I am sending [Onesimus]—who is my very heart—back to you. 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. 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. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— 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.
So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.
It's clear that Onesimus had taken great pains with considerable effort to escape slavery in the house of Philemon and head to Rome. So why in the world would he now willingly march right back to his old master? This is a puzzling thing to do! The only thing that has changed since Onesimus has been gone is that he has been saved. I think it's safe to say that Onesimus still shuddered at the thought of being re-enslaved, so how can we make sense of him returning to his old master?
In Paul's letter to Philemon, we have been learning that the gospel changes everything. It changes who we are, how we relate to other people and it also must change how we live. Philemon had an economic claim on Onesimus. An unjust claim to be sure, but a legal claim by the laws of the time. He owned him. Thus, when Onesimus ran away he had, at least in some sense, robbed Philemon. Now that he has become a Christian I believe Onesimus realized that he has wronged a brother in Christ and therefore sinned against God. I know it is hard for us to think this way because Philemon has wronged Onesimus in a far greater way by enslaving him. Yet, the Bible teaches clearly that Christians are not to return evil for evil. We are to turn the other cheek and if someone wrongs us by taking our shirt then we should willingly offer to give them our tunic as well. (Matt. 5:39-40) Having been forgive by God of his sin then, Onesimus cannot fathom willingly sinning against Him in any way. So in one of the most awe inspiring examples in all of Scripture, Onesimus chooses to do the right thing even when it is incredibly difficult.
This is admirable. Clearly the early church thought so as well since church history tells us that Onesimus later became the bishop of Ephesus. A willingness to do the right thing at all costs is part of the change that must accompany the life of any believer. It is all too easy to make excuses for our sins. It is all too easy to use God's grace as a license to sin. Onesimus sets an example for us. The Christian ought to be so dumbfounded by God's forgiveness, that he would go to any length to obey His new Master. We must obey God even when it is incredibly difficult. The gospel must change how we live. What right things have you neglected to do because they just seemed too difficult to you?
Let me tell you the story of one of my own grandmothers. I was mostly unaware of her life story as I grew up, but one night, near the end of her lucid days just before the Alzheimer's kicked in, my sweet grandmother shared with me the story of her marriage. She met the love of her life when she was only a teenager. He was a bit older, and they secretly got married one night without their parents' knowledge. Some time later they revealed their marriage, moved in together and started a life. Unfortunately, my grandfather became an alcoholic and worse still an abusive one. They raised four children and lived a hard life on the farm. But God always provided and they counted their blessings. After some time, my grandmother could no longer allow herself or her now adult special needs son who was living at home to be hurt physically, verbally, and emotionally. So she took her son and left. On the night my grandmother relayed this story to me, late in her seventies, she looked me square in the eye and told me she always loved my grandfather, she just couldn't live with him anymore. But she knew that marriage was sacred. So my grandmother decided to do the right thing even though it was incredibly difficult. "I never looked at another man," she told me. "He was my husband."
Many in the Christian community would argue that abuse is grounds for divorce, even if there isn't a specific provision for it in Scripture. I am not sure that I am fully qualified to answer that question, but I am certainly not sitting in judgment of anyone who did turn to divorce to escape an abusive marriage. But what I do know is that my grandmother believed staying true to my grandfather was the right thing for her to do. And she did what she believed was right even though it was incredibly difficult. She is just one of many Christians who have lived out this principle for those around them. They loved God enough to do the right thing even when it was incredibly difficult. And even though their names won't be written down in any history books, the impact of their lives is plain to see on those they have inspired.
For further reading...
- If you haven't kept up with the devotionals through Philemon you can read the first one here and the second one here.
- It should be noted that the Bible does not condone slavery in this letter. It is true that Paul stops short of commanding Philemon to free Onesimus, but he does this because he wants Philemon to act from a heart changed by the gospel. His hope is that Philemon would free Onesimus of his own accord. In fact, this is exactly what we believe happened. Otherwise why would Philemon hold on to this letter and later provide it to be included in the Bible? Paul's tact in this letter is in line with the stance the New Testament church as a whole took on slavery. They sought to indirectly undermine it by commanding believing slave masters and slaves to love one another as brothers in Christ. In time this love created a climate in which slavery could not continue to thrive. Slavery in the ancient world was mostly eradicated as Christianity's influence increased.