The book of Philemon is the shortest letter written by Paul. It is a personal letter that Paul wrote to his friend, Philemon. The letter was written to reconcile the broken relationship between Philemon and Onesimus and it serves as a handbook on reconciliation.
The reality is that if we want deep, lasting, and meaningful relationships we MUST commit ourselves to the hard work of reconciliation. But based on my experience as a pastor, far too many of us in the church have a high tolerance for brokenness in our relationships. Far too many people that call themselves Christ followers spend very little time doing the hard work of reconciling their relationships with people who have been made in the image of God. Instead of engaging in the process of reconciliation, we tend to emotionally distance ourselves when someone says or does something we don’t like.
The story behind the book of Philemon is incredibly interesting. Onesimus was the fugitive servant of Philemon. He had robbed Philemon and fled 1300 miles away to Rome. But by God’s providence, Onesimus encounters the Apostle Paul, who leads him to faith in Jesus.
Paul discovers that Onesimus has wronged Philemon by stealing from him. Then Paul makes it clear that anytime the relationship between two Christian brothers is broken they must do everything in their power to make it right. Paul sends Onesimus back to Colossae to seek forgiveness from Philemon. And Paul sends a letter to Philemon asking him to receive Onesimus as a brother.
Everyone knows the the pain and hurt of broken, unreconciled relationships. And we all know what it’s like to play the part of Philemon. Whether it’s a parent that walked out on us, a spouse that betrayed us, or someone that lied to us, gossiped about us, or stabbed us in the back…we all know what it’s like to be hurt and wronged by someone.
What do you do when you’re the one that’s been wounded in a relationship?
Philemon 1:10, 12, 15-17 I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. 12 I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. 17 So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me.
Paul asks Philemon to forgive Onesimus and RECEIVE him as a brother. The word Paul uses for receive is in the context of two people enjoying fellowship over a meal with each other. In other words, Paul envisions a day when their relationship POST the event would be better than it was PRIOR to the event.
What Paul is asking Philemon to do seems impossible. And it should seem hard because if Philemon could do it in his own strength he wouldn’t need Christ. So how do we do it? How do we receive someone who has wronged us as a brother?
1. We need a clear understanding of the Gospel
Reconciliation is the message of the Gospel. We are sinners separated from God. We have sinned against God, rebelled against Him, and betrayed Him. But not once does God turn His back on us.
Not once does God say I’m done with you. Instead He sends Jesus to die of you.
As Christians, we should be doing the hard work of reconciliation because of the reconciliation Jesus has done on our behalf.
Unless you’re a believer in Jesus Christ whose heart has been transformed by the gospel, I don’t believe you can really do this! Unless you understand how the Father, through Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, has received you…I don’t know how you can receive those that have hurt you. That’s why is imperative that we have a Gospel Framework to do the hard work of reconciliation.
2. We need to view the one that’s wronged us as useful
Philemon 1:11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.
Philemon wakes up to discover Onesimus is gone and that he’s stolen from him. No doubt after running gamete of emotions, Philemon does what many of us do after we’ve been wronged … he declares, “I didn’t need him anyway”. In other words, Onesimus is useless to him. Isn’t that what we do with people, give them silent treatment, dismiss people as useless, and cut them out of our lives.
Paul says he used to be useful now you regard him as useless. Then Paul reminds Philemon that Onesimus is still is useful to you because God’s NOT through with him. When someone has hurt us or wronged us, we have to remember that God does not love you any more than the one that’s wronged you!
When we begin to view the person that’s wronged us as useful, we’re poised to do the work of reconciliation.
3. We need to talk about the past to be reconciled in the present
Reconciliation does not mean letting bygones be bygones. It doesn’t mean never talking about what happened. It doesn’t mean avoiding difficult conversations. Reconciliation is NOT sweeping it under the rug like it never happened. In order to reconcile with someone that’s hurt you, you must we willing to go there.
For reconciliation to happen in PRESENT we must be willing to go back and talk about the PAST in order to get closure and move forward into a new FUTURE.
Forgiveness and reconciliation are highlighted throughout the book of Philemon. By studying this book, we have seen practical steps to restore broken relationships. The reality is that we all know the pain of broken relationships…both as the person that has been hurt and as the person that has hurt others. Let’s be honest, reconciliation is HARD.
When we are willing to do the hard work of reconciliation and receive the one that has hurt us…it glorifies Jesus and shocks the world!