Paul, in prison, met a runaway slave named Onesimus. Onesimus had been on the run after stealing from his master, a church leader in Colossae named Philemon. In his time with Paul, Onesimus heard the gospel and became a follower of Jesus. Sometime after this Paul decided to send back Onesimus to Philemon with a letter in hand in which we see the great call to a different life for a follower of Jesus.
The gospel changes everything. We see this throughout the Bible. Sin has infested the world and among many other vices it has found a common home in each person’s heart manifested through self-focus and selfish desires. We want to be our own kings and queens. We each want to rule our own lives in pursuit of our own happiness.
Yet when confronted with Jesus and his message we are confronted with a great love demonstrated in an other-focusedness. Yes, God does all things for his glory and fame because that is the greatest good. But in doing all things for his glory and fame, Jesus took on our flesh, became our sin, absorbed the Father’s wrath for our sake, and gave us his life. God is the self-giving God as he saves us sinners from our own sin with which we rebelled constantly against his goodness.
Self-giving in joyful love, and he calls us to do the same.
So Paul wrote to Philemon. By grace through faith in Jesus, Onesimus had undergone a spiritual release. Once enslaved to sin he was now free in Christ, free to live for God and his glory. Paul desired that Onesimus receive a social status which granted the same. In this way, Paul was able to work (at least in one situation) to undercut a societal system which neglected the truth that all people are equally created in the image of God; and he was able to highlight the reality that no matter your background if you belong to Jesus you belong as brothers and sisters in the great Family.
In Paul’s short letter we see a couple of realities about how the gospel changes things. First, Paul as an apostle had authority in Christ to command Philemon to let Onesimus go free, but he desired to accomplish this another way: he appealed to Philemon’s own transformation by the gospel. Paul wrote:
I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother (Philemon 14-16).
Paul trusted that God had been working goodness in the heart and life of Philemon and that when he came to understand the situation then he would see it as Paul. Yes, Onesimus had been a slave to Philemon. Yes, Onesimus even stole from him. But that was before; this is now—he’s a beloved brother, he’s part of the family, and he’s together with you, Philemon, a member of God’s household. Treat him as such. Paul appealed to the realities of the gospel above those of society.
Second, Paul himself was willing to assist two brothers. Paul mentioned the fact that Onesimus had stolen from Philemon. And Paul told Philemon, “If he owes you anything, charge it to me. I’ll pay it.” Then as a seeming side but getting to the heart of the issue of the gospel and the Family, Paul reminded Philemon, “You owe everything to me.” Paul spoke here of spiritual realities.
Though he himself had not gone to Colossae, the gospel did under the guidance and leadership of Paul. Philemon was a follower of Jesus and therefore one who had passed from death to life because of Paul’s gospel work. Without God using Paul to spread the gospel through the nations, then Philemon would have been without a gospel witness and still lost in his sin. Money and possessions infinitely pale in comparison to life in Christ and forgiveness from sin. Without the former one might suffer from some temporary lack; without the latter one will suffer the judgment of eternal hell.
This was Paul’s way of saying to Philemon, “What’s a few dollars compared to your soul?”
Love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). Paul hoped that Philemon’s love for Christ and for Paul’s work in his life would lead to forgiveness of the debt Onesimus owed. But even if Philemon demanded repayment, Paul was willing to cover Onesimus’ sin by having it charged to his account. Paul’s love for both his brothers in Christ was that great.
This is what the gospel does in the lives of followers of Jesus. If we have truly encountered Christ, we will not be left the same. We become people who value love, grace, and mercy towards others above whatever we might gain from life. The gospel moves us from being self-focused to being other-focused in how we live and prioritize our lives.
This post is part of our ongoing journey through the Bible as a church.