At face value, Paul’s letter to Philemon seems like a private letter written to address a painful problem that had arisen in a Christian family in the New Testament world. It is indeed just that; but, in God’s wider purpose, He saw fit to include it in the New Testament canon for the benefit of the church through the ages.
At one level, the issue it addresses is plain to see. A slave called Onesimus apparently stole from his master, Philemon, and ran away, likely to Rome. Under Roman law, such an act carried serious consequences for the perpetrator—extending to the right of the slave owner to execute his slave if he so desired. However, in the case of Onesimus, as he tried to run away from his earthly master, he unwittingly ran into the arms of a new and heavenly Master when he encountered Jesus through the preaching of Paul while he was a prisoner in Rome.
Without condoning Onesimus’ theft, the Apostle saw this slave’s life turned around by grace. He was transformed from being seen as a “useless” runaway in the eyes of Philemon to being “useful” not only to Paul, but to his former master as well (Philem. 11). The force of this turnaround is seen in the play on words bound up with his name, Onesimus, which means “useful.” The Apostle wrote to Philemon not merely to ask that he receive Onesimus back but that he welcome him as a brother in Christ. More than this, Paul promised Philemon that he would cover the financial loss he suffered through the theft.
How do we explain this countercultural response to Onesimus’ misconduct on the one hand and Paul’s seemingly incredible request to Philemon on the other? The answer is Christ and what we become in Him when we are joined to Him in salvation.
1. Christ enables us to see our circumstances through a different lens.
Paul was in prison yet again, and yet again the Apostle responded to his incarceration not by grumbling and complaining about the situation, but rather by acknowledging God’s providence in it all. He describes himself as “a prisoner for Christ Jesus” (Philem. 1). His “reward” for faithful service was prison; but here, as elsewhere, he sees this as part of the mystery of his heavenly Father’s purpose being fulfilled both for him and through him. In this particular instance, it meant that he met Onesimus, realized that his master (Philemon) was a close personal friend, and through sharing the gospel with this runaway, saw him begin a new life in Christ.
Despite the discomfort and discouragement of his situation from a human perspective, Paul was learning that although God’s ways are often not what we would choose for ourselves, they are always what is best both for His people and for His own glory. How true this has been for God’s people through the ages. However hard it may be to recognize at the time, we know that God works according to His loving wisdom in every circumstance of life.
2. Our relationship with Christ transforms how we relate to others.
At an even deeper level, we cannot help but notice how Paul’s union with Christ radically altered his relationship with every believer who shared this same sacred bond. Personal union with Christ extends into corporate communion with all His people. That is, just as in our natural families we and our siblings share our parents’ DNA, so in the family of God we share the same spiritual DNA, so to speak, with Christ our Elder Brother and Redeemer.
For the Apostle, this transformed the way he viewed his relationship not only with the newly converted Onesimus, but also with Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus (who was thought to be a fellow-worker in the church that met in Philemon’s house). Interestingly, Paul goes on to say, “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ” (Philem. 6). The Greek word translated “sharing” is koinōnia—often rendered “fellowship”—and refers to the visible outworking among believers of their fellowship with God in salvation.
When we enter this unique, life-transforming relationship with God through His Son, it must manifest itself through transformed relationships with others as well.
3. God’s grace becomes the hallmark of our life as His people.
The most striking and challenging note the Apostle sounds in this letter is not merely his exhortation to Philemon to welcome back Onesimus, who has so egregiously betrayed him, but that he should treat him as a “beloved brother” in Christ (Philem. 16). Philemon may have instinctively reacted against the very thought of this as unfair, but Paul asks him to do so with the promise that he personally would reimburse his friend for everything Onesimus had stolen. He also encourages him to do so by reminding him of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ—the free, unmerited favor of God—by which Philemon had received salvation and through which every aspect of his life was now being transformed. So, for all Christians, what makes us stand out in our fallen world is the Christlike grace that shapes our relationships.
This article is part of the Every Book of the Bible: 3 Things to Know collection.