Philemon: a message in practical christianity

Some couple of days ago, I was reminded of Jonathan Tropper's dramatic comedy — This is Where I Leave You and how the protagonist, Judd Foxman was devastated when on his wife's thirty third birthday he hoping to bring her a surprise birthday cake found her sleeping with his boss on their matrimonial bed. Talk about devastating. That kind of story grabs your attention and forces you to really ask yourself, how much can one forgive?

In the words of Charles R Swindoll, "Live long enough, and you will understand the difficulty of offering forgiveness when you have been wronged. It does not come easy, yet as believers, we have to recognize that our ability and willingness to offer it are the result of Christ’s saving work on the cross." Forgiveness — the God-kind of forgiveness is expected from the believer and this is the core message of Paul's epistle to Philemon.

In this epistle, Paul asks Philemon, a wealthy Christian to forgive and receive back Onesimus a run away slave and a thief who under Roman law was deserving of death. After Onesimus' escape to the imperial city, by some form of divine coincidence, he met Paul who led him to Christ; Paul then decided to send him back to his master in Colossae.

The epistle to Philemon is Paul's shortest epistle; in fact, in the Greek text there are only three hundred and thirty four words in the entire letter. Apart from its brevity, it is also quite different from other Pauline epistles in its content— unlike doctrinal treatises like Romans, Ephesians, etc, the Epistle to Philemon is more practical than doctrinal; in fact in it, Paul does not discuss doctrine at all instead he discusses practical behavior that illustrates some core doctrines of Christianity.

The bulk of this letter divides naturally into three major parts: firstly, Paul's Commendation of and Prayer for Philemon (Phil4-7); secondly, Paul's Petition for Onesimus (Phil8-17) and thirdly, Paul's Promise to Philemon (Phil18-21). Preceding the first division is Paul's classic greeting and after the twenty first verse, we have greetings from Paul's companions and a benediction.

Philemon  1:1
Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother...

By describing himself as a prisoner of Christ Jesus, Paul reminds the recipient(s) of this letter that the author was currently in Roman bondage; Scholars love to refer to Philemon and the three other epistles (Ephesians, Colossians and Philippians) written during the same period as Prison Epistles as they were written during Paul's first incarceration in Rome. Cf Acts 28:16-17, 29-31.

Here (unlike in his second Roman imprisonment under Nero) Paul was merely under house arrest and people could freely visit him; though his movement was greatly limited and his personal liberty lost to some extent, he did not allow this unwelcome situation hamper the preaching of the gospel. See vs10 and Phil1:12-18.

Philemon  1:1,2
...unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellowlabourer,  and to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellowsoldier, and to the church in thy house:

Philemon, a Colossian Christian (see Col4:9) is the primary recipient of this epistle; however Paul intended for others in Philemon's church family to hear the same message for at least two reasons: firstly, whatever Philemon was going to do, his wife (Apphia) had to be carried along since Onesimus' welcome back into that household is in a large part in the hands of the Lady of the house.

Secondly, Archippus (a leader in the Colossian church (see Col4:17) and probably Philemon's son) and the whole church needs a letter of introduction so to speak from Paul concerning Onesimus a former run away slave and thief, now a christian; add to that the need for the church to be impacted by the reality and the practical nature of Christ's forgiveness and extend that knowledge into their own personal relationships. (Cf Col3:13,4:7-9)

Philemon  1:3
Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

This classic Pauline greeting is an adaptation of the usual Eastern or Oriental style of greeting where Peace is invoked (See Lk10:5). What Paul does by incorporating Grace into the greeting is to show that true peace is the on the flip side of Grace; it is by Grace that we have peace with God and peace with God is the source of peace in our interpersonal relationships.

In the opening verses of Romans chapter five, Paul shows us that peace with God is the consequence of the gift of righteousness brought to us by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ; this of course is the fulfilment of the Prophecy of Isaiah concerning the revelation of Christ as Israel's true king.

Philemon  1:4-7
I thank my God, making mention of thee always in my prayers, hearing of thy love and faith, which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all saints; that the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus. For we have great joy and consolation in thy love, because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother.

