All the characters in this short letter get “squeezed” by the gospel. Onesimus gets squeezed by having to take responsibility for his crimes against Philemon and make an effort to be reconciled to him. Philemon gets squeezed by having to accept Onesimus back into his home after the whole family was offended by his departure. Paul gets squeezed by having to navigate the social customs of his day as well as the relational tension between two people he deeply cares about. It’s a classic case of triangulation, and the path forward for everyone is both challenging and awkward.
In this final message of the series, we look at who is doing the squeezing. If everyone in this situation gets squeezed, we have to ask, who does the squeezing? Who is putting the pressure on all the people involved? A careful reading of the passage shows us it’s the character who never comes on stage. He’s the silent showstopper who never delivers a line. He’s also the script writer and the wise director of the whole production.
Paul knows who he is. He writes to Philemon, “Perhaps the reason Onesimus was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good—no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord” (Philemon 1:15-16). Philemon might have thought to himself, “Was separated?” What do you mean, “Was separated (passive voice)? The kid ran away (active voice)!”
Paul is introducing yet another character into the story. Not only does he introduce this additional character, he also introduces a higher purpose. Paul is essentially saying, “Philemon, I want you to consider something in this whole mess that you might not have considered up to this point. Someone came and parted Onesimus from you in order for a greater purpose to be served—namely that you get him back for good as a true believer and a brother in the Lord.” That someone is God himself.
Paul goes beyond all secondary causes of the situation right up to the primary cause of all situations—God himself. Paul understands that God is sovereign; he is above all circumstances, and yet he is in those circumstances at the same time—letting Philemon and Onesimus be parted for a greater ending to the story.
Grammatically, we call it “the divine passive.” That is, God is the agent behind the event, playing 3D chess in the world to bring about his perfect plan. Indeed, all the events of this world have their origin in—and are superintended by—the all-wise, infinitely good God whose name is “Love.” That means life is not a series of blind chances or accidents. God leverages the contingencies of this world, including its resident evil and the free choices of fallen human beings, to bring history to its rightful conclusion.
Peter brings these two paradoxical realities together in his Pentecost sermon: “This man [Jesus] was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (Acts 2:23-24). God in his sovereignty used fee human choices to pull the greatest good in history out of the worst crime in history. The result was “God and sinners reconciled.” That’s the motivation for Philemon and Onesimus themselves to be reconciled.
Quite significantly, Paul tells Philemon, “If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me” (Philemon 1:18). That’s a tiny picture of the gospel. Onesimus has a debt toward Philemon he cannot pay, and Paul offers to pay it. Fallen human beings have a debt toward God we cannot pay, so Jesus offered to pay it. He was squeezed when he was on the cross, and what came out was pure love and forgiveness. May the same be true of us when we get squeezed.
The world cares very little about our Christian beliefs, but they cannot argue with a life beautifully lived. In Romans 12:17-21, the Apostle Paul shows us what a beautiful life looks like. He does so by giving us three instructions for when we’ve been personally wronged. But first, a caveat because this is one of those texts that gets over-applied by some people, under-applied by other people, and mis-applied by a lot of people.
When we look at the whole sweep of biblical teaching, there were three realms of response when it came to handling various wrongs that could be inflicted on people in a fallen world. The first realm was in times of international aggression (e.g., sieges, invasions, captivities, atrocities, etc.). God’s people were to seek divine guidance through their national security council (prophets, priests, and kings). Hostilities de-escalated when God’s people trusted him to give their national leaders an appropriate response.
The second realm was in times of criminal activity (e.g., thefts, kidnappings, rapes, murders, etc.). God’s people were to seek justice through their established legal system (laws and judges). Hostilities de-escalated when God’s people trusted him to give their judges his wisdom for a just settlement or resolution to a serious issue.
The third realm was in times of personal offense (e.g., slights, insults, disputes, insensitivities, etc.). God’s people were to seek relief through their own reconciliation efforts, beginning with extending personal forgiveness. Hostilities de-escalated when God’s people trusted him to give them the emotional support they needed to move beyond the offense. God wanted his people to handle these kinds of situations themselves and not clutter up the legal system with them. He modeled forgiveness for them, and he wanted his people to follow in his footsteps.
Romans 12:17-21 and other similar passages are meant to address personal offenses, not international aggression, or even criminal activity (cf. Rom 13:4), though reconciliation is always the goal. Paul says more about those kinds of situations in the next chapter—the state bearing the sword to punish wrong-doers, etc. But the passage at hand addresses personal offenses, not international aggression or even criminal activity.
