Paul’s letter to Philemon is an example of personal follow-up. Unlike other letters that we have looked at in this series on Paul’s follow-up, it is addressed primarily to an individual. Paul writes to his friend, Philemon, that his heart might be refreshed (Phm 20). Specifically, he writes that Onesimus (Philemon’s slave) might be reconciled to his master now that he has become a believer. The letter teaches us that the gospel provides the basis for reconciliation of broken relationships. It also guides us in helping believers become reconciled.
Douglas Moo writes in his introduction to Philemon:
This short private letter stands, then, as an important reminder of the communitarian aspect of Christianity that many of us, in our individualistic cultures are so prone to forget. In Christ we belong to one another; we enjoy each other’s company and support; and we are obligated to support, to the point of sacrificing our own time, interests, and money, our brothers and sisters.1Douglas J. Moo, The Letter to the Colossians and to Philemon, Eerdmans, 2008, p. 378.
The details behind the letter are not clear. We would like to have more details than Paul provides, yet Philemon and Onesimus clearly would have known those details. Likewise, the church in Philemon’s house would have known the general circumstances behind Onesimus’s absence. While this may frustrate our curiosity, we have enough information to understand how the gospel transforms and restores relationships between believers.
We know that Paul describes Philemon as a “beloved fellow worker” (Phm 1). We know that there was a church meeting in his home (Phm 2). Also, he was a leader who had refreshed the hearts of the saints (Phm 7). In addition, Philemon seems to have been a convert of Paul (Phm 19).
Onesimus, a slave of Philemon, had left his master without permission. He became a Christian through Paul (Philemon 10). As a result, he has been transformed. So, Paul appeals to Philemon to “receive him as you would receive me” (Phm 17). You can find a helpful survey of suggested possible backgrounds in Douglas J. Moo’s Commentary.2Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, p 364-378.
Reconciliation is Grounded in the Gospel
Paul opens his letter remembering Philemon’s faith and love (Philemon 4,5). This faith and love toward Christ bind him to all the saints in a fellowship of faith (Phm 6 NASB). Specifically, he mentions that Philemon’s faith and love have refreshed the hearts of the saints (Phm 7). In this way, Paul is paving the way for his request concerning Onesimus. Philemon’s love, from which Paul has “derived much joy and comfort (Phm 7) provides the basis for his appeal.
In Phm 6 Paul prays that the sharing (literally “fellowship”) of Philemon’s faith will produce the good Paul has in mind. This fellowship of faith characterized by love forms the basis of interpersonal relationships in the church. Moo provides a paraphrase of verse 6 that captures this idea:
“Philemon, I am praying that the mutual participation that arises from your faith in Christ might become effective in leading you to understand and put into practice all the good that God wills for us and that is found in our community; and do all this for the sake of Christ.” 3Moo, p 394.
The Gospel Transforms Relationships
Onesimus had been useless to Philemon. He was apparently absent without permission, perhaps a runaway slave. Also, he had wronged Philemon in some way (Phm 18). Yet in God’s providence Onesimus came into contact with Paul and became a Christian. His conversion made him useful and dear to Paul and Philemon (Phm 10-12). Paul describes Onesimus as “my very heart” (Phm 12), indicating that he has become very dear to Paul.
Paul describes both Philemon (Phm 1) and Onesimus (Phm 16) as “beloved.” Both were converted through Paul’s ministry and are brothers in Christ. So, Paul urges Philemon to receive Onesimus back as a “beloved brother” (Phm 16). In that status, Philemon should welcome him as Paul would be welcomed (Phm 17).
Reconciliation Happens Willingly
While Paul points out that he could command reconciliation, he prefers “for love’s sake” (Phm 9) that reconciliation occur willingly. Paul would gladly keep Onesimus with him (Phm 13). Yet, he did not want to force Philemon’s hand (Phm 14). Reconciliation cannot be forced if it is to be authentic. Paul has been building the case that reconciliation grows out of the soil of faith and love in Christ. Hence, reconciliation is the fruit of gospel living.
Reconciliation Refreshes the Heart
When Philemon receives Onesimus as he would receive Paul (Phm 17), Paul’s heart would be refreshed. It is significant that the word translated heart (Phm 7, 12, 20) is a word that highlights deep emotion at the core of one’s being. Consequently, Paul deeply desires to see them reconciled. Furthermore, Paul experienced joy and comfort from Philemon’s record of refreshing the hearts of the saints (Phm 7). So, based on that record, he is confident that the reconciliation will happen (Phm 21).
This side of heaven we will experience fractured relationships. It is not uncommon for churches to have members who are not on speaking terms. During the present pandemic, different opinions about masking and other government-imposed regulations create tension between believers. For instance, some withdraw from gatherings because they are asked to wear masks. Certainly, the opposite response also occurs. If these differences fester, we compromise Christian fellowship.
Paul reminded Philemon of the fellowship of faith and love that believers have in Christ (Phm 4-7). So, we need to remind each other of our common union with Christ. Our faith and love in Christ mean that we are beloved brothers and sisters. Our relationship with Christ creates our relationship with each other. As John points out (1 John 4:19-21), our love for God must be displayed in our love for one another.
Furthermore, our appeals for reconciliation ought to be respectful of confidence and avoid coercion. Paul appealed “for love’s sake.” Also, he prayed that Philemon’s faith would result in a “full knowledge of every good thing in us for the sake of Christ” (Phm 6). Like Paul, we don’t need to make public details of the fractured relationship that the parties involved already know. Additionally, authentic reconciliation need to be voluntary. We appeal, we do not command.
Christian relationships are central to the witness of the church in the world (John 13:34-35). So, we strengthen the health of churches when we help believers reconcile as Paul did. Each breach in relationships will have different causes and details but Paul gives us a model of how fellowship in the gospel can achieve reconciliation.