by Paul Gilbert
As I mentioned right here in this very space last week, we are in the process of “putting a bow” on top of the Philemon sermon series we finished up earlier this month (you can access these messages here).
Part of what inspired us to preach this series is how timely the topics of reconciliation, restoration, and forgiveness seem to be in our daily lives. Pastor Dave wrote a series of three blog posts last year aimed at pastors and leaders in an effort to help them navigate these very issues in their churches. However, I thought that these posts were so encouraging and insightful that I have decided to repost them one at a time here in the Four Oaks Weekly, with a few tweaks to focus the content into our own context at Four Oaks (if you want to access the original posts, you can do so here).
So, without further adieu, here is Part II of this three-week Philemon recap:
The first post in this series examined principles from Philemon that re-shape our perspective on the hurting people God brings into our lives in light of the gospel. Now, we return to Philemon to see how Paul personalized these truths in the way he worked with Onesimus.
F.F. Bruce names Philemon, “One of the two truly personal letters in the New Testament.” This becomes apparent in the affectionate language Paul uses when describing his relationship with the primary characters. Philemon is Paul’s "beloved fellow worker" [Philemon 2] and "my brother."[Philemon 7] Whenever he thinks of Philemon, Paul says he can’t help but thank God for him. In speaking of Onesimus, Paul calls him "my child"[Philemon 10] and "my very heart."[Philemon 12]
As we read this epistle, an important principle emerges: For Paul, helping others grow in godliness was grounded in relationships. This reality re-shapes our perspective on helping hurting people in three important ways.
Relationship Means Transformation
Friends change us, for better or worse. Paul told the Corinthians that when good morals meet bad company in a cage fight, bad company always wins (1 Cor. 15:33). But Paul was not bad company; he was awesome, apostolic company. His friendship with Onesimus transformed the man. He went from being pretty useless to being a go-to guy (v. 11).
Not to go old-school on you, but that’s what we used to call "discipleship." As Dallas Willard puts it, "A disciple . . . is simply someone who has decided to be with another person . . . in order to become capable of doing what that person does or what that person is." 
Paul did not reduce his relationships to text messages and Facebook posts. He understood that embodied truth gets transferred through personal connection. A friendship transformed Onesimus from a runaway slave to Paul’s “very heart” who was "indeed useful" for the gospel.
That’s the way it was for me. As a new believer, I learned about what it means to be a husband and father under the discipleship of a leader in our local church. He had tremendous vision for my life, so he spent time helping me to apply the Bible. I’m not talking about merely going through a Bible study together; I mean meals shared, evenings of fellowship with his family, faithful correction, and honest feedback. The relationship with that dear brother transformed me. Just like Onesimus!
Relationship Means Reconciliation
The "you’ve-got-to-be-kidding" moment of this epistle is when Paul announces that he is sending Onesimus back to Philemon. This is not easy for Paul. Onesimus was converted under Paul’s ministry, trained under his watchful eye and became useful to his cause. In fact, Paul tells Philemon he would be “glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel.” [Philemon 12]
But Paul doesn’t keep him. He makes the sacrifice. Onesimus goes back.
Paul values reconciliation. He understands the power of it. Once a murderer and now a forgiven sinner, Paul has seen ultimate reconciliation in the gospel. God values reconciliation so much that God pursued those who hated him with the goal of reconciling to them. That’s a pretty rugged love. Reconciliation matters to God because it reveals the kind of unbounded love at the heart of the gospel.
Paul wanted far more for Onesimus than what he could provide to Paul’s life. Paul wanted Onesimus to reconcile to Philemon, enjoying and embodying that gospel experience; to be whole and to be holy. There was another claim upon Onesimus – the pull of unreconciled sin. To Paul, reconciliation was more important than the personal benefits he received from this relationship. So Onesimus must go.
Paul valued reconciliation and unity far more than his personal, relationship preferences. If Onesimus leaves, Paul’s heart takes a hit. But Paul wanted deep souls, truly transformed lives and relationships, more than he wanted a trusted companion. It was a sacrifice to send Onesimus back, but Paul loved him and Philemon too much to do otherwise.
When gospel-grounded relationships are the foundation, no sacrifice is too great for reconciliation, even the sacrifice of investing in and then releasing a dear friend to God’s purposes.
Relationships Means Transfer
Paul’s love was not only for present-tense people, but also for future believers. He knows that God’s global plan from the beginning involved older generations passing the truths of God onto the younger. He told Timothy, “and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” [2 Tim. 2: 2]
Philemon was the future. By sowing into him, Paul understood that he was transferring what had been entrusted to him.
If Paul took the time and effort to cultivate relationships that will reverberate into other people’s lives for years and decades to come, we should too. It was Paul’s present love for Onesimus and Philemon combined with his future love for the next generation that drove Paul to invest in people the way he did. Mentoring relationships are not based merely upon convenience or affinity; they are inspired by a love for God’s future mission.
Paul invested the time, heard Onesimus’ story, and sorted through his baggage. And somehow, in the mess of that tedious process, a relationship was born. Not only that, but the future church came away with a beautiful piece of the New Testament and a much needed model for how to love and position the next generation.
Some of you reading have an Onesimus in your life. How will you respond? Some of you are Onesimus and need an older saint with whom you can share all your unfinished business. For both the young and old, may we never be content in simply going through the motions of maintaining purposeless, vision-starved relationships. Instead, let’s press on towards relationships that matter – ones that transform us; that includes great sacrifices for others; and ultimately, ones that make an investment in the next generation.
 F.F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1984), 191.
 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our HIdden Life in God, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), 282.