Dr. Mark Scott wrote this treatment of the International Sunday School Lesson. Scott teaches preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri. This lesson treatment is published in the November 2020 issue of Christian Standard + The Lookout. (Subscribe to our print edition.)
“I Missed You” by David Faust (Lesson Application)
Lesson Aim: Allow the gospel of Jesus Christ to break down the barriers that divide believers of different social statuses.
By Mark Scott
The year 2020 will be remembered for virus and volatility. The virus created a pandemic. The volatility created pandemonium. If there was ever a time we needed God’s universal efforts at reconciliation, it is on this first Sunday of Advent. The first coming of Jesus with his incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection can heal any alienation between people and God and between people and other people (Galatians 3:28; Colossians 1:15-20). The second coming of Jesus can heal any leftover viruses from the old creation (Romans 8:18-25; Revelation 22:5).
The biblical word reconciliation was a term from the realm of marriage, and it continues to be used in that arena. (Bob and Mary had split up, but they reconciled.) The term means that alienation has been removed—that people who had been at odds with one another are friends again. The Cotton-Patch Gospel translates it this way, “God was in Christ hugging the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). The little New Testament Epistle of Philemon is a marvelous example of reconciliation.
Appeal for Reconciliation
Philemon was a member of the church at Colossae and a personal friend of Paul. Philemon had a slave named Onesimus. Evidently Onesimus had run away (and maybe even stolen some things) from Philemon. But Onesimus fled to Rome, where he connected with Paul, who was responsible for his conversion. Paul gave his normal greeting and salutation, and then made his appeal for Philemon to receive his former slave back.
Paul could have leaned into his authority as an apostle, but he chose to base his appeal for reconciliation in the love of Christ. Paul was bold enough and had the clout to order (command) Philemon what to do, but as an old man who had been around the block and as “a prisoner of Christ Jesus” (Philemon 1), he appealed kindly for Onesimus. Paul considered Onesimus his son in the faith (a title he otherwise reserved for Timothy and Titus). There is an intentional play on words in this appeal. Onesimus’s name meant “useful.” “Formerly he was useless to you, but now. . . .”
Providence in Reconciliation
Paul’s affection for Onesimus is obvious. Paul referred to sending Onesimus back to Philemon as sending his very heart (this is not the normal word for heart; it is a visceral word meaning “deep-seated compassion”). More than once in this brief letter Paul used what might be called “reverse psychology.” Paul would have liked to have kept Onesimus to aid him—in Philemon’s place—during his imprisonment (something he mentioned twice in the text). But again, Paul did not want to be overly presumptuous. Paul wanted any favor (goodness) that Philemon would give in receiving Onesimus back to be voluntary (done willingly).
Paul looked at almost everything providentially (Romans 8:28). He postured that perhaps the reason Onesimus was separated (split or divorced) from Philemon was so that when reconciliation could be made, it would be permanent. The relationship formerly was that of master-slave. As a result of Onesimus’s conversion, the relationship changed to that of brother-brother. We do not know what the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus was previous to the slave’s departure. It may have been good. But good is not the same as dear. When parties know Jesus, it removes distance and alienation from one another. Embracing Jesus as Savior levels the playing field and makes all people one (Galatians 3:28).
Confidence in Reconciliation
Paul was confident (persuaded by actions and motives) that Philemon would satisfy the appeal for Onesimus. Paul could do this because he counted Philemon as a partner (one in common mind). He desired that Philemon would welcome (receive) Onesimus as if the slave were Paul himself (Romans 15:7). If Onesimus had wronged Philemon or owed him anything (indication of stealing?), Paul agreed to pay it.
If Paul was using an amanuensis (secretary), the apostle took the quill in his own hand to write a personal closing (Galatians 6:11). Then, in a psychological sweep that was hard to miss, Paul reminded his old friend that Philemon owed him his very life. That is one way to stack the deck. Paul desired some benefit (profit) from Philemon. Paul desired that Philemon refresh (to cease or give rest—cf. Philemon 7) him in Christ by being compliant with Paul’s request. Paul was confident (persuaded) of Philemon’s obedience (the obedience of a slave to a master) and assured that Philemon would even go beyond the request. If God can help the leopard and goat to lie down together (Isaiah 11:6), he can surely help people seek reconciliation.