Reprinted by permission from Omnibus III, p. 275.
Have you ever been watching a football game on television, and the game is being played in a city hundreds of miles away? But the team is your team; when they fumble the ball, you fumble the ball. When they give up two touchdowns in a row, you throw pillows across the family room (that’s why they are called throw pillows). When they come back in the fourth quarter to win in the final seconds, you strut around the couch, whooping. Now why is this?
The team is far away. You don’t know any of the players personally, and if you did, it would probably dampen your enthusiasm. The whole thing is being played out with pixels on an electronic screen in the corner, and is not really there with you at all. So how does this work? The answer is found in the powerful word identification. We identify with those around us, and because the team is from your city, or is a college team from the college your mother attended, you root for them. We even do this with weather. Go anywhere in the world, and the people there are probably proud of their weather. What an odd thing to be proud of! How cold it gets in Minnesota, how muggy it gets in Alabama. We do this because we identify. And we identify because this is how God created us; this is how He made the world.
In the New Testament, God does not abolish this creational feature of the world. But He does introduce, on a grand scale, a new principle of identification. This identification, called koinonia, or fellowship, is destined to transform the world. And we are given a glimpse of how this is to work in the remarkable book of Philemon.
Author and Context
The writer of this letter is the apostle Paul, although he also mentions Timothy as being with him in the salutation. The letter is written to Philemon, a friend of Paul’s, and one who is probably a church officer for the church that meets in his home. The letter concerns the return of Onesimus. An interesting historical detail that plays into this is the fact that c. 110-115 A.D. the early church father Ignatius wrote to the church at Ephesus, and addresses the bishop there, a man who was also named Onesimus. This letter of Philemon was written from Ephesus around 55 A.D., and it is quite possible that a young runaway slave could be a respected senior churchman fifty-five years later. Some have detected allusions to the letter of Philemon in the letter of Ignatius, which would seem to indicate the connection is at least a possibility.
This letter showcases in a remarkable way the difference between how the gospel transforms a society, and how secular reforms go about attempting the same thing. One of the truly great evils of the ancient pagan world was their institution of slavery, and the gospel came into that world. How are Christians commanded to respond to social evils like this, even great social evils? We have numerous places in the Bible where we are given instructions on what to do, but here we are given an example. Jesus taught us that when the salt loses its saltiness, it becomes worthless, and is fit only to be trampled on by men. Philemon gives us a potent and Christ-like example of Christian charity in an extremely difficult situation, and is an important way of learning how to keep our salt salty.
The main characters in this short drama are Paul the apostle, Philemon his friend, and Onesimus the runaway slave. Several other people are mentioned at the beginning of this short letter, and while we cannot be dogmatic about their identity, we still have a pretty good idea. These identifications are not ironclad, but they are certainly reasonable—and represent what most Christians have assumed about their identity from the first centuries of the church. Apphia is probably Philemon’s wife (v. 1), and Archippus is likely their son. Chrysostom points out that since “Epaphras was sent by the Colossians” (Col. 4:12) it appears from this that “Philemon was also at Colossae” (v. 23).
Summary and Setting
Onesimus was a runaway slave, who had apparently taken some things from his master, Philemon. The apostle Paul had earlier brought Philemon to faith in Christ, and now has been privileged to do the same thing with Onesimus. He then makes the determination that he needed to return Onesimus to his master, but in a way calculated to assuage the likely anger of the wronged Philemon. Not only did Paul want to assuage that anger, he also wanted to do far more.
In the Greco/Roman setting of the first century, the condition of slaves was absolutely appalling. While some slaves would have decent masters through the luck of the draw, the institution of slavery in the Mediterranean world was completely pagan from front to back. Slaves had no legal rights, no right to marry, the paterfamilias of the household could execute them for trivial causes if he wished, and they had no right to reject sexual abuse. This was radically different from the “slavery” of the Old Testament, which was little more than a form of indentured servanthood. This is why it is important, when we talk about things like this, to qualify the phrase “slavery in the Bible.” In one case, we are talking about laws as God gave them to His people, and in the other we are dealing with how God instructed Christians to respond to an unbelieving pagan institution. The book of Philemon gives us an outstanding example of how the apostle Paul put his own teaching on this important subject into practice.
The book of Philemon has remarkable depths. It is very short, and at around 430 words, it is about ten times shorter than this essay attempting to explain it. But this is not to say that Paul was somehow unclear and that we have to come after him later to straighten it all out. Rather, this letter of Paul is a work of genius, and he was clear about so many things, in so few words, that it might take us a bit of time for us to cover everything that he brings up. Although it is also addressed to the church that meets in Philemon’s home, it is clearly a highly personal letter to Philemon from his dear friend Paul. And yet, despite its particular and occasional nature, and the brevity of it, the book is still profound.
