Freedom in Fellowship
Paul was in prison in Rome awaiting trial, but his heart was free. He was cared for by his young friend Timothy and allowed to write letters to the new churches. His Epistle (letter) to the Colossians was just about to be couriered by Tychicus and Onesimus (Colossians 4:7-9). Now, Onesimus was a runaway slave who had subsequently become a believer in Jesus through Paul sharing the gospel (Philemon 1:10-11). He was such a help to Paul who would have liked Onesimus to have stayed in Rome. But Paul felt that would not have been right. Onesimus belonged to Philemon and for Paul to keep the slave would have been stealing (Philemon 1:13-14).
As it 'happened', his master was Philemon, who was one of the leaders of the church in Colossae; indeed, the church met in his house, the same house from which Onesimus had run away. And Onesimus may also have stolen from Philemon (Philemon 1:18-19). So, Paul wrote this personal note to Philemon, asking him to forgive his slave and receive him back as a brother in Christ. Onesimus’ willingness to return took personal courage and was also a mark of real repentance. Legally his crimes could have been punished by flogging, jail or death, but his faith in Jesus also made him a brother of the master he had wronged (Philemon 1:16).
But first, Paul stresses that he really is in fellowship with his trusted friends Philemon, and Apphia (probably his wife) and Archippus (thought to be his son). He knows that the return of the deserter would cause much heart searching in the household and the church, which is why Paul sets out an appeal case on behalf of Onesimus (Philemon 1:8-10). Was Onesimus really repentant? What was the evidence? How should he return ... as a criminal, a slave or as a freeman or Christian brother in the house? And what were the implications for good order in the town if Christians welcomed criminals and forgave them?
Reconciliation without repentance has no integrity. But where repentance is real, love can flow: it is a very practical demonstration of the gospel. But those who seek to encourage reconciliation will do well to learn the lessons of this letter. There is no place for cheap grace. Fellowship which brings freedom is single minded in the truth and not duplicitous. It is transparent and not hiding self-interest, admitting wrong rather than covering it up, and is willing to provide compensation for the wrong which has been done. If these principles were followed in business as well as in the church, the restoration of released relationships would be a blessing to many.
© Dr Paul Adams