“Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.” (Philemon 1:1-7)
While this letter seems to come from two people, and is addressed to several people, verses 4 to 12 is actually directed to one person – Philemon. And it is a carefully constructed letter and written (at least this first part) for one purpose – to reunite a slave owner (Philemon) with his runaway slave (Onesimus). But more than returning Onesimus to Philemon, the writer’s purpose (yes, it’s Paul) is to smooth the way so that Onesimus is received under the spirit of grace, compassion, and restitution. A “confession/penance/forgiveness” situation where Onesimus had done his penance with Paul but is expected to be given forgiveness by Philemon.
Paul starts by reminding Philemon of his better nature and Paul passes on the accolades that he has heard from others. And then Paul sets forth his rationale for Onesimus being forgiven and welcomed home.
“For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother [emphasis mind]—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” (Verses 8-16)
This is not so much an argument that “slavery is wrong”, but that we are all bound together as brothers/sisters in the Lord, each one a “slave” to the Lord but free also in the Lord. Paul is asking Philemon to put into practical practice what faith would tell in to do in a spiritual and faith context. And remember that Paul reminded Philemon of the good reports he has heard of his faith.
“So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.” (Verses 17 – 21)
How more so must we forgive and accept one another who is bound to us ONLY through the Lord. That is, we relate to each other as equals. And if someone would trespass or offend us, then the Jesus Christ our Lord has already paid the penance for that. Let me state this again more clearly and linearly. If someone confesses to God what that person did to another, does penance to God for that offense, and God forgives that person – we too are obligated to forgive that person because our offenses were/are also forgiven by God.
What Paul may have written to Philemon can be widened to include all of us. And may it be said of us too that God is thanked because “of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus . . . . that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ . . . . much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you” beloved reader. Selah!