Theme of Philemon: forgiveness.
I remember memorizing that statement over and over again for my ordination class in seminary. Philemon is a book that demonstrates the power of Christian love and forgiveness. Yet, reading and studying it again years later, I am struck not just by the theme of forgiveness, but by Paul’s ability to shepherd and disciple both Philemon and Onesimus and now understand that this book has many pastoral insights to be mined.
The Apostle Paul handles a very difficult situation masterfully. In this short epistle, you find that Paul had met and discipled a runaway slave named Onesimus, and that during this process, it was revealed that Paul knew Onesimus’ master and in fact had discipled him, Philemon, as well.
While in prison at Rome, Paul desired to orchestrate the reconciliation between these two men. Onesimus had wronged his master by running away and by law Philemon had every right to punish him. Paul did not want this outcome. Onesimus was now a brother in Christ and useful for ministry. He desired for both men to reconcile and be an example of how Christian brothers should treat and love one another.
As Paul wrote this letter, there are a few things about the way he approaches Philemon that struck me as valuable lessons for how to approach a person when seeking to give them counsel specifically for one who has authority like a pastor:
1) Paul opens with tender language that establishes their relationship.
Paul wants something to happen that is both right and good. He wants Philemon to receive back Onesimus as a Christian brother, but he does not open the letter guns blazing. In his traditional introduction, Paul goes out of his way to use tender language as he refers to Philemon as his “beloved fellow worker” (v.1). Philemon was both loved by Paul and consider a fellow worker in the gospel.
Here is a pattern worth following. Letting people know how much you appreciate and love them is very disarming. People will always respond better to a loving friend than a hostile aggressor.
2) Paul expresses gratitude for the ministry of Philemon.
In verses 4-7, he continues expressing his thankfulness for Philemon’s ministry and the encouraging reports of his faith and how he treats fellow believers. He writes, “For I have derived much joy and comfort from you love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.” He doesn’t assume that Philemon knows these things. Paul clearly wants to encourage him and establish the strength of their relationship before appeals to him for something.
Praying for someone is the one best of showing how much you care for them. How often do you pray and tell people that you are praying for them and are encouraged by they way God is using them before you tell them to work on a certain flaw?
If anyone could have ever commanded another believer to do something, it would have been an Apostle. Paul had inherit authority because of his role in the church, but he does not use that authority to bully Philemon. Rather in the name of love, he appeals directly to Philemon as a co-worker in the gospel. Martin Luther concluded, “Paul empties himself of his rights to compel Philemon also to waive his rights.”
4) Paul wants to fix the problem in any way possible, even at the risk of personal loss.
Paul is so committed to solving the problem and seeing reconciliation that he is willing to sacrifice something of himself. He writes, “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account” (v. 18). He is willing to remove any and every obstacles that stands in front of reconciliation. This reveals just how highly Paul viewed relationship within the church. Every possible means should be exhausted before a relationship becomes fractured.
5) Paul concludes by assuming a healthy relationship.
Even before Paul knows the outcome of how Philemon is going to receive Onesimus, he writes that he is confident in how Philemon will respond and that he will do even more than Paul has asked (v.21). Beyond this, Paul asks him to prepare a room in the chance that he might be able to visit. This type of request seems to indicate that Paul was not expecting a fall out in the relationship. Paul is confident that his relationship with Philemon will continue and communicates this confidence. He is committed to their gospel-partnership.
You can learn a lot about forgiveness and even how to approach people from Philemon. I offer these five lessons that I recently took away from studying Philemon in hopes that more pastors, including myself, would strive for loving, gospel-centered relationships with everyone that they encounter and disciple.