The physical circumstances are not hard to decipher. Philemon was a wealthy man in Colossae, with a house large enough for a church to meet in. If he fit in with the averages for a man of his class at this time, his household could have had several hundred people in it. One member of that household, a slave named Onesimus, apparently stole something, and then ran away from him. Philemon was a Christian and Onesimus was not. The apostle Paul was the one who had previously brought Philemon to Christ, and now, in a strange twist, he was used by the Lord to do the same for the runaway slave Onesimus. This happened while Paul was a prisoner in Ephesus, which makes it likely that Onesimus had for some reason sought Paul out. He must have known how dear Paul was to Philemon. Perhaps guilt or some other motive led Onesimus to contact Paul—but at any rate, since Paul was a prisoner there, it is unlikely that they ran into each other by accident on the street.
The letter is written by Paul to Philemon to persuade him to receive Onesimus back, not just as a slave, but now as a dear brother. But the way Paul sets about doing this is quite striking. Although Philemon was a compassionate man (v. 5), the delicacy that Paul uses in the letter shows that it is very likely that he had been angered and hurt by what Onesimus had done to him. Either that, or Onesimus believed him to be very angry and communicated this to Paul. Consequently, Paul does not come into the situation barking orders, but rather seeks to persuade Philemon with tenderness and identification.
This word identification needs to be developed further. The Greek word koinonia is usually translated as fellowship, which is good enough, but over time the word has lost some of its texture and depth for us in the modern church. We moderns think that fellowship is the “coffee and donut time” after the main service, where we all chat each other up a bit, and then head out for the parking lot. But the word koinonia involves much more than just being friendly for twenty minutes once a week. The word, as it is used of Christians in the New Testament, involves communion, identification, union, reciprocity, and inter-dwelling. As Christians we are called to eat together, and talk, and give, and sacrifice, precisely because we are members of one another.
This koinonia is the foundation of Paul’s appeal to Philemon. The phrase is sometimes translated the “sharing of your faith” (v. 6) and this makes us think of an evangelistic sharing. That is how we “share our faith,” but it is unlikely that Paul has evangelism in mind here. Philemon lives as a gracious Christian in the midst of Christian community, and this means koinonia, or inter-dwelling. In the church, our lives are all woven together. Paul is able to appeal to Philemon on this basis concerning Onesimus because he knows that Philemon already understands and practices this with others.
The heart of Christian ethics is found here. God does not point to a bunch of people over there, and say, “See? Those people think similarly to you. Be nice and polite to them once a week.” Rather, He brings us all together so that we become one people. We indwell one another. We exchange life. We are members of one body. When one part of the body hurts, the entire body hurts. Now this sense of identification, or inter-dwelling, is the entire basis of Paul’s argument in Philemon. Paul does not make the mistake that many modern counselors do, that of “taking sides.” When there has been a disagreement or quarrel, the task of the pastor or counselor is not to take one side or the other as an advocate, but rather to represent Christ in the situation. This does not prevent the naming of sin when it occurs, but it drastically affects how the sin is named.
So consider all the identifications that are made. Paul starts by identifying with Philemon in the strongest possible way. He addresses Philemon as beloved (v. 1). He prays for Philemon (v. 4), and when he does, he thanks God for Philemon (v. 4). He has heard good reports about Philemon (v. 5), and he tells Philemon about it. Paul has received much joy and comfort from the consistent Christian love of Philemon (v. 7). In short, it appears clear from this that Philemon was an exemplary Christian, and a close friend of Paul’s. Paul is not ashamed to be identified with Philemon—the slave-owner. Paul is not ashamed to be identified with Philemon, even though Philemon was now embroiled in a conflict with someone else, someone that Paul had come to know and love.
And this is how Paul then makes a point of identifying (equally strongly) with Onesimus. He does this both explicitly and implicitly. Explicitly he says that Onesimus is his son, begotten while Paul was in bonds (v. 10). He hopes that Onesimus will become beloved to Philemon, just as he was beloved by Paul (v. 16). In this we see that Paul is assuming the role of Christ—not as a competitor to Christ, but as a representative of Christ. Philemon was beloved to Paul. Onesimus was beloved to Paul. But the two men were estranged from one another. Now what? Paul presses this two-way identification, and does not back away from either man.
He also identifies with Onesimus in a more subtle way. Implicitly he emphasizes repeatedly the fact that he, Paul, is in prison. Why does he do this? This means that Paul, just like Onesimus, is a slave. He begins the letter by pointing this out—the second word in the letter is prisoner (v. 1). He brings it up again when he appeals to Philemon (v. 9), and when he says that he begat Onesimus, he did so while in his bonds (v. 10). He then mentions that Epaphras is his fellow prisoner (v. 23). He assumes that he will be released shortly, and that Philemon is praying for this to happen (v. 22). The implicit argument is powerful—do for Onesimus what you would do for me (v. 17), and this means that Philemon should wish for Onesimus what he wishes for with Paul. And Philemon has been praying for Paul’s freedom.