Paul’s instructions in the case of personal offense are as follows. First, we do not try to settle the score ourselves. Second, we find ways to be kind to our offenders. And third, we trust that God will make things right in the end. This is how Jesus responded to the wrongs done to him when he was on the cross. Indeed, believers are never more like Christ than when we respond to personal offenses like Christ.When we live like this, we live beautifully, and we give the gospel credibility in this generation.
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).
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.
Ever since Genesis 3, it has been hard for people to get along. We’re all so different, and, because of our fallenness, those differences can annoy us, threaten us, and make us suspicious of one another. In jealousy, envy, and pride, we tend to think, say, and do nasty things to each other, making life unpleasant at times.
In the first century, there were two groups of people who didn’t get along very well—Jews and Gentiles. The Jews were descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob. The Gentiles were everybody else. Both latent and overt hostility marked their relationship over the centuries. Paul addresses that enmity in Ephesians 2, and he talks about what God has done to rectify it. The solution he offers is still relevant today because the world is more polarized now than ever. In recent years we have witnessed a growing hostility between races, classes, genders, and political parties. The tension is exhausting and disillusioning.
How can God take widely diverse and disparate people and put them successfully into one new group? Paul’s answer is Jesus. Why? Because “he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace” (Eph 2:14-15).
Paul argues that the source of alienation between Jew and Gentile—God’s law—was put on the shelf (2:15a) because the source of reconciliation—God’s Son—was put on the cross (2:13b, 16b). Human beings may be hostile to each other, but God treated his perfect Son as if he were all the world’s hostility rolled into one. And when Christ died on the cross, the Father regarded the hostility itself as having died, too. God’s purpose was to create one new humanity out of the two—a horizontal hostility replaced with horizontal peace (2:15b).
The result is that irreligious people (like the Gentiles, who thought they are “far off”) can now hear and believe the gospel of peace (2:17a). Religious people (like the Jews, who thought they are already near) can hear and believe that same gospel (2:17b). All are “far off” because of sin, but all can “draw near” now because of Jesus. God is wise in this regard. All who draw near to him wind up drawing near to each other, too. Indeed, the only way to fully experience the God who is community is to participate fully in his new community—the church.
That’s not always easy because we’re all different. But believers who draw near to God bear the marks of unity in diversity. That’s why Paul cites the Trinity two times in this passage (2:18, 22). God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are the ultimate model for the church—a community of truth, love, and unity in diversity.
The Holy Trinity is not a math puzzle (1 + 1 + 1 = 1), it’s a clue to the relational heart of the universe. That clue is precious to believers because the prime reality of existence is not matter. It’s not energy. It’s not quarks. It’s a divine relationship. Specifically, it’s an eternal reciprocating relationship of personal diversity and unbreakable unity. As the well-known hymn puts it, “God in three Persons, blessed Trinity.”
In polytheism, there are many gods and many persons (or personalities), but they all have different wills. Sometimes those wills are in competition with each other. Sometimes they even fight for supremacy. They have different desires and different agendas. So, in polytheism, we have a lot of diversity but no unity. It’s a loose community with hostile communication.
On the other hand, in strict monotheism, there is only one god and only one person (or personality). In this view, from eternity past, the solitary god was all by himself until he began to create angels, humans, animals, and any other sentient beings in the seen and unseen realms. (Only after he created these other beings did he begin to have a relationship with them.) So, in strict monotheism, we have a lot of unity but no diversity. There is no community and no communication.
The Divine Trinity
In Christian theology, of course, we do not have many gods and many persons (or personalities). We do not have one god and only one person (or personality). We have one God in three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. While we may struggle to understand that conceptually, we know intuitively that if that were not the case, then God is not (and cannot be) love. Twice in 1 John we read that “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). That can only be true if God is personal community in some way, as we cannot have shared love without more than one person. We cannot have relationship without more than one person.
The Scriptures reveal a God who is three Persons and one essence—all working together for the salvation of humanity. “For through him [Christ] we both have access to the Father by one Spirit” (Eph 2:18). It’s a conspiracy of love by the divine Trinity, whose members seek to bring unity out of the myriad and conflicted diversities of a fallen world broken by sin.
The Divine Team
Likewise, God’s church in essence is community—a people bearing the marks of unity and diversity. The church is not simply an aggregation of people; it is ideally a tight community of love, truth, communication, and mission because that’s who God is. When people become baptized followers of Christ, they are vitally, organically, and spiritually joined to the Triune God. They are also vitally, organically, and spiritually joined to each other. Being the church, then, is simply living out the image of God corporately as the people of God. Indeed, the only way to fully experience the God who is community is to participate in his new community, the church.
