United in Christ — the Gospel in Philemon

For other entries in this series, click here.

Many books of the Bible are easy to miss for whatever reason. For some, it is due to their content: Revelation is hard to understand, Numbers is boring. For others, it is due to their size: Jeremiah is too long to read quickly. For still others, it is due to brevity: if a page sticks together, you can miss Obadiah or Jude or 2-3 John or Philemon.

I recently heard a fantastic sermon on the first few verses of Philemon, which inspired me to make this the next book i focus on for this series.

The background to Philemon is set firmly in first-century Roman society. In this society, a good portion of the population was slaves. If you weren’t a slave, then you were an owner of slaves. It was the economy of the time. The New Testament writers didn’t make it their mission to do away with this societal blight partly because, in the first-century, slavery wasn’t the disgusting racial issue it was in the nineteenth-century.

Central features that distinguish 1st century slavery from that later practiced in the New World are the following: racial factors played no role; education was greatly encouraged (some slaves were better educated than their owners) and enhanced a slave’s value; many slaves carried out sensitive and highly responsible social functions; slaves could own property (including other slaves!); their religious and cultural traditions were the same as those of the freeborn; no laws prohibited public assembly of slaves; and (perhaps above all) the majority of urban and domestic slaves could legitimately anticipate being emancipated by the age of 30.

S. Scott Bartchy, “Slavery: New Testament,” The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 66.

The book of Philemon shows how Christians (in the first-century) responded to slavery. And there are many relevant applications for us today as well.

The book can be broken down into the following outline:

  • Paul’s greeting (1:1-3)
  • Paul’s thankfulness for Philemon (1:4-7)
  • Paul’s request for Onesimus (1:8-20)
  • Paul’s confidence in Philemon (1:21-22)
  • Paul’s farewell (1:23-25)

All of Paul’s letters begin in the same way because they are generic (though usually quite lengthy) first-century Roman letters. The only difference between Philemon and Romans (for example)–other than length–is that Philemon is addressed to an individual, and Romans is addressed to Christians in the church in Rome. The outline above is pretty straightforward.

I believe the thesis statement in this book is found in 1:11, where Paul writes, “Once he was useless to you, but now he is useful both to you and to me.” Or, in my own words:

Salvation makes even social outcasts valuable to God and the church.

Now i know what you’re thinking. “How’d you get that from that verse?”

Let’s dig a little deeper into the text.

Onesimus was Philemon’s slave. He ran away from (and likely even stole from) his master. Onesimus’ name means “useful.” Paul essentially says–at what could be considered the pinnacle of his argument–“He used to be unworthy of his name, but now he is worthy of it. Treat him as such.”

Ultimately, the whole letter is Paul urging Philemon to accept Onesimus back as a brother in Christ. Paul was in jail when Onesimus crossed paths with Paul, and Paul led Onesimus to faith in Jesus while imprisoned.

The Gospel breaks down social barriers (cf. Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:10-11). The letter to Philemon is Paul working this theology out in a specific, focused, individual context. In the culture of the time, Onesimus had rebelled against Philemon and was at his mercy. Philemon could have sold him, written him out of his will, refused to ever free him, or even had him executed. The culture would have said nothing about it.

Masters kept slaves in their own social order by fear, punishments, disciplines, execution, and the constant threat of dissolving any kind of familial relationships. For these, and other reasons, some chose to run.

Scot McKnight, The Letter to Philemon, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 21.

Paul is begging his brother, Philemon, to accept his other brother, Onesimus. Paul is playing the role of mediator, trying to be a peacemaker in a potentially volatile situation.

When you look at the passage closely, though, you see that there might be even more to the background here than is apparent at first glance. Paul wanted to keep Onesimus for his own encouragement (cf. 1:13). Onesimus probably hoped this could be the case because it would prevent him from being punished by Philemon. However, Paul knows that false unity and false peace are no unity and no peace, so he prepares to send Onesimus back to Philemon (cf. 1:8-20). Paul holds out hope that reconciliation will occur, and Philemon will send Onesimus back to him for further encouragement (cf. 1:14).

