21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.
22 And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.
23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings.24 And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.
25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
(Philemon vv. 21-25 NIV)
As we wrap up our walk through the Apostle Paul’s letter to Philemon, we see Paul writing as a friend to a friend about the situation regarding Onesimus, a runaway slave. Onesimus had stolen some money and run away from Colossae to Rome. In Rome, Onesimus met Paul, who led Onesimus to the Lord. On finding out the details of Onesimus’ life, Paul knew he had to send Onesimus back to Philemon.
Paul had the authority to write to Philemon and tell him the right thing to do; Paul also knew that Philemon was a godly man, and was a blessing to both the believers who met in his home as well as Paul himself. So Paul avoided a heavy-handed approach and opted to appeal to Philemon on the basis of love and forgiveness.
As we step into today’s text, we see Paul wrapping up his appeal to Philemon’s godly character. In verse 21, Paul says he knows that Philemon will obey the Lord and do the right thing with Onesimus – to love, to forgive, to restore, just as Christ did for Philemon (and you and me).
When Paul said that Philemon would do more than what he had asked him to do, what did that mean? Was Paul suggesting that Philemon emancipate Onesimus, granting him freedom from slavery? We don’t know – and neither Scripture nor history tells the rest of Onesimus’ story. It could be that Philemon welcomed back Onesimus as a brother in Christ as well as a servant (v. 16). It could be that Philemon sent Onesimus out as a missionary, an ambassador of Christ.
Whatever the case, Paul was confident that Philemon would make a decision that honored the Lord. Eastern Orthodox church tradition says that Onesimus held fast to his faith and ultimately died a martyr’s death for his faith in Christ.
In verse 22, Paul asks Philemon to prepare a room for him to come visit. Some scholars suggest that Paul was issuing a subtle warning to Philemon – “do the right thing, and I am coming to check up on you to make sure you did.”
To me, that contradicts Paul’s loving approach in the rest of the letter. Yes, Paul did use that approach with the Corinthians and other churches that were way out of line and needed correction. It seems more likely that Paul was saying, “My dear brother Philemon, I long to come visit you again face-to-face. I know you are praying the same thing. Please prepare a guest room for me in anticipation of the Lord removing these chains of imprisonment so I can come see you again.” Love, friendship, and face-to-face fellowship was the motivation, not authority and accountability.
Finally, Paul sends the greetings of those with him (v. 23) and ends the letter with a blessing on Philemon. Paul is asking the Lord to guide and direct Philemon in his decisions and choices in all of life, including the matter of Onesimus. Paul knew that the enemy would be working overtime to convince Philemon to not forgive or to forgive but not restore Onesimus to fellowship in Christ. Philemon would need God’s wisdom and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to make God-honoring decisions.
What a great letter and story of love and redemption! Again, we don’t know how the story ends; we can only surmise that Philemon consulted the Lord in his decisions and chose to forgive and restore Onesimus.
What a great example for us! May we reflect God’s glory by forgiving others as Christ has forgiven us by giving his life for us.
We can’t say we fully love others unless we are willing to fully forgive them as Christ did for us.
How can we do anything less?