Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. [Excerpt from the letter to Philemon written by Paul]
The letter to Philemon is short and personal. Paul wrote it with his own hand. He speaks urgently, and pleads passionately, motivated by love. Paul is in prison. Onesimus, the slave of Philemon, is now the brother of Philemon. Onesimus, who wronged Philemon, is embraced as a brother in Jesus.
This is entirely different than the norm of the day. We have another letter written by a Roman upper classman named Pliny to a slave owner named Sabianus. Pliny requested that Sabianus show leniency to his runaway slave. The tone and motivation for Pliny’s letter is worlds apart from the heart of Paul. Pliny never names the slave by name, and speaks in pragmatic and practical terms. Paraphrased: “I’ve given your slave a severe scolding, he’s young and dumb, he’ll never do it again because I’ve given him a good fright, and besides, you will look good, you’ll look magnanimous, and he’ll likely be a better slave as a result.” See, Pliny reinforces his position of power and tells Sabianus how to act in his lesser position of power. Not so with Paul.
This is the nature of the community shaped by the Gospel. It takes normal and expected norms of interaction and turns them on their head. It makes the rich and poor brothers. It makes the uneducated and educated family. Upper-class and lower-class sit at the same table.
Paul wrote this letter to Philemon as an example for us of the working out of the gospel. Paul wrote with personal investment, willing to pay the cost of reconciliation. Paul wrote this letter to not only Philemon, but to Philemon’s church, and ultimately the letter was intended for us as well. Philemon, by lavishly accepting Onesimus as a brother, demonstrates a completely different way of living than what was expected, in very ordinary (at the time) circumstances.
What are ways that the gospel changes the way we live? With broken relationships, or broken expectations, how do we respond? Do we respond in love and with a desire for reconciliation? Or do we settle for a pat apology and polite avoidance? Let the gospel transform your everyday interactions and relationships. Put Jesus on display with your life.