Reconciliation has been a hot word in Christian circles in the past decade, and for good reason. From family feuds and broken marriages to social distrust and outright war, there is a deep need for reconciliation in our world. Many voices are rightly crying out for peace in all sorts of circumstances. But true and lasting reconciliation is difficult to attain, much less maintain, and the tepid ceasefires we do reach often only cement our sense that peace is fragile.
Reconciliation is the theme of Paul’s letter to Philemon. It is an entry in the story of three men. Onesimus, a slave, had run away from his Christian master, Philemon. Along the way, Onesimus encountered Jesus spiritually, and he met Paul in person. He soon become very dear to Paul. With great tact, Paul urged these men, both now believers, toward a reconciliation deeper than a simple ceasefire. He helped them understand the transforming and unifying power of the Gospel in their lives.
While the Bible commands us to seek peace and reconciliation, it also makes it clear that we can’t truly know either apart from God. Any earthly reconciliation between believers must have its foundation in the reconciliation between God and man that is brought about through Jesus Christ alone. As we consider the need for peace and unity in our own lives, Paul’s short epistle to Philemon offers us five heavenly truths that undergird our earthly reconciliation.
1. The Believer’s Identity Is in Christ
The letters of Colossians and Philemon likely were written at the same time and sent together—one to a group of believers in Colossae and the other to one man in that church. Accordingly, Colossians 3:11 is a kind of backdrop to the letter to Philemon: “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” When Christ comes into our lives, He becomes the most important thing about us. No other differences, including social status, can stand in the way of that unifying force.
Any earthly reconciliation between believers must have its foundation in the reconciliation between God and man that is brought about through Jesus Christ alone.
This sharing in Christ was the foundation of Paul’s appeal for reconciliation. (See Philem. 16.) Because of who Philemon was in Christ and because of who Onesimus was in Christ, they had every reason to treat each other as brothers and no reason to treat each other as enemies. Even the ways they’d offended one another could not overcome their shared life in Christ, who had forgiven each of their sins and paved the way for them to forgive one another.
2. A Transformed Life Is a Useful Life
While the name Onesimus means “useful,” Onesimus himself had proven quite useless to Philemon by fleeing. And in the process of running away, Onesimus discovered how inadequate he was and how great God is. This conversion had changed him, and he had become useful (v. 11). The radical, transforming power of God had made him something new; God had a purpose for this man whom He had saved by grace through faith.
As we look at one another, we need to remember that our Savior will not discard a bruised reed or snuff out a smoldering wick (Isa. 42:3; Matt. 12:20). Though we may be tempted to focus on others’ flaws and the failings that seem to be impassible obstacles to reconciliation, we are called to see people and their potential as Christ sees them—and as He sees us. When we look at our brothers and sisters with whom we disagree, we need to remember that it is God who works in them, “to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).
3. Christ’s Welcome Is about His Glory
Paul instructs Philemon to “receive [Onesimus] as you would receive me” (v. 17). This word for “receive” is also translated as “welcome” and can be found in Paul’s writings to the Romans: “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you” (Rom. 15:7). To Receive an adversary means to welcome that person into the fellowship of our heart. It implies warmth, kindness, and genuine love. As we consider our own acceptance by God, we dare not refuse to welcome one whom God has accepted—bearing in mind that though God’s love is unconditional, His acceptance of us is not. His acceptance of us depends upon our repentance and our faith in Jesus Christ.
As we consider our own acceptance by God, we dare not refuse to welcome one whom God has accepted
Onesimus had run away, and returning with a letter and exhortation to Philemon put him in a vulnerable position. Receiving the apostle Paul would have been joyful for Philemon, but receiving Onesimus was different. Yet the welcome wasn’t about the feelings of either man; it was about the glory of God: “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Rom. 15:7, emphasis added). When we receive with open arms those with whom we have had conflict, it testifies to all people of the way that God has received us.
4. Grace Is Costly
Even as he urges the welcome of Onesimus, Paul tells Philemon, “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account” (v. 18). According to the laws and customs of the time, Onesimus had wronged his master—certainly by running away, and perhaps in other ways too. He undoubtedly owed Philemon compensation. Yet Paul engaged as a mediator at great cost to himself. Jesus charged our sins to His own account, and Paul imitated that role on Onesimus’s behalf. By doing this, he was demonstrating that nothing should stand in the way of Philemon’s acceptance of his brother Onesimus, or our acceptance of one another.
There is a cost involved in grace. Christ paid the price of our acceptance with God on the cross. Part of carrying our own crosses in this world (Luke 9:23) is the costs we bear in reconciliation with one another. Reconciliation doesn’t mean ignoring the debts that created conflict. It does mean imitating Christ in our willingness to bear a cost that is not ours for the sake of another, and thus for Christ’s sake.
5. Reconciliation Requires Obedience
Ultimately, reconciliation is an act of obedience. Paul makes the point that he could command Philemon, but he prefers instead to entreat him on the basis of love (vv. 8–9). But later, he says he is “confident of your obedience” (v. 21). The obedience Paul writes of can be understood as “the obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5, 16:26). Paul did not want Philemon to obey him so much as he wanted Philemon to obey the Gospel. What is the Gospel command? Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34).
Ultimately, reconciliation is an act of obedience.
Jesus has not given us reconciliation as a mere option, nor has He set it up as a special achievement for a few very spiritual people. The love that He has shown to us in paying for and forgiving our most vile sins is the same love that we are commanded to show to one another. We must not, like the unforgiving servant in Jesus’ parable (Matt. 18:21–35), despise the forgiveness of God by refusing to offer our own forgiveness for lesser offenses.
The Beauty of Reconciliation
Biblical reconciliation is not just a matter of holding hands and trying to be nice to each other. It is grounded in the eternal, sacrificial love of God Himself—the love that “has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:5). It is perfectly straightforward—and yet entirely impossible without the enabling of the Holy Spirit.
In this one small house church in the Colossae valley, and particularly in the lives of Philemon and Onesimus, God was at work through the Gospel so that the watching world would be able to see what reconciliation truly looks like. This letter is a microcosm of the radical transformation that the Gospel makes. It is an immense testimony to God’s mercy and grace that those who by any human standard should have nothing to do with each other are united, not by a common philosophy, not by an economic framework, not by a racial identity, but by their faith and fellowship in Jesus Christ.
It is perfectly straightforward—and yet entirely impossible without the enabling of the Holy Spirit.
Where we face conflict with our brothers and sisters in Christ, we must courageously seek peace with those we have wronged and extend forgiveness to those who have wronged us. We need to be open to God calling us, like Paul, to be selfless ambassadors of reconciliation on behalf of others, bearing the cost of forgiveness when others are unable to. We are called to be Gospel men and women in every realistic way—men and women who live in genuine friendship with and affection for each other, to the glory of God.