Wednesday May 6, 2020
4 I always thank my God when I pray for you, Philemon, 5 because I keep hearing about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all of God’s people. 6 And I am praying that you will put into action the generosity that comes from your faith as you understand and experience all the good things we have in Christ. 7 Your love has given me much joy and comfort, my brother, for your kindness has often refreshed the hearts of God’s people.Philemon 1:4-7 (NLT)
It is always good to see a passage of scripture in context. Philemon is a short book, only one chapter of 24 verses. It is most likely the contents of a letter carried back to Philemon from Paul. It does not give us any help in understanding the setting for this letter.
Here is some of the back story:
Paul was in prison in Rome when he wrote this letter to his friend and fellow believer, Philemon, who lived in Colossae in Asia Minor, in what is now Turkey. (Paul wrote another letter to all the believers in that city – Colossians.) Paul wrote to this friend to ask a favor, not for himself but for another.
Philemon must have been fairly wealthy – he had a house large enough to host meetings of believers; he was known for his hospitality and care. But he also owned slaves. And one of those slaves, Onesimus, had run away from his master and had found his way to Rome. Paul was in prison there at that time, but somehow he met Onesimus and led him to faith in Jesus.
It is unclear why Onesimus ran away from his master. Philemon had the well-deserved reputation for being kind and fair, faithful to the teaching of Jesus. He was a man whose faith was strong, and he showed that faith in how he dealt with his household and all those who knew him. He showed God’s love so well that when believers left his home, they felt rested and refreshed, like that had been at an oasis.
Some of these accounts had reached Paul in Rome. After meeting Paul Onesimus listened to his teachings and became a believer. Not only a believer but one who wanted to work to spread God’s word. That most likely meant that he would need to reconcile with his master Philemon and settle accounts with him. Onesimus may have asked Paul to write the letter or Paul may have felt that it was his obligation to bring harmony back into the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus.
So he wrote this letter in hopes that he could convince Philemon to take Onesimus back without punishment. In fact, Paul later in the letter asks that Onesimus be allowed to return not as a slave but as a brother in the Lord, one who wanted to spread the faith.
Paul asks this as a favor, asking Philemon to forgive and reconcile with his slave, and additionally to allow him to work spreading the gospel along with working in Philemon’s household.
Philemon must have been in a difficult position. He was a believer, caring for fellow believers, encouraging others to become believers as well. It can be said that, although it was not thought of as “Christian” at the time, Christian generosity was part of Philemon’s makeup. Yet he was also a man who had standing within his household and within the community. Allowing a slave to run away and then take him back, not only without punishment but with a freedom not previously known, was not the way to add to his reputation among non-believers. Such a decision would not have been understood by those who had not been touched by the teachings of Jesus.
Paul was asking this generous man to be even more generous. Why would Philemon choose this path rather than the more traditional, safer path in dealing with his runaway slave?
One of the lessons we see here is that we learn about Christ by giving to others. By not thinking about ourselves and our reputations, by emptying ourselves and becoming filled with Christ is a way we learn more about Christ. By giving of ourselves we can be filled with those things that are of God. This is a case of a man knowing more about Christ than those who study to learn about Christ. Instead, Philemon’s knowledge of Christ came from showing loving generosity toward Onesimus.
Belief and faith in Jesus and showing God’s love toward others should bring Christians closer to one another than any other outward relationships. Doing God’s work among those around us, regardless of their behavior or belief would be showing love and forgiveness and care to all who need it. That doesn’t mean that we should not pray for our Christian friends often, remembering them with calls and cards as well, Paul certainly did this well. Yet we are to always be ready to share our faith with those who have no faith. That does not mean preaching at them or giving them some tracts to read. It means for us to step out of our comfort zone by putting the needs of others before our own fears of rejection or perhaps saying the wrong thing. It means befriending. It means becoming involved. It means feeling “out of our element” sometimes, times when we can only rely on God’s guidance and leadership.
Philemon was convinced by Paul’s good reasoning. What Philemon did showed that his love of God was more important to him than adding to his own reputation within his community. We are not told this directly, but we can guess that Philemon was happy to welcome Onesimus back into his household. Having this man return to him of his own accord must have brought joy and comfort to him – and to the others of his household. Having this be the result of Paul’s interaction with Onesimus, his conversion, his desire to return to his master, and to repair their relationship, shows how God was acting in the lives of these three men from the very beginning. The result was that all three were blessed by doing God’s will, and God was glorified. Let us follow their example.
-Pastor Joyce Donigian