“I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me.” (Philemon 10-11)
One of the shortest books in the Bible is actually a personal letter written by the apostle Paul while a prisoner in Rome. The recipient was a fellow believer named Philemon, who probably lived in Colossae. The letter concerned a runaway slave named Onesimus. The problem: Onesimus was Philemon’s slave and Paul’s convert. Yes, new converts often have complicated and messy backgrounds. That’s why we need wisdom when working with them as they develop in their walk with God.
(As a note of explanation, slavery was very common in that era. Slaves were more like indentured servants, often paid a wage, and served for a period of time. Some were prisoners of war. Others were unable to pay debts or were prisoners. Some were doctors, administrators, and other professional types. It was how society worked at that time and was an accepted way of life. The church did not condone slavery but worked to change it from within. Paul wisely taught us how to relate to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ regardless of our social status.)
Scripture does not tell us how Paul and Onesimus became acquainted, but somehow their paths crossed in Rome. We do know the runaway slave became a new creation in Christ. Paul did not deny or minimize his wrongdoing but assured Philemon that he was a changed man. Onesimus “now is profitable to you and to me.”
It is obvious from his letter that Paul enjoyed a good relationship with both men. Philemon was a good friend and a dedicated Christian who hosted a church in his home. Onesimus, the new convert, soon become very valuable to Paul while in Rome. Although Paul would have enjoyed keeping the man with him, he knew he should send him back to his master so he could make things right.
Rather than condemning Philemon for owning a slave, Paul gently reminds him that the two men are now brothers in Christ, and Philemon should receive Onesimus even as he would receive Paul himself. Paul goes further and offers to repay anything Onesimus owes. “But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account.” This shows the confidence Paul placed in both men.
Why did a letter dealing with a personal matter between two men become part of Scripture? It shows us important lessons that are relevant today. When you read this small book (and I suggest you do), you will discover several truths.
- The gospel is powerful and transforms lives. Our social status does not matter.
- When dealing with problems, it is best to show wisdom and compassion rather than harshness.
- Even when we have clearly been wronged, we must forgive and show love to the offender.
- We all hold an equal position in the body of Christ.
- No matter what we have done, we can still be restored and useful for kingdom work.
Paul loved both men and desired to see them reconcile. He willingly spoke to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus, trusting for a good resolution to the problem. At some point, we may each need a Paul in our life to speak on our behalf. At other times, we may be the one to speak up for a brother or sister. Whatever the circumstance, wisdom, gentle words, and love help heal even the most complicated relationships.
Lord, thank You for those who wisely speak reconciliation and healing into difficult situations in the body of Christ. Help us to appreciate and value every member of the body equally because that is how You see us.