All the Bible, Every Book: Philemon

Bondage to Brotherhood

Therefore, if you regard me as a partner, accept him as you would me.

(Paul to Philemon, concerning Onesimus, Philemon 17)

The thirteen Pauline Epistles develop the foundational truths of Christianity introduced in the Gospels. Paul wrote nine letters to churches and four to individuals. He writes from the perspective of the Apostle to the Gentiles, church-planter, pastor, and friend. His letters contain instructions, exhortations, and corrections that were real-time—messages to real people, gathered in real churches, with real problems as they endeavored to follow Christ and make a difference in their world. One consistent theme undergirds all of Paul’s teaching—the reality of every believer’s position in Christ.

Philemon is one of the most unique books of the New Testament. Much like Ruth in the Old Testament, Paul’s letter to his friend is an illustration of some of the greatest themes in Scripture. Philemon was a wealthy citizen of Colossae who hosted the church in his home. Apparently he came to Christ along with Epaphras when Paul was ministering in Ephesus during his 3rd missionary journey. Like most affluent citizens of the Roman Empire, Philemon owned slaves. One third of all who lived in the Empire were slaves. Most of those slaves were more like household, downstairs servants in Victorian Britain than like the African slaves of antebellum North America. (Fitzmeyer, The Letter to Philemon: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, pp 25-33) Nevertheless, Roman law ruled that runaway slaves could be severely punished or condemned to a violent death.

Onesimus was a runaway slave living in Rome. He had run to Rome from Colossae and the home of his master, Philemon. It was there that the slave came to faith in Christ as a result of Paul’s influence (v. 10). In Christ, the useless and rebellious runaway became a useful and valuable helper of the apostle. Paul wanted to keep Onesimus on his team, but he knew that God wanted Onesimus to make things right with Philemon. Paul and Onseimus both understood the danger and risk of trusting God, the character of Philemon, and the church in Colossae with this situation. Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon with Tychicus and this little letter. Tychicus also carried the letters to Ephesus and Colossae. It is one of the most touching pictures of grace and truth in relationships and community in the New Testament. It’s fitting that Philemon follows Titus in our English Bible, for it is an illustration of the key word of Titus—kosmeo, the verb that means to “adorn,” to set forth attractively—as a musician does, who plays a piece of music beautifully. (Tom Constable, Titus, p. 4). This letter proves that even a runaway slave under a death sentence can fulfill the God-given assignment to “adorn,” “show the beauty of,” “bring credit to” the teaching of Jesus (God our Savior) in everything:

Philemon: God will use your sad and broken life if you’ll trust Him.

Paul skillfully addresses a sensitive issue with tact and warmth. The letter divides into two major sections: (1) affirming Philemon; (2) advocating for Onesimus.

I. Paul appeals to Philemon from prison to display his Christian character in his relationship with Onesimus by pardoning him due to his new status as a brother in Christ and the spiritual debt Philemon owes to the apostle.

A. Writing this letter from the perspective of a “prisoner of Christ Jesus,” Paul addresses Philemon and the church by praying for them, affirming Philemon’s character. He then reminds him of Christ’s desire that he forgive others, especially fellow-Christians, as Christ forgave him. (1-16)

B. Paul takes on Onesimus’s debt to his personal relational “friendship account” with Philemon. He then reminds Philemon of the immeasurable debt he personally owes Christ who died for him and is asking him to forgive others. (17-25)

II. PHILEMON AND YOU: The fact that the Holy Spirit preserved this little letter means that Philemon responded to Paul’s appeal and restored his former slave to fellowship with himself and the church. It becomes a handbook for restoring relationships between believers in the community of faith, the church. It instructs both parties—the wronged and the wrongdoer—to trust God and the community with themselves as the only path to restoration. I see three primary principles to guide us:

A. Life in Christ makes every loser (and that is all of us) a world-changer. In Onesimus “we see the radical change that God works in any life that He regenerates. What was unprofitable became profitable. What was waste, was made valuable. God can change any life so that it becomes something far different from what it was or what it might be expected to be.” (Tom Constable, Philemon, p. 3) This glorious truth was only experienced and demonstrated because Onesimus submitted to the word of God—both written and expressed in spiritual authority.

1. Can you imagine Onesimus’s fear when Paul first asked him to return to Colossae and trust in Philemon’s mercy?

2. What one step of faith are you afraid to take right now?

B. Life in Christ should change every relationship. In Philemon we see the picture of “love seeks not its own” (1 Corinthians 13:5) and the Christlike action of putting others first (Philippians 2:4-5). Faith in Jesus Christ means we become a new creation and that the Holy Spirit is urging us to obey His every command, especially the Great Commandment to “love one another” (John 13:34).

1. Can you imagine Philemon’s surprise and anger when Onesimus showed up with Tychicus and a letter from the apostle urging him to forgive his servant who had wronged him?

2. Who is that person you’ve given yourself permission not to forgive?

C. Christian communities are called by God to truthfully but graciously encourage and support healing in relationships. The relationship between Onesimus and Philemon illustrates the messiness of community. The church at Colossae met in Philemon’s house, and there’s no doubt that they had heard all about this “worthless servant who ran away.” Onesimus came to Christ in the church at Rome, and there’s no doubt that they heard all about the injustices of slavery and maybe even the harshness of Philemon’s household and the treatment of servants. Nevertheless, God’s Spirit was urging Onesimus to make things right with his master and Philemon to forgive his servant. The process that both communities went through demonstrates what God can do with messy lives when the church trusts Him enough to do the hard work of redemptive relationships.

1. Can you imagine each church’s inability to think objectively and biblically when they were emotionally attached to their close friend?

2. Do you have a close friend who insists on just telling you his or her side of the story? What happens when you just buy in and don’t ask some uncomfortable questions? What are you not trusting God to do?

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