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Paul is inviting his friend, Philemon, into a journey in grace. Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, ran away, fleeing his servitude and ended up in Rome. There, in Rome, Onesimus ended up meeting Paul, who himself was in Rome in prison. The details of their meetings are not clear, but the outcome is.

Through their encounter, Onesimus came to know Jesus, Paul having been instrumental in leading Onesimus to faith. Having learned from Onesimus his story, Paul is now sending this run-away slave back to his master, Philemon. This return being the occasion for the letter.

Quite a confluence of events. Paul’s original unlawful detention in Israel. His subsequent long imprisonment in Philippi before being sent to Rome. Paul’s extended imprisonment in Rome. Onesimus’ flight from slavery far from Rome, only to end up in his travels in Rome. The surprising encounter with Paul. Onesimus’ subsequent conversion. In the midst of the massive kingdom that is the Roman Empire, these two–Paul, a friend of Philemon, and Onesimus, one of Philemon’s slaves–happen to bump into each other in crowded city of Rome.

It would be easy to think that this was all some cosmic coincidence, some highly unlikely but marvelously fortunate accident. But that isn’t how Paul sees it.

For perhaps [Onesimus] was for this reason separated from you [, Philemon] for a while, that you would have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother (Philemon 15-16).

Paul is not insistent, but he is offering Philemon a way of understanding what has happened. Can Paul says for certain that what has happened–his own imprisonment, his prolonged detention, Onesimus’ flight, his subsequent arrival in Rome, and both Paul’s and Onesimus’ relational connection with Philemon–is playing out exactly as God intended? He doesn’t go quite that far. But Paul does provide a different way of viewing the situation.

Perhaps God has a reason for how this has been playing out. Paul is making an appeal. “Philemon, is it possible for you to look at what has happened from a different perspective? Rather than focus on how Onesimus has wronged you, could you perhaps catch a glimpse of something God Himself might be doing in all of this?”

And that kind of perspective is worth embracing . . . particularly when we feel that life is not playing out the way we thing it should.

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