Peter Misselbrook's Blog
Oct 29 2013 - Philemon – No longer a slave but a son

I love the letter of Paul to Philemon. Firstly it contains a wonderful story. One of Philemon's slaves, Onesimus, had run away from his master in Colossae and had managed to travel as far as Rome. There he had met with Paul and, as a result of Paul’s conversations with him, he had become a Christian (v. 10). Although Onesimus has proved useful to Paul, Paul is now sending him back to his master and asking Philemon to receive him back not only as a slave but as a brother. It's a dramatic story.

As a runaway slave, Onesimus could have been put to death but instead he has gained eternal life. The gospel transforms lives and transforms relationships. A useless servant becomes useful. A slave becomes a dear brother.

But the second thing I love about this letter is the crafty way in which Paul writes to Philemon. He says that he is not making demands of Philemon (though he could make demands as an apostle of Christ), but is appealing to him on the basis of love. He says that if Onesimus had stolen anything from Philemon when he ran away, he, Paul, is willing to repay it, but he adds, "not to mention that you owe me your very self" (v.19). Philemon's legal rights are not challenged, but his Christian obligation to forgive Onesimus and to embrace him as a brother is made abundantly clear. Lastly, though Paul is in prison and may face death he adds, "And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers" (v.22). Is this mention of a visit a promise or a threat? Clearly Paul is expecting to see Onesimus occupying a valued place in Philemon's household. Paul is not beyond a bit of arm-twisting for the sake of Onesimus whom he has come to value and love.

And Paul's letter must have done the trick. After all, Philemon did not tear it up and throw it in the fire. He preserved it and deposited it with the letter the church had received from Paul. So it stands now in our Bible as a witness to the power of the gospel to transform relationships. The gospel undermined the institution of slavery – and every other divisive social institution – by creating new family relationships that bridge the chasm of social divisions.

Are there situations in which Paul's manipulative tactics could become a model for us to press the claims of grace over against the demands of law? I'll leave that one with you to ponder: “be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).

But before we become too crafty, one further point deserves notice. In his opening greetings Paul writes, “I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ” (v. 6). Philemon has become a fellow worker for the gospel, caring for a group of Christians who meet regularly in his house (v. 2). Paul prays that as Philemon shares the gospel with others he may grow in understanding of all the good things that are his in Christ and that he freely shares with others. It is this gospel that must now shape his relationship with Onesimus. Paul is not above putting pressure on Philemon, but it is gospel pressure – the call to live in glad response to all that Christ has done for him.

Heavenly Father, help me always to live in joyful and generous response to all the good things that I have come to possess in Christ. Help me to share these good things freely with others both in the words I speak and in my attitudes and actions towards them. May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with me and shape my life as I serve him.

Peter Misselbrook