Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment.
As I was spending time yesterday seeking the Lord for what I should share in today’s blog post, I heard the Spirit direct me to a letter that Paul wrote during his imprisonment to prominent house church leader Philemon. In this letter, Paul entreats Philemon to welcome back his former runaway slave Onesimus with open arms as he would a brother. Not only that, but Paul actually tells Philemon to consider it Paul’s obligation any wrong that Onesimus has committed against Philemon. There’s a lot to glean from the contents of this epistle, so I intend to take two or three entries to go through this and see what the Holy Spirit reveals to us.
Today I want us to focus on the above passage. As Paul states later on in his letter, Philemon was saved directly through the ministry of Paul, and Paul considers him a dear friend — like a brother. So even though Paul had the authority via his position in the Church to order Philemon to accept Onesimus back into his household and the local body of believers, Paul instead chose to appeal to his relational bond with Philemon. This is, I think, a highly significant point to ponder. When we consider our relationship with God, do we obey Him and follow His will out of obligation required by His transcendent power and might or because He is our loving Father and we seek to please Him joyfully out of our hearts as sons and daughters? I don’t believe Jesus beckons us to walk on the path set before us because of His mastery over us, but because we have been born into a familial relationship with Him through spiritual regeneration. He has our best interests at heart, and we listen to Him because we believe in Him and trust Him.
In addition to Paul’s singular relationship with Philemon, Paul possesses an amazing and downright astonishing depth of affection for Onesimus. Paul doesn’t just refer to him as a servant, or a friend, or even a brother. He refers to him as a child, as Paul’s own son. Paul becomes like a father to Onesimus as they experience life together in the bonds of imprisonment. When Onesimus is set free to return to Philemon, Paul deeply desires that the slave who became a son to him would likewise become like a brother to Philemon.
This picture of deep and meaningful and transformational relationship being worked out within the body of Christ reflects the passion that God has for His people and His wish that we would love one another. Just as God is our Father and we are His children, so too are we intimately connected to our fellow believers in the unity of the Spirit. When we operate out of an identity of sonship or daughtership to God, rather than an identity of a slave just carrying out the master’s duties, then in our midst will appear the true manifestation of the Kingdom of Heaven as lasting relationships form between all of the saints. This is who we were born again to be. Let us take hold of this beautiful picture and seek always to be children of God as well as fathers and mothers to the slaves of the world that we encounter in our daily lives.