Today: [Philemon:] The Cost of Not Getting Involved: In Paul’s letter to Philemon we are given an example of how to restore offended brothers in Christ. Today most Christians have no desire to get involved in strife. Paul chooses to intercede in a problematic situation that initially didn’t include him in any way – but the results are far reaching more than we know even down to our own lives today.
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[Phm 1:1-25 KJV] 1 Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy [our] brother, unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellowlabourer, 2 And to [our] beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellowsoldier, and to the church in thy house: 3 Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4 I thank my God, making mention of thee always in my prayers, 5 Hearing of thy love and faith, which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all saints; 6 That the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus. 7 For we have great joy and consolation in thy love, because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother. 8 Wherefore, though I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee that which is convenient, 9 Yet for love’s sake I rather beseech [thee], being such an one as Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ. 10 I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds: 11 Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me: 12 Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels: 13 Whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel: 14 But without thy mind would I do nothing; that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly. 15 For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever; 16 Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord? 17 If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself. 18 If he hath wronged thee, or oweth [thee] ought, put that on mine account; 19 I Paul have written [it] with mine own hand, I will repay [it]: albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides. 20 Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord: refresh my bowels in the Lord. 21 Having confidence in thy obedience I wrote unto thee, knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say. 22 But withal prepare me also a lodging: for I trust that through your prayers I shall be given unto you. 23 There salute thee Epaphras, my fellowprisoner in Christ Jesus; 24 Marcus, Aristarchus, Demas, Lucas, my fellowlabourers. 25 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ [be] with your spirit. Amen.
The book of Philemon is the shortest of the letters attributed to the apostle Paul. It is written to Philemon, a house church leader in the church at Colossae. It is written to address a controversy concerning a runaway slave by the name of Onesimus. Paul is writing from prison along with Timothy, and the opening verses are directed both to Philemon, his wife Apphia and a secondary elder in the church named Archippus, as well as the church in general, Paul is addressing the letter in this way as an oblique means of bringing Philemon into accountability regarding the issue at hand and the request for clemency that Paul will make in behalf of Onesimus.
As is the case with all of Paul’s letters he begins with speaking a blessing over the recipients of the message and giving of thanks. He mentions explicitly testimony of Philemon’s love and faith toward all the saints with the desire that Philemon’s faith would go on to be even more effectual and influential by the acknowledgment of every good thing that is in Philemon by Christ Jesus. Again Paul is speaking into Philemon’s potential to make right decisions in the love of Christ regarding what he is going to ask of him by interceding in behalf of the offending Onesimus. He goes on to make mention of his joy and consolation he experiences because Philemon is known to be a generous benefactor toward the saints in Colossae. Because Philemon is known to be so compassionate it gives Paul boldness to write this letter to him.
Although scholarship makes no mention of this what we are actually seeing in this letter is an example of Paul following the mandate of Matthew 18:15-17 which gives Jesus’ teaching regarding how to resolve offenses between brothers and sisters in Christ. In these verses Jesus teaches the following:
[Mat 18:15-17 KJV] 15 Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. 16 But if he will not hear [thee, then] take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. 17 And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell [it] unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.
As gracious as Paul’s words are what you see here is an apostle in the spirit of Christ with great love and compassion exposing Philemon to the discipline of the church. He gets down to business with the mention of Onesimus in v. 10 who has made acquaintance with Paul in prison and who consequently by Paul’s witness becomes born again. We may conclude then that whatever transpired between Philemon and Onesimus came about before Onesimus is converted. Now that Onesimus is a brother in Christ and spiritual son to Paul it is Paul’s intention to send Onesimus back to Colossae to be received not as a runaway slave but as a brother in Christ (v. 16). There is also mention of unresolved debt that Onesimus owes to Philemon and Paul implores Philemon to write off the expense on his account offering to pay it himself (although he reminds Philemon that he is indebted to Paul regarding some past circumstance and therefore should merely forgive whatever he thinks he has coming).
In laying all of this out, Paul expresses expectation (v. 21) that he will hear none other than this situation being resolved according to his apostolic admonition knowing that Philemon will not only comply but go beyond what is asked of him. Paul then asks Philemon to make ready for Paul to visit him there hoping to be released from prison shortly, aided by the prayers of the saints.
The letter does not indicate how it was received or whatever becomes of Philemon and Onesimus. Church tradition and accepted history however tells us that Onesimus goes on to serve as a bishop or elder in the church at Ephesus and as such joins the ranks of the apostolic fathers. The apostolic fathers are that class of leaders who received their training directly from the apostles mentioned in the New Testament as the second generation of apostles and elders to lead the church. It is also known to history that Onesimus and Polycarp, a bishop in the church at Smyrna were connected and shared between them a collection of sacred writings that included most of the 66 books that now comprise the canon of our scripture that Jerome compiles many years after their deaths. We see then how much was at stake in Philemon’s positive response to Paul’s plea for forgiveness where the offenses of Onesimus were concerned. Onesimus was not only to become an important leader in his generation but also influential in shaping the body of literature that became the bible as we know it.
What can you learn from this book? The most important thing to see in the letter to Philemon is the grace, respectfulness, and gentleness of spirit we are to show when God calls upon us to get involved in hopes of reuniting offended brothers and sisters. We aren’t to sit in judgment or act in harsh dictatorial ways but rather to move in love and great delicacy hoping to heal and mend torn relationships. Considering how influential Onesimus would become at a later time if Paul hadn’t written this letter how many lives would have been affected? Likewise, today if you choose not to get involved when you know of or see strife between brothers how many important books would not be written? How many ministries that would have risen up and touched thousands of lives but will not do so because we didn’t want to be involved? In the day we live in the default response of most Christians is not having anything to do with such problems between believers and as such the cost to the purposes of God and the people of God in the light of the example of Philemon and Onesimus is difficult to exaggerate.
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