(this transcript has been lightly edited for readability)
Again, I love the order of these letters because it's as if Philemon is placed where it's placed as a practical case study of everything that's been said so far in all of these books. The position is just incredible. It is a case study of two men, well three men. I would entitle Philemon, “Forgiveness and Restoration.”
Philemon is the account of a personal letter from Paul in prison to Philemon. The subject of the letter is Onesimus, who was Philemon's servant who had run away to Rome. While he was at Rome, he became a believer and a dear friend and brother of the Apostle Paul. And the letter is Paul's appeal to Philemon to forgive Onesimus and restore him. The whole tenor of this letter is that it is the grace of our vertical reconciliation, our peace with God that produces the hope of horizontal reconciliation, peace with people, because it is the gospel that transforms our relationships.
I don't think we talk enough about the transformative power of the gospel for relationships. You see, Paul is arguing that, at this moment, at the moment when he writes this letter to Philemon about Onesimus, it's more than a guy in prison writing to a wealthy man about a fugitive slave. These three men now share a deeper identity, identity in Christ, that by grace, this is just so beautiful, this wealthy man and this fugitive are brothers. They’re now in the same family; they now have the same Father; they’re united to the same Christ. They now have the deepest reason for reconciliation, restoration, and unity that any human being could ever have because they’re no longer united by ethnicity or united by economics or by subculture. They’re united by grace into the ultimate family, the family of God.
And so, Paul is not appealing that, look, “Onesimus made a mistake, and he’s really a nice guy and, you know, just have him back.” He's asking him to receive this man as his brother. Now, in order to do that, Philemon has to reflect on the fact that he was unworthy and was accepted into God's family; and because of that, he can receive this man, unworthy as he may be, as his brother.
You see, new identity in Christ, I love this, I love this, I love this, means new potential for my relationships because we share something. So, we have new love, new forgiveness, new reconciliation, new unity. The transforming grace of Jesus transforms relationships and creates a depth of love, a depth of brotherhood, a depth of unity, that could not be found any other way. Christ transforms our relationships!