What could a letter written to a slave owner about a run-away slave teach me today? How does that apply to the church? Both of these are good questions and are often asked when reading this book. If we look at the relationship that Paul wants Philemon and Onesimus to have and how he wants them to overcome past obstacles, then we get a road map for how we can handle problems in our lives with friends, family, or church members. How we relate and overcome obstacles matters in the church.
If you think about what happened in Philemon and try to put it in a more modern setting, I think it helps us to understand what position Philemon was in. I try to think of it in terms of a business deal. If you had a business and had contracted with a person to do your internet for your business for 10 years for 100,000 dollars, but after paying, they left and did not fulfill their contract. How would you feel? You just lost 100,000 dollars. How would you treat this person if they came back to you? This might be a little bit of what Philemon felt, after paying for future service, his slave left him and he was out the lost labor for the whole time he was gone.
Paul wants us to love so deeply that past offenses are forgiven and our relationships are transformed to treating each other like family. Paul uses love three times (v. ) and heart three times (v. 7,12,20) in this short letter but he does not use the normal word for heart. He uses the word that literally means entrails or bowels. Paul wants us to love so much that we feel it in our gut!
He continues his theme of love by calling Onesimus a beloved brother of Philemon. This shows Philemon that he is not to just love Onesimus but love him as a brother. This is not the kind of love that is a love-hate relationship where you have sibling rivalries and you love your sibling even though you do not like them a lot. This is a love where you and your sibling are very close and care for each other deeply.
Next time you have a relationship problem where you are blaming the other person, ask yourself this question, "Am I loving this person as God would want me to love him?" Then think about the answer for a while. This question can be used in your relationship with your friends, kids, spouse, church members, and even your co-workers. It might help us to put love into practice the way God wants us to.
Working On Loving Others,