s character from Paul so far. We know that he has a reputation for loving the saints, and we can see that in the joy and comfort that his love gives not only Paul, but also refreshes the hearts of the saints.
- However, as near as we can tell, Philemon was not an elder, deacon, or teacher in the church at Colossae. All we really know of him is that he was a businessman. However, he seemed to be instinctively kind, and from what Paul says here, a source of blessing to everyone. I’ve known a few people like that over the years. My friend Alex, another friend Hugh, my wife is like that – I could go on. What I think Paul is doing here is leading Philemon to the task he has to face, but bringing his Christian character to the fore as he does so, and in that way inspire Philemon to forgive Onesimus. Will that happen? Well, we don’t know yet.
8: Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to order you to do what is proper,
- Paul clearly has enough confidence to make this an Apostolic order, but the presence of the word “though” at the beginning of the sentence implies directly that Paul has something else in mind.
- What is proper is clearly for Philemon to forgive Onesimus. Paul is trying to set the stage for Philemon to have an easier time doing that with his words.
9: 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—
- Here comes the appeal. It is not made on the basis of “Paul, an Apostle by the will of God,” but rather, Paul, the old man. Paul at this point was likely into his 60s, and because of some of the wear and tear that got him to Rome, probably feeling it. He certainly had a rightful claim to the title, and perhaps a little of the pity of Philemon.
- And now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus. Hmm. More pity? I think that’s likely. Paul was trying to bring with his words Philemon to a point where he could face the task that was going to be required of him, and not just by himself, but by God.
10: I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment,
- I will pause here to mention that the word “forgiveness” never actually appears in this book. Yet it has been seen as the main theme of the book, and as I read it for myself, I find myself forming the same opinion! Have you noticed that up to this point, Paul has spoken no doctrinal reasons as he has in other letters? I believe it is because he assumes that Philemon knows them as well as he himself does. However, I cannot assume you all know it, so I’ll list it off as briefly as I can.
- It is not merely murder that is forbidden by the 6th commandment, “You shall not murder.” (Ex. 20:13) Anger and lack of forgiveness are a part of that package. Jesus gives a deeper meaning to this commandment in Matthew 5:21-22 – ““You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.” In forbidding murder, God also forbid hate, malice, anger, vengeance, and lack of forgiveness against anyone. These people that you would harbour these feelings against, are they not also created in the image of God, and also souls for whom Christ died, at least potentially? And if they were created in the image of God, we should hold that to be holy, no matter how twisted and dirty it may be.
- All sin is ultimately against God. If you want an example, consider King David. He committed adultery with Bathsheba (a willing participant I might add), got her pregnant, and then murdered her husband Uriah when he couldn’t cover it up. So who has he sinned against here? Let me see – at first glance, certainly Bathsheba and Uriah, but as King, how about the entire nation of Israel? And what does David write about this in Psalm 51:4? “Against You, You only, I have sinned and done what is evil in Your sight, so that You are justified when You speak and blameless when You judge.” All sin is against God. So that old man who yells at you for no good reason in your church parking lot? His sin wasn’t against you. It was against God.
- Christians that will not forgive others will not enjoy the forgiveness of God. In Matthew 6:14 and 15, Jesus said, “For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” It may not interfere with one’s justification, but it certainly will interfere with your fellowship with God. That seems like a very high price indeed to carry around that lack of forgiveness.
- Not forgiving others will affect your fellowship with other Christians. Think of the unforgiving slave in Matt. 18. It was the other slaves that reported to the master about their fellow unforgiving slave. Seems like church discipline if you ask me. Now does that EVER sound like something you want to personally experience? Not me, thanks.
- Not forgiving others usurps the authority of God, particularly if you tie this to revenge. Paul urges us to bless those that persecute us instead of cursing them, and then leave room for the wrath of God. This is in Romans 12, where finally in verse 19, he says, “‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” Those that would avenge themselves take the sword of vengeance out of the hand of God. This attitude implies that either God is unjust, indifferent, or unable to reward them what they deserve – and all of that is horrendous – “blasphemous,” according to one commentator.
- Not forgiving others renders such a one unfit for worship. In that same sermon on the mount we spoke of earlier, Jesus tells us that “if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.” (Matt 5:23-24) Of note, we should say that reconciliation can and should be initiated by either party.
- Injuries and offenses that believers suffer are their trials and temptations. In that same sermon on the mount (vv.44-45), Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those that persecute us for the reason that in doing so we are the sons of our Father in heaven. If we obey that command, then their persecutions of us become a trail for us, and trials as we all know, produce growth and maturity in believers!
