Relationships – Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon

He is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you. They will tell you everything that is happening here.

  • Acts 16:1-5

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker—also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. 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. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.
Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 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—that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.
I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 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. 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. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever—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.
So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.
And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

  • Philemon 1:1-25

A Quote

[Philemon 1:7]: ”’ When you talk, do not say harmful things, but say what people need—words that will help others become stronger’ (Ephesians 4:29). Before you speak, ask: Will what I’m about to say help others become stronger? You have the ability, with your words, to make a person stronger. Your words are to their soul what a vitamin is to their body If you had food and saw someone starving, would you not share it? If you had water and saw someone dying of thirst, would you not give it? Of course you would. Then won’t you do the same for their hearts? Your words are food and Water!
“Do not withhold encouragement from the discouraged.
“Do not keep affirmation from the beaten down!
“Speak words that make people stronger. Believe in them as God has believed in you.”

  • Max Lucado, A Love Worth Giving

What Do We Know about their Relationship?

Onesimus was a slave to Philemon.  Onesimus not only ran off but stole from Philemon.

Philemon was the host of a church group in his home.

Somehow, Onesimus ends up traveling to Rome, becoming not only a follower, but a member of Paul’s courier team (the Colossians Scripture, the only Onesimus reference outside Philemon).

Paul, who seems to know both these Christian men, writes to Philemon to restore Onesimus, not as a slave, but as a brother in Christ.

Paul is asking Philemon to forgive and accept all the financial loss in this situation so that he could gain a worthwhile new member in the congregation.  Maybe Onesimus might serve Philemon as a friend, but there are no guarantees.

What Can We Infer about their Relationship?

We might infer that both of these men were led to Christ by the Apostle Paul.  Otherwise, Paul is extremely bold in asking such a favor.

Then again, it may not be much of an inference that the first Century church was much more genuine than the 21st Century church.  They had their problems or the letters would not have talked about false prophets and heresies, but it seems there are so many of those things today and people are not seeing them for what they are.

We can infer that Philemon does as Paul requests, otherwise the copying of this letter and the reading of it in the churches would be horribly awkward if Onesimus was reduced to be the slave of Philemon until he paid off the debt that was owed from his thievery.

In What Ways Can We Fill in the Gaps about their Relationship?

I place this under gap filling.  There is no proof.  Onesimus was a common name for a slave, but in the region of Asia Minor there was an early Christian father, a bishop, who became a martyr.  His name was Onesimus and many think this Onesimus could be the former slave of Philemon.

What Can We Learn from this Relationship?

The entire book of Philemon, a one chapter book, is quoted above.  We get this wonderful book on forgiveness and setting slaves free.  The relationship of Onesimus and Philemon is not recorded at all.  We only get Paul’s plea that they work out their differences.

And in that plea, we get the formula in dealing with an even broader part of human relationships.  In loving one another, as Jesus commanded – not a mild suggestion when it was convenient -we see the nice easy loving of people who love us, but this one, even though they had both accepted Jesus Christ, it was messy.  Even messy is a light characterization.  Philemon could have had Onesimus executed, but he would have had no return on his investment at all under that scenario.  Yet, in forgiveness and no concept of penance, he gains a brother in Christ that is forever in his debt.  We can assume it became a bond that lasted a lifetime.

What Have We Learned thus far?

We have learned to:

  • Own our own mistakes and not blame others.
  • Be faithful to God, and worship properly, in the proper spirit.
  • Go to God in prayer, especially before any major decisions.
  • Do not show favoritism among family members, but always go to God.
  • Forgiveness is extremely important for none of us are perfect except for God.
  • Beyond physical love, there are other expressions of love, and respect is very important.
  • A relationship requires maintenance, nurturing, and an acceptance of the roles.
  • Be humble and listen to wise advice, and even wait when necessary.
  • At times, we must be bold and trust God, and we must obey.
  • And to love, love, and love.
  • Be trustworthy.  Trust is required.
  • And don’t worry.  God has this situation, and He has us in the palm of His hand.
  • And remember to forgive others and confess our sins.
  • And never go against what God instructs us to do.
  • And truly believe that God can show you mercy and accept the mercy offered.  Yet remember that it is indeed mercy.
  • Not blindly trust our buddies from our youth as advisors and there may be emotional ties that make their advice sound better than it is.
  • Understand that good cannot compromise with evil.
  • And sometimes you have to weather the storms, both in the home and in the world of public opinion.

A Closing Prayer

We look to You for guidance.  When someone has done us wrong, especially when they are fellow Christians, it can get messy.  Help us to see how to forgive with no strings attached.  In so doing, help us to show God’s love.
In Thy Name we pray,

Soli Deo Gloria.  Only to God be the Glory.

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