Crucial Decision (As reported by Tychicus )
No one could remember when or where or how it started. No one could pinpoint its cause. But when talking things over afterward, each member of HQ could remember a feeling, a mood, an atmosphere that began to develop. They knew there was something that needed to be done, but no one wanted to face it.
It was Onesimus himself who brought it up. It was one quiet afternoon when we were all sitting together. He said to all of us.
“These past months I have seen time and time again that the Gospel is a power that transforms lives. I see it in all of you. I see it in the street boys and gang leaders. I see dramatic changes taking place that only God could do. And I know that God is doing this in me too, but there is something blocking me from going further. I have badly injured a fellow brother in Christ. I need to go home and face my master before I can ever be fully transformed in Christ. Regardless of what the consequences might be, I must make things right with Master Philemon, whatever that costs.”
We were all shocked at the spiritual maturity of this young man. He hit the nail on the head. Our Lord Jesus Himself declared that a right relationship with God depends on a right relationship with others. He said, “So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God.” Matthew 5:23-24.
The group started talking and we wish someone had recorded it. In fact, it is I, Tychicus, who should have done this. But anyway, the following conversation is how I remember it.
Paul: Son, we are humbled by your maturity. The truth is, I think we were all aware that this time would come, that it must come. But you are such a help and blessing to us that it will be hard to see you go.
Epaphras: But wait, I know Philemon, he is a good man. He is committed to Gospel ministry just like we are. Couldn’t we just write to him and tell him how much we need his slave here and that through Onesimus he, Philemon, is having a great impact here in Rome?
Several members spoke up in support of this idea, but as the conversation went on we all knew this was not the way our Lord wants things done. God does things face-to-face. He didn’t send an angel to rescue us, he didn’t announce a decree from heaven that “all is forgiven”, he came himself. He came in person and was face-to-face with those who murdered him. That includes each of us, because we are all guilty of sin. Onesimus is right, he needs to right his wrongs himself.
Onesimus: Thank you for your confidence in me. What I have shared with you today has been in my mind for a long time. I am ready to face the music. My master has the right to punish me as harshly as he likes. And I deserve full punishment.
Dr. Luke: With Philemon being a believer like us we can hope and pray that he will be lenient, but he is in a difficult position. If he outright forgives you, it will send a difficult message to all the masters and slaves of Lycus valley. It will be expected that every Christian slave owner never punish their slaves and slaves will take advantage of it. We all agree that slavery is a bad thing, but our whole society and economy are dependent on it.
And this is when Paul interrupted with a thunderstorm of emotion.
Paul: I wish that all slavery would be eradicated forever! Slavery is anti-God. God did not create human beings in His Own Image for them to be mere property of others. God is a free and living being. All who bear his image should also be free. I speak so strongly, gentlemen, because I come from a people who have long tasted the bitter and crippling life of slavery. We were slaves to Egypt for 400 years. We were captured and made slaves by Assyria and Babylon. And we continue to live like slaves to the mighty empire of Rome. I cry for all men to be free, so how can I allow my special son, here, to voluntarily accept the position of slave again.
We knew Paul well enough by now to understand this outburst. He wasn’t speaking as a social analyst or political theorist. He was speaking as a man with incredible love for individuals and the world as a whole. Paul is a man driven by this love. He hates sin, because it is an offence to God and a destroyer of people’s lives. He hates slavery because it is an offence to God and a destroyer of people’s lives. However, even while so emotional as Paul could be, we all knew that he is driven not by his emotions, but by his desire to do the will of God. But there was only one man in the room with the status and maturity to speak next. It was up to him to pick his words carefully.
Dr. Luke: Thank you, Paul, for revealing your heart. We all agree with you, and we pray that in time slavery will be abolished. But let us focus on what is right before us. There is a brother in Colossae who has been wronged. There is a brother here who wronged him. These two must be reconciled. Can we pray and ask our good Lord to direct us?
Just asking the question was enough to find us all on our knees in serious prayer. Each one prayed from deep within our hearts and with tears in our eyes. No one knows how long we prayed. When our voices quieted down and silence took over, it was obvious the Lord told us that indeed Onesimus must leave us and return to his master and face whatever fate awaited him. It was late at night but no one thought of sleep or what awaited tomorrow. After a long pause, Paul spoke in a quiet voice.
Paul: Jesus died on a dreadful cross because God believes in reconciliation.
God is committed to bringing healing, restoration, yes, “shalom” to every corner of this universe.
I will write a letter to the church in Colossae and I will include these words in the first chapter, “For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ, and through him God reconciled everything to himself. He made peace (shalom) with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross.” (Colossians 1:19-20).
We will send my son back because our God is this committed to reconciliation. We will send him back because sin needs to be dealt with entirely and relationships need to be restored.
I know Philemon myself. It was I who led him to Christ. So he is also my son.
Onesimus, you and your master are brothers. We must pray that his heart can be cleared of anger and bitterness; that he can forgive the injuries you have inflicted on him.
This is no easy thing. We need God’s help to know how to carry this out.
Without any prompting, we all sunk to our knees again. This time we prayed for wisdom, for direction, for tact to do the right thing in the right way. Yes, our brother must go back, but what can we do to smooth the way ahead and encourage reconciliation and forgiveness? This was the content of our earnest prayers. We knew that Onesimus’ future was in the balance, and that Philemon’s wellbeing was also at stake. But more than that, what was about to transpire in Colossae would make a public statement about the transforming power of the Gospel in action. The Gospel must penetrate the very fabric of our lives, our families, and our working environments. This penetration has taken place in young Onesimus, would it do so in the wounded slave owner? This was the content of our prayers.