Barriers divide people into the “ins and outs,” the “haves and have nots,” and an endless assortment of groups, cliques, and castes. Determined by race, skin color, nationality, money, background, education, status, religion, sex, or ability, individuals are judged, categorized, and put in their place. When those social barriers are crossed, usually it is at a great price.
But Jesus broke the barriers that divide men and women from each other and from God. In a male-dominated society, he spoke freely with women (Matthew 9:18-26; Luke 8:1-3). In the face of holier-than-thou hypocrites, he partied with sinners (Matthew 9:10-13). Ignoring years of prejudice and discrimination, he associated with Samaritans (John 4:1-42) and Gentiles (Luke 7:1-10; 8:26-39). And he continually sought to bring outcasts and the powerless into his fold: the crippled and lame (Luke 6:1-11), the desperately ill (Matthew 8:1-4; Luke 17:11-19), the blind (Luke 18:35-42; Mark 8:22-26; John 9:1-7), children (Mark 10:13-16), swindlers and cheaters (Mark 11:13-17; Luke 19:1-10), and the poor (Mark 3:7-12; Luke 21:1-4).
Following in the footsteps of Jesus. Paul became the apostle to the Gentiles as he traveled extensively and shared Christ’s message with all types of people. In fact, writing to the Galatians, Paul declared: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28 niv).
Perhaps the greatest example of the barrier-shattering power of the gospel is here in Philemon, where Paul reunites a rich slave-owner and his runaway slave, now both members of God’s family.
As you read this personal letter of reconciliation, consider what divides you from your brothers and sisters in Christ. Ask God to obliterate those walls and bring you together.
Paul. The very first word of this letter names Paul as the writer. The book of Philemon is the shortest of Paul’s inspired writings. In Colossians, Paul explained that, along with his letter to the believers in Colosse, he would be sending Onesimus (4:9) and Tychicus would deliver both the letter of Colossians and Philemon. Paul wrote both letters at about the same time and sent them together. Written from a Roman prison in about a.d. 60
Philemon had been led to saving faith in Jesus Christ several years earlier by Paul, probably during the apostle’s ministry in Ephesus. He had become a prominent member in the church at Colossae. Philemon was wealthy, owning a house large enough for the Colossian church to meet in (Philem. 2). He was obviously active in serving the cause of Christ, because Paul refers to him as a “fellow worker” (Philem. 1). He also owned at least one slave, a man named Onesimus (cf. Col. 4:9, which associates Onesimus with Colossae). Onesimus, who was not a Christian, ran away from his master to Rome. He probably hoped to lose himself in the multitudes that lived the capital city. While in Rome, through circumstances unknown to us, he met the apostle Paul and his life was forever changed, for through Paul met Jesus Christ.
Onesimus quickly endeared himself to the apostle (cf. Philem. 12, 16). He then began to live up to his name (Onesimus means “useful”) by assisting Paul (Philem. 11, 13). Paul would have gladly kept him at his side to continue to minister to him. There was, however, a matter that needed to be settled. As a runaway slave, Onesimus was a criminal. In running away he had defrauded his master, Philemon and may have stolen money from Philemon when he fled (Philem. 18). Paul knew that the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon needed to be restored. Onesimus had to return to his master and seek forgiveness and restoration.
To send Onesimus back alone would have exposed him to the danger of being caught by the ever-vigilant slave catchers. The opportunity to send him back with someone came when Paul finished his letters to the Colossians and Ephesians. Because Tychicus would be delivering those letters, Onesimus could return to Colossae with him in relative safety.
If returning Onesimus to his master was a sacrifice for Paul, it was a grave risk for Onesimus. “Roman law . . . practically imposed no limits to the power of the master over his slave. The alternative of life or death rested solely with Philemon, and slaves were constantly crucified for far lighter offenses than his. A thief and a runaway, he had no claim to forgiveness” (J. B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon [1879; reprint, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1959], p. 314).
