If you’ve ever wondered what the language of biblical reconciliation sounds like, then look no further than Paul’s letter to Philemon. Far from being the platitudinal words of “can’t we all just get along?” spoken in the midst of deep relational brokenness and division, Paul, from the outset of his letter, displays what it looks like to run with truth, empathy, and justice towards the tension of division between believers. Armed with the gospel, he ministers true reconciliation in Christ.
This letter captures a deep division. Onesimus, a man enslaved in the house of Philemon, a wealthy Roman citizen, ran away to an imprisoned Paul after possibly committing an offense against Philemon. Onesimus’ escape had deep repercussions for Philemon’s household. Around this time, a Roman senator named Lucius Secundus was murdered in an act of defiance by one of his four hundred slaves. The murderer was caught, tried, and in accordance with Roman law, the Senate ordered the execution of all four hundred of Secundus’s slaves. Upon hearing the verdict, Roman citizens perceived this law to be unjust, and in response, an unruly mob of Romans rioted in the streets (1).
The tension surrounding these kinds of situations was thick. Onesimus had committed a serious crime. Philemon had suffered financial loss and perhaps embarrassment, and so this pursuit of reconciliation wasn’t just a call for a “Kum-ba-yah” moment, it was counter-cultural. It said something about real peace in the presence of real division. It spoke of forgiveness, restoration, and humility, not just to the church but to the watching community.
In this letter Paul stands in between these two divided parties, not in neutrality but as a nurturer of their souls. He advocates for Onesimus by identifying himself as a prisoner in the opening words of his letter—a show of solidarity with a slave. He goes on to refer to Onesimus as his child. Paul then proceeds to thank God for Philemon’s love for Jesus and for the saints—something he will need an abundance of for Paul’s incoming request. Although Paul has the authority to command Philemon to release Onesimus, he appeals to Philemon in love. Paul believes that reconciliation is more important than his own interests in keeping Philemon with him. The good that Philemon could do for Onesimus in passively letting him stay with Paul isn’t as important as the good that he could do by freeing Onesimus and reconciling with him in person.
But in order for reconciliation to happen the elephant in the room must be addressed. Spiritual transformation has indeed occurred in Onesimus’ life, but real division still exists. Progress and redemption in the present don’t mean a denial or dismissal of the divisions of the past. The relational division that exists between Philemon and Onesimus needs to be addressed—and now it can be, in light of the peace that has been achieved for them both in the gospel. In Philemon 13–14, Paul says,
I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord.
At this moment, Paul isn’t looking to take advantage of Philemon’s love for the saints to force him to do what is right. Instead, he acknowledges that Philemon has been wronged and notes that any goodness that Philemon demonstrates needs to come directly from Philemon. The generosity of reconciliation must be felt by him before it’s extended to others. Philemon must acknowledge his own experience in being extended forgiveness, freedom, and restoration in the gospel before he can truly extend that to Onesimus. For followers of Jesus, reconciliation cannot be forced, it must be felt.
Make no mistake, when it comes to the racial division caused by the wickedness of racial injustice, the force of legal compulsion is necessary to remedy societal injustices, but solving racial injustices is different from healing racial division. Laws can be enforced, constitutions can be perfected, warnings of consequences can be decreed, but just laws and compulsion alone cannot produce the unity God desires for His people. In an act of restoration and repair, Paul offers to repay Philemon for any debt or offense committed by Onesimus. He appeals for Onesimus’ freedom, but Paul knows that forcing Philemon into receiving Onesimus as a brother will not produce genuine reconciliation. Martin Luther King once stated, “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important (2).” Indeed, love cannot be forced, but love is commanded of us as followers of Jesus. Love is to lead us to unity and therefore reconciliation must be felt.
Philemon’s actions must be rooted in the reality that he has first been reconciled to God through Jesus, liberated from sin’s penalty, power, and presence, and out of that goodness displayed towards him, he can display this goodness towards the person on the other side of the division. Reconciliation begins in our experience with the supernatural and transformative work of God in the gospel, where God reconciles us to Himself at the cross of Jesus. As we feel and experience the love, mercy, grace, and justice of God on our behalf, we can extend it to one another even in the midst of deep and messy divisions.
- (1) See Tacitus, Ann. bk. xiv. Cited in Scott McKnight, The Letter to Philemon, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017), 21.
- (2) Martin Luther King, Jr., An Address at Cornell College, Mount Vernon, IA, October 15, 1962, available at https://news.cornellcollege.edu/dr-martin-luther-kings-visit-to-cornell-college/.
- Pray that in response to the reconciling work of God in the gospel, God’s people would see and feel the burden of racial reconciliation where they might have previously resisted it.
- Pray that in the pursuit of racial justice, God’s people would be fervent in pursuing reconciliation and unity with our brothers and sisters
- Pray that reconciliation would be more than a platitude, deeper than a hollow moment, and closer than an abstract idea.