- Forgiveness should be given even when it is not sought. Jesus is our best example of that – “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” he said as he died on the cross. Stephen echoes those words as he’s being stoned to death by a Jewish mob that included one Saul of Tarsus (Paul)! “Father, do not lay this sin to their charge.” Forgiveness, true forgiveness, should free the heart from all bitterness and set it free to show only grace and mercy – the true character of Christ – in us – and Scripture says THAT is the hope of glory (that certain future expectation).
- Paul here tells us that Onesimus has been saved by Christ – and now stands before Philemon seeking that very reconciliation for which Christ died.
11: who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me.
- Picture this. Onesimus now stands before his earthly master Philemon as Philemon reads this letter. This is the same slave that likely stole property or money and then ran away to Rome on his master’s denarius. The anger that must have risen in Philemon, who is only human like us. The indignity! The desire to punish the wrongdoer! A hundred other petty and nameless emotions go through him as he sees Onesimus standing there with Paul’s emissary to Colossae, Tychicus. Assume Paul’s description from his expectations of Philemon are accurate. He reads this line – Onesimus has been gloriously saved, led to Christ by Paul himself! What conflicting emotions must begin to rise in him. The useless “Useful” now truly WAS Useful!
12: I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart,
- Paul had done the right thing here. He had sent this runaway slave back to his master, escorted by someone (for Onesimus’ own protection it turns out) to face whatever punishment the master would see fit. Everything Paul has written to this point was, I think, deliberately designed to lead Philemon to make the right decision to forgive Onesimus. I think that because I am a salesman of 35 or 40 years, and I have done this for a living. Sometimes (especially when the stakes are very high like here), one misplaced word can lose the potential buyer. Paul is pointing out that he sent Onesimus, and that his own heart was with Onesimus as he stood there before his master. I wonder what Onesimus’ emotions must have been. I wonder if Tychicus had to put a steadying hand on his shoulder.
- Just the fact that Onesimus was standing there showed that he DID actually want to be reconciled with his master. It showed his repentant state, because he returned to face the master he had personally wronged. It showed his transformation in that he was now saved. Philemon was not getting back the same man that had run away. Paul’s statement in v.11 is actually a kind of word game that Paul is playing (as we have seen before). Old useless is actually useful now! And Onesimus was proven to be faithful – Paul sent his very heart with him.
13: whom I wished to keep with me, so that on your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel;
- This also adds to the idea of Onesimus’ transformation – he had become SO useful that Paul wanted to keep him there in Rome with him for service in his own kind of prison ministry (hey, he was in prison and doing ministry). Paul made it clear too that he would consider this as on Philemon’s behalf right here.
14: but without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will.
- You have to understand the respect that Paul had for those who he knew were fellow workers. Paul would have known that Philemon would have wanted to be with him to serve, but it was not possible (or he would be there). The next best thing would be to have his servant Onesimus there to do so for him. However, Paul would not presume on that relationship. Not only did Paul see an opportunity for reconciliation here, but he saw an opportunity to show his respect for Philemon and their relationship. In sending Onesimus back, Paul was giving the choice of what would happen to Philemon. He did not want his goodness to be of compulsion but of his own free will.
- A word about the free will to which Paul refers. There are those that would build a case to say that all men have free will here. You are not wrong. All people have free will to make whatever choices they see fit. Neither Arminian nor real Calvinist will deny this. All men are accountable to God for those choices as well. And mankind is incapable of choosing God without His grace offered to them and his effectual call to them to come to Himself. To use this as a proof text of that concept from any angle seems kind of pointless in that light. You must consider that Philemon is redeemed, and his own will has been restored already, so he really does have free will whether you think Calvin or Arminius was correct. And Onesimus used his own free will to return to Philemon desiring reconciliation with his earthly master, but he too was also already redeemed. It cannot be said that the unredeemed can choose God all on their own without God’s direct action here, and to do so is to twist the Scriptures. Don’t do that.
15: For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever,
- We should also understand what is being asked of Philemon. Philemon is not just being asked to forgive Onesimus, but is also being asked to restore him to full service and then let him serve Paul (if Paul has his way, that is). I don’t think this statement is an attempt by Paul to expunge the record (that would seem counterproductive to the cause of Christ – we would not ever get to hear this story for example if the record of the wrongs of Onesimus were wiped clean). I think this is Paul, without attempting to mitigate the wrong done by Onesimus, is suggesting that the God’s providence is at work. [Read the verse again.]
