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The Runaway Returns: A Story of Grace, Forgiveness, and Restoration

Updated: Feb 5

A pathway leading toward a mountain.

Philemon 1:10-18

Today, we will be reading from the book of Philemon. Although it's a small book, its message is powerful and sincere: about grace, forgiveness, and restoration. The book's author is the apostle Paul, who wrote it to a well-to-do Christian believer named Philemon. According to Acts 19:10, Philemon may have been one of Paul's converts while he was teaching at his Bible College in Ephesus. Paul addresses Philemon as "our dearly beloved" and addresses two people in his household by name: possibly his wife Apphia and son Archipus. Philemon is not just a minister in Colosse; he also has a church in his house. This shows us that our homes should be a sanctuary, keeping Jesus preeminent in our lives.

Allow me to explain the events leading up to this point briefly. Philemon had a slave/servant named Onesimus. Philemon had provided a place to stay, allowed him into his home, given him sustenance and provision, and allowed him to work. In return, Onesimus caused Philemon much trouble, possibly stole from him, and left town.

Through a series of providential events, Onesimus ends up in Rome while Paul is under house arrest. During this time, he meets Paul and hears the gospel, ultimately leading to his salvation. Perhaps it was because he recognized his own criminality while seeing Paul, a faithful gospel preacher, in prison. God used Paul's testimony to soften Onesimus's heart and prepare him for salvation.

After being saved, Paul surely charged Onesimus to make amends for any wrongdoing he may have committed in the past now that he had become a Christian. Onesimus may have confided in Paul about his troubled relationship with Philemon and how he had wronged him. Once Paul had mentored Onesimus in the ways of Christ and the Scriptures, he encouraged him to return to Philemon and seek his forgiveness.

It's an intriguing situation. Philemon, the master of the house, was led to the Lord by Paul, and Onesimus, the servant of the house, was also led to the Lord by Paul. Both are of different social classes and yet made one in Christ. This is an excellent example of God reconciling sinners to Himself and leveling all believers at the cross of Jesus - “Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all.” (Col 3:11).

In our text, we will be looking at four truths Paul teaches us about the Runaway Who Returns:

Onesimus Is Now Profitable (10-11)

The name Onesimus means profitable or useful. However, when he stole from Philemon, he was not very useful. So we must ask, what changed Onesimus?

The simplest answer I can give you is Jesus Christ changed Onesimus. In Second Corinthians chapter 5, verse 17, the Bible states, "Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new." That teaches us three simple truths: positionally, we are in Christ. Provisionally, we are made into a new creation. And there is a promise that all things have become new.

Genuine heaven-sent salvation does not leave a person as they were but dramatically changes them into a new creature. This change is what took place in Onesimus. For example, this servant did not have to return to Colosse. Being in Rome, he was nearly 1000 miles away. He could have lived out his entire life without seeking restoration with Philemon. However, the transforming power of Jesus Christ compelled him to take action and make things right with his master.

Jesus Christ changed Onesimus.

Restoration is a Choice (12-14)

To begin with, Onesimus had to agree with Paul's charge for him to return home and make right what he had done. The changed heart in Onesimus helped him to make this decision.

In addition, Philemon also needed to restore this relationship, not out of necessity, but willingly, because that is the only way that Jesus Christ is glorified.

Even God chose to robe himself in flesh (John 1:14) and pay our sin debt (2 Cor 5:19) so we could have a home in heaven and be restored.

To return to God is a choice. And to receive those who desire to return to God is also a choice. A choice that a born-again believer ought to make with a willing heart, not of necessity.

God Brought Onesimus Back (15-16)

Paul points out that these events have ultimately come to a positive conclusion because Philemon is not getting back a servant, but he is getting back a brother in Christ.

History tells us that Christian slaves and servants were highly sought after because of their character and integrity.

But in light of eternity, this is somewhat shallow. God was concerned for the soul of Onesimus. It's sad that Philemon had a church in his house and was a minister in his area, yet somehow, he could not help Onesimus know Christ. There are times when people Have to get so far out of the way before they see just how good Jesus Christ is.

God worked all things together for good for His purpose. God took what was evil and made it good. God saved the unworthy soul of Onesimus. And I believe that Onesimus realized what God had done for him. The only way to repay God is to become a living sacrifice ( Rom 12:1), God's faithful servant in every area of your life. Jesus Christ said, "If ye love me, keep my commandments" (John 14:15). Once saved, Onesimus knew where he was supposed to be. Therefore, he returned home, back to church, back to where he was supposed to be.

Paul Learned From Christ (17-18)

In the last part of Paul's request, he asked that Philemon would receive Onesimus as if he were receiving Paul. He then makes another request. Paul says if Onesimus owes you anything, put it on my account. 

His willingness to be accountable for another person's debt exemplifies the true nature of Christianity: sacrifice, love, forgiveness, and grace. But Paul is not the originator of these things.

Paul learned from Jesus Christ. At Calvary, the Lord Jesus hung on a cross, and while much of the world had rejected Him, His hands were pierced; Blood ran down His face; His body torn by His beating; Mockers had taken His clothing, dividing it amongst themselves and casting lots for it. There, Jesus was erected high on a hill of death settled between two thieves, and despite all that these sinners had done to Him, He uttered these words, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). For three hours, Jesus took the full punishment for sin from the Almighty. Jesus could have called down a legion of angels to deliver Him, could have jumped down off the cross, could have used divine power to ease His pain. But he hung on the cross until He could sincerely say, "It is finished" (John 19:30).

Paul's demonstration of imputation is what we have first seen in the Lord Jesus Christ. That Christ declared, of the world, to the Father, put their debt on my account.

As far as we know, Philemon restored Onesimus. In the book of Colossians, chapter 4, Onesimus is called a "faithful and beloved brother" in Christ.

In conclusion, people are changed by the presence of Jesus Christ in their lives. No matter the extent of one's sin, Jesus paid it all for sin. God's providential care guides all souls down a pathway of mercy and truth so that some may recognize the grace that God offers through His Son. Onesimus received that grace. Will you? 

First Step Toward New Life 

Between 1921 and 1925, Governor Neff of the State of Texas was invited to speak at one of the prisons in that state. He spoke to the assembled prisoners and afterward said that he would be around to listen to anything any of the convicts might wish to tell him. He would take as much time as they wanted, and Neff would keep anything they would say to him in confidence.

The convicts began to come, one at a time. One after another told him how they had been unjustly sentenced, were innocent, and wished to get out. 

Finally, one man came through who said, "Governor Neff, I do not want to take much of your time. I only want to say that I really did what they convicted me of. But I have been here for several years. I believe I have paid my debt to society and that, if I were to be released, I would be able to live an upright life and show myself worthy of your mercy." This was the man whom Governor Neff pardoned.

Returning to God begins with admitting that you've gotten away from Him. 

Thank you for reading! We hope this post was a help in your spiritual journey. Help us spread God's timeless truths and inspire others! Share this message with a friend using the options below.

May God bless you!


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