If you didn't quite catch the story of Philemon and Onesimus, I'll give you a summary of the events. Onesimus was Philemon's runaway slave--a person worthy of death for this crime. He stole some money from Philemon and ran to Rome to disappear. Along the way, God, in His sovereignty, causes Onesimus to run into Paul the Apostle. After hearing the gospel, he is transformed to the point that even if it cost him his life, he wants to go back to Philemon and apologize because it is the right thing to do. To help Onesimus, Paul wrote this letter to Philemon and sent it with a messenger ahead of the runaway to help Philemon understand that his slave has been converted and is now his Christian brother. Paul says that he has heard of the great faith Philemon has, and knows Onesimus has done him wrong. He asks Philemon to forgive Onesimus and treat him as his equal. Paul finishes by saying that he will personally repay any debt that Onesimus owes to Philemon.
This really is a lot to ask of Philemon, isn't it? Paul is asking Philemon to forgive Onesimus for running away, stealing his money, and embarrassing him. He's asking him to not only just forgive him, but to treat him now like family. Paul even goes as far to say that he will take all the punishment that Onesimus deserves and pay Philemon back himself, letting Onesimus get away with it all. I wonder if it made Philemon mad. I wonder if he thought, "How dare this Paul ask this of me! Doesn't he know the wrong that's been done to me?" But I bet that Philemon was reminded that he was just like Onesimus; he was a slave worthy of death until Jesus came along, changed his life, and asked God to forgive him and make him an heir. I don't think God put this letter in the Bible just for an entertaining drama--it's the gospel! We ARE Onesimus and this is what Jesus did for us. We sat under the just wrath of a Rightly, Judging God, but Jesus offered Himself in our place to redeem us. Just as Paul mediated between Onesimus and Philemon, there is one mediator between God and man, Jesus.
Food For Thought: On what grounds should Philemon forgive Onesimus? What theological truth can help us forgive others well?