No one with a spiritual mind can read Paul’s letter to Philemon and fail to understand the passion and concern of the apostle for all the brothers and sisters whom he had begotten in the Gospel. His love for those, as he expressed it, who owed him their “very selves,” that is, their hope of eternity, radiates from every verse of this letter. And that concerned love clearly extended not just to those who were his own converts, like Onesimus and Philemon, but to other fellow workers like Apphia, and “dear friends” whose names are known to us only from this and similar epistles.
Verses 4 to 7 portray ecclesial life in Colossae, exemplified by life in Philemon’s household. It involves faith, love for all the saints, prayer, full understanding, great joy, encouragement, and best of all “refreshing the hearts of the saints.”
Question: Is this a picture of OUR ecclesia? Is it a picture of OUR household?
Verses 8 to 11 present a wonderful spiritual lesson. Apostles had real authority – from Christ himself (John 20:21-22). Paul tells Philemon: “I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do.” But he did nothing of the sort. “I appeal to you on the basis of love,” he wrote. What a difference! That’s the beseeching spirit. In our brotherhood today we have many brothers claiming authority and demanding compliance.
In verse 14 the apostle tells Philemon that he wants his consent before he, Paul, does anything that affects their mutual relationship and the affairs of the Colossian ecclesia.
Question: Does our ecclesia, our organization, our home, operate on the basis of mutual consent? The reason to do so, Paul insists, is that “any favour you do will be spontaneous and not forced.” In my experience, that’s the very best of reasons.
Verses 12 to 16 describe two miracles. Onesimus, once an “unprofitable” runaway slave, is miraculously transformed by the love of Christ into “a man and a brother,” even more, “a dear brother.” The second miracle is the miracle of sacrifice. Onesimus had become a companion and a comfort to Paul, and he was helping him while he was “in chains for the Gospel.” Paul made a big sacrifice so that Onesimus could show a full measure of repentance and Christian love to his former master whom he seems to have defrauded. Furthermore, and amazingly, Paul did not make Onesimus pay back what he owed. In what must have been a tremendous act of sacrificial love, Paul offered to pay back everything his newly reborn brother owed to Philemon.
Questions: Do we honour the lowliest of our brothers and sisters and treat them with dignity? Do we sacrifice willingly as Paul did for the “least” of Christ’s brothers? Do we have faith in a new convert as Paul had in Onesimus?
Verses 11, 12 and 16 pose a very serious question to each one of us, and especially to our missionaries. When Onesimus arrived in Rome he was a disreputable, untrustworthy good for nothing with a low background.
Questions: How do WE treat someone with a criminal record like his? Do we decide he or she just isn’t suitable to become a Christadelphian? Do we plead the need for separation from wickedness and just shun them? Do we refuse baptism because, after all, they may backslide? Onesimus’ conversion, like yours and mine, was one great miracle. If he reaches the coming Kingdom, well, as with you and I, that will sure be another.