An Appeal for Acceptance

KEY VERSE: “Perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him forever … a brother beloved.” —Philemon  15,16


ONE of the servants, or slaves, owned by Philemon was Onesimus. Whether or not Paul had become acquainted with him during any of his visits to Philemon’s home, we cannot be sure. What we know with certainty is that Onesimus, for reasons not revealed in the Scriptures, elected to run away from his Master. He fled to Rome, thinking that in a large city like Rome he would be less likely to be found.

Arriving in Rome, Onesimus sought out Paul, who was in prison. The fact that he went to Paul would seem to indicate that he was acquainted with the apostle, and knew that he was held in a Roman prison. As we know, Paul used every possible opportunity to present the Gospel, and did not overlook the privilege of witnessing to Onesimus, who accepted the message, and consecrated himself to God and the service of the heavenly Master, even Jesus Christ our Lord.

Onesimus also became a very valuable servant to Paul, not as a slave, but as a voluntary helper. However, under the circumstances, Paul realized that he could not properly continue to use the services of Onesimus inasmuch as he actually belonged to Philemon. The fact that Onesimus had accepted Christ did not cancel his obligation to his earthly master from whom he had run away. This being true, Paul arranged for Onesimus to return to Philemon to seek forgiveness, and to accept whatever, if any, penalties might be imposed upon him.

In this unusual situation there is brought into focus for us the opportunity for Philemon to exercise the virtue of forgiveness. Jesus’ teachings on this point actually left Philemon no choice as to what he should do, for in his Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “If ye forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you: but if ye forgive men not their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matt. 6:14,15) The proper application of this principle of divine love and mercy was considered so important by Jesus that he incorporated it in the prayer which he taught to his disciples.—Matt. 6:9-13

According to the standards of the time, the trespass of Onesimus against his master, Philemon, was a very real and serious one. It was not that he had been misunderstood by Philemon. Nor did Paul, in his letter to Philemon, try to discount the seriousness of the trespass. All Paul asked was that Philemon exercise forgiveness and mercy toward Onesimus, especially that now he was a brother in Christ.

Today, a similar situation could not develop. However, it is still true that brethren in Christ are trespassed against, both by those in the world and, at times, unwittingly, no doubt, by their brethren in Christ. And whatever the nature of these trespasses, if we truly desire to be like our Father in heaven, we will extend mercy and forgiveness toward those who do us wrong, especially if they manifest a spirit of repentance and seek our forgiveness, as did Onesimus.

And even when we are not directly asked to extend forgiveness, the spirit of mercy and of kindness should be in our hearts toward all who transgress God’s law. God loved us while we were yet sinners, and provided a Redeemer, his own beloved Son, to make possible our reconciliation. And while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. This is the mariner in which divine love operates, and if we would be like our Heavenly Father, and like his beloved Son, we, too, will need to maintain this desire to make peace with those who trespass against us.

Paul is gently reminding Philemon that there had been an opportunity to serve him while in prison, and that he would be glad to accept the services of Onesimus in the place of Philemon. However, as Paul explained, since Onesimus really still belonged to Philemon he could not assume to continue accepting his services without the consent of his master.

In his letter Paul eases the situation as much as possible by reminding Philemon that it might well have been permitted for a good purpose, “for perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him forever; not now as a servant [or slave], but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially tome, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord? If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself.”—vss. 15-17

Dawn Bible Students Association
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