Paul wrote Philemon to “welcome [Onesimus] as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.” (Philemon 1:17-18). Paul was modeling God’s amazing grace. As Paul wrote to the church at Colossae: “In everything [Jesus has] the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through [Jesus] to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Colossians 19-20).
Paul always wished “grace and peace” to the people receiving his letters.
And no wonder! Because whether you want to help a “useless person” in the Twenty-First Century, or you want to help a “useless person” in the First Century, you’ll need grace and peace.
For example, when Paul wrote to his “dear friend and fellow worker” Philemon, he said: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philemon 1:3).
Why did Philemon need grace and peace? To help a “useless person” become useful. (Philemon 1:10-11).
In Philemon’s life, this “useless person” was his slave, named Onesimus. In Greek, this name literally means “useful”.
How did someone with the name “Useful” become “useless”?
This slave of Philemon stole from him and ran away. (Philemon 1:11,18-19).
Evidently, Philemon ran away to Rome where Paul was imprisoned.
While there, he became a follower of the Way of Jesus. As Paul put it: Onesimus “became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.” (Philemon 1:10-11).
Grace is the basis for rescuing useless people who have gone astray.
Paul knew this because he himself was rescued by God’s amazing grace.
As Paul wrote to the church at Corinth: “I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was in me.” (1 Corinthians 15:9-10).
Undoubtedly, Paul saw the life of Onesimus as following the same pattern as his own life.
Their useless actions differed.
Paul persecuted the church. Onesimus stole.
But then amazing grace changed their lives forever.
Paul and Onesimus were trapped in the Labyrinth of Darkness that leads to weeping and gnashing of teeth. But then God’s amazing grace rescued them to walk in the Labyrinth of Light that fills us with joy, peace and hope. (See my blogs “The Labyrinth of Light” and “The Labyrinth of Darkness”.)
The ways that God shed his amazing grace on them differed.
Paul met the risen Jesus himself in a blinding light. (Acts 9:1-9). Jesus sent a believer, Ananias, to help Paul be filled with the Holy Spirit and regain his strength. (Acts 9:10-19). The Holy Spirit sent a mentor, Barnabas, to make Paul useful as a preacher, teacher, missionary and apostle. (Acts 11:22-26).
We aren’t told the details about how God shed his amazing grace on Onesimus so that he came to love Jesus and to be filled with the Holy Spirit. We know, however, that God led Onesimus to Paul, who mentored him and made him useful.
In response to this amazing grace that reconciled them to God, Paul and Onesimus sought reconciliation with those who they had wronged.
Paul went up to Jerusalem with Barnabas to meet privately with church leaders about the gospel he was preaching to non-Jews. James, Peter and John, “those esteemed as pillars, gave [Paul] and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to [Paul].” (Galatians 2:1-2,9).
Paul raised a large gift from the growing churches he planted in Europe (which were mostly composed of non-Jews). He delivered the money in person to the hard-pressed church in Jerusalem (which was mostly composed of Jews). (Romans 15:25-28; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8:1-9:15).
In order to appease the Jews who followed the Way of Jesus in Jerusalem (some of whom were Pharisees), Paul obeyed the church leaders in Jerusalem when they asked him to go to the Temple to follow Jewish customs and rituals publicly. While he was in the Temple carrying out these wishes of the Jewish church leaders, Paul was spotted, a riot ensued, and Paul became a prisoner of the Romans for the next four years. (Acts 15:5; 21:17-33; 24:27; 28:30-31).
As a mentor of Onesimus, Paul reconciled him with his former master Philemon, much as a mentor of Paul (Barnabas) reconciled Paul to the believers in Jerusalem who Paul had persecuted.
Paul wrote Philemon to “welcome [Onesimus] as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.” (Philemon 1:17-18).
Paul was modeling God’s amazing grace given to all Humanity through Jesus.
As Paul wrote to the church at Colossae: “In everything [Jesus has] the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through [Jesus] to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Colossians 19-20).
As Paul wrote to the churches in Rome: “[W]e . . . boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (Romans 5:11).
Reconciliation is a gift of amazing grace that brings peace, making all things new in our lives, our families, our nations, and our civilizations.
Barnabas gave this gift of reconciliation and peace to Paul and the believers in Jerusalem who Paul had persecuted.
Paul gave this gift of reconciliation and peace to Philemon and Onesimus so that “[Philemon] might have [Onesimus] back forever—no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.” (Philemon 1:15-16).
Paul gave this gift of reconciliation and peace to Philemon and Onesimus, changing Onesimus from a useless slave to a useful fellow man and a dear brother of Philemon. (Philemon 1:16).
Paul gave this gift of reconciliation and peace to Philemon and Onesimus by bearing the consequences of any wrongdoing by Philemon, promising “[i]f he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I will pay it back”. (Philemon 1:18-19).
Paul gave this gift of reconciliation and peace to Philemon and Onesimus, so that Philemon would welcome Onesimus as he would welcome Paul. (Philemon 1:17).
Paul gave this gift of reconciliation and peace to Philemon and Onesimus, hoping that Philemon would do even more for Onesimus than Paul was asking. (Philemon 1:21)
By making peace through his blood, shed on the cross, Jesus gave this gift of reconciliation and peace to all Humanity—each person, family, nation, and civilization.
No matter how much a person, family, nation or civilization is trapped in the Labyrinth of Darkness, God will welcome them to the Labyrinth of Light as he would welcome Jesus.
“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.” (2 Corinthians 5:18).
Furthermore, God “committed to [Barnabas, Paul and] us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” (2 Corinthians 5:18-20).
Our message of reconciliation and peace frees useless people, families, nations, and civilizations from their slavery to sin.
Our message of reconciliation and peace empowers all people, families, nations, and civilizations to become useful fellow humans—dear brothers and sisters who do for others what they would want others to do for them.
Our message of reconciliation and peace empowers each person, family, nation, and civilization to do even more for each other than we are commanded to do. (Matthew 5:17).
As Paul wrote, “[I]f anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old is gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
To learn more about grace and peace, please read my blogs “Grace and Peace—Galatians”, “Grace and Peace—Thessalonians”, “Grace and Peace—Corinthians”, “Grace and Peace—Romans”, “Grace and Peace—Ephesians”, “Grace and Peace—Philippians”, and “ Grace and Peace—Colossians”.
There is some uncertainty where Paul was in prison when he wrote this letter, as well as the other letters that mention he was imprisoned.
We know Paul was imprisoned on a number of occasions. For example, as referenced in this blog, Paul spent four years imprisoned in Caesarea and Rome while awaiting trial by the Romans after being arrested in the Temple.
However, the general view is that Paul wrote these letters while under house arrest in Rome. For example, in Philippians 4:22, Paul sends greetings from “those in Caesar’s household”.
After Paul was released from Rome about the end of his imprisonment described in Acts 28:30-31, we have to rely upon tradition to finish the story of his life. After traveling to Spain, Paul was arrested again. This time the outlook was grim, as reflected in 2 Timothy. By tradition, Paul and other Christians were executed around 64 A.D. by Nero as scapegoats for the fire that consumed Rome while Nero fiddled.