“So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have 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 ask.” – Philemon 1:17-21.
Have you ever asked yourself who Christianity is for? Are there certain people who the rules and promises of Christianity apply to? And what about laws, consequences, and accountability? Are there those who are simply too broken or too lowly or messed up too much to experience the grace of God? How many times can a man be forgiven before he is unforgivable? How many bridges can you burn before there is absolutely no way to get back home? The answer to those questions is no. If Onesimus were standing in the foyer of Northstar today, those are probably the questions he would be asking.
We discover part of Onesimus’s story in the book of Philemon. He was a slave who had run away from his owner, Philemon, a friend of Paul’s from his journeys. And you know what else is said about him? He was a useless slave. Does it get any worse? It is bad enough to be a slave, but you are at the bottom of the barrel when you are a useless slave. This was Onesimus.
Evidence suggests he made his way to Rome probably hoping to find someplace where nobody could find him. Onesimus was clearly in the wrong and was clearly a criminal who had violated his master’s trust. Paul knows that Philemon has a clear case against Onesimus, but that’s not what is important. Onesimus has become a believer and now that he has experienced a change of heart and character and conduct, and decided to return to Colossae and face the master he had run away from. In preparation for Onesimus’s risky return, Paul sent Philemon a letter, thanking him for being a faithful brother in Christ, and pressing him to further exercise his faith by extending brotherly love and acceptance to Onesimus. Paul urged Philemon to recognize and welcome Onesimus “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave—as a dearly loved brother” (Philemon 16). Legally, Philemon could punish Onesimus or even kill him for running away. No one would expect him to treat his runaway slave with kindness, let alone regard him as kin. But the gospel calls for forgiveness even when none is justified.
Philemon 19-20 says, “PAUL, WRITE THIS WITH MY OWN HAND: I WILL REPAY IT. AND I WON’T MENTION THAT YOU OWE ME YOUR VERY SOUL! Yes, my brother, please do me this favor for the Lord’s sake. Give me this encouragement in Christ.”
When Paul asked Philemon to receive Onesimus and forgive him those old debts, he reminded him that he too was once a man with a terrible debt that had also been forgiven.
All believers in Christ are family. No one is superior to another and at some time each of us has been on the run and in need of forgiveness. Each of us has been forgiven and reconciled to God through Jesus and set free. Jesus is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters (Hebrews 2:11), and He welcomes us into a loving, eternal relationship with Him.
- Read Philemon 3–7. How does Paul describe Philemon? How does remembering his character and faith encourage the right response toward Onesimus?
- Read Philemon 8–11. Why is it important for us to not only make the right decision but to do it from the right heart?