by Kirk Walden
“Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to order you to do that which is proper, yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you . . .” Philemon 8-9A
If I Corinthians 13 is the scriptural chapter which best describes love, perhaps the brief letter we call the Book of Philemon is one which best shows us love in action. Because if we follow the examples of Paul, Onesimus and Philemon, those around us will see a powerful picture of what love looks like, in real life.
Let’s set the stage. Onesimus was a slave of Philemon. An indentured servant, one might surmise. But Onesimus ran away, no small infraction. To understand how egregious this was, in the culture of the day it wasn’t uncommon to execute runaway slaves.
But a funny thing happened after Onesimus snuck away to freedom. He found Paul, converted to faith in following Jesus Christ, and launched a partnership with the man who would become the most prolific of New Testament writers.
At some point however, Onesimus—perhaps guided by a new conscience—likely confessed to Paul that he was a runaway. Or Paul found out through other means and Onesimus confessed his past. Regardless, this admission was a dangerous one. But Onesimus came clean, out of love for Jesus Christ and a desire to follow—no matter the personal cost.
The story gets even more interesting however, when we find out Paul not only knew the master of Onesimus but had a close relationship with him. This was such a strong relationship that Paul sat down and penned the letter to Philemon which we read and study today.
Paul knew he could say the word and Philemon would do anything Paul asked, including freeing Onesimus. But as we see throughout this letter, Paul chooses instead to express love for Philemon, and to appeal to Philemon’s love for Jesus.
Remember when Jesus told us the two great commandments were to love God and to love others? In this letter, Paul puts this into practice.
Out of his love for God, Paul chooses to love Philemon—just like Jesus taught. Onesimus? He chose love by returning to Philemon with letter in hand, willing to take any punishment Philemon required.
Love from Paul. Love from Onesimus. And with this letter, it was up to Philemon to complete the circle.
Paul requests that Philemon not only release Onesimus, but to shift his entire view of his former slave. Paul presents Philemon with the challenge to consider Onesimus—a slave—as an equal, as a brother in the work of advancing the good news (v.15-17).
This was a monumental request, but Paul was confident his brother Philemon would not only honor this request but out of love, go beyond what he was asked (v.21).
While none of us knows for certain how Philemon responded, we can draw an educated conclusion that he did. Why? Because this short letter of only 335 words—tucked between letters to Titus and to the Hebrews—was so revered by the early church that it made its way into the New Testament.
As we look back on this brief letter from one Christ follower to another, it’s stunning to see what love—acted out in real life—can accomplish.
Paul poured his heart into Philemon over the years, building Philemon from “convert” to “fellow worker” for the faith (v.1). This is love.
Onesimus owned up to his wrong, returning to Philemon with a heart of submission and a desire for sincere reconciliation. This too, is love.
Next of course, is the man whose name is on the letter, Philemon. We can be confident Philemon responded with our favorite word, Love.
What were the results of each of these men choosing love?
First, the obvious. For Philemon and Onesimus, the wall between “slave” and “master” fell to the ground. We can guess, Onesimus and Philemon came together as shining lights for the Good News, a stunning example of love in action for friends, neighbors and the community at large. Without a doubt, when people saw these men, many were attracted to this new faith.
Next, as we already pointed out, the early church likely heard the story of these three and of the extraordinary example set, choosing to place this letter in what we refer to as The New Testament. This way, every Christian could read and hear of the impact love can have.
One more thing. Centuries later, this “little” letter was used in Christian countries to argue for the abolition of slavery altogether.
Three men. Each of the three choosing love. They changed their world, and the world to come.
All of which leads to a question. What could happen if each of us, when faced with any situation in front of us, chose love?
Our love might look like Paul’s, pouring into another through encouragement and hope, as we do for fellow staff members and so many who call on our ministries daily. The cost? Time. Effort. Emotional and physical energy.
Or love could look like it did for Onesimus, taking a risk and offering to right a wrong we knowingly or unknowingly created days, weeks, months or years ago.
And love could mean being a Philemon, choosing to forgive even when it costs us. For Philemon, forgiveness meant risking social standing in a community which likely demanded slaves be kept “in their proper place.” And it also meant giving up any right to the work an indentured servant could offer.
It’s hard to see Paul, Onesimus and Philemon saying to themselves, “If I practice love, the effect of this decision will bring thousands or even millions to faith and contribute to the abolition of slavery. One letter outlining this episode will be read by billions across the globe.”
No, they had none of this foresight. But they chose to love.
So, as we consider the people and the real-life situations in front of us, let’s take heart, remembering that choosing love is always a wise decision. We may not see the results today, but we know choosing love has the capacity to change . . . even the world.
Want proof? Let’s ask the three men we read about in the letter to Philemon. If they were to look back on a real-life story about a runaway slave, they might just agree.
Special thanks to Tom Haddon, pastor of Northfield Church in Hendersonville, TN for two sentences on a Sunday morning which prompted Kirk to dig into the story of Paul, Onesimus and Philemon. You never know the impact a pastor’s words might have!