Pastor, Covenant Reformed Church
Have you ever been fantasized about getting even with someone who wronged you?
Yeah, me too. That’s why I need the Apostle Paul’s Letter to Philemon.
It’s hard for us to read about Philemon without judging him wrongly. He was a Christian who owned slaves – and for that reason alone, we want to condemn him.
But we can’t. In Philemon’s culture, slavery was normal. He gave no more thought to slavery than you give to wearing shoes assembled by third-world workers who earn a dollar a day.
And Philemon had been wronged.
Paul’s letter was aimed at setting that wrong right.
You see, while Paul was in prison, he met a runaway slave named Onesimus. Living under the guard of a Roman soldier, Paul was free to receive guests, write letters, teach – but not to leave.
And one day Onesimus showed up.
Why did Onesimus seek out this friend of his former master? We don’t know. But somehow, God made it happen. And through Paul, Onesimus met Jesus. In time, Onesimus became like a son to Paul.
However, the Apostle knew that Onesimus must return. He had broken the law in escaping and stealing from Philemon. God calls us to repent of our sins – no matter how difficult.
Legally, Philemon would have been justified in punishing Onesimus, even with death.
So Paul sent Onesimus home with a letter in his hand and Paul’s fellow minister Tychicus at his side.
Paul could have commanded Philemon to spare Onesimus from punishment. After all, Paul had led Philemon to Christ. Philemon’s debt to Paul was incalculable.
But the wise apostle refrained. Instead, he reminded Philemon of God’s grace in Christ (vs.3). He commended Philemon for the love he had shown (vss.5,7).
And then Paul spoke of Onesimus. He was a runaway slave and a thief. But by God’s grace, he had become Paul’s much-loved son (vss.10,12). Paul hated to see him go, yet he sent Onesimus back – so that Philemon might receive him as a brother in Christ (vss.15-16).
Receive him with the love that you have for me, Paul wrote (vs.17). And if he owes you anything, I myself will repay it. That’s how much Onesimus and his faith mean to me (vs.18).
A bit of a guilt trip? Perhaps.
But also a powerful reminder of our calling to imitate God, loving and forgiving as God has loved and forgiven us, at such great cost (Eph. 4:30-5:2).
Paul didn’t ask Philemon to set Onesimus free. But in a letter to Philemon’s church, he reminded Philemon that he himself was God’s slave (Col. 4:1). The unspoken message was clear: How would you like your Master to treat you, Philemon? Go and do likewise.
Like Philemon, we are wronged by people in our lives. And our hearts long for justice – even vengeance.
But that’s not how God responded to our sins against Him.
God sought us in love. He didn’t ignore the debt. But He paid our debt Himself, through His beloved Son.
Knowing that, can we continue to bear a grudge against those who sin against us? Can we refuse forgiveness to anyone who asks? Can we demand that they pay their debt, and still call ourselves children of God?
No. We must resolve to love as we have been loved. When others offend us, we must recall how we have offended God – and how graciously He responded.
Then we must give what we have received, as freely as it was given to us.
And our Heavenly Father will rejoice to see His image reflected by us, His beloved children!