Summary: Paul makes a special plea to his friend Philemon concerning his run-away slave but now a Christian, showing how the gospel transforms all relationships.
THE TRANSFORMING GOSPEL
Letter writing is almost a lost art. We’d rather pick up the phone or dash off an e-mail but I’m glad that Paul used pen and ink. Doubtless Paul, being a man of letters and bubbling over with ideas for the spread of the gospel, must have written many personal letters to the scores of key people he met in the course of his travels. But of his correspondence, only a few have survived, of which Philemon is one, and that, no doubt, because it was selected for inclusion in the Canon of Scripture. It consists of only 300 words but what a gem it is! It was written about AD64 from Rome, where Paul was imprisoned but on account of his age, and may be on account of his good behaviour, the apostle was allowed to live in his own lodgings, chained to a soldier. Here, under house arrest, his friends were allowed to visit him.
Every book in the New Testament has a purpose behind its writing, a story that prompted the author to take up his pen. This is certainly true in the letter to Philemon. He was a wealthy Christian who lived in Colossi and who had been converted through Paul’s preaching. Philemon had a wife named Apphia and a son named Archippus, and they had many slaves in their household, among whom was a man named Onesimus. It seems clear from the letter that Onesimus robbed his master, Philemon, and perhaps having been discovered or betrayed had to flee for his life. Colosse was not a large town and a fugitive from justice could not stay there and remain undetected. Where better to hide out and disappear from official view than in the capital city of Rome, which would always have large numbers of foreigners within its walls. Yet, in the providence of God, he somehow came into contact with Paul, the very man who had led his master to Christ, and the result of this encounter was that Onesimus became a Christian.
How it was that the truth came out that he had stolen from Philemon we don’t know. It has been suggested that Epaphras, one of Paul’s small band of close friends in Rome recognised Onesimus as a slave he had seen at Colosse. Perhaps it was then that the whole wretched story came out. Or was it a pang of conscience which moved Onesimus to make a confession of his discreditable past and he asked Paul’s help to bring about a reconciliation with his former master? Whatever are the exact facts, Paul gave his help by writing this wonderful letter to Philemon, in which was gently asked to forgive Onesimus and to receive him back.
The letter is a beautiful model of letter writing. It’s an example of tact and charm and fully deserved to be kept for all time. It’s an illustration of the transforming power of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Here we find how exposure to the gospel makes a difference at every point where it touches life - because what is Christianity if it does not work? Here we have a marvellous insight in the way we can expect to change when the grace and rule of Jesus Christ begins to effect human affairs we see how:
A PRISONER BECOMES A SPIRITUAL FATHER
Paul sketches a revealing pen-portrait of himself. "I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment." The affectionate reference to Onesimus, "my child, Onesimus" is typical of the warm bond of love, which existed between Paul and his converts. It’s a comment on what the grace of God had worked in the apostle himself.
This is the one-time self-righteous Pharisee, the Jew who was so proud of his parentage and spiritual pedigree going back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But after the transforming encounter with Christ a radical change in his attitudes has come about, enabling him to speak of Onesimus in a way in which he would never have dreamed of. It is no empty formula but a fact which enables him to speak of a Gentile, and a Gentile slave at that, taken from the very dregs of Roman society, and refer to him as a son.
Christianity is nothing if it doesn’t show itself in relationships. The hallmark of New Testament religion is that individual believers become a church family through the relationship that Christ creates. We are to take care of each other, to involve ourselves in each other’s predicaments. If one member of the body suffers, then all suffer this is the way of Christ. This is why Christians have been at the forefront in caring for the sick and the under privileged. Good government steps in with its central resources and so enables us to help other countries. But the need is so great.