Philemon: Four lessons from a runaway slave.

September 25, 2015.

Note: I am switching today and Sunday’s reading because of time constraints. I appreciate your understanding.
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Daily Reading: Philemon.

Background: Philemon is a letter by the apostle Paul written to a man named Philemon who seems to have been a leader in the church at Colossi, having a church that met in his home. He is believed to be a wealthy man who Paul had at some point saved (v. 19), whether this reference was to the salvation of his soul or physically. This gives an interesting insight about Paul’s relationship with the Colossians. When he wrote his epistle to them, it is implied that the has not physically been in Colossi yet (see Colossians 2:1), but this letter, written by Paul as an old man, implies a strong relationship with the church, such that Paul had now been there at least once, probably more. As noted, this letter is written towards the end of Paul’s life as he is a prisoner in Rome. The subject of the letter is a run away slave named Onesimus who has run into Paul as he is in prison and been converted to the Christian faith. This is the main consensus among scholars, though there have been some disputes, as all the details are not listed in the book of Philemon, so it is not known for certain exactly what happened. The reason for Onesimus’ departure from Philemon is also unknown, but it was not on good terms, as we will see later. Note that Paul opens with good words and prayers for Philemon before getting what may be a point of contention. Paul writes this letter of reconciliation and sends it by the hand of Onesimus to Philemon so that he might accept him when he comes.

Concepts and Connections:

Lessons from the letter to Philemon: Though this is a short letter, there is a great deal that we can learn from it. Included below are four lessons that can be drawn from Paul’s epistle to Philemon. These lessons are not all inclusive of the other things we can learn from the letter.

1. The gospel is for all.

What seems to be most ironic about this story, perhaps, is that for an unknown number of years, Onesimus had been a bondservant in the house of an apparently influential Christian. Paul praises Philemon at the opening of his letter for being such an inspiration to people. Whether he was trying to drive the next point he was about to make or not, Paul definitely has some encouraging words for Philemon. It is obvious that he is a leader and is doing things to advance the cause of Christ. Except to Onesimus, so it seems. The first point that can be drawn from Philemon is that the gospel is truly for all, whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female (see Galatians 3:28). It seems that in all his teaching and encouraging of the saints, Philemon either never tried to teach Onesimus or Onesimus simply wasn’t willing to listen to his master’s teaching. The letter doesn’t specify which, or even technically if Onesimus was already converted. It is speculated that he hadn’t already been converted, as there seems to be a contention that was building between the slave and his master.

In verses 10-16, Paul appeals to Philemon to reconcile his servant, who had once been useless to him for reasons unstated, as no longer a servant, but more than that- a fellow brother. In all the time that Onesimus spent with Philemon, was he not taught the gospel? Did he have to wait until he met Paul to hear the good news of Christ? Were there social reasons for him not hearing the word in the house he formerly served? All these are questions that don’t really have clear answers from the text, but the main point is perhaps this: the gospel is for all. We should proclaim it to everyone we know, regardless of social standing or prejudice. Paul had a reputation as doing such, even preaching to the guards who were chained to him when he was under arrest (see Philippians 4:22). Onesimus was no different when he came to know Paul, and he received the good news, becoming useful to both Paul and Philemon in the Lord.

2. A bad situation is not an excuse to not act as a Christian should. Neither is a good one.

The letter to Philemon does not only deal with what Paul tells Philemon to do, as Paul not absolve Onesimus for leaving his master. Consider what the letter says in verses 12-14. The very fact that Paul was sending Onesimus back shows that Onesimus probably shouldn’t have left in the first place, except it be for the Lord to work his salvation as we will note below. Perhaps the lesson we can draw from here is a lesson that is also taught by Peter in I Peter 2:18-20, which deals with the role of servants and masters, teaching that servants are to be subject to their masters, even if they are unjust. Note that is a hard teaching. We are not allowed to use our situation as an excuse not to act as a Christian should act. Our situation should have no baring over what we say or do in the sense of allowing us to sin in the process. In all that we do, in every situation that we find ourselves in, we are still Christians. Onesimus needed to know that, as did Philemon; being in a good situation allow us to slack off with our responsibilities as Christians. It is who we are, in all things, good or bad (see Colossians 3:17).

3. Does everything happen for a reason?

The age old question goes: do you think everything happens for a reason? So as to not get into a lengthy discussion debating the merits of free will verses God’s ultimate sovereignty, let us just examine what is said here, specifically in verse 15-16. Even if we decided that everything does happen for a reason (though there is evidence on both sides), we might not really know what that reason is. Paul didn’t, though he speculated. Those who are convinced that everything happens for a reason might be quick to jump on these verses and say “See, look! Paul said that Onesimus’ departure happened for a greater reason- so that he might be saved!” At first glance it does seem to imply that, and it very well might be for that reason. But notice what Paul prefaced it with: Perhaps. That implies to me that Paul didn’t know if this was for sure the reason that Onesimus left, on a grand scale. He just said it could be the reason. Perhaps this is the best we are going to get. So does everything thing happen for a reason? Perhaps. Do certain things happen for a reason? Certainly. Will we know that reason? Probably not, at least not in the short term. It is easier to see the providence of God in retrospect than in the present. Be sure that he does work his providence in our lives (see Romans 8:28), but don’t get hung up on figuring out the reason everything happens. Just let God do his work, and us what we are called to do.

4. Correct in love, not out of command.

Paul does something really interesting at the beginning of this letter in the way that he presents his case to Philemon (see verses 8-11). Imagine a television show or movie where a military commander is talking to someone of lower rank causally and suggested that he do something, but then he says “don’t make me make that an order.” This relates to what Paul is saying here. He’s like “I could command you… but I don’t want to.” Later (v. 17-19), he even adds that he will repay anything Onesimus owed, though Philemon owes Paul his very life (which seems to be a bit passive aggressive). The point is, even in correction, we should do everything out of love. Paul could have just commanded Philemon to take Onesimus back, or said that he was going to stay with him, and that would have been that. He had that authority. But he didn’t. This is not the only time Paul writes like this. He knows that he is an apostle and has the authority to bind and loose things on earth. But he rather appeals to his brethren out of love, so that they might consider their error and return without hard feelings. As we see from other instances, Paul is not afraid to be very bold and blunt with people he loves if they will not repent after he is nice about it (see Galatians 2:11-14 and II Corinthians 13:5-10). But he does give them the easy option first. Let us follow Paul’s example before we just jump on people’s back at the first sight of wrongdoing.

Tomorrow’s Reading: John 9-12.

Grace and peace.

-Walter

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