Continuing my study of small books of the Bible I decided to look at the book of Philemon. I must confess I couldn’t even remember the name of this book and were it was in the bible, other than I knew it started with a P and was in the New Testament. I just remembered that it was the one about the slave who was sent back to his master. I was looking at this book again because I remembered it had to do with reconciliation, mercy and goodness, which I’ve been thinking lately. This unassuming book written by Paul to a house Church leader, Philemon, is well worth the read. It examples how goodness, mercy and love are meant to be lived not just taught.
It’s so simple in its story yet so rich in its message. Onesimus, a slave who ran away from Philemon, is being sent back to Philemon, his Christian master, by Paul after having met the apostle Paul and having his life changed. This letter was written by Paul on behalf of Onesimus. Paul is entreating Philemon to take his former slave back and treat him well. That’s it, that’s the extent of the story, a runaway slave who became a Christian is being sent back to reconcile and serve his Christian master again.
The depth of the book however is so rich and touching. Paul is appealing to Philemon to take back Onesimus and treat him like a brother rather than a slave. The amazing thing is that Paul, knowing the character of Philemon, knows that he will not only great Onesimus as a brother but will even do more than that, but treat him with love. He will not do the minimum required in reconciliation but that Philemon so reflects the character of God that he will do so much more.
Phil: 21 “Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.”
It is a stunning account of reconciliation of the indebted to his debtor, the transformation of a useless slave to a useful brother.
This book does not recount the gospel explicitly, nor is it full of theological discourse or apologetics but it is full of love and Christian principles. It is the application of the Gospel to life. As Christ forgives us, us who had been indebted to Christ unto death, so to is a Christian asked to forgive the slave who ran from his rightful master.
It may be noted that essentially Paul is sending a runaway slave back to his master, back to slavery, but we cannot use this as a justification for slavery, as some might, we must use it to breakdown the barriers of slavery and reconcile slave to master not to equal footing but to brotherly love. If a man loves his slave as a brother and a slave loves his master likewise what risk of inequality is there? None!
We are all slaves to sin set free by another, Jesus Christ, in Christianity. The issue is not slavery, its bigger than that, it’s about love.
Jesus Christ is our master who lovingly reconciled us to him but did so much more. God the father has made us co-heirs with Christ, adopted sons and Daughters of God himself, adopted into the family of God by faith alone. When you think about it we should be slaves who grovel before him and plead for mercy but should not receive it because we are not owed it nor do we deserve it because of our sin. Yet, God in his goodness, love and mercy came to us even while we were still disobedient slaves, and didn’t even recognize our need for forgiveness and mercy, and he died on the cross for us.
A man might treat a good slave with kindness but what kind of man would treat a disobedient slave with mercy and elevate him as a brother? Christ would and so should we.