There is truth here for us. This tiny letter is packed with application points.

We could touch on the fact that reconciliation is a necessity amongst Christians. Failure to reconcile should cause you to wonder if you’ve genuinely been reconciled with God (cf. Matthew 18:21-35).

We could touch on the fact that we should rejoice when brothers are reconciled. In verse 20, Paul says that Philemon receiving Onesimus back will refresh his heart. True reconciliation will be refreshing to all the involved parties.

We could touch on the fact that there is accountability in the body of Christ. Paul didn’t merely send this letter to Philemon. He sent it to the church in his house (and maybe the members of his family as well) so that they could hold him to Paul’s words (cf 1:1-3).

Or, we could touch on the other side of the last application. Paul doesn’t tell Philemon what to do. He tells him what he hopes he will do. Paul wasn’t going to force his hand one way or another.

And that is what i want to focus on in this post. Paul is clever in how he goes about trying to persuade Philemon to do the right thing. In verse 5, Paul writes,

I hear of your love and faith toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints.

In verse 9, Paul writes,

I appeal to you, instead, on the basis of love.

And then in verses 21-22, Paul writes,

Since I am confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. But meanwhile, also prepare a guest room for me, for I hope that through your prayers I will be restored to you.

This shows that Paul expects faith to work itself out in love (cf. Galatians 5:6). He reminds Philemon of his reputation of love toward Christians and then says, “Onesimus is a Christian. Love him too!” Paul applies love as well, by asking, not commanding, Philemon to do a certain thing. But, at the end of the day, Paul concludes by telling him that he will be visiting soon, so he will find out what Philemon did with Paul’s counsel.

But where is Jesus? The words “Christ” or “Jesus” occur 14 times in this letter of 25 verses. So, it clearly has Christ in its focus. There is no debate there. But there’s an even more vivid example of Jesus in this book. Only this example doesn’t use His name. It is found in 1:18-19a.

And if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it.

This is the Gospel. This is forensic terminology. This is the same sort of language used (a related, though different, word) to describe how God charges Christ’s righteousness to us (cf. Romans 4:6-8). We had previously been charged–rightly–as sinners for breaking God’s Law (cf. Romans 5:13, the same word as Philemon 1:18).

This means that your theology will come out in everyday practice. This is why it’s essential to know correct theology. We don’t learn theology to swell our brains. We learn theology to put it into practice. If you learn false theology–whether sub-biblical or truly wrong–it will lead to less than proper actions. Paul’s belief in the Gospel led him to give Onesimus and Philemon biblical counsel.

You see, in the context of this letter, Paul is essentially telling Philemon: “Remember what Jesus did for you on the cross? It feels good to not have your sins hanging over your head, doesn’t it? Remember that. When Onesimus comes, if there’s anything that he owes you, charge it to me like your sin was charged to Jesus. Don’t let anything hinder your brotherly love for Onesimus!”

This is love. This is the Gospel. This is the result of belief in the Gospel. This is why we must make it our job–especially as pastors and teachers of God’s Word–to know the diamond that is the Gospel from every possible angle. “Jesus died on the cross and rose again three days later” is a great start. But there’s so much more to it than that. We must make it our goal to know Him.

In Him, there is peace. Peace with God and peace with fellow man.

The book of Philemon is hugely Christ-centered. I pray that you can see it from this brief blog post.

More than that, though, i pray that you are a believer in Christ. If you’ve never believed in Him, i pray that you would place your faith in Him today!

Tell Him you’re tired of carrying around an eternal debt to God. Tell Him you want Jesus to pay it for you. The good news is that if you make that your prayer, Jesus already paid your debt on the cross.

Come to God humbly, acknowledging that you are no better than a rebellious, runaway slave like Onesimus. God will charge your debt to Jesus (like Philemon was told to do to Paul). Jesus paid that debt on the cross 2,000 years ago. He rose again three days later because He wasn’t dying for His debt, but for yours and mine.

Trust Him today!

In this with you.

Soli Deo Gloria
Solus Christus
Sola Scriptura

Thanks for reading.

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