The Gospel of Jesus Christ changes everything! The book of Philemon tells a powerful story of how the gospel restores those relationships torn apart by sin.
Philemon is a short but beautiful letter from the Apostle Paul (who was in prison for the gospel) to Philemon, a Gentile believer in Colosse (Col. 4:19), in whose house a church meets. Paul writes on behalf of Onesimus, a run away slave who had recently been converted under Paul’s ministry. He had been serving Paul, but now Paul sends him back to Philemon as an object lesson of the power of the gospel of grace.
Slavery in the first century Greco-Roman world was not based on race, as in our own history, but on economics and birth. Even so, household slaves had no rights at all under Roman law. Runaway slaves could be, and often were, killed as a deterrent to other slaves.
Paul has a long-running relationship with Philemon and he is being very diplomatic (almost sly) here. He is asking for forgiveness for a very real crime – Onesimus had run away from his master, and perhaps even stolen from him. Paul is using the influence of his relationship with Philemon to bring reconciliation into the situation. Even though Paul is an Apostle, he doesn’t use that authority to make Philemon respond. Even though Philemon apparently owes Paul something, Paul does not twist his arm. Rather, he appeals to him on the basis of the gospel of love: we should forgive as we have been forgiven; we should release people as we have been released; we should give grace, because we need grace.
Paul puts this entire situation into a gospel perspective. He praises God for the way the gospel is already working in the life of Onesimus (he as an unbelieving runaway had come to faith in Christ and been radically changed). Now the gospel needs to work even further in the heart of Philemon (the believer needs to offer forgiveness and restoration to the one who had sinned against him).
Philemon owes his life to Paul. Onesimus owes his repentance and allegiance to Philemon. All three of the men are slaves to Jesus Christ. The point is that we no longer view our relationships on the basis of position (apostle/layman or master/slave). In Christ, we are all brothers, and we need to offer each other the reconciling grace that Jesus has offered to us. The gospel reconciles everyone – not only Jew to Gentile (Paul and Philemon), but also slave and master (Philemon and Onesimus). We are all equal in Christ.
Interestingly, Paul wants the letter to be shared with the whole church (verse 2) so the entire community would realize the redemption and reconciliation that accompanies the gospel of Jesus. The gospel is not just a thing we believe. It is alive, transforming and personal. It has powerful and lasting effect in real human relationships. As Christ has forgiven us and given us a new start, we also need to forgive those who have sinned against us – even those against whom we have legitimate grounds for hatred.