The Letter of Philemon is the shortest of Paul’s writings. It is a masterpiece of graceful, tactful and delicate pleading for a forgiving spirit of a Christian man.
Philemon was a member of the church of Colossae, who owed his conversion to the apostle Paul. Thus we understand the words “You owe to me even your own self as well”. The letter from Paul paints Philemon as having great character. Paul commends his faith and love, His benevolence and hospitality, and his docile, sympathizing, and forgiving spirit. He was a wealthy man and the letter appears to imply that his whole family were Christians. Tradition represents him as bishop of that city and as having suffered martyrdom.
Onesimus was a servant (or slave). Onesimus was a slave owned by Philemon in Colossae. Fleeing from his master Philemon, to Rome, he was there led to embrace the gospel through the instrumentality of the apostle. Roman law said that Philemon had the right to kill Onesimus for running away. Paul and Onesimus not only become fellow Christians but very close friends. Onesimus, accompanied by Tychicus, left Rome with not only this epistle but with that to the Colossians, A.D. 60.
Paul knew Philemon well enough to beg Philemon to forgive Onesimus for his is obedience. We want to yell, “Why does Paul send Onesimus back to Philemon?”
Slavery was wrong! Why doesn’t Paul say something about slavery? It is not that Paul wasn’t concerned about the issue of slavery. There were more people in the world who were slaves than free. Gal 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. In the Church there was to be no distinction. But remember, time was running out, there were many people who needed to be saved. For Paul, all of us were slaves to something.
A recent Business Week poll listed inventions Americans said they couldn’t live without (by percentage): Automobile–63: Light bulb–54: Telephone–42: Television–22: Aspirin–19: Microwave oven–13: Blow-dryer–7.8: Personal computer–7.6.
Isn’t it amazing what we become slaves too? Have you ever noticed a vine growing and spiraling around a chain-link fence? The fresh growth, the young green vine, is easy to remove with a simple twist of your wrist. The old, brown, woody part of the vine is very difficult to remove. It takes a lot of time and effort to break it off and sometimes it won’t come off unless we are willing to also remove part of the fence itself. Bad habits are like a vine on a chain-link fence. The sooner we get after them, the easier they are to remove. But the old ones, the ones we’ve let remain in our life for years, are hard to get rid of. Sometimes they can’t be removed unless we also remove other parts of our life.
All of us are slaves to something. God sent His Son, Jesus, to set us free. Matt 5:29-30 If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. I used one of those super adhesive glues to make a repair on Jonathan’s Jeep. In less than few minutes, my right index finger was bonded to the little piece. Have you ever tried to free yourself of something that you are stuck too?
I remembered that scene when I visited a new family in our neighborhood. The father of the family introduced his children: “This is Pete. He’s the clumsy one of the lot.” “That’s Kathy coming in with mud on her shoes. She’s the sloppy one.”
“As always, Mike’s last. He’ll be late for his own funeral. I promise you.” The dad did a thorough job of gluing his children to their faults and mistakes. People do it to us, and to those we love all the time.
When we don’t let people forget their past, when we don’t forgive, we glue them to their mistakes and refuse to see them as more than something they have done. However, when we forgive, we gently pry the doer of the hurtful deed from the deed itself and we say that the past is just that — the past — over and done with. God does what we are unable to do or what those around us don’t want to do or are unable to do for us. When we accept his forgiveness, he separates us from our sins. “As far as the east is from the west,” the psalmist says, which means as far as you can imagine, that offense will be wiped away, blotted out.
The Good News is that Jesus Christ came to set the prisoner free!