Philemon: A Violation of TrustPart 5

Stories of Providence

We usually don’t realize we are living in a moment of divine providence … until we look back. 


Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to order you to do what is proper, yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you – since I am such a person as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me. I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart, whom I wished to keep with me, so that on your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel. Verses 8-13 


We usually don’t realize we are living in a moment of divine providence … until we look back. 


In 1962, when I was about three years old, my family lived in Spokane, Washington. One evening, in God’s providence, a fiery Baptist preacher knocked on our door. In 1962, in the age of the fuller-brush man and door-to-door salesmen, it wasn’t unusual for such a thing to happen. My parents welcomed him into our living room, even though they were completely unchurched with no spiritual background whatsoever.  


The Pastor shared the gospel with them and they both received Christ that evening. From that day forward, my parents were all in. We attended every service; Sunday school, morning and evening Sunday services, plus Wednesday night service as well. Also, we never missed a potluck or special gathering that took place within the church. I often thank God for the bold and fiery Baptist preacher who knocked on our door and by God’s grace, changed our lives forever. 


Providence or Happenstance?  


This is a story of God’s providence. In simple terms, God’s providence is the holy, wise and powerful acts of God to orchestrate all details and circumstances to bring about His purposes. The puritan, Thomas Watson, defines it this way: Providence is God’s ordering of all issues and events of things, after the counsel of His will, to His own glory. His glory is the ultimate end of all his actings, and the center where all the lines of providence meet. 


Philemon and his family were saved by the providence of God and it seems they were the kind to go all in as well. As best as I can patch together the events, here’s the story: while Paul was in the city of Ephesus, (about 100 miles from the home of Philemon, Colosse), Epaphras was visiting Ephesus and was saved through the preaching of Paul. Epaphras thrived and developed under the teaching ministry of Paul. After some time, Epaphras then returned to Colosse, which was probably his home.  


Once Epaphras returned to his hometown, Colosse, he began preaching the gospel and ultimately started the church there. See Colossians 1:7,8. Philemon, his wife Apphia and son Archippus most likely became Christians through Epaphras’ ministry. It appears the church later began to meet in Philemon’s house and Philemon rose to be one of its leaders. 


In the midst of God’s providence, Philemon was saved through the ministry of Paul even though they most likely never met face-to-face. The bond between Paul and Philemon, it seems, was built upon the common bond they both had with Epaphras, who communicated back to Paul about the faithfulness of Philemon and the other members of the church. See Colossians 1:4,8,9. 


Through all of this, Philemon had a slave, named Onesimus. Slaves were a huge population in the Roman Empire and a lynchpin of society and the economic system of Rome. I’ve written in previous posts about slavery and my understanding of the apostle’s view of slavery.  


Nevertheless, even though slaves in Rome could buy and sell goods, get married and usually had room and board in good conditions, it was still a system where people were considered the property of another person. Such was the case of Onesimus and he wanted his freedom. It seems Onesimus didn’t understand or appreciate Philemon’s newfound faith in Christ. 


The slave, Onesimus, apparently stole some money and/or property from Philemon and ran away. He headed to Rome to hide on the streets among the masses. Somehow, in God’s providence, Onesimus encountered Paul while he was under house arrest in Rome. (Perhaps, Philemon was praying for the soul of Onesimus). This is a “small world” encounter from an earthly perspective but a clear act of providence from heaven’s perspective. 


Perhaps Onesimus found a job serving food or housekeeping for prisoners under house arrest and came into Paul’s proximity daily. As was Paul’s custom, he engaged with Onesimus and shared Christ with him. Onesimus became a Christian and the spiritual father-son bond between the two began to grow and develop. They became close as Paul discipled and taught him God’s Word and Onesimus began to serve Paul and become useful and refreshing to him in his imprisonment.  




In the conversations between Paul and Onesimus, I wonder when the awareness of their mutual knowledge of Philemon happened?  

When the faith of Onesimus had grown strong, Paul advised him to go back to Philemon, submit to him as his slave and make things right. This was an ominous decision for Onesimus. Legally, masters had the right to inflict serious consequences for runaway slaves. He was not only a run-away but also a thief. Most likely, since Onesimus lived in Philemon’s home, there was probably a certain closeness and personal trust that had been broken, and it left a huge hole of betrayal in Philemon’s heart.  


Onesimus, by the grace of God and under the discipleship of Paul, was a completely transformed man. He was now ready to do the right thing and make amends. 


Paul wrote this personal letter to Philemon and had it delivered by Tychicus, along with the epistle to the Colossians. Onesimus traveled along with Tychicus to deliver the letters. Philemon was no doubt thrilled to see his spiritual brother Tychicus, excited to read the letters from Paul but utterly shocked to see Onesimus. Like all challenging and difficult situations, Philemon had the opportunity to face this unexpected scenario and respond with either grace and kindness or respond with defiance. Would Philemon respond in submission to God and forgive or would he cling to bitterness and exercise his rights? 


Let’s get personal 


We all know what Philemon should do. But then again, this is a story about someone else. We are discussing it as a third-party reader of the story. It’s easy for us to see what others should do. The real question is how are we going to respond today to others who have wronged us? What are we going to do about the unforgiveness and revenge that we have in our hearts today over past offenses, big and small? Forgiving is hard, especially when the offense is very personal. To forgive is not natural. But just like Philemon, Christ now indwells us and one of the many blessings He gives us is a new capacity to forgive. To forgive as He has forgiven us.  


God, deal with our hearts today. You forgave us so much. Help us be like you and forgive as well. Amen.