In Part 2 of our series, we put ourselves in the sandals of Philemon, the slave owner. As Paul’s letter unfolds, Philemon begins to get the point: “Your slave, Onesimus, who stole from you and ran away, is coming back. In fact, he’s standing outside the door right now.” And it’s obvious you’re being asked by the Apostle Paul to love him, forgive him, and reconcile with him—something totally unheard of in the first century. It’s Philemon’s turn now to be squeezed.
Philemon’s initial reaction would surely have been something like, “Paul, you want me to do what? If I go soft on Onesimus, my other slaves will be more inclined to run off now, too. I can’t allow that! And what about all the other slaves in Colossae? If I receive Onesimus back without any punishment, word will spread that Christianity turns you into a doormat that people can walk all over. The other Christian masters will despise me!”
“And what about gospel outreach? It’s tough enough trying to witness to Christ in this empire. After all, Romans despise love. To them it’s not a virtue; they mock it and sneer at it all the time.” Philemon has a lot to think about when he gets Paul’s letter. He knows firsthand that when Christians loved each other, the Romans thought they were crazy. We have ancient correspondence that says, “These Christians are so crazy, they love each other even before they’ve met.”
Into that atmosphere, you’re going to talk about a gospel of love and forgiveness? Even for slaves? That’s insanity! To the pagan world, slaves were just “living tools” or “breathing machines.” You don’t forgive your household tools; you simply use them and get rid of them whenever they stop working. So, it’s going to be tough for Philemon to try to explain to the other slave owners in Colossae why Onesimus isn’t getting branded, flogged, or punished in some other way.
The book of Philemon is for believers today, too. Indeed, the grace of God in Christ takes believers off one hook (i.e., the hook of eternal judgment) and places us on another hook (i.e., the hook of forgiving others as we ourselves have been forgiven). It was Jesus himself who taught his people to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” In other words, to have been forgiven makes you a forgiver. That’s the consistent message throughout the New Testament.
But how do we forgive others who’ve hurt us, wounded us, betrayed us, or offended us in some significant way? And how do we go beyond mere forgiveness into the realm of genuine reconciliation? It takes a miracle. It takes Jesus—the one who is infinite love himself and has shed abroad his love in our hearts (Romans 5:5).
Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.