ONE important truth of the Bible is that if we do not forgive our fellow beings, God will not forgive us. Are you aware a story of a slave becoming a soldier for Christ in the New Testament? It is a powerful story on forgiveness and reconciliation. There are three main characters in this story that we find in the letter Paul wrote to Philemon.
Onesimus, the wrongdoer:
Onesimus was a Phrygian, gentile slave working in the house of Philemon. Philemon, a native of Colossae was a gentile too. Apphia and Archippus mentioned in v.2 could be Philemon’s wife and son, the latter who is praised by Apostle Paul as a fellow soldier. The letter tells us that Onesimus stole some money from his master and ran away. He is also seen as an unprofitable slave to Philemon’s family (v.11). Onesimus was not blessed to have a parent like Jacob who raised Joseph in the fear of the Lord. Joseph as a slave was profitable to his master in Egypt. His Yahwistic upbringing helped him not to sin sexually in a vulnerable situation. Though Onesimus did not have a godly background like Joseph, we still find the love of God towards this run-away gentile, slave and sinner.
Paul, the peacemaker:
Onesimus meets Paul in Rome, the city where he ran to, with the stolen money. Paul was in house arrest in Rome because of the gospel. Onesimus heard the gospel and became a child of God. (v.10) He should have also shared his story of how he stole the money. Paul found Onesimus as a profitable young man and wanted to help him get reconciled with his master Philemon. His efforts in doing this is commendable and worth a read.
“I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. I am sending him who is my very heart back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good 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 man and as a brother in the Lord. So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back not to mention that you owe me your very self.” (v.10-19, emphasis mine)
The effort of a peace maker can be clearly studied in these statements. No wonder Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9). One question to us therefore is: Am I a peacemaker or a peace-breaker?
Philemon, although wronged against, he did the right thing:
Philemon and his family became believers because of Paul’s ministry (v.19). His reaction to Paul’s letter was positive. He followed a quote of Paul said to the Corinthians: “Love keeps no record of wrongs.”(1 Corinthians 13:5). Philemon pardoned him and freed him from slavery, and Onesimus returned to his spiritual father, as Paul had requested. Thereafter he faithfully served the Apostle. Jerome and other Church Fathers testify to the fact that he became an ardent preacher of the gospel and later a Bishop. He died as a martyr in the year AD 95.
An unprofitable slave turned to a profitable person. Paul is even persuading Philemon towards a more commendable humanitarian cause of transforming the status of a ‘slave’ to a ‘son’. Such a heartbeat of Paul is also resonant in his letter to the Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (3:28) Blessings are hindered by bitterness. There is power in forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiveness is directly connected to the Kingdom of God.
“Your Kingdom come… Forgive us our sins, just as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us.”