In Paul’s letter to Philemon, Paul writes about an issue affecting Roman Christians. The issue is not about physically freeing a Roman slave. The issue is the relationship of two people in God’s kingdom, Philemon the slave owner and Onesimus the runaway-slave-turned-Christian, and how their relationship would affect others.
First, Paul talks about Philemon. He thanks God for him and calls him “beloved and fellow worker” (Philemon 1, 4). Paul mentions how his love and faith are talked about. Paul says Philemon’s love “is a joy and comfort” to him and the saints, and “refreshes” them (Philemon 7). Paul later mentions in verse 19 how he had a hand in teaching Philemon the gospel. Paul knows this man, and Paul is encouraged by Philemon’s faithfulness and good works.
So, why does Paul write a letter to a faithful Christian man to tell him to receive his runaway slave as a brother? Wouldn’t Philemon already be willing to do that? Paul even says in vs 21 (I’m paraphrasing), “I know you’ll do more than I’m telling you to do.” The reason may be found in verse 6, where he says, “that the fellowship of thy faith may become effectual, in the knowledge of every good thing which is in you, unto Christ.”
Faith in Christ is a fellowship, that is, a shared relationship. This faith within us reaches outward and has effects on others. These effects are proof of the good things going on inside you and me. Through my faith, I reveal what is in my heart as a Christian. It is the way I acknowledge God in my life. It’s the way I show my relationship with Christ. Being a Christian means sharing and having relationships with fellow-workers in the kingdom. We are a family with brothers and sisters to think about. What your family does affects you, and what you do affects them.
Being a Christian means sharing and having relationships with fellow-workers in the kingdom. We are a family with brothers and sisters to think about. What your family does affects you, and what you do affects them.
If I make decisions that are based on what I want most or what I think is best – not based on my faith – that affects you. If I make entertainment decisions based on what I want most – not based on my faith – that affects you. If I make clothing decisions or language decisions based on what I want most to wear or to say – not based on my faith – that affects you. If I make worship decisions based on what I think is best – not based on my faith – that affects you. My decisions can influence you and can shake your faith. It can cause you to doubt what’s right and what’s wrong. It can lead you to sin against God.
In his Galatian letter, Paul talks about an experience with brothers in the Faith and the influence of Peter the apostle (also called Cephas).
“But when Cephas came to Antioch, I resisted him to the face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before that certain came from James, he ate with the Gentiles; but when they came, he drew back and separated himself, fearing them that were of the circumcision. 13 And the rest of the Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that even Barnabas was carried away with their dissimulation.” – Galatians 2:11-13 ASV
Peter didn’t act on his faith in this instance. Peter acted on pressure from the Jewish Christians. He did what he thought was best in the situation, not based on his faith in Christ and His commands. The apostle’s decision to remove himself exerted a faithless influence on Barnabas and other Christians that, ultimately, caused sin and discouragement for many Jewish and Gentile Christians. What seemed like a personal choice made by Peter wasn’t personal at all, and this domino-effect account can help us think twice about the influence our decisions have on the people we love.
Fortunately, Paul is assured Philemon is going to make the faithful decision and accept Onesimus back; but Paul wants Philemon to see how his kindness, and the way he goes about it, is going to be a powerful influence for good. The relationship between himself and his returned Onesimus is going to be an example to many, many Christian slave owners and slaves. Christianity’s teaching was progressive for its time. Christianity tears down entire cultural standards that hurt relationships, and it builds a new foundation of hope, eternal hope (Ephesians 1:18-19). It builds on trust and treating others as we want to be treated (Luke 6:31; Galatians 5:13). Paul trusts Philemon. He encourages him – in the face of Roman government – to go against the norm, telling him that his brothers in Christ are 100% in support of him.
Second, Paul talks about Onesimus and puts the worldly, barbaric practice of Roman slavery into God’s perspective. Roman slaveowners used slaves to make a profit, so a person who was a slave was a possession valued in terms of the money he/she could bring in. But Paul tells Philemon,
“I beseech thee for my child, whom I have begotten in my bonds, Onesimus, 11 who once was unprofitable to thee, but now is profitable to thee and to me: 12 whom I have sent back to thee in his own person, that is, my very heart:… 16 no longer as a servant, but more than a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much rather to thee, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” – Philemon 10-12, 16 ASV
Paul expresses God’s perspective: A profitable person is one who is a Christian. Those who are slaves to sin are the ones who are unprofitable. Their souls are not valued the way God wants them to be valued. Onesimus would return to Philemon completely opposite in value to what he was when he ran away. He’s still a Roman servant, but that has nothing to do with his value. His value is found in Christ, and his value is through the roof!
Adopting Onesimus as a son, Paul mediates between Philemon and Onesimus for his return. In this, he shows us the ultimate relationship we have in Christ. We are all Onesimus, regardless of our circumstances in life, and Jesus could have said this to the Father about you and me when we were baptized into Christ.
“10 I beseech You for my child, whom I have begotten [when I died on the cross], your name,11 who once was unprofitable to You, but now is profitable to You and to Me.12 whom I have sent back to You in [her] own person, that is, my very heart, 16 no longer as a servant [of sin] but more than Your servant—a [sister] beloved, specially to Me but how much more to You, both in the flesh and in [Me].”
God’s plan—His good news—was to transform us into profitable servants here on earth and in the kingdom. The power of His gospel, in faithful hands like Philemon’s, changes the course of nations. That power changes people’s hearts and relationships. When we share the faith—not what I want, or think is best, but the faith—it will affect our brothers and sisters for good. It will build up their relationships. It will encourage them to refuse the cultural norm and choose the lifegiving Way. Your faithful influence allows others to see every good thing which is in you, unto Christ.
by Lisa Sipper