In II Corinthians 5:16-17, Paul wrote,
So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! (16-17)
Here we see the results of a genuine faith. We no longer see Christ the same way and neither do we see the people around us in the same way.
And there is no story that better illustrates that than this letter to a man named Philemon.
Philemon was apparently a leader in the Colossian church, and the church itself met in his house. Nevertheless, he lived in a time when slavery abounded. Slaves made up approximately a third of the Roman population.
Sometimes people wonder why early Christian leaders like Paul didn’t speak directly against the practice. My guess is he knew change wouldn’t come through politics but through changed hearts. And the only way hearts would be changed is through the gospel.
Many Christians trying to bring change to their nations would do well to remember that. This is not to say that people should not be politically involved. What it does mean is that any long-lasting change must come through the transformation of the human heart. And politics and new laws cannot effect that.
At any rate, while Paul was under house arrest in Rome, he met a man named Onesimus. We don’t know the exact circumstances under which they met, but whatever they were, it seems that Onesimus became a Christian through Paul (10).
And as Onesimus grew in the faith, he actually started serving with Paul, becoming a beloved and trusted friend.
But there was a problem, Onesimus seems to have been a runaway slave. Apparently, he had stolen from his master and run away to gain his freedom. But now as a Christian, his conscience probably smote him. He knew he was in the wrong, and he felt like he had to return to his old master. But to do so could very well mean death under Roman law. Onesimus’ fate was purely in the hands of his master should he return.
And perhaps under this burden, he shared his heart with Paul. When Paul asked him, “Who is your master?” to Paul’s surprise, Onesimus’ master was Philemon, a close friend of Paul. Philemon himself, it seems, had also become a Christian through Paul (19)
With that, Paul wrote this letter on Onesimus’ behalf. But Paul, though he had the authority as an apostle to tell Philemon what to do, refused to do so. Instead, you see him appealing to Philemon as a friend and as one he greatly loved.
What did he tell Philemon? He told Philemon that God’s hand was in all that had happened (15-16). Oh certainly God didn’t tell Onesimus to run away. Onesimus did that all on his own, sinning not only against Philemon, but against God.
But God reached out to him and directed him right into the path of Paul. And now this “useless slave” had become someone truly valuable, useful to Paul in the ministry. (11-13)
(Onesimus’ name itself meant “useful.”)
Now Paul told Philemon, “Onesimus is no longer the same man he was when he left you. He is not just merely your slave anymore. He is now a new creation in Christ. And your brother.” (16)
More Paul said,
If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me….I will pay it back–not to mention that you owe me your very self. (18-19)
Paul here does two things. He offers to pay for what Onesimus has stolen. But in doing so, he gives a subtle reminder that Philemon himself had his debt of sin paid by Jesus. And as much as he might have owed Paul for bringing the gospel message that saved him, he owed Jesus much more, because Jesus was the one who actually paid the price.
How did Philemon respond? We don’t know. But Paul was confident that Philemon would do what was right. (21)
Why? Because Philemon was a new creation too. And Paul was confident that he would see Onesimus in the same light that Paul saw him.
The real question, though, is, “What about you? Is your faith genuine? If it is genuine, it should transform not only how you see Christ, but others. It should lead you to forgive because you have been forgiven. It should lead you to love and accept those around you, because Jesus loved and accepted you.”
What kind of faith do you have?