“Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus.
I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.” (Philemon 1:1 – 6)
I do not remember when I first read this epistle from Paul to Philemon; but if I am remembering correctly, my first impression was that it was like his other letters to area churches who were new in the faith. And would be shared with the group and passed from person to person. However, this is a more personal letter sent to an individual or, more likely based on the salutation, a specific household – Philemon’s. And it deals with a specific issue; not straight theology nor an issue of theological faith, but living out Christian ideals. And one ideal specifically. But Paul has ground work to lay first.
“I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother. For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love–and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus.” (Verses 7 – 9)
Paul commends the recipient of the letter for the faith that Paul has heard of, and based on this faith, that Paul has certain expectations of how Philemon should and would act concerning this matter.
“I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.” (Verses 10 – 14)
Without the background of who Philemon and Onesimus were to each other, this was confusing for me to read. Even more so, because at the age I was when I read it, I had no idea that there were commentaries to explain books of the bible. (A note aside – I sometimes think that I grasped biblical concepts with greater ease WITHOUT commentaries and their sometimes confusing narratives. But having consulted with them enough, I return to them when I mistrust my own understandings ONLY to discover I had the right of it all along! But I digress. Sigh.) When I did gain an understanding of the back story, the letter made more sense.
“Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother–especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.” (Verses 15 – 17)
Here Paul applies the subtle pressure. Onesimus has come to faith, and having faith is now considered an equal relative in the family of God and Jesus Christ. As Philemon would consider Paul as a relative to him under the Divine. Apparently, however, it was not always so. But now it is, and Paul wants Philemon to understand this . . . clearly.
“If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.” (Verses 18 – 19)
Again, when I read this long ago it puzzled me. What would Onesimus owe Philemon or how would he have Philemon? And what sort of triangle of obligation or debt is Paul referring to?
“Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ.” (Verses 20)
Let me reassure you, beloved reader, I am now completely and fully aware of the nuances and implications of this passage and the letter in it entirety. The good news and salvation that comes from that news is highly prized by Paul. It is worth more than any one in a lifetime could accumulate. In fact, according to Paul, if a person had nothing but a assurance of salvation in their life, they would have more than any one unsaved but with gold, silver, and possession untold. Paul, in leading Philemon to faith, gave him this most cherished of gifts and blessings. And so Paul feels that he can call upon Philemon to indulge him and grant any favor that Paul might ask. Paul says, in affect, that because Philemon has shown such devotion to Christian living and principles his faith must be deep and firm – kudos and commendations to Paul. Therefore, Philemon knows the value of this faith. And he knows that others who have this faith must be valued and given equal status as Philemon perceives himself . . . and Paul.
So, we come to Onesimus . . . who has also received faith and salvation . . . and like Philemon is dear and valuable to Paul. And, but, & however . . . . Onesimus is/was Philemon’s slave. (And when I realized that, beloved reader, I was blown away! A Christian owned/still owned a slave!)
So Paul is sending Onesimus back. Not, however, as a slave but as a dear son of Paul and in Paul’s esteem. Equal, in Paul’s estimation, to Philemon. And Paul wants Philemon to consider Onesimus in the same way; not as a slave but as a brother and fellow believer in Christ.
What a position for Philemon to be in. And what a position for Onesimus to be in. What love and faith Onesimus must have in Paul. And what faith Onesimus must have in Philemon’s conversion to Christianity. And lastly, what faith Paul must have in Philemon’s continuation of authentic Christian living.
I talked about a triangle of obligation and debt that existed amongst these three people. Each presuming on faith that the other two would live up to expectations. But there is also hope – a concept we looked at two weeks ago. There is the reality of what happens when we stray from the ways and guidance of the Divine. And the hope we have that we will be welcomed back. The called and chosen people faced this reality, and nurtured the hope that the Divine would welcome then back. Onesimus faced this reality when he ran away. Paul gave him hope; first in the Lord God, and second that Philemon would welcome him back without punishment and recriminations. Paul based his hope on the value that Philemon gave to his salvation and his relationship to Paul.
“Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.” (Verse 21)
I do not know what happened between Philemon and Onesimus. One would “hope” that the slave was welcomed back with open arms, and became a brother and worker in in the labor of the household, and in the mission and evangelism that Philemon was a part of. That the position of master (hence the title) and slave might be redefined.
The story might conclude right there. However, Paul was never one to let things rest without a final nudge. And the following is not part of the lectionary, but I thought beloved reader you might find it interesting.
“One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you. . . . The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” (Verses 22 & 25)
Make of that what you will, beloved reader. I know I did! Selah!