Do you remember the childhood rhyme “Humpty Dumpty”? The words went: “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.”
But for some people these words are more than a rhyme. For them it describes the reality they’re dealing with at this very moment.
When it comes to human relationships, we may be a shattered Humpty Dumpty or we may be “all the king’s men” who feel helpless in putting relationships back together again. “Impossible!” may be the word that sticks in your mind and digs the hole deeper like a grave in your heart. Thus we just stare at the cracks and fissures that separate us from other people rather than seeking hope in God’s answers.
Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God” (Matthew 5:9). Peace isn’t manufactured in the vacuum of wishful thinking. It has to be made—one word, one heart, one godly motive, one person at a time. And it will cost someone—the peacemaker who puts his or her own skin in the game and heart on the line.
“But,” you might be saying, “it’s too late!” No it’s not. You have merely resigned yourself to failure too soon. The whole of Scripture reveals otherwise—that man’s extremities are but the beginning of God’s opportunities to work in us and through us.
So how do we learn to make peace beyond the seemingly impossible? How do we adhere to Jesus Christ’s encouraging admonition of “Follow Me”?
One man’s petition to pick up the pieces
We find Jesus’ pathway to peace in one man’s expression of loving concern towards another in encouraging him to pick up the pieces and restore a broken relationship. It’s the story of three men who are all Christians. But here lies the rub—one was a prisoner, one was a slave owner, and one was his runaway slave.
It’s the story of the apostle Paul, a prisoner in Rome, a slave owner named Philemon, and a slave named Onesimus. Here we discover the practical application of the wisdom expressed in Proverbs 25:11: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” Here we find the spiritual reality in our human world that living “in Christ” is the key to making peace beyond the impossible.
How impossible was the situation confronting these three men? The Roman Empire in which they lived had approximately 250 million inhabitants. It’s estimated that one fourth to half of the population were slaves. Some worked in quarries or in the galleys, some were household servants, and some were teachers and even government bureaucrats, but all were slaves.
Aristotle, the noted Greek philosopher, reasoned in his treatise Politics that a slave was “a piece of property” and “a tool for action” who belonged to others. This accepted cultural classification and driving economic force was kept intact by brutal force.
It’s here in Paul’s letter to Philemon that the apostle must break those bonds of fear and bring the runaway slave Onesimus and the slave owner Philemon back together again in a classic “Humpty Dumpty” mess.
Paul begins his letter in Philemon 1:1 by reminding Philemon that Paul himself is lacking freedom, since he is a “prisoner of Christ Jesus” and not merely of Rome. This is the beginning wake-up call to Philemon to understand that nothing happens apart from God’s will—even Paul’s physical limitations.
Although he is a prisoner, Paul offers blessings and gifts not from himself but from God to the slave owner. He offers the blessings of God framed in the two great greetings of the ancient world—“grace” (charis in Greek), used by Hellenistic people, and “peace” (shalom in Hebrew), but here translated into Greek as eirene, which speaks to reconciliation among men.
This is how Paul begins and will end his letter, framing his petition within the bookends of God’s gifts. He reminds Philemon that God has continued divine involvement in a life that might have stormy moments and not merely calm waters, but that the answers will be forthcoming to maintain an inner peace no matter what may come our way.
He goes on to share what Philemon and his family have graciously done by having the local church congregation meet in their house (Philemon 1:2) and that their reputation is one of “love and faith . . . toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints” (Philemon 1:5, emphasis added throughout).
But Paul makes it plain that such good is “in Christ Jesus” (Philemon 1:6). There’s something at work here beyond mere human kindness. Now Paul is going to stretch Philemon far out of his comfort zone. Remember Paul’s words about Philemon’s “love and faith . . . toward all the saints”? Philemon is about to find out how encompassing “all” really is!
Moving bodies or heart
It’s only in Philemon 1:8-10 that Paul makes his appeal (not complaint) with gentle wisdom: “Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love . . . for my son [figuratively speaking] Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains” (New International Version).
Paul recognized that he had to move more than bodies on this one—he had to move hearts!
