The book of Philemon is an interesting little addition to the pages of Scripture and frankly hasn't been one that I have spent much time reading, until now. I just finished up a Bible Study on the book of Colossians which included Philemon with a new friend/now mentor which was really good.
I highly recommend the "Knowing the Bible" series by Crossway. It was a study that requires a lot of thought and searching for connections throughout the Bible. It was nice to do a study that didn't ask obvious questions and "dummy" down the learning potential. The letter of Paul to Philemon is thought to have been written at the same time he wrote the letter to the Colossians, so that is why the two were tied together.
For those unfamiliar with the letter, it's basically an appeal by Paul to one of his friends and church leader, to forgive and welcome back his slave Onesimus. Apparently, Onesimus had stolen from Philemon and had run away. While Paul was under arrest, he and Onesimus met and Onesimus had become a follower of Jesus Christ.
Paul and Onesimus had become close and Paul had seen a radical change in him. He even uses the wording that he was once "useless to Philemon but now useful to Paul" and referred to himself as his father.
Paul made it clear that he would have liked to have Onesimus stay with him, but he knew the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation so he was sending Onesimus back to make amends. He recognized the fact that Onesimus had wronged Philemon and he was willing himself to settle the debt. That is how strongly Paul felt that Onesimus had changed.
Paul said that he was bold enough in Christ to command Philemon to accept him back, but He knew that things had to be settled in his heart. He urged Philemon to no longer look at Onesimus as a common slave, but as a brother in Christ whom Philemon could not only forgive and allow to return but also have fellowship with as a child of God.
It was risky for Onesimus because Philemon had the right to have him punished, even crucified, for how he had wronged him. Knowing how much Paul loved him, he was willing to take a chance on Philemon's mercy, grace, and obedience to the gospel. He trusted Paul's insistence on him returning.
As I have thought through this situation and how it can be applied to our lives today, I was challenged with the idea that God often calls us to welcome people who we would consider "unworthy" into our own fellowship groups and churches. Not necessarily because we don't want to or are snarky about it, but because it's genuinely difficult sometimes. I immediately thought of two interesting situations in my own life that illustrate the point.
Some years ago, while on staff at a small Bible college in the middle of the Montana Wilderness, one of our outreach projects was to travel to Deerlodge, MT to help lead the chapel service in the State Prison. It was an experience that was both fulfilling and yet daunting at the same time. Once you walked through the security check into the prison yard, hearing the lock of the gate latch behind you was more than a little intimidating.
One time while there, we were encouraged to hear the incredible testimony of a man who had been incarcerated since he was a teenager and was getting set to complete his sentence for his role in a robbery which ended the life of the salesclerk. At one time he had been the "drug lord" of the prison and even escaped, adding on to his already long sentence.
During that time, He accepted Christ and his life was truly changed. As he spoke, his love for the Lord was evident and he told many stories of miracles while he experienced the power of the Holy Spirit changing his heart. He was unsure of what life would be like for him on the outside but amazingly, his high school sweetheart, who married him while he was serving his sentence, was waiting for him. He was excited about how God was going to use him to reach others.
A few weeks later, we received a phone call from him and he wanted to come visit the school and introduce us to his wife. I admit that I had to swallow hard when setting up a time to have them for dinner in our home. I had never had an ex-murder-convict in my home before and I really had to work through some anxiety and pray that I could receive him warmly as a brother in Christ, knowing his story.
Another momentous trip to the prison, while setting up the instruments, the men all walked into the chapel and took their seats. When I looked up, I noticed someone I knew in the back row. I doubled-checked with my husband and we agreed that it was a friend who we had in our home many times to play fiddle/guitar music with. He was a talented artist and my husband has two small bronzes on his office wall that he had given him. We had lost track of him and was unaware of the course his life took. It was awkward but after the service, we approached him to say hello.
Through tears, he told us that he had committed one of the most heinous crimes and asked us to pray for his protection from the other inmates. He also shared how God had forgiven him and how he had committed his life to serving Christ. He accepted the responsibility for what he had done and was thankful that the Lord had used this time to reveal Himself to him.
