Have you ever been in a situation where you needed to forgive someone who hurt you? Did you find it difficult to do so? It can be scary to forgive, especially when the pain runs deep. Will that person respect your forgiveness? What if they hurt you again? Are they really sorry? How do you truly know? There are many questions surrounding broken relationships, questions that can make forgiveness seem murky. In our study of Philemon, Paul is addressing a situation of brokenness, and one that needed forgiveness. But this wasn’t any ordinary brokenness, and what Paul is asking is, well, a lot.
If you want to catch up on the broken situation I’m talking about, start with Part 1 of this series, and continuing reading Parts 2 and 3. Then look at verse 17 of the letter to Philemon. Do you see where Paul says to Philemon, “If you consider me a partner”? It is almost certain that Philemon would have considered Paul a partner. Guess what Greek word Paul used there for “partner”? Koinonia. Remember that from the previous series on Philemon 1-7, when we discussed verse 6? “Sharing” is the word koinonia, and it means “fellowship, sharing or participation.” Paul has come full circle, and then some! Paul says, “Welcome Onesimus as you would welcome me, as a close friend, because that’s what Christians do!” Further, if Philemon is to welcome Onesimus, just as he would welcome Paul, do you see how Paul is putting Onesimus on an equal level with himself! That’s the kind of amazing equality that we all have in Christ.
Paul continues. In verse 18 he says that if Onesimus has done Philemon any wrong, or owes Philemon anything, he should charge it to Paul. As we said in Part 2 of this series on Philemon 8-25, it is highly likely that Onesimus did something more than just run away; in the process of running away he probably stole money and possessions from Philemon. Paul knows this, and does not want that offense to get in the way of Philemon embracing Onesimus as a brother. Paul wants this reunion to go well. This could be an amazing example to many people of the power of Jesus, and how Jesus wants to reshape the world. A master welcoming back his runaway slave who stole from him? The normal response for Onesimus’ behavior would have massive punishment, maybe even death. Also Philemon’s honor was at stake in the community. Paul knows that if Philemon acts in a surprising upside-down Jesus kind of way, Philemon’s forgiveness and brotherly-welcoming of Onesimus could have significant ripple effects in Colosse. Imagine the people in the city talking as word gets out: “Did you hear that Philemon welcomed back a slave who ran away from him, and stole from him?” That would get notice! Sure some people, maybe even many people, would think Philemon is crazy, but they would still be seeing an amazing example of forgiveness and brotherhood that Jesus brings to the world. What an impact that could make in the church! In the world!
Therefore, what we see Paul pushing for is the beginning of the eradication of slavery. This is how Christians can clearly say that slavery is not supported by the Bible. This is an upending of the social order and seeing God’s Kingdom come to earth as it is in heaven. Paul is teaching Christians to be willing to go against the conventions of their day, in the name of Jesus. To cross color lines sacrificially, lovingly. To repent where they need to repent. To forgive. To pay for crimes they didn’t commit. This is a distinctly Jesus way of life, isn’t it? That kind of self-sacrifice, Paul says to Philemon, is what it takes to be the church.
Still Paul isn’t done. In verse 19 he says he is writing this with his own hand. Often Paul would just talk and one of his friends would write. But he is writing this one himself. It is very personal and important to him. It could be that his friend wrote the rest of the letter, but at verse 19, he picks up the pen and says, “Philemon, I’m serious about my offer to you to charge Onesimus’ damages to me. I will pay it back.” And then he gets back to some, well, could we say, urging? Manipulating? Maybe. Paul says, “by the way, Philemon, remember that you owe me you very self.” I don’t know what that means. Paul doesn’t say. It could be that Paul guided Philemon to faith in Christ. We don’t know. Clearly, though, Paul is pulling out all the stops to help Philemon see things his way.
Then he lays it on a bit thicker in verses 20-21. Read those verses. How much does Paul want Philemon to forgive Onesimus and welcome him as a brother? So much. He wants a benefit from Philemon, so Paul tells Philemon to refresh his heart, as he said Philemon was so good at back in verse 7. Then he says in verse 21, “Philemon, I know you will do even more than I ask.” Maybe Paul is trying too hard here. What we know by all his cajoling is that this situation is extremely important to Paul. I read this letter and think, “Did Philemon have any choice but to do what Paul is asking of him?” Then Paul finishes up the letter with some further greetings and a closing blessing of grace.
But let’s go back to that question: Did Philemon have a choice? Sure, he did. With Paul far away in Rome, Philemon had a choice. Paul couldn’t make Philemon agree and receive Onesimus, no longer a slave, now a brother. Philemon would have to overcome his personal anger, embarrassment, and hurt. He likely felt betrayed by Onesimus. He would also have to overcome societal pressure that said masters do not forgive slaves. In a society of honor and shame, Onesimus had greatly shamed his master, and the common response by the master would be severe punishment. What Paul is asking Philemon to do, then, is radical, earth-shattering, Jesus kind of forgiveness and acceptance. Paul’s teaching that all are one in Christ, that Jesus removes the distinctions between slave and free, is right, but it presents a tall order for Philemon. What will he do?
What did he do? We don’t know for sure. Ancient historians tells us that there was an Onesimus who eventually became a Christian bishop. Maybe it was this Onesimus, and if so, that would indicate a possibility that Philemon did exactly what Paul asked him to. We really don’t know. Scholars also point out that because we still know the content of the Paul’s letter to Philemon, that, too, is an indication that Philemon received Onesimus as a brother. Why? Because this letter was almost certainly private, and Philemon could have crumpled it up, thrown it away, and burned it. Most likely, he didn’t, and instead allowed the letter to become public, copied and transmitted to many other churches, so they could also benefit from Paul’s teaching. Again, how did Philemon respond to the letter? We don’t know for sure.
The better question is: what will we do? And we attempt to answer that next in Part 5.