The little book of Philemon has been one of my favorites for a number of reasons. It is named for the recipient of the letter, who is a wealthy Christ-follower and the owner of a bondservant named Philemon. Bondservants were indentured servants. Some chose to become a bondservant in order to pay off debts, learn a trade, or improve their position in life. They traded freedom for security, education, etc. Although we do not know the particulars of the relationship between Philemon and his bondservant Onesimus, we do know one thing: Onesimus ran away and did not fulfill his obligation to Philemon.
We also know that Onesimus landed in Rome where he crossed paths with Paul. Evidently Paul shared the gospel with Onesimus and his life was transformed. Paul learned that Onesimus’ owner was, in fact, Paul’s personal friend Philemon. From what Paul wrote, we get the idea that Philemon was somehow indebted to Paul. Perhaps Paul led both Onesimus and his master Philemon to the Lord. So Paul wrote the letter we call Philemon to ask his old friend to take Onesimus back and to treat him as he would have treated Paul.
Philemon 8-19 | Paul's Plea for Onesimus
Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love's sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus—I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. [Paul is saying that he is a spiritual father to Onesimus.] Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me. [Paul uses a word play on the name Onesimus—which means useful.] I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. [Paul is saying, “I love this guy.”] I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. [Paul has a long history with Philemon, evidently.]
Paul challenged Philemon to see his relationship with Onesimus in a completely new light. Onesimus was not simply a servant. He was now a brother. While Paul acknowledged the sizable differences in position and power that existed in their master/bondservant relationship, he challenged Philemon to see Onesimus not just as an employee but as someone loved by Christ.
The fact that Onesimus was now a follower of Jesus brought a heightened level of accountability to Philemon. It also reminds those of us who manage others that we are accountable to God in how we treat them. As we reflect on this story, is there someone in your work world that you need to see through a different lens? Have you forgotten that no matter who they are, they matter to God? No matter what task or work they perform, they have dignity and value to Him—and should to us as well. Paul reminds us that regardless of the nature of our work relationships, we are called to honor Christ in how we treat each other—especially the Onesimus in our life.
Yours in Christ,