“For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.” Philemon 1:8-10
The short Biblical book of Philemon is a personal letter from the Apostle Paul, to Philemon who was the leader of a house church, which met in his home. There is a serious issue between Onesimus, a slave, who appears to have run away from Philemon. The letter is not clear on just what has happened, except that a wrong was done. Paul writes, “So if you consider me your partner, welcome him (Onesimus) as you would welcome me.” Philemon 1:17
We are left to conjecture what happened when Philemon received this letter. We have no reply or further information about Onesimus to draw on. Only a glimpse in Colossians that he and Tychicus would be bringing letters to the people in Colossae. (Colossians 4:9) Some scholars believe the letters referred to, included the one to Philemon.
Did Philemon respond by sending Onesimus back to care for Paul? Did events intervene and make that impossible? Was this a last letter Philemon would receive from Paul, and become a much treasured memory of a friend? Did its truth reach so deeply into Philemon’s heart, he began to see slavery as a moral evil?
Paul did not fight a politician’s battle against slavery. Rather, his was a poignant appeal to the heart. Elsewhere he would write, “There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28
It is unlikely the book of Philemon would be in our Bibles if Philemon hadn’t responded positively to Paul’s plea, Onesimus be welcomed as a brother in Christ and not as a run away slave. Paul writes, “Maybe this is the reason that Onesimus was separated from you for a while so that you might have him back forever—no longer as a slave but more than a slave—that is, as a dearly loved brother.” Philemon 1:15-16a
Being touched by the Living Christ can change a person. It can change a person’s world view. It can change the way one sees another human being. Being touched by the Living Christ can even change one’s politics.
Paul’s vision of a world where we are all equal in God’s sight, continues to challenge us. For if we really perceive each person as a precious child of God, wouldn’t we be living in a less divisive world? Wouldn’t we have more compassion for each other? And wouldn’t we be working together for the good of all God’s children? May that day come soon.