Paul does not just have friends, he prays for his friends in a consistent manner; the first aspect of his prayer for Philemon is thanksgiving on his behalf to God; Philemon evidently is a model believer whose lifestyle gives Paul cause for thanks. In this text is a literary device (chiasm) which Paul uses to describe the basis for Philemon's exemplary behavior — his love for the saints and his faith in the Lord Jesus. These are the two cornerstones on which his life of christian hospitality is founded.

After the thanksgiving, is Paul's request for Philemon. He desires that for him his participation in the faith i.e. his life in the faith will blossom into good deeds as a result of Philemon's knowledge of how much God has done for him in Christ Jesus. Paul does not want Philemon to be just a "sinner saved by Grace" and by that I mean a believer whose life isn't consistent with the faith he professes; instead Paul's desire is that Philemon will receive a revelation of what God has done for him and in him in Christ Jesus and that precise and correct knowledge will spill over into effective christian living.

Philemon  1:8
Wherefore, though I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee that which is convenient,  1:9 Yet for love's sake I rather beseech thee, being such an one as Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ.

Paul after his commendation and prayer presents his petition concerning Onesimus; it is interesting to note that Paul even though he could instruct Philemon to fulfill his christian duty and though Paul could remind Philemon of  his Apostleship and still be in the right, instead he prefers to persuade rather than compel. This is a pointer to the quality of relationship between the Apostle and the wronged Slave-owner and a veritable lesson for us— great relationships, in the words of Henry Cloud and John Townsend are built on the freedom to refuse and confront.

Paul then based his appeal on three things: first, the brotherly love between himself and Philemon; second, his age and third, his present circumstances in Rome. Paul is saying if you love me and I love you and our love is an expression of the God kind of love, then please do this for me.

Then he also appealed on the basis of age, this is the difficult one because it is alien to some cultures to compromise or let go of one's rights because someone older appeals to one to do just that. I am sure among the Yoruba of West Africa, this concept is not alien as in their understanding of honour, there is that aspect of letting go simply to please or respect a requesting elder. Paul a sixty year old man is telling Philemon, "do you realise how old I am? I think on that basis of being older than you, you can't refuse my petitioning."

Then lastly, as a prisoner on account of faith in Christ, Paul assumes the position of a meritless petitioner trusting in the goodness of the one being petitioned. "I don't have anything to prove, I am in bonds but I need you to do this for me and I trust that you will". How is that for convincing?

Philemon  1:10,11
I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds: which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me:

Paul utilises a play on words here, Onesimus means "to be profitable" or "useful" and here he plays on that by tying together the name of the runaway slave, his previous uselessness and now his potential as a new man in Christ. Before Christ, Onesimus' life was a complete opposite of his name but now in Christ, he is empowered to be profitable thus living out the will of God contained in his name.

Paul thinks so highly of the work of redemption in the heart of a man— Paul believes (and rightly so) that God can take a useless, thieving slave and make out of him, a new man useful both in temporal matters( a plus to his employer) and in spiritual matters (a protege of the Apostle Paul) cf 1Tim1:12-16, 2Cor5:17, 1Cor6:11, etc.

Alexander Maclaren, that Baptist preacher and expositor of the nineteenth century said, "Christianity knows nothing of hopeless cases. It professes its ability to take the most crooked stick and bring it straight, to flash a new power into the blackest carbon, which will turn it into a diamond".

Philemon  1:12-16
Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels: whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel: but without thy mind would I do nothing; that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly. For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever; not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord?

Paul sent Onesimus back to his master for at least two reasons: the first reason is that he did not have  Philemon's consent and since Philemon is directly responsible for Onesimus, it is only right that Paul allows Philemon decide without any form of arm-twisting from Paul. Again, a reminder that in Christ, our decisions are freely chosen.

The second reason is that perhaps, God desires that Philemon and Onesimus will carry on a Christian fellowship unhindered by the political context expected of a master-slave relationship.

It must be seen that Paul is not instructing Philemon to ensure that Onesimus stops being a slave in the social and economic sense of it but rather, he wants Philemon to receive Onesimus and treat him as he will a christian brother (even if he is still a slave). Thus his identity will not be derived from his natural circumstances as a slave in the Roman empire but from his new state as a child of God.

