The book of Philemon is a little letter Paul wrote to his friend asking him to take back a former slave, Onesimus, who had stolen from him. There is a several valuable life lessons that we can glean from the 25 verses contained in the book.
- Good things can come from bad situations. Given that Onesimus was a slave he was considered property. Having a slave run away is basically a loss of one’s property. Having a slave steal from you then run away is a double whammy. Paul points out that while Onesimus was once considered useless, his conversion has now made him useful so maybe him running away wasn’t such a bad thing. “Before that, he was useless to you. But now he has become useful to you and to me… Onesimus was separated from you for a little while. Maybe that was so you could have him back for good” (Philemon 1:11; 15)
- In Christ we are all family. Onesimus left Philemon as a slave. But Paul points out that since he has converted he should no longer be a slave, but he should be considered a brother in Christ. It’s clear that Paul expects Philemon release Onesimus from his position as a slave.
- Stories in the Bible must be taken in context. In the biblical days slavery was very common. Paul provides no commentary on slavery in this letter. One could make an argument that he’s kind of saying you can’t keep another Christian as a slave, but he’s not necessarily condemning the institution of slavery. Given that, we could make an argument for modern day slavery, as long as we aren’t enslaving other Christians. In fact, that is what many people tried to do in the days of slavery in the United Sates. They claimed that black people did not have souls and therefore could not be Christians ( or any other religion) and therefore it was okay to treat them as property. Sitting in the year 2012 we realize how ridiculous that argument sounds. In this country we view any form of slavery as unacceptable. I bring up this argument to highlight the dangers of trying to take the Bible literally. There are many things in the Bible that are cultural – meaning, this is how people lived back then – and not spiritual. The story of the Bible is told in the context of where the events took place: slavery was okay, women were property, and animals were routinely sacrificed. None of these things do we take literally these days. We have to take caution when picking and choosing verses from the Bible to justify our actions or treatment of others.
- Actions have consequences and long reaching impacts. Sometimes in the big picture of life it’s easy to feel insignificant. Afterall there are 6 billion people on a planet that has been around for thousands of year. Each of us is just a drop in the ocean. That doesn’t mean that what we do is insignificant. The simple actions of Onesimus and Philemon ended up as a book in the bible and their story will live on forever. I can’t promise you that the results of your actions will rise quite to that level, but there are people who are watching you and you don’t even realize it. So never pass up an opportunity to do right.
- You can’t say you love God then treat his people poorly. “I always thank my God when I remember you in my prayers. That’s because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus. I hear about your love for all of God’s people.” (Philemon 1: 4 – 5). There’s not much more I can add to that one.
- You should do right because you want to do right not because someone is twisting your arm. Paul’s letter sounds like he’s trying to send Philemon on a major guilt trip. He even closes with the promise of a visit. Yet he does say that he wants Philemon to do what’s right because he wants to, not because Paul is forcing him to.
- Follow the example of Christ: take a risk for someone else. Paul risked his relationship with Philemon for the sake of Onesimus. “Has he done anything wrong to you? Does he owe you anything? Then charge it to me. I’ll pay it back” (Philemon 1: 18). Paul was felt such conviction about Onesimus’ conversion that he was willing to vouch for him and pay his debt. Isn’t that what Jesus did for us. He took on all of our debts on the cross. We would be wise to bear that sacrifice in mind when opportunities come up for us to help someone who is trying to turn their life around.