This post originally appeared on the Calvary website.
In Paul’s letter to his church-planting partner and friend, Philemon, he spends the opening lines commending this loving church leader, in very specific ways, with subtle and powerful theological undertones. And then comes one little word in verse 8 — “Accordingly…”
It could also be translated “for this reason,” “therefore,” and “this is why.” Or, as The Message puts it, “In line with all this, I have a favor to ask of you.”
What Paul is about to say is what will be most difficult for Philemon to hear. You see, Paul has reminded him of what the good news has fundamentally done to Philemon and his people there in the church at Colossae. And he has done that in order to connect the dots to the fact that it has done this to another of Philemon’s people.
Or, better, what used to be one of his people.
The runaway slave, Onesimus.
We’re not sure exactly why Onesimus ran off, to which you may say, “Well, he was a slave, you dunderhead, maybe that should be your first clue.” But slavery then and there—while not good, and I’m not defending it—was not the same as the slavery that stains our country’s history. It wasn’t ethnically centered, and was more a form of indentured servitude that was a fundamental part of the culture. And to flee was to enter into danger, and likely death. It was to lose the protection of your house and family.
And for whatever reason, Onesimus flees. And in so doing, he wrongs Philemon. It may be that the wrong was merely the fleeing, and it may be that he stole from him as he left. And this isn’t some private matter. Philemon’s household would have been close—everyone would know Onesimus, including the church family, with their weekly attendance at the church meeting in Philemon’s home, as well as other frequent visits for fellowship. And those who in Colossian society would have known of this: Philemon likely would have reported his fleeing to the authorities.
The point is—the departure of Onesimus was very public.
And we don’t know how he gets to Rome, or why; or how he gets to Paul, or why. But he does. And because Paul is Paul, he tells Onesimus about Jesus. And Onesimus becomes a follower of Jesus. Onesimus becomes connected to Jesus. Onesimus enters into the mutual participation, the fellowship, of believers.
Which is beautiful, and glorious, and reason for rejoicing.
And which puts Paul in a tricky spot.
Isn’t that always what conflict does—puts people in tricky spots? When one person wrongs another person, and reconciliation is needed? When forgiveness has a part to play for both parties—one who desperately needs to receive it, and one who desperately needs to offer it? For there is no reconciliation without forgiveness, friend, and everybody involved needs it.
And so a spiritual father considers his two sons.
One who needs forgiveness.
One who needs to offer it.
How does he get them to reconcile? How does he settle the matter?
The first step is to send the prodigal home. It will not do to have Onesimus enter into the rest of his life as a follower of Jesus with unresolved conflict. He must go back. He must settle the matter.
And the second step? What of Philemon, in a sense, the older brother, having come to Jesus first? Should he command forgiveness, as a father? Should he require Philemon to reconcile? There is still a more excellent way. This father will appeal to love.
These are the words echoing in Philemon’s ears as he reads Paul letter, trying to find a way forward….
I invite you now to watch or listen to my sermon from Paul’s letter to his friend Philemon, and to the church at Colossae, and to you and me. And if you’d like some additional resources on this book, head on over to the Bible Project page for this part of the Whole Story.
May God use his Word to inspire you to help just one other person move one step closer to Jesus.