The Divine Image
The New Testament speaks of the church—the company of Christ followers down through the centuries—in a variety of ways. It is the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, the household of faith, the new creation, the royal priesthood, etc. Minear numbers these images at more than 80, and he suggests that the list swells to over 100 if each Greek word is counted separately. The basic function of these images, says Minear, “is to relate the contemporary Christian generation to that historic community whose origin stemmed from God’s covenant promises.”
While many theologians regard “the body of Christ” as the most important image, Küng holds that “the people of God” is primary. I concur. As people are on the move in this world, so God’s people are also on the move, taking their gifts and graces into whatever situation they find themselves. They have something good to give to the world, and many good things to receive from the world as well. Indeed, the blessings of a “ministry of presence” can flow both ways—from the servant to the recipient, and from the recipient to the servant. People made in God’s image can bless each other whether they live in a state of redemptive grace or not. (Cyrus the Persian comes to mind in this regard.) As Niringiye has said:
“Mission strategy must first and foremost be about listening to the Holy Spirit to discover what he is doing, and then in obedience following. After all, it is the Holy Spirit in whom we live and he in us. . . . [But] mission strategy should also be about listening to those among whom the Lord takes us. Philip did not only listen to the Holy Spirit; he also listened to the eunuch.”
While God’s “church on the move” can be used by God for the sake of mission, her presence on earth is more than just instrumental; it is sacramental and—by necessity—communal. Believers, for example, cannot baptize themselves into the church; another believer must do that for them. Quite significantly, then, in the very act of entering the church through baptism (symbolically in some traditions, efficaciously in others), an enacted statement is made that believers are putting themselves in each other’s hands as well as Christ’s.
What is enacted at the entry is then reinforced by “the meal of sustaining,” when believers gather together for Holy Communion. Moreover, whenever the church gathers and prays together, the prayer is directed to “our Father.” As Volf writes:
“Because the Christian God is not a lonely God, but rather a communion of three persons, faith leads human beings into the divine communion. One cannot, however, have a self-enclosed communion with the Triune God—a ‘foursome,’ as it were—for the Christian God is not a private deity. Communion with this God is at once also communion with those others who have entrusted themselves in faith to the same God. Hence one and the same act of faith places a person into a new relationship both with God and with all others who stand in communion with God.”
The Divine Mandate
Together as believers—that is, the people of God “on the move” beyond the weekly worship gatherings—mission takes place. Very often it takes place among “the least of these” (Matt 25:40). In Christian theology, these “least” matter to the church because they are persons who have life. It is life given to them by God, who has graciously given his Son to all. As Gushee has said:
“Every life means every life, without exception. That includes two-month-along developing human beings in the womb, poor babies in Bangladesh, impoverished children in ghettos, abused wives and children, civilians in war zones, wounded soldiers at Walter Reed, imprisoned detainees in the war on terror, aging people in nursing homes, mentally handicapped people, people convicted of heinous crimes. Everyone.”
Here, then, is the church’s mission, broadly conceived. God’s work of resurrection—of new creation—begins in a wounded world. Whatever the hereafter may hold (and we have hints in Scripture that it is going to be amazing), the here and now holds great significance, too. Jesus was fond enough of this world to linger in it forty days after his resurrection before his ascension back to the Father. During that time, he helped his friends believe in him, and he gave them strength and hope for the journey. By God’s grace, we will do the same in our day. But that will take a concerted effort at working toward internal unity and the reconciliation necessary to realize that unity.
The Divine Prayer
A unified church is a powerful witness to the truth of the gospel. In John 17:20-21, Jesus prayed to his Father that his church would be one “so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Has Jesus’ prayer ever been answered?
Some years ago a magazine carried a series of pictures depicting a tragic story. The first picture was of a vast wheat field in western Kansas. The second showed a distressed mother sitting in a farmhouse in the center of that field. The accompanying story explained how her four-year-old son had wandered away from the house and into the field when she was not looking. The mother and father searched all day long, but the child was too short to be seen over the tall wheat stalks.
The third picture showed dozens of friends and neighbors who heard of the boy’s plight and had joined hands the next morning to make a long human chain. Together they “combed” the field, searching intently for the lost boy. The final picture was of a heartbroken father holding his lifeless son who was found too late, having just died of exposure. The caption underneath read, “O God, if only we had joined hands sooner.”
Jesus continues to intercede for his church (Heb 7:25). I suspect he prays especially for our hands.
Image Credits: shutterstock.com; pexels.com.
 Paul S. Minear, Images of the Church in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 28.