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Philemon: Reconciliation

Updated: Oct 8, 2022


Philemon is the shortest surviving letter penned by the apostle Paul. In this brief letter, the apostle appeals to Philemon, the owner of a runaway slave, Onesimus, to receive him back and to be reconciled.

Others have said, and I agree, when we read the New Testament letters, we are reading someone else's mail. For example, Paul may write a letter to the church in Corinth or the Christians in Colossae. These letters are written to a specific group within a particular context. It would be much the same as sitting down to write a letter to our friends today. However, Scripture is "God-breathed" (ref. 2 Tim. 3:16). Within these words, we learn of God's wisdom. Wisdom, for Christians, to shape and transform our lives today. How do we see God's wisdom revealed in Paul's appeal for reconciliation between a runaway slave and his master?


Paul begins his letter by identifying himself as a prisoner. We learn Timothy is with him as he sends greetings.

Philemon 1–7 (NKJV)

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved friend and fellow laborer, to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God, making mention of you always in my prayers, hearing of your love and faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints, that the sharing of your faith may become effective by the acknowledgment of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus. For we have great joy and consolation in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you, brother.

It isn't easy to imagine what must have been in the mind of Onesimus. As a runaway slave, what must it have felt like to be sent back to Philemon, carrying this letter from Paul? The punishment could have been severe, even to the point of his life being taken from him. Paul treads lightly as he sows the seeds of God's transformative kingdom amid cultural expectations. Why even get involved? Why not just tell Onesimus to keep running? Much more is in view here. Will the gospel work in the real world? Perhaps we should pause and ask, "Will the gospel work in our world?" How would Philemon be viewed as a master who forgives a runaway slave in the community? Each person introduced in this short letter has much to lose and much to consider as the balance of reconciliation, Jesus' kingdom message, pivots on the scales of everyday life.