Ever since humanity “fell” in the garden back in Genesis 3, relationships have been difficult. Interactions with others can often be strained, awkward, and painful—sometimes even vicious or violent. But ever since Jesus died and rose again from the dead, relationships have been given new hope and a real potential for peace, sincerity, depth, and authenticity. It’s a long road back to the serenity of Eden, but it’s a road paved with the blood of Jesus Christ, so it’s a road worth traveling.
The Book of Philemon answers the broad question, “What does Christianity look like when it’s put into practice, especially as it pertains to relationships? What does our faith look like when it’s set in motion—not only in the Roman Empire of the first century, but also today—in the twenty-first century? Philemon gives us a partial answer, and it involves the spiritual practice of forgiveness. C. S. Lewis once said, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.” He was right, and that’s why we sometimes feel squeezed in the Christian life. As recipients of forgiveness, we’re called to be distributors of it as well.
Paul’s letter to Philemon is only 355 words in the original Greek, but it carries a weight far beyond its length. Everyone here is being “squeezed.” Onesimus, the runaway slave is being squeezed. Philemon, the slave owner, is being squeezed. Even Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, is being squeezed. Our focus in Part 1 is Onesimus, who shows us that the more we try to run from God and his ways, the more he puts the squeeze on us, pulling us back to himself. Moreover, Onesimus shows us that so often we run from one set of circumstances to another—trying to find true freedom and personhood—only to get imprisoned in our own escape routes.
The good news is that God does his squeezing with the gentle hands of love so his people will be conformed to the image of his Son. But the shaping can make us uncomfortable. We come to see that a change in circumstance doesn’t change who we are on the inside. Indeed, we discover that we can run from one set of circumstances to another—trying to find true freedom and personhood—only to get imprisoned in our own escape routes. Thankfully, the gospel of Jesus Christ re-humanizes us so we can flourish in this life, regardless of our circumstances. That’s because freedom is a mentality more than a locality.
The book of Philemon shows us that sometimes God doesn’t want our situation to change; he wants us to change in the situation. Such change is possible with the help of Jesus Christ, the one who died by crucifixion—a slave’s death—though he himself was completely innocent of all wrongdoing. Running to him is the only way to find a true and lasting freedom.
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