Aloha Friday Message – March 9, 2012 – Paul and Philemon

1210AFC030912  – Philemon and Paul

Catholic Letter Series

Read it online here.


KJV Philemon 1:18 If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account;

NAB Philemon 1:18 And if he has done you any injustice or owes you anything, charge it to me.

NLT Philemon 1:18 If he has harmed you in any way or stolen anything from you, charge me for it.

Today I want to look into the very short epistle to Philemon. It is a very special epistle, first because it is so short, and secondly because it says so much about Paul’s relationship with the church at Colossae. Paul had never visited the church at Colossae before he wrote 1 Colossians, his first epistle to the church there. It seems it was established by Epaphras along with help from the churches Laodicea and Hierapolis (Col 1:7-8; 4:12-13). Philemon was a leader in that church. He apparently enjoyed a close friendship with Paul who refers to him as a dear friend and fellow worker.

The letter to Philemon is unusual also because it is a letter that is personal and to a friend, a private letter sent along with other public letters. It is unique among the epistles because it was not intended to reach a wide audience; it’s just a short note asking a friend to do him a personal favor – to forgive and accept Onesimus, Philemon’s thieving, runaway slave. Paul might have even known Onesimus because Paul was a mentor to Philemon and knew him and his family well. Onesimus was a fugitive in Rome, where Paul was imprisoned and under constant guard, and somehow he and Paul got connected. Perhaps Onesimus sought out Paul, or perhaps he was captured and imprisoned with him; we do not know the circumstances. But one thing was clear: If he was caught and prosecuted, he would have been put to death, most likely in a very shameful and painful way.

Paul is taking on the role of an arbiter, a peacemaker who is asking both men to concede that their relationship has changed and they need to accept that as the basis for a new relationship and then move forward in the will of God. His appeal is very polite as he makes it clear he does not want to impose his will on Philemon on behalf of Onesimus. He makes the argument in the form of a chiasm. In verse 5 he says, ” because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints.” If you were to map it out it would look like this:

The interaction between the components takes on the shape of the Greek letter, Chi which looks like an X.

There is also an interesting historical value to this letter. It gives us insight in to the man Paul and the events in his life as a man of tenderness, a side we don’t expect when we consider the content of other epistles. Here is he breaking “social mores” of the time by advocating for a slave. Onesimus’ status was one who was possibly under penalty of death for his escape and perhaps even for theft (v 18) The name, Onesimus, means useful and all through this epistle, Paul makes little wordplay remarks based on that meaning of the name Onesimus. In verse 11 he says, “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.” In the light of today’s humor that isn’t really so funny or clever, but in Paul’s day, that was a masterful play on words that discloses to us Paul’s ability to quip and show a sense of humor.

Another characteristic of this short little note is the theological power in Paul’s request. He is teaching Philemon, and thereby showing us as well, that God is asking for something Philemon can do in his life that will make a difference in Paul’s life as well as in the life of his [spiritual] son, Onesimus. He is asking Philemon to forgive Onesimus and to allow him to return to Colossae, perhaps to be not only reinstated in his former position, but also to be received as a new brother in Christ. Paul wants to see Onesimus restored to the good graces of his master, Philemon, and to hold nothing against him for having run off with his master’s property.

The evangelist, Paul, delivers a message to Philemon that is hard to miss – whatever is gone wrong in life, God has a plan to fix it. The loss of a slave, and apparently some property as well, was a financial and personal loss, even an embarrassment. Paul is urging Philemon to live out the Gospel, to imitate Christ (and Paul) through his acceptance of Onesimus’ return.

Paul also plays a little “church politics” when he says, “I know you will do more than what I ask you.” Paul urges Philemon to welcome Onesimus back as a penitent, but to install is slave in his household as a brother whose God-given gifts include being a valuable helper not only in Philemon’s household, but in the church that meets there, and moreover in the Kingdom of God He is in effect saying, although he is still your servant, he is also your colleague, your coworker, your brother in Christ, and he has earned that recognition through the help and love he has given to Paul.

You can imagine that Onesimus might not have been too keen on going back to Colossae. Despite the probable reluctance to return to Philemon, Paul helps him understand that one has to pay one’s debt – Onesimus had to go back and make amends with Philemon, and submit to his authority even at the risk of death. And then Paul throws in the clincher: ” If he has harmed you in any way or stolen anything from you, charge me for it.” Put it on my account. Don’t charge him with anything. Whatever he owes you, I’ll cover it. And then he says, ” I will pay it back– not to mention that you owe me your very self.” Whoa! Way to lock in a favor!

The conclusion Paul wants Philemon to reach is that Jesus paid for Onesimus’ crime – as well as the crimes (sins) of Philemon, Paul, and all the saints – so “receive him as you would receive me,” for we are all the same in Christ. Paul says, “If this man has wronged you, I will take the blame and pay the price,” just as Christ has said repeatedly to us. “You have sinned against God and against man, but I have paid the price because God – your Heavenly Father and mine – sent me to tell you he loves you, just like I love you.” And therein is the heart of this message. Just as Christ paid for all the crimes of all the persons involved, Paul is willing to pay for the very crimes against Philemon; the hope is that Philemon will see that Onesimus is indeed a fellow believer and forgive him his trespasses as God, in Christ, has forgiven Philemon’s.

Can others’ failures make you angry or cause you to demean them, “I love them exactly as much as I love you. How much do you love me? As much as I love you and them?” That is the question Paul wanted to run through Philemon’s mind,  and now I hope it is running through your mind.

Reconciliation with God always comes as a result of a blood sacrifice. From the days of Abraham through Easter Morning some 2000 years ago, that blood sacrifice was nonhuman. Jesus willingly allowed himself to be the sacrificial lamb and that ended blood sacrifice once and for all. “Once” because it was the first, last, and only perfect sacrifice. “For all” because God’s plan is to redeem all mankind. In the Old way, for reconciliation to take place, death as a payment for sin came by bloodshed. “The wages of sin is death.” In the New way, the price for sin has been paid with Christ’s blood. That allows us to participate in the benefits of that sacrifice if I am also willing to “die” to sin. If I surrender my dreams, desires, wishes, hopes, and do it in and for Christ then I have died in and for another. I will die to my bad habits, my addictions, my selfishness, so that our relationship with God and each other might live, freed from all encumbrances that are not love. Like Onesimus, our debt had to be repaid, but it has already been paid in full.

“But the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ, our Lord.” That is Good News. That is the Gospel. God loved us so much that he gave us the blood and spiritual sacrifice of his only begotten son. He accepted us back into and unto him. He asks us to do the same. We are to love one another as Christ loves us. We are to forgive one another and God forgives us. We are to serve one another rather than only ourselves. Paul gives us a very clear reason for doing all of this by setting an example any of us can understand – not to mention you owe me your very self.

That is the message Paul gives to Philemon, and to you and me. No matter how badly you’ve messed up, God always has a solution, but you are not that solution; Jesus is. Thank God for that.

Whatever, whenever, wherever, whoever, however, if ever, forever — at your service, Beloved.

chick  😀

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About Chick Todd

American Roman Catholic reared as a "Baptiterian" in Denver Colorado.

2 Responses to Aloha Friday Message – March 9, 2012 – Paul and Philemon

  1. Oh, yEs! Thank God for that! AnD I do NOT want to be the problem. I do talk too much. I want Jesus to be my Solution!

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