Expectations in the Kingdom, a Lesson from Philemon

They say good things come in small packages; such is the case with Philemon. This is the shortest of the Pauline epistles, yet it addresses weighty topics such as love and forgiveness. The letter, without explicitly saying so, also communicates ideas about the behavior one should expect in the Kingdom of God. This is an idea that encompasses Paul’s message to Philemon, and stands as a reminder to all believers.

Paul writes to Philemon, asking him to do something that would seem unusual to most people. While imprisoned, Paul befriends Philemon’s runaway bondservant, Onesimus. Paul offers to pay for Onesimus’ crimes and then urges Philemon to accept Onesimus as a brother. Onesimus was technically Philemon’s property and his running away was an act of injustice. Even so, Paul requests that Philemon not merely receive Onesimus’ return, but also bestow a more honorable title upon him. This is a clear break from the conventional conception of justice. When someone commits a crime, he is punished and must pay recompense. This process simply restores order; the wrongdoer is not supposed to receive any benefit.

Paul’s letter to Philemon demonstrates how the Kingdom of God sees justice in a different light. This idea, of course, does not begin with Paul but with God. Created things owe honor to their creator. All humans, then, are in debt to God and ought to pay him honor. Tragically, we have failed to do this and in fact rebelled against God instead. We continue to live in disobedience, delving into a sea of sin and debt. In fact, our debt to God is so incredibly deep that the strongest human effort cannot begin to cover it. Because God is just, the disobedience of man merits eternal damnation. In spite of all of this, God has an unrelenting love for mankind and has given the gift of salvation. The debts of all men have been paid for by the blood of Christ. Our crimes are forgiven and the just punishment we deserve is replaced with an eternity spent in the presence of God.

It is because of God’s abundant mercy that Paul is willing to extend forgiveness to Onesimus and expects Philemon to do the same. From Paul’s perspective, Christians can enact justice with the additions of love and forgiveness. When a debt is incurred, recompense must be paid, but love and forgiveness allow us to break the conventions of who pays and how it affects the wrongdoer. For Onesimus’ this means having his debts paid by Paul and his position elevated by Philemon. Of course, not every act of justice will look like Onesmius’ scenario, but the idea is that justice is not merely an equation in the Kingdom of God. We are expected to go beyond convention and implement justice in the same manner that Christ executed justice for us. When this happens, it is a refreshing experience. Paul writes:

So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me…Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. (Philemon, verses 17-20)

Paul is longing to be refreshed by Philemon’s anticipated act of mercy. The way in which a Christian implements justice should build others up and should end in blessings rather than scars. Thus, when we expect the Kingdom of God to be a community in which love and forgiveness abound, we can also expect it to be a community in which the heart is refreshed.

This story of Onesimus’ redemption stands as a reminder of the behavior that should pervade the Kingdom of God. This behavior, of course, begins with the individual. We are called to let go of grudges, show mercy, and extend the love of Christ to those who wrong us. We must also humbly receive mercy when we have transgressed against our brethren. The behavior that Paul expected to see in the Kingdom of God will not be a reality unless we can meet that standard in our own lives. This brief epistle certainly carries a potent message. If we are to have expectations for the Kingdom of God, we must also strive to meet them.