By Robert Olsen, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Christian Studies, University of Mobile
The often overlooked book of Philemon is the shortest of Paul’s epistles, but it contains an important message of Christian forgiveness.
The story behind the Book of Philemon is a runaway slave named Onesimus who fled his Christian master Philemon and ended up in Rome with Paul. We are not sure how Onesimus ended up with Paul, but while with him, Onesimus became a Christian.
Philemon is Paul’s letter to the slave owner, appealing for him to forgive Onesimus. Slavery in the Roman world was not race-based slavery. Different forms of slavery and different reasons for being a slave existed but quite often slavery was like being an indentured servant.
Onesimus had been a great help to Paul while Paul was in prison in Rome, and the apostle is now sending the runaway slave back to his master in the city of Colossae. While Paul had a right as an apostle and a Christian to demand Philemon do what was right and forgive Onesimus, he instead appealed on the basis of love.
Here we have two divided Christians — a runaway slave and his master — being reconciled by Paul. This is a great example, for we as Chris-tians are to promote forgiveness and reconciliation between our fellow Christians. This acts as a picture of the gospel. Since God has forgiven us in Christ, we are to forgive others when they sin against us.
Paul is encouraging Philemon to live out his Christian belief, and it shows us how we also should be willing to forgive those who sin against us.
As a Brother (13–16)
Paul would have liked to keep Onesimus with him because he was so helpful to his ministry, but Paul realized the slave belonged to Philemon, and that situation needed to be reconciled. The apostle recognized the slave’s situation ultimately led to his salvation, and now, because of his flight, he was a brother in Christ.
In the Roman Empire, the penalty for being a runaway slave was severe, with even the possibility of execution. But Paul is counting on the fact Philemon will accept Onesimus back without punishing him and maybe even freeing him.
So Welcome Him (17–21)
Since a slave was a valuable asset to the owner, Paul understood this could be an issue for Philemon, so Paul himself offers to pay for any damages that might have been incurred because of Onesimus.
Some scholars suggest that Onesimus may have stolen property from Philemon when he fled, which would mean not only did the slave’s flight cost the slave himself, but also property. It is somewhat humorous to think that Paul, being a prisoner, could actually pay back whatever the cost may have been. But Paul emphasizes the joy Onesimus has been to him to help cool Philemon’s attitude toward this slave.
The book of Philemon teaches a valuable lesson in the role of forgiveness. Paul encourages reconciliation between the two parties which shows us how we should promote reconciliation between Christians today. It also shows us when we have wronged someone we need to ask forgiveness. Thankfully, we have the help of the Holy Spirit to convict us of sin, and then we need to act on this conviction, repent and ask forgiveness. Finally, it shows when someone has wronged us, we need to forgive him or her.
It is common for people to hold grudges and harbor seeds of resentment. This is far outside the scope of Christian attitude and behavior. We are obligated to forgive those who have wronged us.
As Paul says in Ephesians 4:32, “Forgive each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” In this way the book of Philemon is a picture of the gospel. Onesimus is to repent and ask forgiveness. Likewise, we repent and ask forgiveness. Paul is the one reconciling the two, pleading Onesimus’ case. For us, Christ pleads our case and reconciles us to the Father.