(part 6 of 7)
Philemon is a book of profound freedom and radical equality. Paul writes with an appeal not to his own authority, but as a brother to Philemon. He calls Onesimus, a slave, both a brother and a son. He imparts his own value and identity to Onesimus, the slave. Paul is gone from Onesimus, and will never return. In his place, Onesimus will have Philemon, his former slave, redeemed as an equal brother in the Lord. Paul, however, is lost to chains and martyrdom. Paul incurs Onesimus’ debt on his behalf.
The entire affair is a fantastic representation of our relationship to God, his grace offered to us, forgiveness, justification, and reconciliation. It also reinforces the reality that reconciliation and redemption in Jesus restores us to himself, but also to one another in love and unity.
Philemon verses 8-12 (ESVUK)
Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love's sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart.
Paul, describing himself as an old man and a prisoner, writes to Philemon about his former slave, Onesimus. Of Onesimus, he describes a son, and a beloved son that is close to his heart. To Philemon, he claims to have authority, but says that he will not appeal to that authority, but to love instead. Considering the unloving and unjust authority that Philemon once had over Onesimus, this is significant. Philemon probably still has legal rights over his former slave. Paul is both contrasting love to authority, and modelling gracious love for Philemon. It wouldn’t necessarily be unloving for Paul to speak in his authority. Still, he chooses instead to give up his own rights for the sake of the example he can model. This is an act of love, grace, and trust. This looks like Jesus (the dearly loved Son of God) as well, who gave up his rights and his rightful authority, and was willingly crucified by the unjust authorities.
Philemon verses 15-18 (ESVUK)
For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as 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, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.
Paul now refers to Onesimus as a brother, an equal. He also reminds Philemon that Onesimus is a brother to him as well. Paul reminds Philemon that to gain a brother is far better than to have a slave returned. Also, Onesimus is not a piece of property, but a man. Paul then calls himself a partner to Philemon, another term of equality. Since they are all equal, it is right for him to ask Philemon to give Onesimus the same treatment that he would give Paul. He also takes Onesimus’ debt. This is another picture of Christ, who became human, and less than that, a criminal. In that place, he paid the debt of all of humanity.
Philemon verse 22 (ESVUK)
At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.
This sentence reminds Philemon of just how Paul would expect to be treated if he were to come to him in person. Paul probably never saw Philemon again. However, in calling Onesimus his son, he placed his identity and worth upon him. As Philemon welcomes Onesimus as an honoured guest into his home, he is welcoming Paul.
In the same way, all those Christ died for now carry his mark. Jesus said that whatever we do for the least of these brothers and sisters of his, including taking them in when they have nowhere to go, we have done it for him. He’s paid their debt. He’s given them his mark and worth. Our hospitality to others is hospitality to Christ.
I am most challenged by the personal and vulnerable nature of this passage.
Time spent and service given to others is given by Jesus and received by Jesus. When a sick person is visited by a Jesus follower in the hospital, both meet Jesus there in the other. No amount of personal discipline or Bible Study or empty church attendance can accomplish this. It is in community, humble community, that we meet with Jesus. It is in community that we most have the opportunity to look like Jesus.
Tomorrow - Slavery, Freedom, and Equality in the Bible – Concluding Colossians and Philemon
v1 - prisoner is Paul's identity in this book, and once again he writes with Timothy.
If his intention was to pass the torch of authority to Timothy, having him as a cowriter would have been a good way to introduce him and establish his relationship in the mind's of others.
v2 - Philemon's church meets in his home. This makes me happy. A church small enough to meet in a home is legitimate in the New Testament.
v6 - to understand every good thing we have in Christ, we have to share our faith.
v11 - Paul's play on words. Onesimus means useful. Reminds me of Eustace in Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
v16 - did he escape? Paul is talking about reconciliation here. He won't be a slave anymore, and yet he returns.
v19 - a little bit of a nudge.
v21 - see v8 - Paul is somehow commanding him to do something.
This book deals with reconciliation and spiritual authority.