Christians are not perfect. Sometimes our mistakes cause problems or rifts between us and others. Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus were three such Christians. Paul cared about them and he had a lot of good to say about them. Yet, something had caused a conflict between them and their bondservant Onesimus. Something had caused the man to run away from Philemon. Verses 1-7 read,
“Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our beloved fellow worker 2 and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Philemon's Love and Faith
4 I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, 6 and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. 7 For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.”
Paul called Philemon his fellow worker. What an honor to know that this Apostle, missionary and church planter considered him to be a partner in his work. He called Apphia his sister. And he called Archippus his fellow soldier. Again a great commendation to know Paul considered him a comrade in the fight. Paul was not giving them empty flattery. He was telling them about the good things he heard and thought of them. He was letting them know they impacted his life and the kingdom. And he prayed that their impact would be even bigger.
This is brotherhood. We notice, we care, and we acknowledge one another. We are not islands working separately, but co-workers, peers, and soldiers on a mission for The LORD all for Jesus Christ. We might be working on different aspects of the same mission, but we are working on the same mission, sharing our faith and building the Kingdom.
Brotherhood also means that we can talk about things that need to be corrected. It means we can bring up some difficult subjects with one another. We are not perfect, but we strive toward the goal and we want our brothers and sisters to be moving toward the goal as well. In Philippians 3:12-17 Paul says it this way,
“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.
17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.”
And now Paul had to speak to Philemon about a difficult subject. Verses 8-16 read,
“Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, 9 yet for love's sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— 10 I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. 11 (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) 12 I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. 13 I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. 15 For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”
Onesimus was a bondservant to Philemon. That meant he was indentured, contracted to Philemon for a certain period of time. He had no right to leave, yet he had. Philemon could punish Onesimus however he pleased. But when Onesimus left, he found Paul, and Paul shared Jesus with him and taught him. Onesimus had been a joy and a help to Paul. Paul wanted to keep the man with him, but it would have been stealing from Philemon to do so. So he had to send him back. I’m sure Onesimus was afraid of what would happen to him when he returned to his master.
Paul basically said, “Listen, I have the authority to tell you what to do and I am not afraid to do that. But I love you and so I’m going to ask you to do the right thing. He had every expectation that Philemon would obey him and so obey Christ and accept the runaway bondservant back.
Now Onesimus who had somehow been hurt by Philemon and who had in turn hurt his master was returning but as more. He was now a brother in Christ and bonded to Philemon not just for the length of his indenturement but for eternity. This was all the more reason for forgiveness on both sides. Colossians 3:12-17 says,
“Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
Times will come when one of us hurts another, when someone sins against us, or when someone sins in a way which will hurt the body. But we forgive each other. We are not perfect. Jesus forgave us, so we forgive one another. Paul knew Philemon well enough to know that he would accept his servant back, rejoice over their new brotherhood, forgive, and go beyond Paul’s requests. Verses 18-22 read,
“So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. 18 If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.
21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. 22 At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.”
It is an absolute joy to be a part of the body of Christ. It is beautiful to know I have brothers and sisters in so many places and that we accept one another with complete love. I have met fellow believers from all over the world. I know we pray for each other and I know we are fellow workers and soldiers for Christ. I know we are brothers and sisters in the deepest sense of the word. Even those I haven’t met, will respond to a prayer request or a praise by praying with me, praising with me, mourning with me, or singing with me.
Jesus gave us His grace. We don’t keep it to ourselves. Verses 23-25 close the letter with expressions of the love and companionship of fellow believers
“Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, 24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.
25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”
Believer, have you been hurt by someone in the church? Forgive him. Have you hurt someone? Go ask for forgiveness. Love one another as Jesus has loved you. (John 15:12).