God is love, He has steadfast, unselfish concern for our welfare. We can say that God loves just as man loves, but God loves infinitely. Our love has shortcomings His does not. Our love is partial His is complete. His love is an eternal giving and sharing of Himself. It has always been present among the Trinity. We can only know love in a finite form, His is incomprehensible, and we do not now know His love or qualities or nature completely. We know God only as He has revealed Himself. Love, grace and forgiveness should operate in every believer’s life. That does not remove the responsibility of the person’s actions, their repentance and discipline if necessary.
The Hebrew word for love (aheb) is the deepest possible expression of the personality and of the closeness of personal relations. In the non –religious sense it is commonly used for the mutual urges of the sexes, no restraint or sense of uncleanness. The inner force or might, which impels to performing the action, which gives pleasure. It is used of persons to self-sacrifice for the good of a loved ones and unswerving loyalty.
God loves deeper than that of a mother for her children. His love goes deeper than legal relationships (Hos. 1-3). It is a love that is willing to suffer and wait. He cannot be swayed by passion or disobedience (Hos. 11:1-4; 7-9). Israel’s disobedience did not change His love for them, His love was manifested in discipline it was an eternal love (Jer.31: 3). He chose to love Israel it was not any thing in her that caused this, she had no worth but He put worth in her (Deut.7: 7). We are to love God with our whole personality. This is a simple joyful experience of communion with God. Love for fellow man is ordained of God to be the normal ideal for relationship.
The New Testament word for love (agape) is the highest and noblest love, which sees something infinitely precious in the object. Paul saw this in the rebel Philemon.
LOVE FOR A REBEL
The book of Philemon is a drama surrounding three men and certain events that happened in their lives. Reading this epistle is like looking over the shoulder of Philemon and reading his personal mail. The story is about two men, a slave and a master. The background is one of slavery, 60 million slaves in the Roman empire of the total population of 120 million. Most slaves were treated very badly. Onesimus (the slave) had run away from his master and fled to Rome . It was a haven for runaways because they could mingle with the large population there and avoid detection.
In Colossae Philemon, a rich man, had come to saving faith in Christ. He apparently had come from Ephesus were Paul taught in the school of Tyrannus every day for two years. He owned slaves and had one called Onisimus. This slave took a chance one day and made a run for it and did what most people do in his situation and made for the great capital Rome . He would be hidden among the vast crowd and unrecognisable, but God had His eye upon him. God would show him that there might be physical freedom but inner slavery. You can be free in your body and captive in your soul and visa versa. When he was a slave he did not have to worry about what to eat or where to sleep, his master would take care of all that.
One day he saw a crowd gathered as he went down the street, he pushed to the front. Paul was in chains before him in chains but was free. Onesimus was physically alive but still a slave in his soul. A slave to the appetite to sin to self, to economy. Perhaps he waited for the others to disperse and went up to Paul and asked him to tell him more. He trusted Christ and then he confessed to Paul he was a runaway slave. Paul asked him were he had come from and when he heard he mentioned that he knew Philemon. Paul was in Rome under house arrest while awaiting trial on false charges of sedition. It is clear that Onesimus encountered him and was wonderfully saved (Phil.10). He became a treasured friend and fellow labourer to the apostle Paul, ministering personally to him during his imprisonment in Rome, when many other Christians were fearful of associating with Paul because of the stigma and potential persecution (2 Tim. 1:8; 4:10-16).
Philemon was the slave owner whom Onesimus had wronged. He too had come to faith in Christ through Paul’s ministry. He owned the home in which the Colossian church met (Phil.2; Col. 4:17). He was a wealthy and influential man at the opposite end of the social spectrum from Onesimus. He was a devoted Christian regarded by Paul as a beloved “fellow-worker”.
Paul valued Onesimus so much that he said sending him back was like sending his “very heart” (Phil 12). Yet Onesimus had to seek his master’s forgiveness for the wrong he had done. It was a serious matter to be a fugitive slave and slave catchers were employed to catch them, imprison them, sell them for ransom or even kill them. Onesimus was in big trouble. Under Roman law it was a serious crime to run from his master, he was defrauding him, a crime tantamount to stealing. He may have even stolen money too. Paul offered to reimburse Philemon for any thing the slave had owed (vs. 18). He did not want to send him back to his master on his own, as that would be dangerous but wait for someone to escort him. He would have been in danger from the slave catchers, the law and even Philemon who could punish him, as it was lawful to do so under Roman law. Multitudes of Roman slaves were tortured or put to death for far petty offences. As a standard practice, runaway slaves were branded with an F (for the Latin fugitives) on the forehead, to make it impossible for them to hide if they should run away. Yet Onesimus was willing to go back and face the consequences of his actions. This speaks of a genuine faith. The opportunity came when it was time to send Tychicyus to Ephesus and Colossae wit the epistles Paul wrote to the churches there. Paul’s epistle to the Colossians introduced Onesimus to that church, which would become his home church. He called him “our faithful and beloved brother, who is one in our number” (Col.4: 9). I’m sure he was very nervous on his way back and meeting his master again.
