What follows is a manuscript from a sermon I have preached on a few occasions. I walk through the whole book of Philemon. Love to have you follow along in this series. My prayer is that it will inspire you to “forgive as you have been forgiven…” The rest of the 5 part series is here.
12I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 13I 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. 14But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. 15Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good— 16no 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 man and as a brother in the Lord.
At this point in the letter, we now see what Paul is trying to accomplish. He is trying to convince Philemon that he ought to forgive this runaway slave. Now in our day we hear that this “partner” in the gospel had slaves and we want to be mad. How could a Christian own slaves? Doesn’t slavery contradict everything that we know about the nature of the Gospel of Jesus? A message of good news that tears down walls and says that nothing… no economic differences, nor racial diversity, nor geographical borders; can divide us any longer. And here we have a slave who is owned by a Christian… a leader of a house church nonetheless. Why doesn’t Paul condemn this evil practice? Well, we will get to that but before we do, lets talk about slavery in the first century.
Philemon was not strange in that he owned slaves. In the Roman Empire during the first century, approximately 60,000,000 people were owned as slaves. The Greco-Roman world was driven by their forced labor. Slaves were literally viewed as a ‘human tool’ or another piece of property. If this piece of property chose to runaway from his or her owner (as Onesimus had done), the law of the land permitted various forms of punishment. Recaptured slaves would be: flogged, chained up, sent to a ‘slave prison’ or worse. One of the most dehumanizing practices that was common among Roman slave owners was the practice of taking a hot iron and branding them on the forehead with the letter “F” (which stood for ‘fugitivus’ or ‘runaway’). Can you imagine the pain and shame that this would cause another human being? The worst-case scenario, would be that owners had the option to have their runaway and rebellious slaves crucified.
So, lets reflect on what this scenario brings to Onesimus? He has become a Christian and is now having to deal with his past. I don’t know about you, but in my journey to giving my life over to Jesus in a complete way, I have had to process my past and make certain things right. I have had to seek forgiveness, but have also had to grant forgiveness to those who have hurt me. In my childhood, I suffered from emotional and physical abuse; which was caused by one person in particular. Although I have never had the opportunity to formally forgive this man face-to-face, I can remember a time in high school when God spoke to me about forgiving the person who had hurt me so much. I had to release my burden and my bitterness towards him, and to allow God to grant me freedom. And how liberating this has been for me over the years… it didn’t erase the pain, but helped me to cope with it in light of the love I have found in Jesus.
Each one of us has to choose to forgive those people in our lives that have mistreated us. And likewise, when we have hurt someone, we must also seek their forgiveness. I imagine that at one level, this is where Onesimus is ‘at.’ He has now become a follower of Jesus and probably has unresolved guilt that must be dealt with. He needs to seek the forgiveness of his master, Philemon.
WHO DO HAVE YOU RELATED TO IN THE STORY THUS FAR IN YOUR OWN JOURNEY?
IMAGINE YOU ARE ONESIMUS, WHAT ARE YOUR EMOTIONS, FRUSTRATIONS, ETC THAT YOU HAVE TOWARD YOUR SLAVE?
WHAT ABOUT PHILEMON? WHAT WOULD IT BE LIKE TO BE IN HIS SITUATION?
WHO MIGHT GOD BE CALLING YOU TO FORGIVE?