Read Philemon 1
1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker— 2 also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home:
3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Thanksgiving and Prayer
4 I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. 6 I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. 7 Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.
Paul’s Plea for Onesimus
8 Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9 yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— 10 that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.
12 I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 13 I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. 15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.
17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. 20 I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.
22 And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.
23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. 24 And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.
25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
The Book of Philemon is all of one chapter long. What we read here is Paul’s call to Philemon to accept Onesimus as a brother in Christ. This seems pretty simple. However, the backstory provides more context. Onesimus is a runaway slave of Philemon, a wealthy Colossian man. After converting to following Jesus, Onesimus is sent back to Philemon, likely with this letter, to reconcile the relationship with his former master.
What can we glean from a letter, addressed primarily to one person, that pertains to the returning of a slave-now-brother in Christ?
While this letter is brief (in fact, the shortest of Paul’s that we have today), it may be one of his best in terms of wordplay. There are multiple examples of this, including the word “heart” in verses 7, 12, and 20. This word in the Greek literally means “inward parts” or “bowels.” Basically, it’s a metaphor for the center of our feelings and affections, which is why we translate it to “heart” in English.
Why is this important? Look at how Paul uses this word. In verse 7, Paul reminds Philemon of how he “refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people” in the past. In verse 12, Paul writes that Onesimus, “…is [Paul’s] very heart.” And in verse 20, we see him ask Philemon to “refresh [Paul’s] heart in Christ.”
To break this down even further, Paul, in asking Philemon to accept Onesimus as a brother in Christ instead of a runaway slave, weaves a clear theme throughout his letter. Philemon is known as a refresher of hearts. Paul’s very heart is Onesimus. So the logic is that Philemon would refresh Paul’s heart by accepting Onesimus back. This seems simple to us, but it was a radical request at the time.
Why is this important? Why should Philemon forgive Onesimus? For that matter, why should Onesimus forgive Philemon?
While forgiveness in some situations simply looks like not hating someone (and still removing them from your life), Paul asks these two men to reconcile in a regenerated relationship. Why? Because Paul understands that the essence of the Christian faith is unity in Christ. The love of God and the love of one’s neighbor, both encompassed in the person of Jesus Christ, are inseparable. Because of this, let us seek unity, seek peace, as far as we are able.
- Can you think of a time where you struggled to forgive someone? Write it down, reflect on that moment.
- What are three ways you can seek unity with those around you this week?
- Did someone specific come to mind while you read this? What would it look like to pursue reconciliation with that person? Pray and seek godly counsel on what your next steps should be.
By the Way
In what is now known as “The Lord’s Prayer,” Jesus teaches us to pray:
“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12)
Prayerfully reflect on this throughout the day. What forgiveness do you need to extend (or ask for)?
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