The apostle Paul was a prisoner in Rome as a result of his preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. From prison, he wrote letters to the churches in Ephesus, Philippi and Colosse to encourage and instruct them. But Paul also wrote a personal letter to a man named Philemon who lived in Colosse. Paul had converted Philemon and therefore knew him well. Apparently Philemon was a wealthy Christian and the church met in his house. After greetings and an introduction, here is the main part of this personal letter from Paul. Philemon 8-21 “Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting, yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you — being such a one as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ — I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me. I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel. But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary. For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave — a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. If then you count me as a partner, receive him as you would me. But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account. I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay — not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides. Yes, brother, let me have joy from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in the Lord. Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.”
From this personal letter, we understand that Onesimus was a slave that belonged to Philemon. Onesimus had apparently stolen things of value from his master and had run away. Slaves in the time of Rome were usually tattooed to make it easy to identify them if they tried to escape from their master. There was no limit to the punishment a slave master could inflict on a runaway slave. If caught, the master could choose to have the slave returned, punished, or even be put to death. This was the sentence hanging over the head of Onesimus as he ran with his stolen possessions. He had managed to travel from Colosse to Rome. Colosse is in modern day Turkey and Rome is in Italy, a great distance away. While in Rome, Onesimus had come in contact with the apostle Paul who had converted him so that he was now a Christian. Although Onesimus was helpful to the prisoner Paul, he needed to go back to his master. How would Philemon receive his runaway slave? The apostle Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon with the letter that we have. Paul didn’t want to do anything without the consent of Philemon. Paul appeals to Philemon to accept Onesimus, not just as a slave but as a brother in Christ. Paul promises to pay for anything that Onesimus might owe Philemon; but Paul reminds Philemon that he owes Paul his spiritual life because he caused him to be saved through the gospel of Jesus. Paul appeals to Philemon and is confident that he will do even more than he asks.
I want you to see the similarity of your life with the life of Onesimus. Before you became a Christian, you also were sinful and unprofitable to God. Perhaps you took advantage of God’s blessings and ran away from Him. Because of your sin, you deserved the punishment of God, even death. But then you met someone who shared the gospel of Jesus with you, and you became converted. Now you are profitable to God. Now you have been transformed from a rebel to an obedient servant. Even though you do not deserve it, you have been accepted back, not as a slave, but as a child of God. Be grateful for the mercy and love of God to you.
Next, I want you to put yourself in the place of Philemon. Someone close to you has sinned against you. Perhaps they stole from you; perhaps they lied to you; perhaps they did horrible things to you. And now you have the opportunity to forgive them. Will you forgive them or will you see that they receive the punishment that you think they deserve? Remember that you have been forgiven by God for all the sins you have committed against Him. You owe Him your very life. Jesus gave the following parable. Matthew 18:23-35 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt. But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”
I encourage you to learn from Paul’s letter to Philemon. Remember that you have been forgiven by God for all the sins you have committed against Him. You owe your very life to Him. Be willing to forgive others who trespass against you.