PAUL’S EPISTLE to Philemon was primarily written to bring about the restoration and reception of Onesimus. the runaway slave who had wronged his master. However, the letter can be viewed from a number of other standpoints, one of which is the insight that it provides into the remarkable quality of Paul’s Christianity.
As we stand back and consider the characteristics of the unconverted days of the writer of the letter, we see the reality of his conversion and the genuineness of his claim to live Christ. Phil. 1. 21. As Saul of Tarsus, being a proud Roman citizen. Acts 22. 25–29, he would have had very little time or thought for an insignificant slave like Onesimus. To Saul, such a slave was little more than a piece of furniture, to be used as his master saw fit. In Roman times, a slave had no legal rights and was virtually the property of his master. However, Paul is now pleading on behalf of such a one in the most touching way, Philem. 12, 17, 18. He has learned that “in Christ” there is no such thing as social distinction. Gal. 3. 28.
Furthermore, as we recall Paul’s privileged religious upbringing, as well as his self–chosen path as an outstandingly zealous Pharisee, Phil. 3. 5, we are amazed at his real love and concern for one, who in Paul’s former manner of life, would have been no more than “a Gentile dog”. This man was not only a Christian in name but in very truth. Consider his background and manner of life before reading his Epistle to Philemon, and his Christlikeness will be seen in even greater focus.
In addition, Paul’s uncompromising teaching in relation to the fundamentals of the faith, i.e. Galatians, Romans, did not mean that he became insensitive to the personal needs and problems of others. Besides his concern for Onesimus, there is his delicate presentation of the situation to Philemon whose feelings must be borne in mind. The language used by Paul indicates his acute awareness of his brother’s position. In a number of the verses, Paul uses words from the business world which would evidently be readily understood by Philemon, vv. 11, 17, 18, 19. So we have a first rate example of a man who was thoroughly convinced regarding the Christian doctrine that he taught, and yet who lived as Christ Himself had lived and taught. Matt. 7. 12. As we rightly hold to God–given principles, let us not forget people – it was for people, like Onesimus, that Christ died.
Why did Paul concern himself with such a problem? Quite a number of answers could be provided. His concern for Philemon, for Onesimus as well as for the local church are primary reasons. But we can go further and note Paul’s regard for the claims of love – not Philemon’s love, nor Onesimus’ love, nor yet Paul’s own love but “for love’s sake”, Philem. 9. Love as a principle. In short, real practical Christianity. Loving the unloveable and unlovely, such love being exemplified by Christ himself. Paul now realized that the fulfilling of the whole law was ‘to love thy neighbour as thyself’. Gal. 5. 14; see Philemon 12, 17, 18.
He who withstood Peter, Gal. 2.11, on a matter of principle, could also show deep concern for his fellow–believers – so evident in this short inspired note to Philemon. May we be given grace by God to conduct ourselves similarly.
Whatever other lessons we may draw from the letter, we see that in his dealings with Philemon and Onesimus, as well as the others referred to in the Epistle, Paul’s deepest concern and highest desire was to honour the One referred to in verse 5. His desire in Philippians 1. 21 was no idle boast, “For to me to live is Christ”.
We should hold to the principles of Scripture, which are no liability to blessing, and conduct ourselves in relation to each other as exemplified by Paul who, in turn, was following Christ Himself – our Lord, Philem. 5.
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