The Costs and Demands of Love

If you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account” (Phile. 17-18).

- Philemon 17-18

We have reached the end of our study of Philemon, and we pray that our look together at this small, often overlooked epistle has blessed you. It has not always been easy to consider the background that led Paul to write this letter, but we hope that you have a better understanding of why the apostles say what they do about applying the gospel’s implications in this messy world.

In the complex social environment of the ancient Roman Empire, many Christians remained slaveowners after trusting in Jesus. One of these Christians, Philemon of Colossae, was known to have great love for the saints and was a friend of the apostle Paul (Philem. 1:1–7). Philemon had a slave, Onesimus, who began his service to his earthly master as an unbeliever. Onesimus eventually ran away from Philemon, probably because he feared the repercussions for some kind of misdeed (vv. 10, 15).

While in exile, an incredible thing happened to Onesimus. Somehow he ended up under Paul’s ministry and was converted to Christ (vv. 10, 16). The change in Onesimus’ character that resulted was remarkable. Once an unprofitable worker, Onesimus became a valued co-laborer of Paul’s and a dear brother, someone the apostle did not want to see leave his side (vv. 11–14). But the outstanding problem between Philemon and Onesimus meant that reconciliation between the two men was needed, for reconciliation between brothers and sisters in Christ based on repentance and truth is a divine imperative (v. 17; see Matt. 5:23–24). Even though Paul pledged to make up any loss Philemon incurred (Philem. 18), forgiving an errant slave was still a costly and unheard-of proposition. Philemon could lose his standing in the community, but Christian love compelled him to receive Onesimus as a brother in Jesus and even to release him from bondage entirely, all under the providence of God (vv. 15–16, 19–22). Paul did not issue a direct command as to Philemon’s course of action but desired that Philemon agree with him on his own. This would prove his Christian character and show him what was right in the situation (vv. 8–9).

Did Philemon fulfill love’s costly demands? In Laodicea, a stone’s throw from Colossae, archaeologists have found a slave’s inscription of thanks to one Marcus Sestius Philemon for his manumission. May we love just as Philemon did.

Coram Deo

Are you hesitating to do something that godly love compels you to do? If so, then may Philemon encourage you to stop putting it off and move forward today. Insofar as we are able, we must seek to be reconciled to those who have wronged us or whom we have wronged. Meditate on Paul’s epistle to Philemon and pray that you would be empowered to love others even when it is hardest to do so.

Passages for Further Study

Genesis 33
1 Corinthians 13:13
Philemon 6, 8–10,
15–16, 20–21, 25

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