Roles in Philemon
Philemon 1:1-25

By Paul Robison

 There is a book in the New Testament which has been described as “a model of Christian courtesy, a manifestation of Christian love,  and a monument of Christian [reconciliation]” (Copeland).  That book is Paul's epistle to Philemon, the shortest of all of Paul's letters.  But don't let it's brevity fool you because it packs a wallop!  In fact, one person makes this observation that brings its impact close to home: “Consider what Paul the prisoner did: he led someone to Christ—You can do that; he risked a friendship to help a new believer—You can do that; he took a stand in a small way—You can do that; he applied the gospel to a personal need—You can do that; Paul didn’t do anything unusual, strange, or extraordinary, [but] he simply did what any Christian should do—You can do that” (Pritchard)!  Wow, this little letter has much to offer us!

Let's briefly
look at the background for his letter.  “This letter was written to Philemon, the owner of Onesimus, one of the millions of slaves in the Roman Empire, who had probably stolen something from his master and run away.  Onesimus had made his way to Rome, where, in God's providence, he came in contact with the apostle Paul, who [converted him to the Lord].  So now both Onesimus and Philemon are faced with doing their Christian duty towards one another.  Onesiums was to return to his master, and Philemon was to receive him back with forgiveness as a Christian brother.  Death was the normal punishment for a runaway slave, but Paul intercedes on behalf of Onesimus.  Philemon and his family are members at the church in Colosse.  The letter was written around 61 A.D. during Paul's first imprisonment in Rome.  So, the primary purpose of this letter was to ask Philemon to forgive Onesimus and accept him back as a beloved brother in Christ” (Keathley III).  In fact, a good two word summary would be “Be Forgiving!”

The letter has been divided into four parts.  The first part (verses 1-3) shows
Paul's courtesy towards Philemon and gives the normal greetings that Paul usually writes in his letters.  The next part (verses 4-7) gives Paul's compliment about Philemon.  Let's read these verses: “I thank my God, making mention of you always in my prayers, hearing of your love and faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints [notice how Paul is laying some groundwork here—the question in a moment will be: “Can one who shows love and faith to Christ and the saints, also show it to a slave to has become a Christian?”], that the sharing of your faith may become effective by the acknowledgment of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus [Paul wants Philemon's faith to remain active, especially in light of the difficult request which is to follow].  For we have great joy and consolation in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you, brother [Now notice that word “refreshed”.  It was a military term, signifying the rest that an army would have after being on a long march.  So, when “the Christians at Colosse had become weary in the daily battles for the Lord, they would find in Philemon the refreshment and rest [that they needed] to regain strength for renewed warfare” (Wright)!  We might call him the kind of brother who could recharge our battery!  Now don't forget that word “refreshed”!]

Paul's courtesy to Philemon and Paul's compliment about Philemon.  Now, in the third part (verses 8-20) Paul gets down to business and we hear his counsel to Philemon.  As we read this section, notice how tactfully and kindly Paul makes his appeals as his seeks to honor and to reconcile both of these brothers.  Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting, yet for love's sake, I rather appeal to you—being such a one as Paul, the aged, and now a prisoner of Jesus Christ--[Notice how Paul says that he could command Philemon to do something, but he make his appeal based on love.  He an old man (and age should be respected) and a prisoner for Christ as well [clang, clang, you can almost hear Paul's chains as he writes].  I appeal to you for my son, Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my chains [Notice how far the old biased Pharisee has come in that he introduces Onesimus, a Gentile, as his son in the faith, one that he had converted while a prisoner (and there's those chains again)], who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me [Onesimus' name mean “profitable” or “useful”.  Now why did Paul make such a statement?  One commentator gives this good insight: “The apostle softened the unpleasantness that the mention of Onesimus' name would have produced by making a pun.”Useful" had been "useless" to Philemon, but now he was living up to his name.  He had proved useful to Paul, and he could be useful to Philemon too” (Constable).  I am sending him back [which was Paul's legal obligation].  You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the Gospel [Accept him who is so close to me!  I even wished to keep him as my slave because he has become so useful and could help me in my ministry, and for the third time we hear those chains clang once again.]  But without your consent, I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary [Notice that Paul says that he wanted Philemon to have the final call, and he was waiting to see Philemon's voluntary good deed.  How could Philemon say “No” to Paul's loving and hopeful prodding?].  But then Paul draws God and Christ into the situation in verse 15: “For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, 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.” [Notice how Paul hints that maybe God had a higher purpose in Onesimus' being gone, that Philemon might have him back permanently, and not just as a slave but as a beloved Christian brother, whom Paul says that he especially loves.]  If then you count me as a partner, receive him as you would receive me [We are partners in the Lord aren't we?  So please accept him, just as I know you would accept me.]  But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account.  [Now Philemon I know that Onesimus might have some financial debts, but you just let me worry about them!]  I, Paul, am writing with my own hand, I will repay—not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides. [You've got my signature on it that I'll pay you, and by the way, remember how you owe me your soul's salvation as well.] Yes, brother, let me have joy from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in the Lord. [Just as you gave me joy in the past and have refreshed the saints, so now recharge my battery—there's the word “refresh” again—by welcoming back Onesimus].  Now you see why a student of mine once exclaimed: “Man, Paul was really sneaky with his wording wasn't he!”?  Paul's courtesy towards Philemon, Paul's compliment about Philemon, Paul's counsel to Philemon, and Paul's confidence in Philemon (in the closing verses).  Listen, to some more of Paul's tactful pressures starting with verse 21: “Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.  [Notice that Paul is expecting the best from Philemon, and he might even be dropping a hint that he would hope Philemon would free Onesimus too, doing more than what I've asked.]  But, meanwhile, also prepare a guest room for me, for I trust that through your prayers I shall be granted to you.  [Now get me a place to stay ready because through your prayers I hope to be released, and I'll make my way over to visit with you and to see how you and Onesimus are getting along.]  Then Paul gives some greetings from others who with him and closes with his typical blessing: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.  Amen.”  [Notice that “our Lord” is involved in this situation.]

