It’s tough to deal with broken relationships. It’s even tougher when you can’t deal with the situation face to face. Think of the times when you’ve fallen out with a friend and you tried using texts to patch things up. Letters provide only a slightly better medium for working things through, and in the first century, letters had to be hand delivered and took a long time to get there.
As we begin studying Philemon today, we’re going to read the only personal letter in the New Testament, and it’s dealing with one of the toughest situations two believers could face. Philemon is a leader in the church of Colossae. He came to know the Lord Jesus through the Apostle Paul’s witness and they have served in ministry together. In fact, Philemon even hosts a church in his home, but he, like almost all the more affluent citizens in the Roman Empire in the first century, also owns slaves. And this is where things get tense.
Onesimus, one of his slaves, is no longer under Philemon’s roof. He’s more than a thousand miles away in Rome. Somehow, he has connected with Paul during the Apostle’s first house arrest in the capital city around A.D. 60-61 (Acts 28:11-31). Paul leads him to Jesus and becomes very close to his new son in the faith.
Onesimus skillfully cares for Paul and Paul would like Onesimus to stay with him. So why does he send him back to his master? Why not demand that Philemon set his slave free so that Onesimus will continue to serve Paul? As we read Paul’s letter, it’s difficult to figure out exactly what he wants Philemon to do. Why doesn’t Paul just come out and be straightforward about what he wants Philemon to do?
As we wrestle with these questions, we will learn a lot about how a mature, wise, spiritual father communicates in a delicate, social conflict with two of his sons in the faith. And he’s after a lot more than a simple change in Philemon’s home and in Onesimus’ social position in the Roman Empire.
LORD, help me to learn from Paul how to deal with delicate, fractured relationships between believers. Teach me how to leave space for your Spirit to move others to come to genuinely new perspectives on how to treat one another in Christ, rather than throwing out my own directives and commands.
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