The book of Philemon may be short, but it packs a powerful spiritual punch. Paul’s letter to his Christian brother Philemon gives us a window into Paul’s personal life and relationships, showing us how the apostle lived out his faith in real life. We see a side of Paul we sometimes miss. Paul wasn’t just the bold evangelist and fierce protector of the truth of the Gospel. This letter reveals Paul’s compassion for others and the joy he experienced in relationships. (See this article for a brief summary of Philemon.)
Although the letter doesn’t give us all the particulars, we can grasp the basic situation. The slave Onesimus, ran away from his master Philemon, then encountered Paul in prison and accepted Jesus through Paul’s efforts. Paul wrote to his friend and fellow believer Philemon to urge him to treat his slave in a Christlike manner.
At first read, this particular situation may feel foreign to us. The epistles in the Bible were written thousands of years ago by a particular person to a particular group/individual with a particular purpose. However, these divinely-inspired letters also teach eternal, spiritual principles that are just as applicable to our lives today.
For instance, Paul’s letter to Philemon strongly demonstrates faith principles and personal characteristics we should emulate in our own lives today. This personal epistle specifically teaches godly principles for our personal relationships and within the church (See “8 Tips to Help You Understand the Epistles.“)
Ten characteristics to Emulate from Philemon
- Encouragement – Sometimes we have an unbalanced view of the apostle Paul. We tend to highlight the much-needed correction and rebuke often found in his letters and miss the words of encouragement and affirmation he also liberally gave. Paul was indeed an encourager. In his letter to Philemon, Paul acknowledged the Christ-like qualities Philemon exhibited (Philemon 1:5, 7). The life of faith is not easy. We all need to hear that our efforts make a difference. The purpose is not to build self-esteem or instill pride, but rather motivate to keep pressing on. Even a small amount of encouragement goes a long way.
- Prayer – Paul didn’t merely pray for Philemon; he also told Philemon exactly how he was praying for him (Philemon 1:4-6). Paul thanked God for Philemon and asked God to make him even more effective in his service. Like Paul, let’s faithfully pray for our fellow believers and also tell them we are praying. The knowledge of our prayers is not only another source of encouragement, but they can also anticipate God’s answer! (See “12 Scripture Prayers to Pray for Others.”)
- Service – God can use us for His purposes no matter our circumstances. Paul was in prison. Yet his chains were not a problem for God. Paul continued to mentor and evangelize. His obedience to God resulted in spiritual fruit, including the salvation of the fugitive slave, Onesimus (Philemon 1:8-10). Likewise, our circumstances, no matter how trying or limiting, are not obstacles for God. He can and will continue to use us, as we seek His will and step out in obedience.
- Mentoring – Paul didn’t merely lead Onesimus to salvation in Christ. Paul also set him on the path to spiritual growth and helped equip him for service (Philemon 1:10-13). The once “useless” Onesimus, was now “useful” to Philemon, Paul, and the Kingdom of God. As members of God’s household, we all have the same responsibility – to help others along in their walk with Christ. No matter where we are in our spiritual journey, there will always be someone who can benefit from our experience and encouragement.
- Relationships – The reconciliation of the broken relationship between Onesimus and Philemon was a top priority for Paul (Philemon 1:10, 15-16). These two men – master and slave – had become spiritual brothers. Unity and peace were not only vital to their well-being and spiritual health, but it was also vital for the health of the church. Our relationship with Christ changes and impacts our human relationships. Being God’s child makes us brothers and sisters together with all other believers. We have the responsibility of treating each other with love and respect. We are obligated to do all we can to heal broken relationships and lovingly rectify problems and disagreements.
- Equality – In that day and culture, the slave Onesimus held the lowest status possible. Society viewed slaves as something less than fully human. Philemon, the slave owner, had been inundated with this prevalent attitude his entire life. So, to Philemon, Paul’s request to receive Onesimus “as a beloved brother” was truly radical (Philemon 1:15-17). This countercultural equality is true for us today. Our equality in Christ leaves no room for favoritism, racism, or prejudice (Galatians 3:28).
- Forgiveness – Although we don’t know the specifics of the circumstances, it’s clear Onesimus wronged his master Philemon. Traditionally, scholars believe Onesimus ran away and by divine providence encountered Paul in prison, who then led Onesimus to Christ. Whatever the particulars, Paul called Philemon to forgiveness. Philemon had every legal right to severely punish a runaway slave. Yet, Paul asks Philemon to set aside his “rights” and forgive (Philemon 1:17-19). While forgiveness is rarely easy, it’s helpful to remember this truth – we owe our very lives to the forgiveness of Christ. We did not deserve His forgiveness, yet it was freely given.
- Grace – As a runaway slave, Onesimus had no legal protection, no rights. If caught, revenge and retribution by the slave owner was expected. The law and the culture gave Philemon the right to beat, brand, or even kill the captured slave. “Right” was on Philemon’s side. Yet Paul urged Philemon to respond with grace. Onesimus did not deserve grace. But neither did Philemon. And neither do we. Yet Jesus freely pours out His grace to us, in salvation and every day. And He calls us to extend His grace to others. (See also “15 Characteristics of Grace” and Kathy’s 9-week study “Lavish Grace.“)
- Accountability – Paul had a God-given responsibility to help his Christian brother Philemon live a life that honored God. We have the same mutual responsibility. Over and over, the Bible calls believers to encourage, exhort, and build up one another in our lives of faith. (See Hebrews 3:13, 1 Corinthians 5:12, and 1 Thessalonians 5:14 for examples.) As we practice accountability, let love and grace be our guide and the spiritual well-being of the body and the individual be our goal.
- Peacemaker – Why did Paul care about someone else’s relationship issues? Paul desired not only for the problem to be resolved and the relationship between the two be restored, he also longed to see them enjoy a deeper bond as brothers. As Paul modeled, peacemaking is our responsibility as believers. Disunity, strife, and disagreement – even between two – impacts the entire church (Philippians 4:2-3). God desires us to live at peace with others as much as is in our power to do so (Romans 12:18), and to be peacemakers. (Also see “4 Steps to be a Peacemaker.”)
Which of these characteristics do you find it the hardest to emulate? Why?
Want to learn more about grace? You can learn about Paul’s experiences with grace and his teachings about grace in Kathy’s 9-week Bible study “Lavish Grace!” For more info see the book’s page. Kathy also regularly speaks on the topic of grace at women’s retreats and conferences.