Finding Philemon: A Lesson of Forgiveness and Reconciliation 

“Blessed are the peacemakers, because they will be called sons of God,” Jesus tells His followers in His Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:9). Like lambs among wolves, we’re enjoined by the “Prince of Peace” to be peacemakers, too, actively seeking to reconcile people to God and to one another. Sounds wonderful! Yet, practicing civility doesn’t seem to come naturally — even for Christians.

Years ago, as a Bible drill instructor, I would challenge youth to find the New Testament book of Philemon. “Book” is something of a misnomer. Only 25 verses in length, Philemon is one of the shortest of Paul’s letters. On the surface, his letter is an appeal for Philemon to take back a runaway slave, Onesimus. Some may wonder how such an appeal made it into the New Testament. When unpacked, the letter has a powerful message, however, as a real-life account of the power of forgiveness and redemption in a person’s life made possible only through God’s grace.

Paul befriended Onesimus while in prison in Rome. Though it isn’t specified, Onesimus had wronged his master, Philemon, in some way and fled. Calling Onesimus “my very heart,” Paul urges Philemon to forgive and allow him to return home as “a dear brother.” In a play on words, Paul writes that Onesimus, whose name means “useful,” may once have seemed useless to others, but now, as a brother in Christ, Onesimus could be helpful in spreading the gospel.

In short, Onesimus had been redeemed by Christ. Thus, he is of great worth as a brother and fellow servant in the Lord. Judging from Paul’s request for Onesimus to be allowed to return to him in prison — where Onesimus could be “useful” to him — Paul’s real desire was for Onesimus to be set free to serve Christ. The heart of Paul’s appeal is seen in verses 15 and 16: “For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave — a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”

Onesimus is a living, breathing illustration of the biblical truth found in Galatians 3: “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. … There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” No longer is Onesimus to be seen as a lowly slave in social status; he is to be viewed by the church as an “heir according to the promise” of God. He is someone for whom Christ died.

Apparently, Paul earlier had led Philemon to the Lord, and the church at Colossae met in his home. And, far from being a justification of the institution of slavery — judging from Paul’s request to allow Onesimus to be sent back to him, where he would be useful — Paul’s desire appears to have been for Onesimus to be set free so he could better serve Christ.

In a seminal work, The Peacemaker (see “New and Noteworthy Books” in this issue), author Ken Sande summarizes what he calls the four G’s of being a peacemaker: Glorify God, Get the log out of your eye, Gently restore, and Go and be reconciled. These principles are all seen in Paul’s letter to Philemon. According to the law, Philemon had the right to punish a runaway slave, but Paul sought reconciliation. And, through God’s grace — and Philemon’s civility — Onesimus finds forgiveness and experiences redemption.

Accordingly, Sande encourages Christ’s followers to “see conflict neither as an inconvenience nor as an occasion to force our will on others, but rather as an opportunity to demonstrate the love and power of God in our lives.” To deescalate disagreements with Christian civility, he suggests asking ourselves four transformative questions: “How can I please and honor God in this situation?” “How can I show Jesus’ work in me by taking responsibility for my contribution to this conflict?” “How can I lovingly serve others by helping them take responsibility for their contribution to this conflict?” And, “how can I demonstrate the forgiveness of God and encourage a reasonable solution to this conflict?” Bearing these in mind will help one heed the counsel of Proverbs 15: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”

So whatever became of Onesimus?

Although he is only mentioned in one other place in the New Testament (Col. 4:9), church tradition has it that not only was Paul’s request to free Onesimus granted, but he also later served as a church leader. Some scholars believe that he is the same Onesimus whom an early church writer, Ignatius, said followed Timothy as bishop of Ephesus. If this is so, he also may have been a martyr and, hence, was venerated as a saint by some Christian denominations.

In any case, the book of Philemon serves as a call to civility toward all Christ’s followers: “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men” (Rom. 12:18), especially those who are our “brothers in Christ.” For as with Onesimus, God can redeem them, and they may be used for His glory in furthering the gospel.