16: 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.
- Here we can see that God wins over sin every time. How? Through his providential power and His grace, given to the sinner so that he or she may believe. Paul is also pointing out that Onesimus is not the same person anymore, that he is in fact not a slave anymore – Christ has set him free spiritually through his faith that has come through the grace of God – although his earthly master is still Philemon. He is now much more, because Philemon is also a believer. Onesimus is now a beloved brother, and one that has clearly endeared himself to Paul. Paul simply states a fact when he says that he is now useful in the flesh and in the Lord. In his commentary series, John MacArthur points out that in this that Philemon was doubly blessed – he could receive his physical service as his slave, but could also receive his spiritual service as a brother in Christ.
17: If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me.
- I wonder what Philemon was thinking as he reaches this part of Paul’s letter. Philemon had suffered real wrong and loss when Onesimus fled. He may have had property or money stolen, and he may have had to purchase a replacement for him. Surely Philemon had the right to some kind of restitution, a setting straight of the record here. I doubt that Paul or Onesimus would have disagreed with that. I suspect that Onesimus would have wanted to make restitution himself as a new creation in Christ.
- This is why I think Paul intervenes on Onesimus’ behalf. Onesimus could not possibly hope to repay Philemon for all the loss he had caused. Paul intervenes because he needs to point something out – we all owe the kind of debt none of us can ever repay to Christ. Do you see that? Here is a man that died for us so that we could live for Him in worship and sanctification, and it is the very least we can do. And it still isn’t enough, because He made us partakers of His Divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4) through His Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity.
- Again, dr. MacArthur in his commentary says, “Paul’s willingness to meet Onesimus’ debt to restore his relationship to Philemon is a marvelous picture of Christ’s work. Philemon, like God, had been wronged. Onesimus, like the sinner, stood in need of reconciliation. Paul offered to pay the price to bring about that reconciliation. That is the same role that Jesus plays in the relationship between the sinner and God. Paul, like Christ, was willing to pay the price of reconciliation.”
- We are never more like God when we forgive someone. We are never more like Christ when we pay someone’s debt for them so that reconciliation can take place. In find it interesting that Scripture does not tell us what Philemon actually did, but I have no doubt that Philemon forgave Onesimus. After Paul’s appeal, how could he do less? Let me see if I can point out his motives for such forgiveness here.
18: But if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account;
- The first motive I can see is that the debt will be repaid, and that restitution will take place in some measure, but that seems very worldly. I think rather that Philemon realizes that in telling him to charge what is owed to his account, Paul is pointing out that Philemon ALSO has an unpayable debt, just like Onesimus.
19: I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand, I will repay it (not to mention to you that you owe to me even your own self as well).
- You see, I think Paul’s plan is to put Onesimus’ debt onto his own account and then just cancel it, and he reminds Philemon of that in this very verse. “You owe me your own self as well.” Philemon owed Paul an even greater debt than Onesimus owed to Philemon. Onesimus owes Philemon a temporal and material debt. Philemon owes Paul an eternal and spiritual debt, in that Paul preached the gospel of Philemon and led him to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ – a debt that no one could ever repay.
- The motivation that comes from that is the second one, and is far more heavenly – we owe so much that we should be quick to forgive anyone that owes us a debt of any kind. Philemon comes face to face with the real question here – having received so many unpayable spiritual riches from others who have asked for nothing in return, can I not forgive a simple temporal and material debt? His own unpayable debt is prime motivation to forgive.
20: Yes, brother, let me benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ.
- Let me benefit from you in the Lord. The word for “benefit” in Greek is a form of Onesimus’ name! And we are all at this point familiar with Paul’s affinity for word games. What is Paul saying here? Nothing he hasn’t said before. Paul tells the Philippians (Phil. 2:2) that they can “make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose.” His third motivation is to maintain unity in the church at Colossae, who would be aware of Paul’s request, because they were also addressed in this letter (v.2).
- Another consideration Philemon may have had comes from the text of the verse – Philemon, a man of faith, and a fellow worker with Paul, had the opportunity to be a blessing to Paul. Assuming this as a possible motivation brings our count here to four.
21: Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, since I know that you will do even more than what I say.
