Philemon is not a book we normally turn to for information about world missions. However, like every other book in the bible, we can learn from this one, too. What does Paul tell us? (For the first post in this series, click here).
No one particular verse or paragraph stands out in this short epistle when it comes to missions. In light of that, we might be tempted to ignore it in our study. We make a mistake if we do this. The reason is that one of the primary themes of this letter is directly related to our proclamation of the gospel.
That primary theme is forgiveness. Paul writes to Philemon, exhorting him to receive back Onesimus. It appears that Onesimus was a runaway slave of Philemon's who may have even stolen from him. At some point after running away, Onesimus came in contact with Paul. We can safely assume that Paul preached the gospel to Onesimus, and that he came to Christ. After that, he became "useful" to Paul.
Paul could have kept Onesimus with him, but he wants to clear things up between Philemon and Onesimus. He writes to Philemon, in essence calling upon him to forgive Onesimus and accept him back not as a slave but as a forgiven brother in Christ.
This is a lot to ask. Paul realizes this, but also reminds Philemon that his very salvation has occurred through Paul's ministry. On top of this, Paul is willing to pay off any debt owed by Onesimus upon his hoped for future visit.
We clearly see Paul's call upon Philemon to forgive Onesimus. We also see Paul's willing payment of Onesimus' debt. Both forgiveness and debt payment lie at the heart of the gospel message.
When we proclaim the good news, we tell of God's willingness to forgive our transgressions against Him. God is willing to do this because of Jesus Christ's payment of our sin debt through his execution on the cross. Without forgiveness, there is no gospel. Without substitutionary payment, there is no gospel.
Furthermore, once we come to Christ we are to become forgiving people. Forgiveness is a characteristic of the people of God. As Philemon was exhorted to forgive someone who wronged him, God expects us to forgive those who wrong us. We see this clearly illustrated in the parable of the unforgiving servant.
As we share the good news, let's learn from this short letter between friends. Forgiveness is a beautiful truth at the core of the gospel.
To read any of the posts in this N.T. missions series, click here.