Slavery was the universal practice at the height of the Roman Empire , and issues related to slavery re interwoven in the drama of this epistle. Sometimes a slave entered into slavery by contract with a slave owner (Ex.21: 2-6). It was much like an employer and employee relationship. To obey their masters was the equivalent to submitting to a boss today. It could be very beneficial becoming a salve in Rome . Many ate, dressed and lived a higher standard than poor freemen. Slave might be physicians, teachers, musicians, or accountants. Many learned a trade, which could ultimately but their freedom. Some slaves even owned property. Wise slave owners used such incentives to motivate their servants. Some slaves and their owners developed close bonds, almost like a family relationship and some owners often granted beloved servants freedom in their wills.
Most Roman slaves suffered abuses and harsh practices. Many were held by forceful means. They were regarded as property and were not allowed to marry and bred like animals. Owners had absolute power over them.
The Bible condemns the practice of abuse of those who serve work or us for us. Man stealing i.e. the salve trade in Africa , the Arab countries and America in the past is condemned in scripture (Ex.21: 16). The inhuman and injustice often perpetrated by evil slaveholders is also denounced in the bible (Lev. 19:15, Isa. 110:1-2, Amos 5:11-14). The church often gets caught up in social reform and it becomes the sole focus, and forgets her calling and preaching the gospel, it becomes obscured by a human rights agenda. The church must proclaim God’s word to both slaves and slave owners. They both need Christ. When both get saved a transformation takes place and they become “brothers”. “There is neither slave or freeman… for you are all one in Christ” (Gal.3: 28).
TYCHITUS BROUGHT THE LETTER
Paul wrote it and sealed the letter then gave it to Tychicus to carry it on his journey, along with the epistle of Ephesians and Colossians.
Paul gently reminds Philemon to forgive and show mercy to Onisemius. He also includes this message along with love to the Colossians “Be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ has forgiven you” (4:2). He gave further instruction, “As those who have been chosen of god, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you (3:12-13). Now that is revolutionary talk. After seeing Onisemius saved and he developed a warm affection for him, now he longed to get the two believers together in harmony with one another. He appealed to Onisimus. Epaphros Paul’s present companion was the former Pastor of Philemon (vs. 23).
LOVE PRODUCES JOY, COMFORT AND REFRESHMENT
Vs 5 “I hear of your love, and of your faith which is toward the Lord Jesus, and for all the saints”. Love for the believer is natural. “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and every one who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love (1 Jn. 4:7-8).
Vs 7 Philemon was known for his extraordinary love and affection, “I have come to have much joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother” (vs. 7). Love produces Joy, comfort and refreshment. When you show love people receive these three things. Test yourself today are people receiving this? This was a predominant feature of Philemon is it yours? He opened his home and refreshed the hearts of the saints. Refreshed (anapauo) is a military term describing an army resting after along march. His ministry had a rejuvenating and invigorating effect among the struggling saints. He gave encouragement, support and hospitality to the people of God. Do you?
PAUL’S HEART VS 8-16
He does not appeal to his authority, a doctrinal principle, or divine laws or duty but to Philemon’s own love. Love is not revengeful seeking to harm those who wrong us it asks for forgiveness and seeks a correction of ones behaviour after repentance. We should never hold unforgivness in our hearts for a brother that imprisons him. Forgive him and let god deal with him. We should seek to be reconciled to a brother and have a willingness to forgive. We should not hold grudges we should refuse to retaliate. But it does not we mean we look the other way of someone sins, it should be dealt with. If someone sis against us they sin against God, and if God forgives the offender so must we.
Philemon had a duty to the church, what he would do would affect others. We also have a responsibility people in the church watch to see how we deal with those who offend us. The entire church can suffer if one public ally is unforgiving. It can break the harmony of the church.
LOVE AND FORGIVENESS
The wrongs committed by Onisemius are not recorded he may have robbed his master. His master love was called into action, he could have been angry and refused to receive Onisemius but he didn’t.
Vs 17 “Accept him” open up your heart and receive him. This is after he had received Christ and repented. Paul was telling him the man had been transformed and was a different person. The rebel had become useful to Paul. He had been faithful in caring for, helping and providing for Paul. It was like Paul was sending his own heart (Vs 11-12). Divine grace had changed the man.
Vs 16-18 Restoration and reconciliation. Philemon was getting back his servant and he was asked to restore him. as a brother not a slave (16).
Vs 18 Restitution. “But if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you any thing, charge that to my account”. Restitution is fair and right, and when we seek another’s forgiveness, an offer of restitution is always appropriate. The slave running away had a cost Philemon dearly. He would have had to pay someone to take his place. Since he couldn’t pay himself Paul paid for him. Love can go further than this and forgive the debt also.
THERE IS A COST
Vs 19 “I WILL REPAY”. We all owe our very existence to God. Sometimes it may cost us to follow him. We may have to forfeit some thing or give it away. We have a greater debt to Christ we owe him our live surely we can forgive a brother who sins against us. Do not withhold grace from others. If the need disciplined by the church so be it, if by God He will do it better than us but forgive and let God deal with the person. It is costly to love, costly to forgive but we make these sacrifices because of the great sacrifice of Christ.
Vs 20-25 There will be fruit, fellowship and harmony. You will have peace in your mind and reconciliation between you and your brother. He mentions five special men who would be witness of his treatment to the rebel slave. Others will witness your actins, words and behaviour. He even mentions John Mark who had offended Paul but now their relationship was restored. The tensions were gone and the love was back. This is encouraging for the believer who forgives to day.