Each photo below corresponds to a chapter-a-day post and podcast for the book of Daniel published by Tom Vander Well in February and March 2023. Click on the photo linked to each chapter to read the post or listen to the podcast.
Tag Archives: Onesimus
Philemon (May 2019)
Each photo below corresponds to a chapter-a-day post for the book of Philemon published by Tom Vander Well between 2006 and 2019. Click on the photo linked to each chapter to read the post.
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Broken Relationships; Divine Purpose
Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.
Philemon 1:15-16 (NIV)
If you’re not a regular reader, please know that I’ve been reading and blogging through the letters of Paul in the chronological order they were likely written. In my last post, Seasonal Companions, I wrote about the conflict and reconciliation between Paul and John Mark. But that isn’t the only story of reconciliation hiding in the back stories of the personal greetings found at the end of his letter to the followers of Jesus in Colossae. Paul writes:
Tychicus will tell you all the news about me. He is a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. I am sending him to you for the express purpose that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts. He is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you. They will tell you everything that is happening here.
Onesimus was a runaway slave from Colossae who was owned by one of the believers there named Philemon, a friend of Paul. We don’t know all of the facts of the story. What we do know is that Onesimus seems to have stolen from Philemon and fled. In what I’d like to think was a divine appointment, Onesimus ends up running into Paul in Rome and he becomes a follower of Jesus. Now, Paul is sending Onesimus back to Colossae to make things right with the master from whom he stole and fled. Onesimus is carrying with him Paul’s letter to the Colossians, which we just finished reading. Onesimus is also carrying a letter to Philemon, which is today’s chapter. (Paul’s letter to Philemon became the shortest book in the Bible, FYI.)
Paul’s letter to Philemon is brief, but warm-hearted in its appeal to Philemon to be reconciled with Onesimus. Paul asks Philemon to consider sending Onesimus back to help Paul while he is in prison. Paul urges Philemon to see how God used Onesimus’ offenses to bring about His divine purposes. Onesimus left Philemon a runaway thief, but Onesimus is returning as a brother in Christ trying to make things right.
In the quiet this morning the theme of my thoughts continues to swirl around lost and broken relationships. Paul’s letter to Philemon is a good reminder that sometimes a season of relationship ends because one or both parties need the separation in order to learn, experience, and grow so that a new season of deeper and more intimate relationship can come back around.
I find myself, once again, thinking on the words of the wise teacher of Ecclesiastes. There is a time and a season for everything. That includes a time for conflict, and a time for reconciliation. There is a time to make amends, and a time to forgive. Sometimes the time in between is just a moment. Other times it takes many years. Along the journey, I’ve come to embrace the reality of, and necessity for, both, along with the wisdom necessary to discern which is which.
Hollywood Moment in Colossae
But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary.
Philemon vs. 14
One of the things you learn in the world of theatre, film, and story is that conflict is what makes a story interesting. It’s Friday before 4th of July weekend as I write this, so we’re all being treated by Hollywood to blockbuster conflicts of good and evil in the form of comic book heroes and alien invasions. Fun epic conflicts that feed the adrenal glands while requiring very little of us emotionally. The more personal and human a story’s conflict, the more deeply it affects us.
Paul’s letter to Philemon is an overlooked personal story amidst the grand epic of the Great Story. It’s a deeply personal moment between two men: Philemon and Onesimus. It’s a moment made possible by an unexpected, divinely appointed meeting.
Philemon is a man of means. He’s a respected local businessman in the city of Colossae, where he met Paul and became a follower of Jesus. Philemon became a generous benefactor to the believers in Colossae. He opened his home for them to meet and worship. He was generous in love and deed and greatly respected by Paul.
Onesimus was a slave owned by Philemon. At some point in time, Onesimus stole from his master and ran away. Under Roman law, Onesimus was guilty of crimes punishable by death.
