A concise letter, a personal appeal, and a lesson in Christian acceptance are what we find in this brief and mostly overlooked book of the bible called Philemon. This book (or letter), tucked between Titus and Hebrews, is just one chapter of only 25 verses. The book is named after the man to whom the letter has been written, and the author is the apostle Paul.
Philemon, a believer, and member of the church in Colosse, is a slave owner and a man of wealth. Philemon has experienced the misfortune of having one of his slaves, Onesimus, steal from him and then run away. Under Roman law, such an act was punishable by death. Philemon does not catch up with Onesimus, but God does. God had a better plan for Onesimus than living the life of a fugitive. Onesimus needs to hear the message of faith in Christ in order to experience change, inner freedom, and peace: the salvation of his soul. He needs to be confronted with the gospel, and that is exactly what happens. God uses the apostle Paul to deliver the message of truth to Onesimus. God’s plan of intervention in Onesimus’ life was successful. Onesimus does come to faith in Christ and subsequently becomes quite dear to Paul.
Paul, aware of the circumstances that surrounded Onesimus’ quick departure from his owner, pens the letter to Philemon. Onesimus, now a devoted follower of Christ, returns to his owner with the letter in hand. The letter is rich in its appeal and effective in its persuasion. Paul’s appeal to Philemon is made on the basis of love. He pleads with him to accept Onesimus back, no longer as a slave, but as a dear brother in Christ.
Philemon, a man who once viewed Onesimus through the eyes of class distinction and also as a thief, must now shift gears. He must put his faith into action. Faith is not faith at all if it is in word only. Faith requires corresponding action to prove itself real. Philemon is being asked to walk in Christ’s example of love, accepting this man back as an equal in the Lord and also forgiving him.
Paul’s timeless letter of appeal to Philemon could be addressed to anyone of us today. We are all asked to love, forgive, and accept. There is no liberty in the Christian faith for condescension. There is no room allotted for looking down on a fellow Christian because of class, education, colour or one’s life before coming to faith in Christ.
When reading Paul’s letter, we should not simply view it from the sidelines, detaching ourselves from its message. Rather, we must read it with keen interest as active participants in the Christian faith, allowing its message to challenge our hearts. Christ’s love knows no barriers. Does ours? The words of Jesus should never be too far from our minds: “My command is this; love one another as I have loved you.”