One of the perplexities of New Testament study is how it seemingly keeps quiet about slavery; it is a shock that no where in the New Testament will one find a verse that condemns that ignoble and despicable practice. However, when one looks deep, one will discover that while the New Testament does not have any part dedicated as a polemic against slavery, at the same time it does not sanction it; instead it puts forth the message of Christ (who upon entering a heart transforms it by love) and the principles of His love which will always destroy that base institution (as it eventually did especially in America) without necessarily creating a violent slave against master revolution (like the bloody French revolution).

Philemon  1:17-19
If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself. If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account; I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it...

In these three verses, the Apostle practically illustrates three cardinal doctrines of Christianity: the doctrines of Identification(vs17), Imputation (vs18) and Substitution (vs19). These doctrines are illustrated by Paul's statements to Philemon and how he asked that Onesimus should be treated not on the basis of the evil he did but on the basis of the relationship between Paul and Onesimus.

The doctrine of identification says, "in the redemptive work of Christ, He became one with us in our humanity and sinfulness, became as we were and died as we should to the end that we may become one with him in his righteousness and His life; thus by virtue of our faith in Christ, God treats us exactly as he will Christ and in him, we are received by God not on our own merit but because of him." See Heb2:14-17, Eph1:3-6;2:12-13,18;3:12, etc. This is illustrated by Paul's statement that Philemon should receive Onesimus just as he would receive Paul.

The doctrine of imputation says, " in Christ's redemptive work, all our sins and the judgement due us was credited to Christ's account and his righteousness was credited to ours not because of any good thing we did but because of his Grace and mercy." See Rom4:5-8; 2Cor5:18-21. This doctrine is illustrated by Paul's willingness to have Onesimus' debts credited to Paul's own account.

The doctrine of substitution says, "Jesus in his redemptive work took our place, paid the price for our sin and died in our stead". See John1:29,36; 1Pet1:19; Heb9:12,28. Paul illustrates this principle in his willingness to take Onesimus' place and pay his debt.
Onesimus stole the money, Paul is paying the price; this is substitution.

Philemon  1:19,20
...albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides. Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord: refresh my bowels in the Lord.

Paul concludes his promise to Philemon by reminding him of the boundless grace of Christ to whom Philemon himself is indebted thus helping him see that if Christ forgave Philemon his sins, Philemon ought also to do likewise. Paul reminds Philemon, "you are a product of God's grace, hence you ought to extend that grace." Paul again plays around with the name Onesimus( Profitable) by enjoining Philemon to be profitable to him and to the lord also.

Philemon  1:21
Having confidence in thy obedience I wrote unto thee, knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say.

In concluding his letter, Paul reminds Philemon of his confidence in him, knowing that Philemon would have obeyed if Paul compelled him now he's also certain that with the freedom of choice given to him, Philemon will go over and beyond what Paul could have even commanded. This also teaches us that when the Holy Spirit works on a heart, the product is always better than anything man could have 'legislated'; Grace in the heart again we see always trumps externally mandated law.

Philemon  1:23, 24
There salute thee Epaphras, my fellowprisoner in Christ Jesus;  Marcus, Aristarchus, Demas, Lucas, my fellowlabourers.

In concluding his epistle, Paul's companions send their greetings to Philemon and the church in Colossae: there is one of the companions who is worthy of mention and that's John Mark. John Mark ought to be the patron saint of second chances; remember in Acts15, after John had deserted Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey, Paul was determined not to take him on the second, however Barnabas, that Apostle noted for recognizing the gift of God irrespective of how crude the package may be, extended grace to John Mark and gave him a second chance.

Philemon  1:25
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.

Then characteristically, Paul concludes his letter with a signature of Grace.

The message of Philemon is Forgiveness. Love is beyond emoting and expressions of love; true love is seen in its actions. If we are all deserving of God's judgement yet by virtue of Christ and his redemptive work we have forgiveness and redemption given to us freely and at no cost, we who have been forgiven much should express that same quality of love to those who hurt us and forgive just as we have been forgiven.