Tuesday, December 11

Unlikely relationships

Scripture: Philemon, Hebrews 1-4


Philemon is a warm personal letter that reveals Paul’s affection for both Philemon, a slave owner, and Onesimus, his slave.  The letter radiates affection. 

  Philemon is Paul’s “dear friend and co-worker.”  Paul thanks God for him, and rejoices in his love.  Even though Paul could command him to free Onesimus, he chooses to “appeal on the basis of love.”  Paul considers Philemon “a partner” and “brother” and asks him to prepare a guest room for a visit.  And Paul promises to repay Philemon anything Onesimus owes him, but gently reminds him “that you owe me your very self.”  Clearly, there is a deep relationship and a great deal of affection between Paul and Philemon.

Onesimus was a runaway slave whom Paul met in prison, and there led to Christ.  A deep bond existed between them as well.  Paul appeals to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus whom he calls “my son.”  In sending him back to Philemon, Paul is sending “my very own heart,” and confesses that he wanted to keep Onesimus with him.  He encourages Philemon to take him back “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave—as a dearly loved brother.”   And Paul adds that Onesimus is especially that to Paul!  Finally, he asks Philemon to welcome back his runaway slave “as you would me,” and offers to pay any loss Philemon has accrued.   

These are unlikely relationships.  Paul loves slave and owner equally, and encourages them to love each other.  One would expect the owner to punish the runaway slave, not receive him back as a dearly loved brother rather than as a slave.  Jesus changes everything!


Jesus transforms relationships and the social order!  As Paul wrote in Galatians 3:28, in Christ there is neither slave nor free, for we are all one in Christ.  Some people have criticized Paul for not commanding Philemon to set Onesimus free, and for not leading a revolution against Roman slavery.  But what Paul did was far more subversive and effective.  He taught and modeled that Jesus leveled the playing field, turning slave and owner into brothers who loved each other.  It was a revolution of love, a transformation of the heart and of relationships.  It’s the gospel of unlikely relationships.

Christians should be leading the way in love—the kind of love that makes all outward differences secondary, that transforms the social order and brings together the most unlikely people.  Who can I move toward today with this kind of bridge-building love?

Prayer: Lord, thank you for this beautiful letter.  Let it inspire us to love across boundaries, to accept across lines, and to build unlikely relationships across barriers.