By any stretch of the imagination, given the norms of the day, it was a huge ask. Slaves that ran away from those who had the legal right to them as servants were to be dealt with severely. After all it was kind of like stealing to take away the labor-hours that were rightfully, and legally, considered to belong to another. Not to mention, that it set a bad precedent for other servants who considered usurping the authority of their masters for their own personal gain. So, to ask a master to receive back a slave who had betrayed the trust, without retribution, was a big thing. To ask him to receive him back as “a brother” . . . that was an unprecedented thing to do. To ask him to do all this for the sake of another . . . that was the gospel thing to do.
Philemon, from what we can glean, was a saved man engaged in the things of the kingdom. He had a local gathering of believers meeting in his house (1:2) . . . he had a reputation for sharing his faith in the most practical terms . . . he had a track record of his love for Christ played out to others as “the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you” (1:7). Being on the “master” side of the master/bondservant economy, he was a man of some means on the earth . . . but he seemed to be aware that he was also on the “bondservant” side when it came to the things of heaven.
And so, with confidence, Paul asks him to go counter-cultural. Philemon’s bondservant, Onesimus, had gone rogue . . . had deserted . . . had been listed as AWOL. And, having ended up in Rome, Onesimus encounters Paul . . . and the gospel of Jesus Christ . . . and the reality of regeneration. Paul leads the runaway slave to Christ and becomes his spiritual father (1:10). And Onesimus, now a slave of Christ, remains with Paul in service to him in prison. But Paul determines to send Onesimus back to Philemon. Legally it’s the right thing to do. But more importantly, that the profound impact of the impact of the kingdom of heaven might be displayed, it was the gospel thing to do.
So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. (Philemon 1:17-18 ESV)
Paul was an imitator of Christ. Paul was interceding for Onesimus as he knew His Lord has interceded for him. Receive him as you would receive me . . . charge his transgressions and debt to my account . . .
The appeal to Philemon to receive Onesimus back “no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother” (1:16) was on the basis of Paul’s redeemed character and on his relationship to the wronged master. Furthermore, any financial loss that Philemon may have experienced because of Onesimus’s desertion, Paul was willing to pay for, so that reconciliation might occur.
Sound familiar? Sound like the gospel?
The wages I owed for my transgression against a holy God, death, were charged to the Son of God . . . He who came as the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world . . . He who paid the price in full on Calvary’s cross . . .where my sin was placed on Him. And the relationship I now have with the God I had turned my back on is because, by faith, I’m found by God to be “in Christ” . . . the Father receiving me as if He were receiving His blessed Son . . . Christ’s righteousness having been placed on me.
Radical reconciliation . . . that’s what Paul asked of Philemon . . . that’s what I enjoy with the God of heaven . . . because it was the gospel thing to do.