- From the text directly, Paul brings up the Christian practicality of obedience. Think of this from Philemon’s perspective. I am redeemed, I love the Lord. The Lord’s servant has asked me to forgive this slave of mine who also wants to reconcile because he too has become a Christian. Paul, knowing Philemon’s heart, puts this into the category of “no-brainer.” Were I in Philemon’s shoes, I would forgive Onesimus without hesitation, and I would even have a little glee at the prospect of reintroducing him to the saints as a brother! Mark that as motivation number five.
22: At the same time also prepare me a lodging, for I hope that through your prayers I will be given to you.
- Here’s a strong motivation – Paul is coming to check up on me! As I have previously commented, this is Paul’s first Roman imprisonment. It is at this point coming to an end, and Paul is sensing here that he is going to be released. The very first thing I would do if I were Paul? Drop in on my friends in Colossae. Check up on my children, Philemon, Archippus, and Onesimus. See how everyone is getting along. Yeah, Phil – set up a room for me – I’ve never been there, but I’d love to visit. If you’re counting motivations, that number six.
23: Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you,
- Okay, who is Epaphras again? So many names, right? Well, he’s part of the next motivation, number seven if you’re keeping track, other men who know you, Philemon, and men I am going to tell I have asked you to forgive your slave, and OUR BROTHER Onesimus. Epaphras was likely saved by Paul’s preaching, and most likely founded the church at Colossae, as well as the churches in the nearby cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis. He would be well known to Philemon, and may well have been the pastor of the church that met in Philemon’s own home.
- Epaphras here is described as “my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus,” giving reason to suspect he was also imprisoned with Paul in Rome, although we don’t really know that. It may have been that he was simply a supporter of Paul while in Rome.
24: as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow workers.
- These other four names are the rest of motivation seven to forgive Onesimus. These four gentlemen are also mentioned in the public letter to the Colossians (4:10, 14). These four would also likely been known to Philemon. Mark, of course was John Mark, the cousin of Barnabas who freaked out and left the work after things got real on their very first missionary journey (Acts 13:13), but who got better, and eventually even penned the Gospel of Mark. Yes, THAT Mark!
- Aristarchus was a Jewish believer (Paul explains in Col. 4:10-11). He was actually a native of Thessalonica (seen in Acts 20 and 27). Paul calls him “my fellow prisoner” (Col. 4:10) and in this verse “my fellow worker,” and was well known and beloved by Paul. According to tradition, he was martyred in Rome during the persecution under Nero.
- Demas is a little less well-known in terms of his origins. What we do know of Demas is kind of depressing. Paul informs Timothy (2 Tim. 4:10) that Demas had deserted him, “having loved this present world.” Many believe, as I do, that he was an apostate. It says in 1 John 2:15 that, “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” Still, Paul at this point could count him as a fellow worker.
- Here’s another name – Dr. Luke! He was a Gentile, and authored the third synoptic gospel that bears his name and the book of Acts, kind of a sequel to his gospel. No doubt, He helped care for Paul’s seemingly frequent health issues, and from everything I’ve read in Scripture, was with Paul at the very end.
- Philemon knew all these men, probably well. He had here an opportunity to set a great example by forgiving Onesimus. Or he had the opportunity to break their fellowship by not forgiving Onesimus. These were all his considered motivations. He had a very difficult choice before him, which is doubtless why Paul closed his letter with the following line:
25: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
- It is only by the grace given by the Lord Jesus Christ that we can make godly choices against our own natures. If I were in Philemon’s shoes, I have no doubt I would have had a strong desire (naturally speaking) to make Onesimus suffer at least emotionally, and perhaps take it out of his hide, because that is how my natural old self was raised. I am now nearly 2000 years removed from this situation, and I can still feel the emotions of all the parties involved. My New Man in Christ tells me that I should forgive regardless of my emotions, and so that is what I would do. I have had to forgive personal betrayals at the hands of family and close friends before. Yes, it hurt, and it hurt acutely, and it hurt for a long time. But at the same time, I owe so much to the Lord Jesus Christ for saving me, for calling me to Himself, for making ME a partaker of His Divine nature, for which I can never repay Him, and I can never repay any of those people that were His servants in my life along the way. And it was only by the grace of God that I could forgive – and it is now only the grace of God in which I stand.
