When I first read the book of Philemon years ago, I had no idea that it would leave such a lasting impression. Now, years later, I find myself digging into the message like a miner, discovering gem after gem of wisdom and insight.
It’s just a simple letter from the Apostle Paul to his friend Philemon, written to talk him into forgiving his run-away slave, Onesimus. It’s easy to see that forgiveness is the theme, and the way that Paul compels his friend to forgive is simply brilliant.
For starters, Paul presents himself very humbly to Philemon. Written while in a Roman prison, He addresses himself as a prisoner of Christ:
“Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon, our beloved friend and fellow laborer, 2) to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: 3) Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”(Philemon v. 1-3)
He identifies himself as a prisoner, as one who is making a huge sacrifice in his life for the sake of Christ. It was Christ’s will that put him there, not Rome. He is put in prison for a specific purpose-to evangelize, and to write the Epistles.
How do you think Philemon must have felt as he read that Paul was a prisoner for Christ? Do you think his heart sank at the words? Can you imagine the heartbreak it must have been to hear that someone so dear to him was in prison? Here he was, living in a big house (as assumed since the church at Colosse met there), enjoying his God-given wealth, all the while knowing that the great Apostle Paul didn’t even have his freedom?
What’s more, Paul calls Philemon “beloved friend and fellow laborer”. How humbling it must have been to be put as an associate of someone so renowned!
Here we see that Paul is subtly giving Philemon a little perspective. If he, Paul, could bear the brunt of persecution and arrest, couldn’t Philemon take it upon himself to bear the smaller task that was asked of him, that is, to forgive?
Notice one more thing. Paul is writing to Philemon, but his intention is that it is read to Apphia (Philemon’s wife), Archippus (most likely his son) and the church in his house (v.2). That’s quite a group.
Because Philemon was so well known, Paul wanted his concern for him to be known to his church, so that they may be there to hold him accountable and also be mindful of their own conduct.
Even though it is unpleasant, wouldn’t we want to be a part of a church body that cares enough to speak the truth in love or would we rather be left alone by a church that is unconcerned with our well-being? Paul was lovingly acting in the role he was called as an apostle of Christ when he made this issue known.
So here we already see a brilliant combination of commendation and yet accountability. It was a case for forgiveness. And that’s just the beginning!*
*Excerpt taken from my soon-to-be released Bible Study, “An Invitation to Forgive: A Study of the Book of Philemon” (Chapter 1 – “Encouragement and Accountability”)
Has anyone ever commended you publicly? How did that compliment affect your behavior?
What if our churches today would more consistently practice a pattern of loving accountability to its members?