The book of Philemon is transformational. This brief letter with its 25 verses can be summed up in what can be called the Philemon Principle: “Get right with God and with each other, and do it now.”
Right relationships in life have two dimensions, the vertical and the horizontal. The vertical dimension focuses on maintaining a saving relationship with Christ that results in the forgiveness of sins and acceptance with God. The horizontal dimension has to do with how we relate to others. The horizontal and vertical are inextricably linked to each other in that we model the acceptance we have with God by exercising love and forgiveness toward others.
This shortest of Paul’s letters dramatically challenges Philemon to forgive his runaway slave, Onesimus. Paul’s appeal was made more complicated since Onesimus had apparently stolen valuables when he left. Onesimus meets Paul in Rome and is converted by his preaching. Onesimus repents of his wrongs, and Paul and Onesimus develop an elegant strategy to set the matter straight.
Onesimus decides to return to Colossae with a companion named Tychicus and the letter to Philemon (Col. 4:7-9). The intent of the letter is to appeal to Philemon for reconciliation with Onesimus and to smooth the way for his return and, presumably, his freedom. As the letter was designed to be read to the church at Colossae, Paul demonstrates the forgiving relations Christians are to have to each other as predicated on God’s forgiveness.
Though the word “forgiveness” is never mentioned in Philemon, it is clearly implied. The book is a case study on the subject. It also outlines how both the offender and the offended should relate to issues of restoration and restitution. Each of the implied theological principles is undergirded by a call to action, the Philemon Principle.
The letter identifies six elements that have to be part of any peacemaking, reconciliation process: 1. Paul, the advocate, was instrumental in Onesimus’ conversion, and he had a responsibility to facilitate a reconciliation between Onesimus and Philemon. 2. Onesimus, the offender, had a responsibility to face the wrongdoing of his past, confess, and make restitution. 3. Philemon, the offended party, was confronted with his own debt both to God and to Paul, and was expected to exercise love and forgiveness toward Onesimus. 4. Philemon’s wife, Apphia, and his son, Archippus, also had to exercise forgiving acceptance and support him in his forgiveness and reception of Onesimus as a brother in Christ. 5. The observing church at Colossae that met in Philemon’s house was doubtless aware of Onesimus’ fugitive status, knew of the need of reconciliation and forgiveness, and was needed to provide a loving environment of accountability for everyone involved. 6. Finally, there is the implied responsibility placed on all of the readers of Philemon, then and now, as to how to apply the Philemon Principle to their own lives and relationships.
The book of Philemon is brief, but its message is lasting. The early church father Ignatius, in one of his letters, refers to Onesimus as bishop of Ephesus. Many Bible scholars believe this is the same Onesimus as the Onesimus in Paul’s letter to Philemon. Based on this reasoning, and the fact that the book of Philemon was included in the Bible, one can believe that Philemon responded positively to Paul’s appeal. Philemon forgives Onesimus, and they are reconciled. Further, Onesimus is given freedom and begins a new life and ministry. A recipient of the liberating effect of forgiveness and reconciliation, he goes on to become a powerful leader in God’s church.
The Philemon Principle changed lives then, and it can change lives now.