A Plea to Reconcile

by Sean Foster on September 8, 2013


Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow-soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith towards the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.

For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.

Epaphras, my fellow-prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow-workers.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.


Whenever we read from Paul in the New Testament, it is important to remember that we are really reading someone else’s mail. Paul never intended that we would be reading these letters some 2000 years later, and yet by the grace of God, we are.

I mean, if you think about it, if we went into our neighbor’s mailboxes and took out personal letters to read them, there would likely be things in the letter that would be difficult for us to understand. Personal letters presuppose that the person reading them has the background information and the context of what is being written. They know the backgrounds to the story being written. They know the details. They know the context. For someone else who does not have the context, who does not have the background to what has been written, it can be difficult to make sense of what has been written.

In fact, to make sense of the letter you will probably start to make assumptions. You will start to create context. You will start to imagine background to the story your reading. To make sense of it!

Well, the same is true of Paul’s letters to the churches he has established. As we read Paul’s letters, we try to imagine the situation behind the words.

We live in a much different world, a much different place, a much different culture than those of the Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians and Romans. And so, as we read these letters of Paul, we have to try and imagine the people to whom they were written. We try to understand their culture, their customs, how they lived, where they lived, and in so doing, it helps us to better understand what Paul is writing to the people.

Now, some of the benefit that we have is that the Church has for hundreds of years been doing just that. For Centuries, the church has been reading and studying Paul’s letters and writing about what they believe to be the context and background to these letters for our understanding. And in fact, we continue to do that.

Now today, we read one of Paul’s most intimate and most personal letters to his dear friend Philemon. So today we will give our best effort to reconstruct the events behind this letter. We will strive to understand the context and background to this letter that was addressed to Philemon.

Now, one thing we do know is that Paul is writing this letter while he is in prison. We know this from verse one of the letter and verse 9. Paul spent a lot of time in prison, and fortunately for us, he also did a lot of writing while he was in prison. Paul writes some of his best ideas and some of his best theology while confined to a prison cell.

If Paul did not write while he was imprisoned, we might not have his letter to the Philippians with those powerful and inspiring words of Jesus taking on the form of a slave. It seems that Paul’s time in prison deepens his commitment to following Christ. But not only that, it seems that it is while Paul is in prison, that he identifies most with Christ.

So Paul is in prison writing this letter to Philemon and at some point, Paul encounters Onesimus who is a slave of Philemon’s. However, the letter does not give us any details about how Onesimus comes to Paul while he is in prison.

Now, there are a couple of possibilities. One could be that Onesimus ran away from Philemon, perhaps after causing him some financial loss. (See verse 18). This is actually the traditional belief that Onesimus is a runaway slave. However, there is another possibility that Philemon may have sent Onesimus to serve Paul while he is in prison.

My belief is that Onesimus is a runaway and has sought out Paul to advocate for him. Whatever the story is, we know that Paul and Onesimus grow a relationship together and Onesimus is converted to Christianity. It is clear from this letter that Paul likes Onesimus and values this potential partner in the ministry and mission of sharing the Gospel and growing the church.

There is a strong likelihood that Paul is tempted to keep Onesimus with him, except for one problem, Onesimus is a slave. He is the actual property of Philemon. And so, Paul decides to send Onesimus back to his owner Philemon.

Poor Onesimus. This really puts Onesimus in an awkward position. There is clearly tension and conflict between Onesimus and Philemon. The relationship has deteriorated so much that Onesimus has either run away, or is sent away. And now he is being sent back. Back to a place he does not want to be. Back to a person he does not want to see.

Paul writes this letter with the primary purpose of seeing Philemon and Onesimus reconciled.
• Forgive one another.
• Work out your differences.

By the way Philemon, Onesimus is now your brother in the faith. I mean, this really changes the relationship doesn’t it? On one hand, Onesimus is a slave. He is a person of the lowest rank, with no status, no power and no rights. But now, … he is your brother in Christ.

Paul is a very skilled writer, and extremely persuasive. Paul does not tell Philemon exactly what he should do. For example, Paul does not say to Philemon:
• Please do not punish Onesimus.
• Do not have him beaten for his sin,
o As would be the right of the Master.
• Nor does Paul command that Philemon free his slave Onesimus.
But if you read between the lines, it is still there.

If you go back to the beginning of the letter to verse two, Paul cleverly invites two other people to read this letter with Philemon. Yes the letter is written primarily to Philemon, but Paul also invites Apphia, likely Philemon’s wife. Wives have an ability to soften and change a man’s opinion and thought. And often they don’t even need to say very much.

The other person that Paul invites to read this letter with Philemon is Archippus, who is clearly the leader of the house church that Philemon belongs.

Now on a first reading, Philemon might have argued: Paul’s out of his mind! Forgive Onesimus. I don’t care that he is now a Christian, a brother in the faith. The point is, Onesimus has wronged me, and I am his master. Forgive him as if he were on equal footing with me. … Onesimus is a slave!

Apphia gives Philemon a look that suggests that he needs to think this out more before he acts.