would had to have been pretty  hard-hearted to say “No” to Paul's kind and tactful requests wouldn't he?  We do not know exactly how Philemon responded to Paul's letter.  But church tradition tells us that Philemon later became an elder at Colosse, and Onesimus was freed and later become an elder in the church at Ephesus.  If these traditions are true, then we see how one loving heart and kind letter had a great impact on two other brothers in the Lord!

eone has observed that all of us have probably played the three roles that we find in the three characters of this story: sometimes, we have been the offender, like Onesimus was; sometimes, we have been the offended, like Philemon was; and sometimes, we have been a mediator, like Paul was.  Let's examine each of those roles by asking ourselves some questions?  Let's see if we could follow through nobly with whatever role might be ours.

Maybe you have
been the offender, like Onesimus was.  Here are three questions for you.  First of all, do you have the capacity to return and try to make things right?  You know, Onesimus cost Philemon quite a bit of money, and he would have had every right to be angry.  Now how much time did Paul have to take to talk Onesimus into going back to Philemon to try and make things right? The text doesn't say how long, but it does say that Onesimus had the courage to do it!  Remember the prodigal son in Jesus' parable determined that he would go back to his father’s house (Luke 15:18-19).  It's never an easy thing to return to the one who has been offended.  It takes courage to make the journey, especially if you're unsure how the offended party might respond.  Even when you make the journey and try to make things right, the offended party may still withhold forgiveness (some people are just so hard-hearted).  Do you need to return and try to make things right with someone else or with God Himself?  It won't be easy, but it will be right, and you can be at peace knowing that you tried your best to bring about reconciliation.  Here's the next question: do you have the capacity to face the offended with submission?  Making the trip was hard enough for Onesimus, but his heart probably really began to pound when he stepped onto Philemon's property!  Onesimus was probably very thankful that Paul had sent Tychicus to accompany him (Col. 4:7-9).  It would be interesting to know in what context Onesimus and Philemon finally met face to face as Onesimus probably bowed in submission and extended his hand with Paul's letter in it to Philemon.  It had been a long trip, but now waiting to see how Philemon would respond to Paul's letter probably felt like an eternity to Onesimus!  Remember, Philemon had every legal right to harm and to crucify Onesimus.  Remember the dread that Jacob also felt when he had to approach his brother Esau (Genesis 33)?  Remember how he sent gifts, and animals, and other people ahead of himself in hopes that Esau would be appreciative and merciful?  Yes, facing the one we have offended with submission is truly no easy task.  But just as God gave Jacob the strength and Christ gave Onesimus the strength to follow through, God and Christ can give you the strength also to face those you have offended!  Why not look another in the eye and say those five powerful words: “I'm sorry.  Please, forgive me.”  Here's the third question: Do you have the capacity to let someone else help you to make peace?  Onesimus didn't try to make peace alone.  He was holding Paul's kind letter, which used about every positive motive imaginable and tried to break down every objection that Philemon might raise.  Sometimes the best way to bring about reconciliation is to ask  someone else to help you.  Can someone intervene who can bring out the best in both of you?  Onesimus and Philemon both had a trusted friend and brother in Paul, and we saw how Paul lovingly brought these two brothers together.  If you need to, seek out a mediator to help you in bringing about reconciliation!