Runaway slaves could also be branded with an “F” (for fugitivus) on their heads, or beaten. A large percentage of the Empire’s population was slaves, and the Romans lived in constant fear of a slave uprising. Although the last such uprising (the one led by Spartacus) had taken place over a century earlier, the Romans took no chances—they dealt harshly with runaway slaves. That Onesimus was willing to risk such punishment speaks of the genuineness of his faith.
Not content merely to send Onesimus back under the protection of Tychicus, Paul sends along a letter to Philemon. In that letter, he urges Philemon to forgive Onesimus and receive him as a new brother in Christ. Paul implores Philemon to put into practice the principle taught in Ephesians 4:32 and Colossians 3:13 and treat Onesimus as Christ treated him.
REASON FOR WRITING
Paul wrote this letter on behalf of Onesimus, urging Philemon to see the young man not as a slave but as a “brother in the Lord” (v. 16 ). Paul hoped that Philemon would welcome him (v. 17), forgive him (vv. 18-19), and perhaps even free him (v. 21).
Paul’s appeal is based on their common love for Christ (v. 9), on their relationship (vv. 17-19), and on his authority as an apostle (v. 8). Philemon’s response is unknown, but it would be difficult to imagine him not welcoming Onesimus as his new brother in Christ. One of the lessons of this short letter is the example of Paul. He wrote as the advocate of Onesimus, trusting him to return, to submit to Philemon, and to live with the consequences of his actions. Paul believes in Onesimus, that he is a true brother in the faith. Paul does more than write and endorse this runaway slave, he also backs up his words with his money—Paul offers to pay for anything Onesimus may have broken or stolen (v. 18).
Another lesson concerns the power of the gospel to bring people together. At an opposite pole in the society stood Philemon and Onesimus, yet they became unified brothers through their common faith in Christ. God can reconcile people, regardless of their differences or offenses.
With whom do you need to be reconciled? What new believer needs your affirmation and support?
Forgiveness, Barriers, Respect
Forgiveness (vv. 17-21). Philemon was Paul’s friend, but he also was the legal owner of the slave Onesimus. He could have punished Onesimus severely, as a runaway and as a thief. Paul asked this dear friend not only to withhold punishment, but to forgive Onesimus and to accept him as a new Christian brother, welcoming him into his home as he would welcome Paul (v. 17).
What That Means for Us Today. Many factors divide people today, including disagreements, politics, arguments, and personal offenses. Yet Believers are to be unified, demonstrating the love of Christ by their love for each other (John 13:34-35). Christian relationships must be filled with forgiveness and acceptance.
Who has wronged you? With what brother or sister in Christ do you feel estranged, distant, or angry? Who do you need to forgive? Build bridges, not walls.
Barriers (vv. 10-16). Slavery was widespread in the Roman Empire, but no one is lost to God or beyond his love, not even the poorest slave. Slavery was a thick barrier, but God can break through anything that divides people. And God tells us, as those committed to Christ, to love all kinds of people. Christian love and fellowship should overcome all barriers.
What That Means for Us Today. In Christ, we are one family. No walls of racial, economic, political, or social differences should separate us. Christ wants to work through us to remove barriers between brothers and sisters.
What can you do to fellowship with believers of other races? How can you reach out to those from different cultures and social standing?
Respect (vv. 4-9, 21-25). Paul was a friend of both Philemon and Onesimus. He had the authority as an apostle to tell Philemon what to do (v. 8). Yet Paul chose to appeal to his friend in Christian love rather than to order him what to do. Paul clearly made his desires known, but he treated Philemon with respect, as a peer and fellow believer.
What That Means for Us Today. Tactful persuasion will accomplish much more than strong commands when dealing with people. No one appreciates being bossed around or ordered what to do. Remember to be courteous and to treat people with respect.
Here’s to offering forgiveness, removing barriers and keeping respect,