It is easy to love people who already love you (Matthew 5:46)—that is no big deal and no mark of the presence of the Spirit among God’s people. But to love people who have seriously wronged you makes the world sit up and take notice.
In this final section of his letter, Paul makes explicit what he wants from Philemon.
Onesimus has three strikes against him. Strike one: as a slave he was useless (v. 11). Strike two: he ran away. Strike three: he probably stole from his master (v. 18). Who would even want such a slave back?
But look at what Paul asks of Philemon: “welcome him as you would welcome me” (v. 17). Receive this slave with the same delight, respect, and kindness that you would your apostle and father in the faith. Indeed, Paul is hopeful that Philemon might soon have an opportunity to do that very thing (v. 22). It is an incredible request, but a true mark of genuine faith and fellowship, because the Onesimus who is returning is Philemon’s brother in Christ. Their relationship simply cannot be the same as before.
But let us not underestimate the magnitude of Paul’s request. Forgiveness is costly and sometimes painful. Yet Paul can write that he is “confident of [Philemon’s] obedience” (v. 21). Paul knows Philemon’s godly character (v. 7) and therefore expects that his friend will want to do what is right. And who knows, perhaps even set Onesimus free or return him to Paul.
According to church tradition, a bishop of Ephesus at the turn of the first century was called Onesimus. Coincidence? Perhaps. But we can be sure that the preservation of this letter is testimony to the fact that, in this particular case, God’s people behaved like the redeemed and reconciling community they are.
This brief letter is an inspiring window into the transforming power of the gospel in the life of the church! It shows broken relationships being restored, and carries the expectation that God’s people will do what is right as they grow strong in Christ.
Your church and mine should be no different, for we have the same Lord and the same Spirit.
Why is Paul so confident that Philemon will do what he asks? Can we have the same confidence of people in our churches?
Think about your church. What evidence do you see of the redeemed and reconciling community at work in the life of your church?