The exact details of the historical story are sketchy, but as a story-teller I’d dare to believe that as a runaway slave, Onesimus likely stuck to a life of petty theft to stay alive and on the run. Petty thieves, especially those who are poor runaway slaves, get caught and thrown into prison. As fate would have it, Onesimus is thrown into jail with a religious disturber of the peace named Paul. Paul recognizing the thief as a member of his friend, Philemon’s household, befriends Onesimus. The runaway slave becomes a sincere follower of Jesus.
Paul tells the slave and fledgling follower that while he has repented of his sins and his sins have been forgiven through Jesus sacrifice, he still must make things right with his master. Onesimus the runaway slave must return to his master, Philemon, as a brother in Christ. Paul pens his short letter. Onesimus, upon his release from prison, returns to his master in Colossae, letter in hand.
What a Hollywood moment. What a churning mixture of emotions as slave owner sees thief and runaway slave walking back through his door. What a moment when Philemon reads the letter from Paul and begins to fathom how God has orchestrated this story. What layers of meaning on personal, spiritual, and cultural levels as matters of slavery and human conflict gets intertwined with fate and personal faith. Runaway slave returns as a fellow follower of the faith. I can only imagine Onesimus’ fear mixed with memories of anger and hatred toward to this man who “owned” him. Philemon’s feelings of legal rights, personal betrayal, and desire for justice is now in conflict with his conscience as the word’s of Jesus’ prayer run through his head: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgiven those who sin against us.”
Today I’m reminded that the test of our faith is in our interpersonal conflicts.
Sometimes, You Have to Go Back
I am sending him back to you, and with him comes my own heart.
Philemon 1:12 (NLT)
Sometimes the words are impotent outside the context of the story. Philemon is one of the shortest books in all of God’s Message. It is forgotten. There aren’t a ton of pithy statements worthy of a graphic on Pinterest. It’s not really inspiring in great ways. It’s simply a short letter from one friend and follower of Jesus to another.
But, the little told story behind this brief epistle is nearly Shakespearean.
Paul is in prison. He has been imprisoned for telling others about Jesus and creating a stir wherever he goes. So, he serves his time and shares about his experience on the Damascus road with anyone who will listen. He shows love and kindness to his fellow prisoners.
Enter Onesimus. He is in trouble too. A runaway slave from the town of Colosse, he stole from his master and took off. Both offenses are punishable by death under Roman law. Onesimus runs into Paul and the talk. Paul shares with Onesimus about Jesus and Onesimus chooses to become a follower himself. Then, the realization. The man from whom Onesimus stole and ran is none other than Paul’s good friend, Philemon. Imagine the conversation Paul had with Onesimus:
Paul: Onesimus, you have to go back.
Onesimus: Back? To my OWNER?! The man who considers me his PROPERTY?!
Paul: Yes. You have to go back to him and make things right.
Onesimus: What’s all this talk about if Jesus SETS YOU FREE, YOU’RE FREE INDEED?
Paul: Your soul will not be truly free until you make right what you have wronged.
Onesimus: Do you get it, Paul?! He OWNED me!
Paul: And now that you’ve both taken up your crosses to follow Jesus, you are both owned by God. You are not your own. Neither of you. You’ve been bought with a price: Jesus’ blood. Philemon is now your brother in Christ. You must go back to him and beg his forgiveness.
Onesimus: But, he can have me KILLED!
Paul: Yes. Yes, he can. But, he can also give you what both of your souls truly need. You both need grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation. The chains that bind you, both you and Philemon, are not physical. Don’t be anxious. I will send a letter with you. Philemon is a brother in Christ. He is a good man, just as you are, Onesimus. He will listen to me. But, make no mistake, my friend. You must go back to Philemon. You must make things right.
I can only imagine the scene when Onesimus arrived back at Philemon’s house and confronts the man who “owned” him, letter from Paul in hand. What were Philemon’s emotions as the sight of the slave who stole from him and ran away? What was his reaction when he reads Paul’s letter to find out that God orchestrated a divine appointment between Paul and Onesimus? What conflict of heart, if any, did Onesimus feel looking into the eyes of a runaway slave and seeing a spiritual brother in Christ for the first time?
Sometimes, you have to go back and confront the past before your future can truly begin.