In an ancient land, some 30 years after Jesus ascended, was a city called Colossae where modern-day Turkey lies. Here, a man named Philemon lived. He was a wealthy man with a large estate and a great reputation. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, he was led to the saving knowledge of Christ.
Excited by his new found religion, he joyously opened his home to the local church which met there regularly, and gave freely of his resources. It was the church that we know from the biblical book, Colossians, founded and pastored by Epaphras (Col. 1:7; 4:12) and possibly Archippus, the young son of Philemon (Col. 4:17; Phile. 1:2).
While hosting the church Philemon utilized his slaves and servants to help those who gathered to participate in worship. I like to think of it as a forced mission field. Slaves and servants were exposed to the gospel and the good works of those who gathered for worship. However, some slaves refused the gospel, longing instead for worldly freedom. One such slave in particular, discontented with the grace of his master and wishing to escape to the Roman world, stole from Philemon and ran away. The slave’s name was Onesimus.
He fled to Rome where many run-away slaves could be found hiding in the busy crowds. Rome was a wealthy city, flourishing with opportunities, while Colossae was on a downward spiral, becoming less of a popular town then it once was before the time of Christ. From Colossae to Rome was a 1200 mile trip, dangerous and virtually impossible to make without plenty of funds. Thus Onesimus had to steal to survive.
In Rome, with his master’s money in hand, he attempted to blend in with the diverse Roman population, but this didn’t last long. God had other plans.
Through a series of sovereignly orchestrated events, Onesimus eventually found himself in prison and certainly must have thought his future was in peril. But in prison his life took a dramatically new and interesting turn. We don’t know the details, but I like to use my imagination.
A fugitive slave, running away from a rather well-conditioned bondage, is found stealing. The Roman soldiers bind him and drag him to prison. Entering the gate, he is thrust into a holding area full of criminals. He is bitter and frustrated, regretting ever leaving his prior bondage under a gracious master. The stench of men who haven’t bathed in months assault his nostrils and he’s thinking he’s soon to become one. This was not a part of his plan.
He surveys those around him, mercilessly judging each one until he hears something that captures his attention. He tilts his head, listening closely.
A man is speaking with great dignity, softly, to avoid provoking the soldiers. He is talking to a freeman outside, articulating a message to a church in the city of Philippi. The man notices Onesimus listening and motions for him to come nearer, saying, “Grace and peace, my name is Paul.”
As always, God has arranged for His gospel preacher to be where He needs him at the right time. For next to Onesimus is Paul, Christ’s chosen Apostle to the world. And, as all people who spend time with this evangelist, Onesimus is once again exposed to the gospel. For God intended to save him, and through the work of the Spirit and the convincing words of Paul’s discipleship, Onesimus surrendered to a new kind of freedom – Christ.
In a short time, Paul found Onesimus very useful. Their relationship grew in Christ and Paul came to consider himself the spiritual father of this free slave. He taught him the wonderful truths of the Scriptures and trained him to be of good use to the Kingdom of God. And so it was with a saddened heart that Paul finally decided to part ways with his friend. It was for the better of many that he did.
Onesimus was a run-away slave who wronged his master and he needed to return. It was the right thing to do. Paul didn’t want to part with him, but he wanted the slave to be reconciled with his master and experience the wonder of forgiveness.
Paul learned of Philemon’s great character and how he gave freely of himself and his resources. He was known as one who constantly refreshed the hearts of the Christians meeting there in his home. Paul was confident that only good would come of Onesimus’ return.
So with deep sadness, for parting with your brethren is never easy, Paul composed two letters, one to the church and one to Philemon, and sent them with Onesimus, Tychicus, and possibly others to Colossae.
After some weeks they arrived at the estate of Philemon and as they walked through the land, people stopped and stared in surprise. They recognized Onesimus and knew of his trespasses, and how he had wronged such a good master and godly man. They watched and whispered among themselves, wondering how the master would respond to such audacity.
The final steps were prolonged in Onesimus’ mind. But they were necessary. They were right. Although he knew his old master to be gracious, he was also aware of the penalty provided by law – death to a run-away slave. Nevertheless, his satisfaction in Christ meant that he had a more heavenly freedom no matter what the outcome.
As they made their way to the master’s quarters Onesimus stopped them, for he recognized his master in the field, working alongside the slaves as he usually did. At the same time, Philemon saw the travelers and slowly made his way toward them. As he drew closer, he recognized his slave and was puzzled by the company with him, wondering if they were seeking some kind of reward for returning Onesimus. He would have gladly paid. His heart was warm even though the damage was acute. Keeping his eyes on Onesimus, like a father facing his son’s school principle, Tychicus offered the letter to Philemon. “From the most respected apostle of Christ,” he said. “Paul sends his greetings and your slave.”
Onesimus, humbled and ashamed, stood before the man who had once treated him like family, a righteous man who had been victimized by him just months prior to the day.
Philemon stared at him, stunned. He had never met Paul, but all believers knew of him and read his letters. Paul was responsible for bringing the gospel to the Gentiles. Philemon was truly grateful for him and the work that God did through him. Philemon looked at the letter, no doubt wondering, who am I to receive a letter from the great apostle Paul? He studied Onesimus who could not look him in the eyes. Then he began to read while Tychicus and Onesimus waited patiently.
“Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.
Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus—I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.
Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”
In the remaining chapters of this book, we will explore this letter and discover the glorious riches of forgiveness. As Paul wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so we will read by the same. We will find truths written to assure the heart, convince the mind, and affirm the will to forgive. So, in light of Paul’s words, let us consider ourselves partners as we unfold the Scriptures, surrendering to the transforming work of the Spirit – one verse at a time.
From the book, Forgiveness: A Commentary on Philemon, by Jacob Abshire