Summary: Paul's letter to Philemon gives us solid timeless principles in restoring broken relationships. As Paul paid for Onesimus' sin, so Christ pays for ours, thus restoring us to God. Because we have been forgiven much, we need to forgive others.
I’d like to take a little survey this morning: Who here has never had a relationship challenge? Ah ha, I thought so. Today’s subject “Restoring Relationships,” is for all of us. As we seek to live a Christian life, does our faith have any impact on our relationships? It should, and that’s the story behind today’s tiny little book named, “Philemon.”
This book is named after a wealthy businessman from Colossae who responded to Paul’s preaching in Ephesus and trusted his life to Christ. Later Philemon hosted a church back in his home in Colossae. This is likely the same church to whom Paul wrote the letter we call “Colossians.” In fact, these two letters probably traveled together, one for a person—Philemon—and the other for the church in Colossae.
Philemon, like many wealthy people of his time, owned slaves. In fact, some historians believe that nearly half the Roman Empire was enslaved during Jesus’ time, mostly because of debt problems or theft. One of Philemon’s slaves was named “Onesimus,” which means “useful” in Greek. We don’t know why, but Onesimus took off and became a runaway slave. Through the providence of God, Onesimus—like his master Philemon—met a man named Paul, and like his abandoned master, Onesimus too became a believer in Christ. Paul thought highly of him, but Paul was in a dilemma. He viewed Onesimus as a son in the faith but the law required him to return this runaway slave to his master. Paul chose to return Onesimus, but he helped him by sending with him a personal letter for Philemon imploring this slave master to recognize Onesimus as his brother in Christ and forgive him of any wrongdoing he had done.
Please listen as I read Paul’s letter to Philemon, and then after our special music, I’ll talk about it some more.
[Scripture and Solo]
Isn’t it refreshing to see that God cares about the smallest details in our lives, including our relationships? Let’s look at today’s story in restoration and forgiveness and pull out some relationship restoring principles. Whether you are trying to rebuild your own relationship or act as a third party to bring peace between others, as Paul is here, we can learn from today’s story.
First, in your relationships speak the truth in love. This is a phrase Paul uses in a different letter to the church in Ephesus (Ephesians 4:15). He says it indicates spiritual maturity. Many people speak their mind, what they consider to be truth, but not out of love. Many people come across loving all the time, but it’s not authentic love because they don’t speak truthfully. Paul chooses to speak truthfully, advising Philemon what he should do about this situation, but Paul does it with great tact, love, and concern for both parties.
Now sometimes if you’re angry at someone, speaking the truth in love is quite difficult. Sometimes I tend to villainize my enemies. I think, “That guy who crossed me: he’s the anti-Christ, Satan in the flesh!” I tend to see the very worst in them, the worst thoughts, the worst motives, the worst actions. And yet God calls me to build a bridge toward them. Jesus tells me to love my enemies.
Paul conveys truth in love through a personal letter. You know it’s personal because he uses a lot of singular pronouns. Unlike most of his other letters in the Bible, this one is written to a specific “you,” not a “you all.”
Now a letter isn’t as personal as a face-to-face meeting, which is always best. But Paul is writing from prison so he can’t do this in person. A letter is not ideal, but it’s the next best thing. And sometimes it’s a good option when you don’t trust how you might respond in front of the person. There are other options, such as phone calls, texts, and tweets, but you lose some non-verbals there, which make those choices less than ideal for resolving conflict.
So Paul uses a personal letter, and he begins with holy flattery. He says how thankful he is to God for Philemon, for his love and his faith toward Jesus and others. Paul is specific in his thanks; he doesn’t just say, “Thank God for you!” He lists some specific areas of thanks. It’s important to be genuine here; you don’t want to come across as manipulative. If you can genuinely find some positives in the other person, it will help toward restoring that relationship.
The other thing Paul does well is to gently persuade rather than force the reconciliation. He says, starting around verse 8, “Hey, I have enough power over you that I could just order you to do this, but I’m not. I’m merely asking.” And so Paul gives the other guy—Philemon—the ability to choose to do the right thing.