The letter of Paul to Philemon strikes me as such a wonderful example of the love Christians should have for one another. Just look at the relationship between the two men:
- Paul calls Philemon “dear friend” (v1).
- Paul is so clearly encouraged by Philemon’s walk (v4-7).
- Philemon had clearly helped Paul in the past (v13).
- They would consider each other “partners,” suggesting a close friendship and relationship as fellow gospel workers (v17).
- Philemon was likely converted by Paul (v19).
- Paul desires to come to Philemon in person and stay with him(v22).
The two men are clearly close friends but once Paul begins to talk about Onesimus, we really begin to see the extent of the love that Christians must have for one another. Onesimus was seemingly a valued slave of Philemon’s (v16) who had in some way wronged his master, most likely stealing some of his money (19) and then running away (v12, 15). It seems that at some point after fleeing from Philemon, Onesimus had come into contact with Paul and been converted (v10-11). The transforming effect that the gospel had on his life is clear to be seen. He became a fellow worker for the gospel alongside Paul (v11, 13) which led to a close relationship between the two of them:
- Paul calls him his “son” (v10)
- Paul describes Onesimus as “my very heart” (v12).
- Onesimus had helped Paul during his imprisonment in a similar way that Philemon did (v13).
- Paul says that Onesimus is very dear to him (v16).
- Paul is willing to pay back what Onesimus owes (v19).
Clearly Onesimus’s life has changed for the better but Paul is writing to Philemon because he knows that the broken relationship between the slave and master needs to be addressed. We’ve already seen two great examples of the closeness Christians should share in their relationships but it’s in Paul’s plea for Philemon to welcome back Onesimus that we see how much deeper that love must go:
- Paul has commended Philemon on his love for the other brothers and how he has ministered to them (v7). He appeals to Philemon to love Onesimus in the same way, despite the wrong he has done him (v9).
- Philemon is to welcome Onesimus back not as a slave but as a fellow Christian brother (v16).
- Philemon should welcome Onesimus as he would welcome Paul, as a partner, as if Onesimus was the man who had converted him and as a dear friend that he’d prepare a bed for (v17).
Paul and Philemon were clearly dear friends who had great love for one another and Philemon clearly had great love for other Christians too. But Paul’s challenge to him is to welcome back a thieving slave (who no doubt had cost him lots of trouble and money) as if he were Paul himself. Any previous wrongs in the relationship are to be put behind them and they are now to love one another as Christian brothers and not slave and master. Paul even suggests that by doing this, Philemon will refresh his heart (v20) which is surely a reference back to the joy and encouragement Paul had from Philemon’s love of his Christian brothers and sisters in v7.
I find this little letter profoundly challenging. Not only does it show the depth of relationships we should share with other Christians but it challenges us to forgive those who have wronged us and love them as if they were our nearest and dearest. It also shows the encouragement that this can be to others around us and therefore the discouragement that a refusal to do so can be.
This whole letter shows the incredible love Christians are to have for one another and in doing so, points to the greatest love, shown by Jesus on the cross. In many ways, we are all like Onesimus, having wronged our master and done our best to flee the scene of the crime. But where there is true repentance, Jesus welcomes us back like an old friend, like a brother.