I believe there is a second, very important lesson we need to learn from Paul’s letter to Philemon. From the context of the letter it is clear that Paul’s relationship with Onesimus is spiritually sound. In other words, Paul has no problem with Onesimus. He knows that Onesimus has been changed by the Lord and that he is taking the way of the Cross. When he goes back to his master he will become a good slave, serving the Lord Jesus by serving his master. In other words, Onesimus will be obeying Jesus.
From all appearances, Paul’s relationship with Philemon was also very good. In fact, Paul addresses him as he would a son. But there is a catch. God is putting Philemon to the test here, and it is like if Philemon cannot pass this test that the Lord is putting before him now, he cannot expect to continue having the same relationship with Paul that he had since the beginning.
In other words, Onesimus – a once thieving, runaway slave would be considered better in Paul’s eyes and in God’s eyes than Philemon who:
- Was a nobleman and a man of influence;
- Had received the gospel earlier than Onesimus and had obviously cultivated a good standing in the church and with Paul, and;
- Had a position of responsibility in the church.
The first shall be last, as it were!
This brings us to the realization that the gospel is about obeying Jesus. It is not about Who is Who in the church or in the world. Paul, a true apostle of Jesus Christ, based his relationship with any man or woman on the sole fact of that person’s willingness to obey Jesus, their willingness to bring their lives into conformity with Christ’s, something that can only be accomplished by an identification with Christ’s death on the Cross.
All our accomplishments, our position in church ultimately crumble into nothingness if we are not walking in humility and desiring that brokenness in our hearts.
God does not consider a man’s position; He is no respecter of persons. All men are the same in his sight. The Bible says that God looks upon the heart. He will doubly consider a man of low stature but who has a humble heart.
So for now Paul – and for that matter, God – is OK with Onesimus. He also is OK with Philemon if the latter obeys the Godly instructions that Paul has given to him. He is being required to take up his cross and follow Jesus.
The gospel is a daily challenge to our lives, and we must face up to that challenge if we are to move ahead in our spiritual walk with the Lord.