Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Philemon: Phabulous example of Phellowship

Sometimes shiny gifts come in small packages often overlooked among the larger packages waiting to be opened.

Such is the book of Philemon. It is easy to skip right pass it since in many Bibles it takes up less than a full page.  

And what a strange story it must seem to many who stumble upon it. What could it possibly have to do with us today. In fact, it's a bit off-putting, this sending a slave back to his owner after he has escaped. What is Christian in all of this?

Lets take a look at the main people involved.  

We have Paul, who is writing the letter during a time he is under arrest in Rome.  The letter is being written to a man named Philemon. I am not sure just where Philemon was living at the time. Finally, we have Onesimus, who is also in Rome and one of those visiting Paul during his incarceration. Onesimus is the catalyst for the letter. Onesimus is a slave belonging to Philemon who has run away and Paul is sending back.  Is there anything else we can know about Philemon and Onesimus from this little letter?

Quite a bit I think.  We know Philemon must be a man of some means since he can own a slave. We don't know if he has more than the one.  We also can gather that Philemon was converted to The Way by Paul (you owe me your very self - verse 19).

We know Onesimus was a slave owned by Philemon, but he has run away. Most likely, he stole something of value belonging to his master (If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything - verse 18). Onesimus has also come to Christ through Paul.

So why not just let things stay as they are, allow Onesimus to remain free rather than return him to Philemon?  

Well, what future did Onesimus have? He was a fugitive, a runaway slave. What was the punishment if he was caught? Death, or at best, a severe beating. He had no status in that Roman world. He needed grace. 
Look at how Paul throughout associates himself with Onesimus as a person in bondage: "Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus (verse 1), I then, as Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus (verse 9), Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains (verse 10), while I am in chains for the gospel (verse 13) and Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus (verse 23)".

Bob Dylan sang in his song, "Gotta Serve Somebody" this lyric, "It may be the Devil, it may be the Lord, but you're gonna have to serve somebody".  Paul is a prisoner of Rome, but does he say that? No, he says he is a prisoner of Christ. He is a willing slave to the Gospel because he knows he serves a loving and just master in Jesus. We all become slaves by choice in this world. We can become a prisoner to sin and the servant of Satan or we can choose to be a bondservant to God. We can choose to run away from the loving master, because we have free will, but the punishment for this is spiritual death.

We don't know if Philemon was a kind master before he knew Paul and Christ. We know Onesimus was useless as a servant before he knew Paul and Christ. But now they have a new relationship as brothers in Christ and Onesimus can return without fear to a new life with Philemon, and willingly serve because his master will be loving and just.  Philemon and Onesimus will uphold each other in their new faith, just as each of us should uphold our brothers and sisters in Christ approaching each other with both love and a servant's heart. Onesimus will not receive what he should under the law of that culture, but will live as part of Philemon's family, that is grace.

It is interesting how Paul plays with language. Philemon is a Greek name that means "Loving". Look at Paul's greeting to Philemon:  I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints. Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love.

Onesimus means "beneficial" or "useful". Here is what Paul says describing Onesimus in his redemption:  I then, as Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— 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.

At one time Onesimus was owned by Philemon and both were slaves to sin. Now they both are bonded to the Lord and they have a fellowship as brothers. We need to be the same. it is not our position or our old relationships that should prevail between believers, but our bonding together as the Body of Christ, our love and support to one and another willingly.

We could probably find much more in this letter if we tried. How about this in verses 18 and 19:  If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. Could Paul be reminding Philemon of what Christ did for him?

"Father-God, if Philemon has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Jesus, will pay it - despite, Philemon, that you owe me your very self." 

1 comment:

  1. What a good lesson Larry. When I think of the Grace and love of God and Christ taking our place I have to stop and just think on it. It is one of those SELAH moments. You know what i mean? I just can't seem to take it all in, because the more i think about His Love the deeper He gets. His love is so deep and wide that I just seem to fall short of grasping it in it's fullness.. My prayer is that i will be filled with the fullness of God but i don't think i can attain that goal until i see Him face to face. He keeps me seeking and i know that if i seek Him with all of my heart i will find Him..

    Great teaching on the Love of Jesus..

    Thank you for sharing Larry. God bless you!