He shares with Philemon an incredible turnaround in Onesimus’ personal life. Onesimus, whose name literally meant “profitable,” only now is truly living up to it and is mutually beneficial to both Paul and his concerned master—so much so that Paul is “sending him back” and tells Philemon to receive this man whom Paul now calls “my own heart” (Philemon 1:11-12).
Paul is putting “skin in the game”—laying his own heart on the line. The apostle mentions he would actually like to keep Onesimus with him, but it’s Philemon’s decision alone, and anything must be by his consent, without compulsion and strictly voluntary (Philemon 1:14).
Paul then adds words that bring to mind Romans 8:28, which states, “All things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” He proposes to Philemon: “Perhaps the reason he [Onesimus] was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good—no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord” (Philemon 1:15-16, NIV).
Here Paul stretches Philemon’s mind and heart beyond the momentary inconvenience and the challenges that might lie ahead.
How do we come at life?
For Onesimus to go back to his owner and for Philemon to accept him was incredibly challenging in that time period. Reclaimed runaway slaves could be beaten, branded with the letters “FUG” (meaning fugitive, from the Latin fugitivis), or even killed, some by crucifixion. After all, slaves were only a “tool” according to Aristotle, and the system had to be maintained by fear.
Onesimus had everything to lose. Philemon, on the other hand, could be ostracized by his fellow citizens if he dealt too leniently with the runaway. His family or career could be put in jeopardy.
There’s always a human risk and spiritual challenge in heeding Christ’s words of “Follow Me”—not only then, but also now as we seek solutions as to how to put back together the “Humpty Dumpty” of broken or scarred relationships.
It’s in his appeal towards Philemon as a “beloved friend and fellow laborer” (Philemon 1:1), “brother” (Philemon 1:7), Onesimus as a “son” (Philemon 1:10), and once again Philemon, now as “a partner” in receiving Onesimus “as you would me” (Philemon 1:17), that we see the language, tone and revelation summed up elsewhere in Paul’s words: “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew [Paul] nor Greek, there is neither slave [Onesimus] nor free [Philemon], there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28).
The reality at that time in the Roman Empire made it impractical for Paul and the fledgling fellowship of Christians to confront the exterior culture and circumstances affecting these two men. But their personal culture in which they chose to approach and deal with one another certainly could be transformed in recognizing that God through Christ is doing something miraculous.
God truly is creating a new identity and new path forward in how we come to life and how we deal with those “Humpty Dumpty” moments that paralyze us and prevent us from moving forward. Paul spells it out in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.”
Paul, the human bridge between two estranged men, begins to conclude by saying to Philemon, “Yes, brother, let me have joy from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in the Lord” (Philemon 1:20). Previously Paul had been refreshed by Philemon’s previous reputation, but now the apostle is asking to be newly refreshed by how Philemon will respond to his appeal for reconciliation.
He encourages Philemon forward by stating, “Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say” (Philemon 1:21).
Paul concludes this personally handwritten letter (Philemon 1:19) by echoing the opening —“the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit” (Philemon 1:25). He reminds Philemon that God’s initiative, invitation and involvement in his life is nothing he could earn or achieve on his own—it’s a gift.
It’s good to be reminded where God found us, while we were in slavery to sin (Romans 6:17, Romans 6:20, Romans 6:22). Now it was time to pass it on to Onesimus! Paul, now imprisoned where he could lose everything, including life itself, must’ve recognized that one of the greatest forms of slavery is being stuck in the past, paralyzed in the present and petrified of what might occur in the future. He appealed to Philemon to think in a way foreign to our human nature.
Paul wrote his letter to Philemon encouraging him to accept his runaway slave Onesimus as a brother—and had Onesimus hand-deliver the letter to Philemon.
Christ knew that we would need all the help that we could receive from above in dealing with the “Humpty Dumptys” of life here below. That’s why He left us with a promise: “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27).
With such promises in place, I leave you to fill in the blanks as you allow God to write His story in you, making possible the impossible, as you continue to heed Christ’s calling of “Follow Me!”