15th May 2014

Paul’s letter to Philemon—A Story of Grace 

“So if you still consider me a comrade-in-arms, welcome him back as you would me.”
Philemon verse 17 (The Message Bible)

Nearing the end of Paul’s ministry in the first century, the apostle encountered a tricky situation that required some wisdom and action. At this juncture Paul was in prison due to persecution for preaching the good news of Jesus Christ.  The situation was that a young slave called Onesimus, had escaped from his master, Philemon, and done a “runner” to where Paul was imprisoned. Paul’s letter doesn’t give a specific reason for Onesimus’ escape, but it would appear that some indiscretion had taken place. 

Philemon, a Christian and convert of Paul, was a resident of Colossae, which was situated over one hundred miles east of the port city of Ephesus. It is not, however, absolutely certain where Paul was imprisoned at the time, but some scholars think it could have been Rome. 

Onesimus became a Christian and a great helper of Paul, to the extent that Paul had virtually ‘adopted’ him as his own son (verse 10), and didn’t relish losing him. Paul, in previous years was no stranger to Philemon, as they had worked together, perhaps on one of Paul’s missionary journeys. 

In first century Roman Empire, slavery was commonplace, and the penalty for desertion and disobedience could result in execution by crucifixion! Paul was no fan of slavery, and he decided to write a letter to Philemon to ask him to take Onesius back and to treat him as a brother in Christ, and not as a slave. No doubt Paul thought on the words of Jesus when Jesus instructed his disciples not to be like others who desired to ‘lord it’ over people. Jesus told them, “It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant.” (Mark10:43). In his letter Paul uses great sensitivity and discretion in appealing to Philemon to put the past behind him, and offers to reimburse Philemon if he has been out of pocket as a result of circumstances. 

This letter is a letter of grace, and one which all of us can take on board in our own lives. Do we find ourselves harbouring a grudge for things that people said or did to us in the past? Do we find ourselves unable to forgive and forget past wrongs? Perhaps we have been guilty of hurting or harming someone, and have never really apologised for doing so. 

Bible scholars reckon that Philemon did take to heart what Paul advised, otherwise Philemon would have destroyed the letter in order to erase from human memory what would have become incriminating evidence of his intransigence, and this letter would not have made it into the canon of New Testament scripture. But it is part of inspired scripture, and is testament to the power of the Holy Spirit as he worked positively in the lives of Paul, Philemon and Onesimus almost two millennia ago. He will do the same for us today if we submit our will to his perfect will and direction. 

Father in heaven, thank you that you are a God of grace, and thank you that I can find forgiveness when I repent of wrong attitudes and actions that sometimes hurt others. In Jesus’ name.

Study by John Magowan


johnmagowanAbout the Author:
John Magowan is a member of the Pastoral Council at Grace Community Church, Lisburn, Northern Ireland, a congregation of the Worldwide Church of God, UK.

Local Congregation:
Grace Communion Lisburn
Ballymacbrennan School Hall
129A Saintfield Road
BT27 5PG

Meeting time:
Sunday 11am

Local Congregational Contact:
Stuart Foster
Phone: 07764336760
Email:  bobbbeggs@hotmail.com

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