Again, a few years later, we got a phone call that he was traveling through the town we had moved to and he wanted to stop in to visit. He said he would understand if I didn't want to see him but how could I not invite this fellow believer into my home? Again, it was difficult, and I admit I made sure that he didn't come until my husband was home. We had a good visit and God was doing work in his life and in his family.
It isn't always easy to welcome someone back into your life after mistakes are made, and Paul knew that. Undoubtedly he had experienced this reality in his own situation, knowing that people had trouble trusting his own dramatic change. That's why I like how Paul handled this letter.
Paul was all too familiar with the mandate to forgive others given by Jesus throughout Scripture. We are called to forgive those who wrong us as Christ forgave us. But, Paul also knew that forgiveness is one thing and reconciliation is another. We are called to forgive, but trust that forms reconciliation must be developed through evidence of true repentance.
Paul didn't just ask Philemon to take Onesimus back, even though he said that he could command him to. He knew it was vital for Philemon to be able to trust the change in Onesimus. He reassured him that though he was one "useless", he was now "useful" and that even Paul would trust him enough to stay on and serve him. Paul was convinced that he was truly repentant enough to call him his "child" and that as he sent him back to Philemon, he was sending a piece of his own heart.
We welcomed the two ex-cons into our lives but ours was only a visit. If we were to welcome them back into our community, our church and to be around our friends and family, we would need to make sure that their conversion was true. We would have had to be convinced that they were truly repentant like Paul had been.
While traveling recently, I heard Pastor James McDonald on his radio program (Process of Change: Step 1, Repentance) talking about the fruits of repentance. Luke 3:8 and Acts 26:20 tells us that if someone is truly sorry for what they have done and have turned away from their sin and back to following God, there should be some signs to watch for:
1. The absence of the "Half Apology". This is an apology that goes something like this: "I'm sorry I hurt you but if..."; "I'm sorry that you feel like I have hurt you..."; "...thinks I owe you an apology so..."mistakes were made and..."; "I'm sorry if that offended you".
2. Genuine Sorrow. There needs to be evidence that they are truly sorry and regret what they did. It's obvious when someone is truly broken or when they are play-acting.
3. They openly confess. They own their mistakes and don't try to hide or cover them. They openly admit what they did wrong and take responsibility.
4. They make some sort of restitution. They take it upon themselves to mend the relationship or to make things right.
James McDonald said that this is an apology: "I'm sorry. It was my fault. I have no excuse. Please forgive me." If that's done right, reconciliation can occur. We still need to forgive even without this because that is between us and God, but the restoration of a relationship takes the work of both parties.
What I love about the letter to Philemon is that Paul doesn't pull the "I am Paul" card and tells him he has to forgive and welcome Onesimus back. He doesn't make excuses for Onesimus but acknowledges his wrongdoing, and then knows that Philemon needs to be assured that Onesimus is sincere. In fact, Paul is even sending him back at great risk because he is so sure that Onesimus has truly repented.
So what did I learn from the 25 verses in the entire book of Philemon?
1. That we need to be sharing the gospel with everyone, even those who are out of our comfort zone.
2. That we need to forgive people for their sin, whether it was directly committed against us or if we simply find it offensive.
3. We need to be willing to welcome those who are broken and claim to be followers of Christ as a brother or sister, who we commit to love, support, work with, be patient with, and stand up for. (Remember, we are just as broken.)
4. Even though we forgive and welcome, we need to use the Holy Spirit's discernment of whether or not we see the evidence of true repentance. This is necessary to protect those in our midst who we are exposing this person to.
Paul was preparing Philemon for Onesimus' arrival but I'm sure that was just the first step. He was entrusting Onesimus to travel to Colossae with Tychicus to deliver the letter to the Colossians and to be his spokesmen for what they had experienced. I'm sure that when Onesimus arrived on Philemon's doorstep he had some sincere apologies to make and had to prove himself "worthy" to be a part of the fellowship instead of his previous position as his slave.
The book of Philemon is a beautiful word picture of what Christ does for us. Although we were once slaves to sin (and still choose to sin constantly) because Christ paid what we owed, God forgives us, as we have the heart of true repentance and He welcomes us back. It can't get much better than that.
"My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. And by this we know that we have come to know Him if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know Him” but does not keep His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps His word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in Him: whoever says he abides in Him ought to walk in the same way in which He walked.
1 John: 2:1-6