And that’s what I got from the chapter, with some additional guidance from Dr. John MacArthur’s New Testament Commentary on Colossians and Philemon, but there are necessarily two outstanding issues. First, what about slavery? You never talked about slavery, Ger! You’re right, I did not – and I will tell you why. Slavery is an element of this situation, but it is not the main point, which is clearly forgiving wrongs done to you. Paul never gives an opinion on slavery anywhere in Scripture. He doesn’t say it is good, but he certainly does not anywhere condemn it. Why? Because this is not the slavery we know here in the West. The slavery we know here is African slavery. Big, aggressive, and abusive Africans raid your village, take you captive, and then sell you to big, aggressive, abusive men that will take you to a slaving port and sell you to the highest bidder, most often a big, aggressive, and abusive owner, that you now had the “privilege” of working for or dying. The human abuses that accompanied that kind of slavery are well-known and absolute abominations to God. Our sovereign God still allowed it to happen. And men were saved out of it, at least spiritually speaking. One of those men was John Newton, who gave us the most famous Christian Hymn of all time – Amazing Grace. And after his salvation, he began to try to reform the abusive practices of the rest of the captains running slave vessels. He even had his crew study the Bible with the slaves at sea. And later, John Newton met and encouraged a young British man named William Wilberforce, who is nearly singlehandedly responsible for ending slaving in the British Empire, including Canada. And this happened well before the US Civil War was fought, and it was more about economy than anything else. Depending on who you read, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was a re-election ploy. I do think it is more than that, but I’ve read a lot of revisionist authors that agree with that sentiment.
No, the slavery of the ancient world was very different. You could become a slave of your own free will. It didn’t always happen that way, but slaves were generally well treated by their masters, probably because they understood that a happy slave worked harder. If you became a slave of your own choice, you actually were entering into a contractual agreement with your owner, and it often had length of service limits, and you were always paid UP FRONT for your period of service. As a slave, you were often allowed to marry, and your children would become the property of your master also, but they would assume financial responsibility for their care, just like they did for yours. Some slaves were educated, and could become doctors, architects, skilled tradesmen, musicians, and the like. Some slaves could own property, and some were even given a periodic stipend, similar to a wage like we would earn at our jobs. Apart from your “rights” as a citizen, you could often live better as a slave than some of your freeman counterparts, who had to pay for everything themselves, and often lived in poverty as a result. Hmm. Kind of like people today. We call ourselves “wage slaves” these days.
Paul also considered himself a slave of Christ. Now with Christ as our master, one could look forward to a benevolent master that directs us on how to best represent Him, and gives us the fruits (the natural results) of His Spirit in us – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control.
It is my opinion, and not just mine, that this story took place regardless of the background of slavery. Paul did not command Philemon to free his slave. He asked politely (and built a powerful case). Paul’s concern was the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ, who set people free of their real slavery – slavery to sin. I find it interesting that it was Christianity that put an end to the abuses of slavery in the ancient world, AND in the more modern era of western African slavery. You see, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the key to changing hearts and lives regardless of the economic system in play at the time. Christianity has survived imperialism, even under intense persecution, feudalism, republicanism, communism (again under intense persecution), to their great dismay it has survived radical Islam, and it is surviving today in China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and in some of the most hostile-to-Christian places on the map. Paul proved with his own imprisonment on several occasions that you can contain the preacher, but you can NEVER contain the message. Christianity in the West is surviving Capitalism and Democracy. Regardless of the economics of the situation, no worldly system can stop Christianity. It will only end on earth when God chooses for it to end. Slavery was never the point of Philemon.
The only remaining outstanding issue is this – Did Philemon forgive Onesimus? Well, it doesn’t say, but I won’t be a cop-out artist and leave it there. It is my considered opinion as a Christian, Theologian, and Pastor that he DID forgive Onesimus. The proof I point to is the presence of the letter itself in the canon of Scripture. Had Philemon broken fellowship with Paul and that august company named at the end of the letter, I believe there would be no record of it. Why would the Lord give any record of his failed servants or of apostates? And I offer one extra piece of evidence. This is not from scripture, but there is archival evidence that in the late first century, a man named Onesimus became the pastor in the church in Ephesus. We know this because of a letter written to the Ephesian church about 50 years after this letter. The church father Ignatius, while in Smyrna on his way to martyrdom in Rome, penned in this letter, “I received your large congregation in the person of Onesimus, your bishop [that is, your pastor] in this world, a man whose love is beyond words…” Is this the same man? Maybe not, because this adds 50 years to Onesimus’ age and would make him very old. But imagine if it is – what an amazing conclusion to one of the most interesting tales from the apostolic era. And it fits – the one who is forgiven much loves much.
What about you? You have a debt that YOU cannot pay to God the Father because of your own sin. Jesus has already paid the price for that sin, and now offers you life in Him. Will you take it? I pray you do so right now.