I often like a snow day where I’m stuck at home, though certainly not for the snow! I don’t ever need to see snow again, I’ve had quite enough for one lifetime. But while at home with no place to go or schedule to meet, I am able to sit for hours at a time and accomplish things through writing that I don’t generally have the opportunity to get done.
That is a bit what Paul’s life is like as he spends two years in Rome, under guard.
Acts 28:30 – For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. 31 He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!
During this time we know that Paul wrote a number of his letters to churches and individuals. Today we look at the single chapter and letter of Paul to Philemon.
Have you ever wanted someone to do something, all the while realizing that it is indeed going to cost them some money to make it happen? Perhaps it is a scenario where you know something is good for them, or perhaps it is simply the right thing to do – though you are not sure they will quite see it the same way as you do? You hope so, but you’re not quite sure how they will react when you present it to them. In that you have a high view of them, you expect that it will be well-received, but you can’t quite be positive. So, to make sure that the proper deed will be accomplished, while asking and challenging the person to be responsible and take the high ground position, even with its costs, you finish off your request by saying, “If you won’t pay for it, I will.”
That is what is happening in this personal letter from the Apostle Paul to a fellow named Philemon. This recipient of the letter – an apparently wealthy individual who lived in Colossae and was a part of the church of the Colossians – had a slave named Onesimus who had run away. In the course of God’s sovereignly-directed events, Onesimus comes into contact with Paul, is converted to the faith, and is now being sent back to his owner Philemon.
There is not time now to talk about the issue of slavery in the Roman Empire. Understand that it was not exactly like slavery in American history, and in fact more than half of the population were slaves. Owners and slaves were in the same church together, and Paul did not write to upset these conventions. Though we might picture it more like indentured servitude, it was a crime to do as Onesimus had done.
So Paul writes to implore Philemon to accept him back. Paul speaks of the great benefit he has received from Onesimus, and he tells the owner that he will now not only have a better worker, he will be welcoming back a brother in Christ.
I am especially fond of this letter because of verse 18 – If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. Paul is saying to Philemon that if it is a matter of not accepting him back because of financial loss, that the owner should charge the loss to Paul’s account and he would make good on the debt. This is an example of the theological doctrine of imputation – the placing of a debt to another’s account, and the consequent transfer of credit that frees the person from the pending execution if the debt is not paid.
Therefore, we have a new identity by being “in Christ” … we have Christ’s righteousness which gives us a standing as God’s children. The debt of our sin had been transferred previously for our account to that of Christ, who paid that debt with the shedding of blood on the cross.
Philemon 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.