I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.
So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.
Last week we learned about Onesimus, Philemon's runaway slave. Though his name meant useful, he was anything but useful as a slave. In fact, after some time he ran away, potentially stealing from his master to fund the journey. Onesimus fled to Rome to disappear into the crowds. There he met the Apostle Paul who shared the gospel with him. Onesimus was saved and was forever changed by the gospel. Perhaps for the first time in his life, he began serving others of his own free will. Through Onesimus' conversion story we learn that the gospel changes everything. In fact the entire Christian life can be summed up as the ongoing process of allowing the gospel to change us. This week we see that the gospel must change how we relate to other people.
In the passage above Paul asks Philemon to do a remarkable thing. Paul sends Philemon's runaway slave back to him and he asks him to receive Onesimus no longer as a slave but as a brother in Christ. Moreover, Paul requests that Philemon receive Onesimus as if he were the Apostle Paul himself. Now by the common perspective of the day Onesimus, being a runaway slave, was a criminal. Philemon could have him whipped or worse. Yet, Paul expects better of Philemon based on the gospel. He tells Philemon that his relationship with Onesimus has been changed by the power of the gospel. No longer are they merely master and slave. From this point on, throughout eternity, they are first and foremost brothers in Christ. Whatever else factors into their relationship, this must be considered first.
Has the gospel changed the way you relate to people? Do you continue to manipulate and use people to get your way? Are you stuck in your old racist habits? Or has the gospel thoroughly changed your relationships? Simply put the gospel should be the primary determining factor in how we relate to other people. If a person has accepted the gospel then, no matter what else they are to us, we must relate to them first and foremost as a brother or a sister in Christ. Now this has a whole host of implications for the lives of believers, but here are two. First, it means we must forgive other believers. If God has seen fit to forgive them, how can we refuse?! Second, it also means that we must treat those we date with respect. Hopefully you know the Bible commands us to date only believers (2 Cor. 6:14-15). If the person we are dating is first our brother or sister in Christ then you can't use that person for personal gratification. You must respect them and honor them as a child of God.
What about those who aren't believers? The same principle holds. The gospel should be the primary determining factor in how we relate to other people. If a person has not yet accepted the gospel then, no matter what else they are to us, we must relate to them first and foremost as a lost person in need of the gospel. Even if they are cruel or mean to us, we must remember that they desperately need someone to show them the grace and love of God. Our every interaction with them ought to be colored by this need. One implication of this truth for today is that even as many Christians experience fear that sharing Jesus with Muslims might put them in danger, we must remember that first and foremost they are people in need of the gospel. Regardless of what happens we must share God's love and grace with them. We dare not return evil for evil. We must overcome evil with love.
Which of your relationships needs to be changed by the gospel?