Who are some of the most polar opposite people on the planet? So polar opposite that they not only wouldn’t normally have anything to do with the other, but would actively go out of their way to stay away from each other. Anyone come to mind when you think of that? I thought of one such group: Osama Bin Laden, Hillary Clinton, and a doomsday prepper. I cannot help think of three more different people. If they walked into a room together the odds are pretty good that only one of them would walk out. In all the instances we’ve mentioned what would it take for these people to become close enough to call each other family? AN ACT OF GOD!
Keep this in mind, because as we turn to our new blog series going through Paul’s letter to Philemon we encounter another polar opposites pair. Paul (a once proud Pharisee), Philemon (a wealthy landowner), and Onesimus (a poor slave). What happens when these three very different men with three very different positions in life come face to face with the gospel of grace? They are radically re-oriented and forever changed by the same gospel. They are changed so much that they begin to see each other not as enemies, but as brothers.
The letter to Philemon teaches us what happens when the grace of God grips a heart. Or to say it another way: when God gives grace to a sinful human being, that human being doesn’t remain the same, they change. What causes that change? The grace of God. What does that change look like in the person’s life? It looks like Grace on the Ground. It changes things, it re-orients thing, it transforms everything about us.
Here are some basic facts about Paul’s letter to Philemon
a) Paul wrote this letter while he was in a Roman prison around AD 58-62.
b) Philemon is the shortest (only containing 335 words in the original Greek) and most personal of all Paul’s letters.
c) Philemon was a wealthy gentile landowner who lived in Colossae and became a believer through Paul’s ministry. He also was a leader of the Colossian church which, according to v2, met in his house.
d) Paul probably sent Philemon this small letter and the larger letter to the whole Colossian Church at the same time.
e) The 3 central figures of this letter are: Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus.
The heart of the letter has to do with the person of Onesimus, Philemon’s slave who had somehow wronged his master (v18), fled and through an unknown sequence of events met Paul in prison (v9), was converted (v10), and became a useful partner to Paul in the gospel (v11-13). But as Paul knew, the existing law in Rome demanded that Paul return the slave Onesimus to his rightful owner Philemon. In this letter Paul pleads with Philemon to receive Onesimus back (v17), to forgive him (v18), to treat him no longer as a slave but a brother (v16), and to return Onesimus back to Paul so he can continue to labor in ministry alongside him (v13, 21).
We’ll get to all this soon in the coming weeks…