By Russ Ramsey
The gospel tells us who we are to each other. The relationship between Philemon and Onesimus drives this point home by way of a fascinating bit of drama.
Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave, was from Colossae, and he was one of the people who delivered Paul’s letter to the Colossians. We know this because in Colossians, Paul writes to the church there:
“I have sent [Tychicus] to you… so that you may know how we are and so that he may encourage your hearts. He is coming with Onesimus, a faithful and dearly loved brother, who is one of you” (Colossians 4:7–9, emphasis mine).
Then, when we read the opening verses of Philemon, we discover that the church in Onesimus’s hometown, Colossae, met in Philemon’s house (Philemon 2). This means that when Tychicus stepped into the church in Colossae, he was actually standing in Philemon’s home. And who stood beside him? Onesimus, who had likely stolen from Philemon to fund his escape. Philemon 10–16 tells us Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon for the purpose of reconciliation.
Consider the drama of this moment. There would’ve been no notice of Tychicus’s and Onesimus’s arrival beforehand, just the sight of them. Imagine as they presented the two letters from Paul: one to the Colossian church that met in Philemon’s home, and the other a bit of personal correspondence from the apostle to Philemon about the prodigal standing there before him.
Philemon had his runaway slave right there in front of him, reminding him of the way Onesimus had wronged him, and yet he also had Paul’s words telling him Onesimus was a changed man, and that the two of them had become brothers in Christ. The gospel had reshaped their relationship already.
Paul reminds Philemon of the truth of the transforming power of God’s grace at work in his life before he asks Philemon to now live by it (Philemon 4–7). The whole point of the gospel is that when Christ is the Lord of our lives, everything changes: how we see each other, how we react to those who have wronged us, and even what we should demand of them. This is hard, though, isn’t it? We often want to hold on to the ways we’ve been wronged. Why do we do that? If we are in Christ, the gospel overrules any other definition we may have of who we are to each other.
For love’s sake, Onesimus and Paul agreed Onesimus needed to be reconciled to Philemon. As his drive to escape led Onesimus to flee 1,200 miles to get away from Philemon, the drive to be reconciled now set him on a 1,200-mile return. But it wasn’t just Onesimus who needed to be set free. Paul would’ve been glad to keep him around, but there was a debt they owed Philemon. They owed it to Philemon to invite him to receive Onesimus as a brother. They couldn’t withhold this.
Forgiveness is the work of liberation. Every one of us has, at one time or another, been enslaved by someone else’s anger, bitterness, or disappointment, just as we have taken others captive by our own. This is where forgiveness comes in. To forgive is not merely to dismiss an offense. It is to release someone that we might both live in freedom.
Written by Russ Ramsey
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