The Global Message of Philemon
The heart of Paul’s letter to Philemon is the fellowship that comes from reconciliation. Philemon the slave-owner and Onesimus the runaway slave (or bondservant) had both been reconciled to God through Paul’s ministry. Paul’s letter to Philemon is a plea that the slave-owner and the slave be reconciled with one another. In light of their restored relationships with God, fellowship should and must flourish between the two of them.
In dealing with fellowship and reconciliation in the context of the socially charged issue of slavery, this brief letter has much to say to the global church today.
Philemon and Redemptive History
There is not the space in this brief letter for Paul to say much specifically about the Bible’s story line of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. Even so, Paul clearly is thinking about the coming of Christ and the saving purposes of God as he writes. Paul greets Philemon with a familiar and theologically rich greeting: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philem. 3). “Christ” here as elsewhere refers to the Messiah, the anointed coming king who would restore the people of God (see also vv. 6, 8, 9, 20, 23, 25). The central hope of the Old Testament is therefore brought to mind right from the start of Philemon. Paul then appeals to Philemon throughout the rest of letter by employing language and ideas that are given their significance from the Old Testament and its unfolding story of redemption—words such as “saints” (vv. 5, 7), “gospel” (v. 13), and “grace” (vv. 3, 25).
In short, Paul addresses Philemon against the backdrop of the history of redemption that has come to its climax in the gospel of grace manifested in the coming of Christ.
The Global Implications of Philemon
Because Paul’s letter to Philemon deals with the issue of slavery, it is at once both exceedingly relevant for the contemporary global church as well as requiring delicacy and care in applying its teachings. Several implications emerge.
Fellowship among Christians. Through Paul’s ministry, Philemon has come to know Christ (Philem. 19), as has his former bondservant Onesimus (v. 10). Consequently, Philemon the slave-owner and Onesimus the slave/bondservant are now brothers in Christ. Onesimus had apparently stolen money and run away; nonetheless, Paul now pleads with Philemon to receive Onesimus “no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother” (v. 16). Philemon’s most important relationship to Onesimus was no longer as owner but as brother. The warmth and tenderness with which Paul writes to Philemon is to be extended to Onesimus. Philemon is to welcome him back, and forgive him, and let Paul pay back the equivalent of the stolen money. This should remind the church today that the fundamental relationship between believers is that of forgiven sinners who are now brothers and sisters “in the Lord” (v. 16). Economic status, wealth, ethnicity, family background, and other social distinctions are all secondary to our new identity in Christ as God’s sons and daughters.
The gospel and the social order. Bondservitude in the ancient world ought not to be equated with any of the forms of slavery found in the modern world. In Colossae, where Philemon lived, perhaps one third of the people were bondservants. Bondservants, while belonging to their owner, had a status deriving from this relationship. Indeed, for many bondservants in those days, freedom would have been a disadvantage rather than an advantage—similar to the situation of a person today who loses his or her job. Moreover, while treatment of bondservants varied widely, some bondservants were entrusted by their owners with significant responsibilities. Social advancement was possible; for example, the governor Felix, mentioned in Acts 24, was a former bondservant. We might also note that, in New Testament times, bondservants did not come from just one particular ethnic group. People of all races might end up in this form of servitude.
Unity in mind and action. Philemon is a fairly private letter from one individual to another. Yet it is addressed not only to Philemon but also to Apphia, Archippus, and, indeed, the whole church that met in Philemon’s home (Philem. 2). And while the verbs are singular throughout most of the letter, toward the end Paul begins to address the church more widely: “your prayers” (v. 22) and “your spirit” (v. 25) are plural. In all this we see that believers in Christ are bound to one another in mind and action. While Philemon’s response to Paul’s letter would be his own, the entire church that met in his home would be represented by that decision. Members of the Christian church never act strictly “on their own”; in all things they represent Christ and Christ’s body, the organism of fellow believers that we call the church.
The Global Message of Philemon for Today
It is unclear whether Paul was advocating that Philemon should free Onesimus from servitude. He may have been suggesting this when he expressed his confidence that Philemon would do “even more than I say” for Onesimus (Philem. 21). Whatever the case, it is clear that Paul is appealing to Philemon’s heart and seeking an act of willing love on Philemon’s part. Paul does not command that Philemon cooperate, despite the fact that Paul has the right to do so (vv. 8, 19). The apostle is therefore going beneath the letter of the law to the spirit of the law. In so doing he reminds believers around the world today that it is freely chosen love, not forced demand, that transforms hearts.
The deepest truth that emerges from Philemon is that what matters most amid all our varying social circumstances is the new realm into which believers have been swept up. By the gracious saving initiative of God, believers have been granted a new citizenship (note Phil. 3:20). Our union with Christ, and thus with all those who are also in him, transcends all cultural and social barriers. We must work diligently to end all modern forms of unjust social institutions such as slavery. But we do so in the knowledge that even the best social systems cannot deliver true peace if Christ is not present, and even the worst social systems cannot take away our joy, if Christ is present.