Imagine This Letter is About You

May 15, 2019

In the first century, in the city of Colosse in Asia Minor, there lived a well-to-do man named Philemon, a family man with slaves and a house that served as the regular meeting place for a church. Paul met Philemon on one of his missionary journeys and discipled him when he became a Christian. Philemon owed his life to Paul (Philemon 1:19).

Philemon had a useless and troublesome slave named Onesimus. One night Onesimus took money from Philemon’s household and escaped. He made his way thirty miles to the coast, where he found passage on a ship, crossed the Aegean Sea into the Mediterranean, made port in Italy, and traveled to Rome, which is where he met Paul, who had been imprisoned by the Romans and was awaiting his chance to appeal to Caesar (see Acts 24:10-11, 28:17-20).

While here in jail, I’ve fathered a child, so to speak. And here he is hand-carrying this letter—Onesimus! He was useless to you before; now he’s useful to both of us. Philemon 1:10-11

One was a prisoner of the state; the other, a fugitive of the state. Philemon was their common ground, but their association with him was very different. Paul was an affectionate father in Christ to Philemon, a warmly welcomed guest in his home, his pastor, and his close friend. Onesimus was Philemon’s barely tolerated slave, a disrupter of the peace, and now a thief and a runaway. To Paul, Philemon was a friend; to Onesimus, he was an enemy.

But by one of those strange miracles of grace, Paul and Onesimus were able to talk. Onesimus, who had chafed under the bonds of slavery, whose heart was filled with hate and bitterness, found the inner freedom that Christ’s love brings and discovered the fulfilling expression of that love in serving Paul. For the first time in his life, Onesimus was a whole man—and a useful man.

Slavery was protected by the laws of the Roman Empire. The entire economy of the empire was based on the system of slavery. For Onesimus to return to his master meant the possibility of punishment—of horrible beatings and perhaps even death. By permitting Onesimus to stay with him, Paul was an accomplice.

Paul told Onesimus that he must go back to Philemon. He wrote a letter to Philemon to explain what had transpired. One morning, Onesimus rose, took the letter, and returned to his owner.

Help me to never forget my former life, the life of a runaway slave.

Paul was asking Philemon to engage in a new kind of Christian action. But it wouldn’t be at all out of character for Philemon to do what Paul was asking. Paul was making his proposal on the basis of the kind of man Philemon already was in Christ and the kind of life he had been leading.

“This man you call a slave,” Paul essentially wrote, “is not how I’ve come to know him. I’ve come to know him as a child in the faith. I’ve been a father to him, and he a son to me. And he’s become useful both to you and to me” (see Philemon 1:10-12).

I see myself in Onesimus. Unhappy with my life. Chafing under authority. Rebellious and wanting to run away. The distance I put between God and me isn’t geographical but spiritual. I’m separated from my true home. But then a miracle of grace happens. While in the distant country of a wasted life, I’m led providentially to God’s representative, Jesus Christ. In him I find forgiveness. I find acceptance. I find love. And I find release from my guilt, my fear, my estrangement. And suddenly this useless runaway becomes a useful returnee.

Imagine that this letter is about you. Onesimus’ name fades out and yours appears in the text. When you find yourself accepted and restored so completely, you’ll become useful to God and to others—accepting them, loving them, and forgiving them.

The Gospel transforms our relationships.

Originally presented as a sermon titled “When You Find Yourself Accepted and Restored,” this contemplative reading on Philemon is found in The Message Devotional Bible.