When I look at the often neglected book of Philemon I assume, unfortunately, that this simple letter from Paul to Philemon about a returning runaway slave has little to offer us today. After all, there is no great teaching on the sacrifice of Christ or on the doctrine of election or on the imminent fulfillment of prophecy. There are no instructions to the church in holiness or repentance or sanctification. It seems somewhat out of place, nestled between the instruction of Titus and the theology of Hebrews.
But I could not be more mistaken. Let me explain.
For starters, Philemon is about a rich man who lived in Colosse and had been converted to Christ through the ministry of Paul. We know he is rich because the church meets in his very house. We also know he has a least one slave, Onesimus, possibly more, who ran away from Philemon and robbed him in the process. Even though Philemon did not pursue his runaway slave, the Roman law was broken and the penalty for Onesimus, when caught, was death.
Sometime later, possibly in jail with Paul, Onesimus is also converted to Christ through Paul’s ministry. And, in the course of Paul’s discipleship of Onesimus, Paul urges him to return to Philemon, face his past, pay his penalty, ask for forgiveness, and try to set things right.
So Onesimus does just that. He returns to the scene of his crime and to the man he wronged, taking with him the letter to Philemon, Paul’s letter on behalf of the runaway slave.
Let’s look briefly at this personal letter from Paul to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus.
The letter begins with the usual salutations characteristic of Paul. He says:
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our beloved friend and fellow laborer, to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (Philemon 1-3).
Paul then spends the next couple of verses talking about Philemon, how he misses him, how he prays for him continually, how others have been refreshed by the faith of Philemon. Then Paul moves into the purpose of his letter.
Paul says he “appeals to you (Philemon) for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains.” In other words, Philemon, I am coming to you on behalf of my son in the faith, Onesimus, whom I led to Christ while I was in prison. I am sending him back to you as a forgiven brother and friend and fellow minister and not as a runaway slave. And I am asking you to receive him as a brother and not as one who has taken from you or has harmed you and your family. I am asking that you forgive him, restore him, and accept him as you would me. “You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart” (vs. 12).
Paul’s appeal to Philemon is summed up as such: “If then you count me as a partner (or, as a fellow partaker, a companion in the Gospel), receive him as you would me” (vs. 17). Or, I appeal to you to treat Onesimus, not as a sinner who has wronged you, but as a saint— a forgiven, redeemed, restored brother in Christ, just as I am also.
And then the crux of the message, the pinnacle of Paul’s’ letter.
But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account.
I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay— not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides (vs. 18-19).
If Onesimus has stolen from you and has sinned against you, put it on my account. Let me pay the price for what Onesimus has done to you. Let me be wronged, let me be punished, let me suffer for his sin. Let me stand in the place of Onesimus before you and let me bear the wrath of your anger against him who has hurt you so. Let me be his substitute. Put his sin on my account, impute his crime to me, and I will repay all that he owes. See, I am writing this promissory note with my own hand, I will repay. Let Onesimus, my son in the faith and now your brother, not suffer for his sin against you, but let his punishment fall on me, who is innocent of any charge.
Can you see the pageant, the glorious play unfolding out before us?
Philemon represents God the Father, the One who is wronged, the One who was sinned against, the One who rightfully sits in judgment, the One who holds in His hands both life and death, freedom and bondage, for Onesimus, the rebellious, guilty, runaway slave.
And who are we? We are Onesimus, the arrogant, ungrateful, rebellious, guilty-as-charged, runaway slave. We stand before Philemon with no defense, convicted, ashamed, ready to be judged for our actions. We, like Onesimus, chafed at the yoke placed upon us and decided to run, like the prodigal son, into the world to make our own way with our pockets full of stolen money. We are guilty, judged, and stand ready to be sentenced. We have no alibi, no excuse, and we can expect no mercy from the Roman law that must be obeyed. After all, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).
Paul represents the Lord Jesus Christ. He sees value in what the world throws away (vs. 11) and offers grace to those who deserve none. He knows that Onesimus is guilty and deserves the punishment he has earned. But Paul, like Christ, also loves the runaway slave and offers himself as the satisfaction of the Law. “If he has wronged you, and we all know that he has, put the consequences of his sin on me. Impute his guilt to me. Let me pay the penalty for his sin and let what I pay atone for what he has done. Let me stand in his place, as his substitute, and let my payment satisfy Onesimus’ debt.”
It’s an amazing thing when we put the Lord Jesus in the middle of a passage that doesn’t seem to “speak to us where we are” and find, in every case, the picture of His redemption displayed with such breathtaking clarity. Let us all, as runaway slaves, remember the grace and love and sacrifice of Jesus who bore our sins Himself so we can be free (2 Peter 2:24). And let us live for Him, in that glory of His sacrifice, forever.
Adveho quis may.
Come what may.