But maybe yo
u have been offended, like Philemon was, so here are three questions for you.  First of all, do you have the capacity to forgive?  We hear Paul pleading with Philemon to let bygones by bygones and to receive or accept Onesimus as a beloved brother in Christ.  Such forgiveness is not easy.  Other slaves and other members of the church would be watching Philemon to see what he would do.  Perhaps, like us, Philemon had been taught the parable of the unmerciful servant who would not forgive another servant who owed him just small debt after his master had forgiven him of an enormous debt (Matthew 18:20-35).  It's one thing to know Jesus' teaching, but are we willing to apply it when we are the offended party?  Are we quick to forget how much God has forgiven us?  Wouldn't today be a wonderful time to once and for all bury the hatchet that you've been carry around so long against another?  Here's the next question: do you have the capacity to accept others as family in God's household?  “When Onesimus left, he was a slave and a sinner, but when he came back, he was a brother and a saint” (Carr).  He was a new creation in the Lord!  Can we view and accept people in that way?  Can we accept others regardless of what they have done in their past, regardless of their backgrounds, and regardless of their social status?  Or are we unwilling to accept others as family like the elder brother was in the parable about the prodigal son?  “But he was angry and would not go in [to welcome his brother and to enjoy the party had his father had given to celebrate his son's return] (Luke 15:28).  We need to remember that it's Jesus who has set the standards for entrance into His family and not us.  Now here's a third question: do you have the capacity to love the penitent like Jesus does?  We saw that “Philemon had no problem loving and refreshing the saints, but the true test of his came when Paul urged him to love Onesimus with the same degree of love and enthusiasm” (Carr).  Perhaps, like us, he knew that Jesus said if your brother repents seven times in one day, you are to forgive him (Luke 17:4).  Again, knowledge is great, but will it be lived out in our lives when we are wronged?  Let's love the penitent unreservedly and wholeheartedly, just as our Lord has loved us!  Let's look them in the eye and say five powerful words to them: “Welcome back.  All is forgiven.”

But maybe you have been asked to serve as a mediator, like Paul was, so here are three questions for you.  First of all, do you have the capacity to love both parties and say things tactfully?  We saw very clearly that Paul loved both Onesimus and Philemon.  He wanted the best for them both.  And even though this is one of the shortest of Paul's letters, it may have been one that took him the longest to write.  Paul must have prayed, and then thought, and then prayed again, and thought some more.  This is no casual letter because we saw how just about every sentence in it puts some pressure on Philemon to forgive, but it does so in such a thoughtful, kind, and hopeful way.  The role of a peacemaker is not an easy task, but Christ promises us that where two or three are gathered in His name to work out their differences, He will be in our midst (Matthew 18:20).  Here's the next question: do you have the capacity to pay someone's debt for reconciliation?  Isn't it amazing that Paul took upon himself to pay any financial debts that Philemon felt should be coming to him!  Where did Paul learn to have that kind of lifestyle?  Wasn't Paul pretty grateful to someone named Jesus who had once paid the debt before God that his sins had accumulated?  You see, the little letter of Philemon is really the Gospel in miniature isn't it?  We were all slaves to sin, but Christ became our mediator and paid the debt we could not pay, so that now we are reconciled to our new Owner, who is God!  Would you suffer monetary loss if it might help two Christians to be reconciled and live in peace once again?  And here's the third question: do you have the capacity to show high expectations for both parties?  Paul bragged to Philemon that Useful would really live up to him name, and Paul boasted that Philemon would do even more than he requested!  Can we follow in Paul's steps and give both parties that we are working with something noble to fulfill?  Can we help all to see that the past is behind them and a brighter future lies ahead?

Don't let the
brevity of Philemon fool you because it packs a wallop!  “Be forgiving!”  Someone has remarked that the whole Christian message can be stated in this one sentence: “Love God and the person in front of you!”   You know what—You can do that!  If you are the offender, return and try to make things right!  “I'm sorry.  Please, forgive me.”  If you’re the offended, forgive, accept, and love as Christ! “Welcome back.  All is forgiven.” If you are the mediator, love both parties, be willing to sacrifice, and give them both a brighter future!  Jesus can give you the strength to do what's right regardless of which of these roles you must live out.  Let Him help you return, let Him help you forgive, or let Him help you mediate.  “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.  Amen.”