The epistle of Philemon, have you read it yet? I am guilty of breezing through it, not stopping to find anything from the Almighty in it. Deeper thinkers then I have asked, why is the Epistle to Philemon even in the canon? I think I know why… but back to the devotional study for today.
The great apostle, Paul, had seen the Almighty at work in every possible circumstance through out his years as an ambassador of the Anointing (Christ). Prison, shipwreck, snake-bite, even numerous contracts made by enemies to kill him, he had survived it all through faith in the One who stepped into his life on the Damascus Road. He is a prisoner again (Philem vs 1, “Paul, a prisoner…”) In His letter to Philemon he talks of faith and of the fellowship of prayer, but every time I read this epistle, I think that I see hints of manipulation to get the outcome he wants. Honestly, as a world class manipulator, I see it in this epistle which is why I do not spend much time in this little book of the Bible. I don’t like seeing hints of what I do not like about myself in the Scripture. God has opened my heart today, to see that it isn’t a manipulation, but a message of the heart to heart.
Right or wrong, Philemon owned slaves. One of them was a young man named Onesimus, a run-away slave. I imagine that papers had been filed with the proper authorities and that Onesimus was a wanted man. In my mind, I imagine that one day, there is a knock on Philemon’s door, by a man with a letter addressed to Philemon, two other believers and his congregation in general. The letter is from the beloved Paul, but the man delivering the letter was the run-away slave, Onesimus. Despite all the other addressees, the letter is to Philemon.
For I have come to have much joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother. Philem 1:7
I’ve tried to imagine something that might be of as much value to me as a human soul in bondage to Philemon. I want to understand the dilemma this letter represents. What if someone I knew robbed my retirement account, drained it dry, denying me the comfort I have saved for my old age. I would file my case with the authorities, perhaps I would hire legal assistance and an investigator to help me get back what is mine. Knowing who robbed me, I might tell everyone I knew to be on the look-out for this person… then, one day, he shows up at my front door with a letter in hand from a dear friend who is a missionary detained in a Iranian prison for sharing his faith. My rage for the theft would collide with my joy of hearing from someone I pray diligently for. That is as close as I can come to understanding this note.
Paul knew what a powerful leader Philemon was in his church. He knew of his ministry to the very hearts of the Saints. He does not judge him for owning slaves any more then men might judge me for putting my faith in money instead of God for my retirement.
I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart, Philem 1:12
Have you ever been asked to forgive someone that you have every right to hate? Someone who has robbed you of something personal? Maybe you have. Were you then asked to love that person as your trusted brother? I suspect that is what Paul was asking Philemon to do. Trust God, who gave his only begotten Son for your Salvation, you who deserve all the wrath God is able to give, and who has a legal right to see that you repay everything… because to God we are Onesimus, not Philemon (Matthew 18:23-35). We owe a debt to the Almighty that we can NEVER repay. Whatever Onesimus stole from Philemon was nothing in comparison to what God forgave Philemon for, but sometimes it is difficult to see because what we have been robbed of seems huge to us. We have a legal right to have the perpetrator destroyed for what he did to us… but God.
If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me. But if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account; I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand, I will repay it (not to mention to you that you owe to me even your own self as well). Yes, brother, let me benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Philem 1:17-20
What has been taken from you, crushing your heart? Do you know that you have crushed the heart of God, but he still sent His only begotten Son to pay for the very sin you committed against him? Whatever it is that is that you have a legal right to hold against someone else, does not measure up to what you owe God and could never repay if he did not send his dearly beloved Son to pay it for you. Have you given your life to Christ? He gave his for you.
Debs in Everett, WA… who knows the rest of the story. Obviously, Philemon forgave Onesimus. That could be the end of this story, but we still might wonder, why is this very personal letter in the canon (collection) of scripture? I would direct your question to the man who eventually collected all of the epistles of Paul that we now have in our New Testament. The bishop of the great city of Ephesus took it upon himself to collect and preserve every single letter of Paul during the early days of the church. His collection of Paul’s letters, his gift of love to future Christians, is why we have the life changing letter to the Romans, the amazing, history changing letter to the Hebrews, personal letters to Timothy, Titus, and Jude. He is the man who saved two of the letters to the Corinthians and the letters to the Galatians in the furthest corners of the Roman Kingdom. He saved all of them to add to the Gospels, to the book of Acts and the writings of the Apostle John. Letters so important to the church that he knew not to let them be lost to history as the 3rd epistle to the Corinthians was, or as the Hebrew text of Matthew. The Bishop of Ephesus’ name was Onesimus, and the letter he hand delivered to Phelimon was as precious to him as the book of, say Ephesians, is to me. It was from Paul, his father in the faith (Philem 1:10) Now you know.