Archippus, as leader and as Pastor of the house church was probably more vocal encouraging Philemon to forgive Onesimus and maybe even free him now that he is a brother in the faith.

Philemon, I know you are angry with Onesimus. And you have every right to be. Onesimus wronged you. No one disagrees with that fact. We know you are hurt.

Philemon, consider Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior – and the One who we want to be like. Jesus was hurt and wronged by those who were closest to him. He was betrayed and abandoned by his own disciples, and yet, he forgave them. Even those who beat him unjustly and then nailed him to a cross. Jesus forgave them. Philemon, you know that you need to forgive Onesimus. Think on it. Pray on it.

Now again, Paul doesn’t tell Philemon what to do, but you don’t have to be a scholar to read between the lines. I mean, look at verse 8 of our reading. Paul writes, I am bold enough to command you to do your duty.

Paul was Philemon’s elder. Paul is the Spiritual leader. Paul is Philemon’s superior. He is the one who led Philemon to Christ. Philemon owes his life to Paul.

Philemon, I am bold enough to command you to do your duty:
• To forgive Onesimus.
• To not punish Onesimus for his sins.
• To free Onesimus from slavery.

Philemon, I could command you to do your duty, but instead, I appeal to you on the basis of love.

Listen to how Paul softens Philemon’s heart. Paul writes, I appeal to you on behalf of Onesimus. I have become his father, it reads in verse 10. In verse 11, Paul writes, Onesimus is my own heart.

In other words, to not forgive, to not set Onesimus free, Philemon would now be hurting Paul. I appeal to you Philemon on the basis of love. In other words: If you love me Philemon, no, more importantly, if you love Christ, forgive Onesimus and set him free.

Then in verse 14, Paul adds another layer, just in case Philemon has not yet figured out that the right thing to do.

Paul writes: Philemon, I preferred to do nothing with your consent first … so that your good deed would be voluntary and not something forced.

Verse 17: Welcome him, that is, welcome Onesimus, as you would welcome me.

Verse 20: Brother Philemon, let me have this benefit from you. Refresh my heart in Christ. Forgive him and set him free.

Verse 21: I am confident Philemon that you will do even more than what I say.

It is my belief that Paul wanted Onesimus freed so that Onesimus could accompany Paul in his mission and ministry work.

Now in the last verses, Paul brings greetings on behalf of his fellow workers: Epaphrus, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke. But before he closes, he say’s to Philemon: Oh, by the way, have a room ready for me. I expect to be out of prison soon and will be there to pick up Onesimus for our next part of the mission.

Now granted, Paul doesn’t say that exactly, you have to read between the lines a little, but there is no doubt in my mind that this is what he meant.

So what about us? We have read this very personal letter of Paul’s to his dear friend and brother Philemon. We have pulled it apart and tried our best to understand it, but what can we learn from it? Well, that’s a question that you will need to wrestle with and try to answer for yourselves. And yet, I am very aware that life is complicated and does not always go the way that we intend or hope.

As clerk for the Presbytery of Brampton, I often get calls or have meetings with disgruntled members of churches who feel they have been wronged or they are in conflict with other members of the church.

Just recently I had an elder in my study from another congregation who outlined with pages and pages of documentation containing e-mails and notes on conversations and phone calls and how he had been wronged and slandered by other elders in the church.

As usual, my set advice to these people is to exhort them to the advice of Christ. Do not talk to me, go and talk to these people who have wronged you. Try to work out your differences. Try to work out some ground rules for how you are going to live together. And, go into these conversations with the intent to forgive. But I said to this elder, you shouldn’t be talking to me, you should be talking to these people who you perceive have hurt you. I know this will be difficult, but it’s not about us, is it?

Well, this elder protested. He said to me that he wanted them to retract what they have said about him and the slanderous comments that were made about him. I want them to publically apologize to me, as if I could do something about that.

I suppose one of the problems with wanting to reconcile with those who hurt us is that – we can’t make anyone do anything. And what has been done. The hurts, the wrongs, can never be erased. The best we can do is work towards being reconciled with one another. Learn to forgive, even if it means forgiving someone over and over again.

Paul as he wrote to Philemon, he appeals to him on the basis of love, because like me, Paul has learned that you can’t make anyone do anything.

Lot’s of people chose to ignore conflict and will talk to everyone but the person who hurt them. The old saying,
• let by-gones be by-gones,
• let’s just forget it and act as if it didn’t happen.
• let’s treat it like water under the bridge.
The problem is that doing nothing, solves nothing! Ignoring the problem is not a solution.

I mean, it would be wonderful if we could just forget and move past the hurt we have felt, but we are human. We don’t forget! It is next to impossible for us to ignore our feelings. To let bygones be bygones. The best we can do is to work towards being reconciled with the intent to forgive!

And don’t miss that last part, we must at least have the intention to forgive. If you have no intention of forgiving someone, there’s no point in trying to be reconciled. No intention to forgive means that your heart is not ready to reconcile.

Life is so messy.

So, I leave you with one last thought. Who is it that you need to be reconciled?


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