LESSONS FROM ‘PHILEMON’
S. D. Benjamin
The book of Philemon, one of the smallest books of the Bible, is a letter written by Paul to his coworker and a slave owner, Philemon, requesting him to receive his runaway slave, Onesimus, back into his house. I used to wonder how this 'simple letter of recommendation' found a place in the Holy Scripture, which is supposed to be "profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction and for instruction in righteousness" (2Tim.3:16). But a closer study of the epistle convinced me that it contains a number of important spiritual lessons and therefore it has rightly become a part of Scripture.
Change Of Heart
The epistle to Philemon primarily teaches us what changes take place in a person when he is born again. True conversion is not just a change of religion or denomination, but it is essentially a change of heart and a change of character. In other words, it is a total transformation of the person from within. The revolutionary change in Onesimus' character is a classic example.
Those were the days when slavery and slave trade were common. A slave was supposed to be serving his master for life, and a deserter could face death penalty. Onesimus had not only run away from his master's house, but apparently he had stolen money too. But as a result of his contact with Paul, who was then in a Roman prison, Onesimus became a follower of Jesus Christ and he probably stayed with Paul for some time, serving him in prison (Phil.10). This brought about so dramatic a change in his character that this former deserter and thief became honest and trustworthy, so much so that Paul would have been happy to retain him with himself, if it was possible (v.13). True conversion turns a useless (unprofitable) man into a useful (profitable) one (v.11).
As a ploy to avoid the embarrassment of facing Philemon whom he had betrayed, Onesimus could have pleaded with Paul to allow him to continue his stay with him. He could have aspired to be known as a co-worker of that great apostle and gain popularity and fame. But this 'foolish' guy chose to go back to his former master and serve him for the rest of his life (v.15). Yes, if your conversion is real, you would not only reconcile with God, but also with men, whom you have wronged. You would also make earnest efforts to repair the damages you have done in the past.
Onesimus seemed to be even willing to pay back the stolen money and other debts to Philemon, which probably might include the financial loss suffered by the latter on account of the mandays lost. But because he could not afford it, Paul undertook to repay all those dues on his behalf (vv.18,19). Paul was apparently confident that Onesimus would never steal or run away again. Conversion should bring about integrity in financial dealings, which includes repayment of old debts and return of stolen money.
By going back to Philemon's house, Onesimus was risking his life, as the slave-owner could invoke his legal right to put him to death for treachery. Yet he went ahead, probably because he had learnt that true repentance should result in making restitution for the past misdeeds, even at the cost of his life. And his faith in God was so strong that there was no room for fear in his heart.
From whom did Onesimus learn all these good virtues? Of course, he learnt them from the Apostle Paul, his spiritual father. Note how Paul describes him, "my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains" (v.10). Yes, children inherit the qualities of their parents. Every tree yields fruit according to its kind (Gen.1:11). Jesus said, "Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit" (Matt.7:17). If you are a leader of exemplary character, your followers too will be likewise. On the contrary, if you are proud, arrogant, selfish and a lover of money, you will produce followers of similar qualities. In other words, if your 'spiritual children' are carnal, greedy or self-seekers, it is time for you to introspect before blaming anyone else.
Paul advises Philemon to "receive Onesimus forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother" (Phil.15,16). This is another important message. A born-again person should be treated as a brother/sister in Christ, irrespective of his/her antecedents. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal.3:28).
Like Paul, Philemon too was a servant of God. In fact, there was a church in Philemon's house (Phil.1,2). Now there comes a new believer (Onesimus) who was a product of Paul's Gospel work in the prison. Paul was convinced that this man had become honest and trustworthy and therefore he would be a good asset to him and his ministry. Moreover, as he was the spiritual father of Onesimus, he had the exclusive right to keep him with himself. Yet he voluntarily decided to forgo his claim and send him back to Philemon. What was the reason? Note what he wrote to Philemon, "Without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary" (v.14). What a great principle!
Even in financial matters, Paul was different from others, and he has set certain good precedents for others to follow. Paying for somebody else's debt is one (vv.18,19). In this case, he came forward to pay back whatever Onesimus owed to Philemon. Although the apostle was surviving with the money that he earned from his own labour, he used to help others from his meagre means. Yes, Paul believed in sacrificial giving. Once he told the elders of the church in Ephesus, "You yourselves know that these hands have provided for my necessities, and for those who were with me. I have shown you in every way, by labouring like this, that you must support the weak. And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive'" (Acts 20:34,35). To the Corinthian church he wrote, "If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it a great thing if we reap your material things? If others are partakers of this right over you, are we not even more? Nevertheless we have not used this right, but endure all things lest we hinder the Gospel of Christ" (1Cor.9 :11,12). Like Paul, can we try to be givers rather than being receivers? Paul had the right to receive, but he did not want to exercise that right. It is not necessary that we should exercise all our rights at all times.
Considering the antecedents of Onesimus, some may think that Paul acted in haste to issue a clean chit to the new believer. The normal trend is to watch such people for a few years before certifying them to be trustworthy. But Paul was different in this matter too. He trusted Onesimus as soon as he became a believer and described him as "a faithful and beloved brother" (Col.4:9), "profitable to you and me" and "my own heart" (Phil.11,12). Paul knew that he too was "formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor and an insolent man" and "the chief among sinners" (1Tim.1:13,15). One former sinner has no right to judge another former sinner.
In the ancient world, it was unthinkable for any other slave owner to forgive a runaway slave like Onesimus. Death would have been the only answer to his misdeeds. The culture of the world was that of selfishness, hatred and strict legalism. But even in such circumstances, the Christian love and maturity of two servants of God could make a difference. First of all, the positive attitude of the Apostle Paul, filled with Christ's love and compassion, in sharing the Gospel even when he was in jail, saved Onesimus from eternal death. That was not enough. His further initiative in taking up the case of Onesimus with Philemon, with maturity and tact, saved this runaway slave from the penalty of death in this world too. Onesimus lived the rest of his life, not as a slave, but as a 'beloved brother.'
The true repentance of Onesimus and the forgiving attitude of Philemon, coupled with the able leadership of the Apostle Paul, could turn a hostile situation into a blessed one. Paul initiated, Onesimus repented and Philemon co-operated. When true Christians are involved in any seemingly complex issue, the end result would be restitution, forgiveness, restoration and rehabilitation. Christians are expected to rise above the standards of the world and exhibit Christ-like attitude in their dealings. This is what happened in the Onesimus episode. What a great testimony!