Paul then makes the striking point that Philemon, who identifies so completely with Paul, would want to minister to Paul and help him out. This Philemon was able to do (though unbeknownst to him) through his representative Onesimus. Onesimus was Philemon’s representative (he and Philemon were identified in Paul’s mind) even though Onesimus had run away from Philemon, and had apparently taken some of the family silver. In fact, Paul had wanted to keep Onesimus with him so that Onesimus could be Philemon’s representative in giving to Paul (v. 13). At the same time, he did not want to coerce anything from Philemon, and so he returned Onesimus to him, so that the choice (to serve Paul through Onesimus) would be completely and freely Philemon’s.
Since this series of identifications is so complete, it follows that what Onesimus owes to Philemon must be added to Paul’s account (v. 18). And the welcome that Philemon would have been glad to offer Paul must be given to Onesimus (v. 17). By the end of the letter, these three men are completely tangled up in one another’s lives.
But having established all this, we must come to one of the most obvious features of this book, and we have to acknowledge that it is one that is disturbing to many Christians. Onesimus was a runaway slave, and he had a Christian master, a friend of Paul’s, and when Paul leads Onesimus to the Lord, he concludes that the slave must be returned to his master. Now that is not all that happens, as we have seen above, but this aspect of it certainly does happen.
Slavery as it existed in the Roman Empire of that day was a wicked and vile institution. What are we to make of Paul’s apparent complicity with it? As we address this question, we must be careful to avoid two errors. Nothing is more apparent that the fact that Paul did not believe in attacking social evils (even grotesque ones like pagan slavery) through revolutionary means. Slavery was so pervasive in that day that attacking it would be like demanding that all Christians today give up their home mortgages, to use the apt illustration of one commentator. To attack slavery straight up would not do any good, would make the condition of Christian slaves far worse, and would result in the marginalization of the Christian faith. And the end result of that would be that the evils of slavery would be perpetuated, not ended. Slavery was such an evil that it needed to be attacked effectively.
Paul was preaching a new cosmos, a new order, in Christ. The resurrection of Christ had already happened, and this reality was going to permeate the old social order, and as a result was going to overthrow it. But it was going to overthrow it on kingdom principles, and not on revolutionary principles. So to use language from our political battle here in America from the nineteenth century, Paul was no fiery abolitionist. This was not because he approved of the pagan system of slavery, but because he wanted the Christian gospel, simply by being itself, to eradicate the evil completely. N.T. Wright makes this point very effectively—a “loud protest, at that moment in social history, would have functioned simply at the level of the old age.” But Paul did not want to reform the old age (slightly), he wanted to topple it and replace it with something completely new. While Allied forces were marching on Berlin in the closing days of the Second World War, they did not stop to pick up litter in the villages they were passing through. They had more pressing business, and when they had completed it, they could come back later and tend to the lesser things.
So this means that Paul was no old guard conservative, defender of the status quo. Paul was at war with the principalities and powers of that age, and he intended to see them thrown down. He instituted certain key principles in the Church, which, if followed, would completely subvert the old order based on coercion, violence, and slavery. The kingdom of God was like yeast, Jesus taught, that would gradually permeate the loaf and transform it. To reverse our illustration, when confronted with an unleavened lump of dough, yeast does not form itself into battalions, strike forces, or armadas in order to launch a Normandy style invasion of the bread. Rather, when the yeast is working in the loaf, the work is silent but inexorable. We hear no clanking, and we see no smoke. We do not hear the roar of guns. This is how the kingdom of God advances, and yet when the process is complete, the loaf is transformed.
When the principle of koinonia is established in the Church, and fiercely defended there (as Paul most certainly did), the results on the society outside are nothing short of a new heaven and new earth. In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, male or female, slave or free (Gal. 3:28). Almost all of Paul’s controversies within the church revolved around this point. He would not allow social or creational distinctions to become the basis of a two-tiered system within the membership of the church. This meant that there was only one church, and that every member of it had equal access to the Word and sacraments. Slaves could be baptized, women could receive the Lord’s Supper, and so on. Leadership in the church was a different question, and on that, Paul was equally clear (1 Tim. 2:12). Creational differences were relevant in the church (on questions like women being pastors), but they were not relevant in the doorway of the church. They were not relevant to church membership. The differences are not hard to follow. Faithful Christians know that women are not to be pastors. But faithful Christians also know that women can be Christians. If there had been someone in the first century who maintained that women could not be Christians, on the same level with the men, Paul would have resisted them stoutly. And this is the same thing he did for the slaves. He charges Philemon, an upper class gentleman, to receive Onesimus back as a dear brother.
The social divide between master and slave was a significant divide in that society, and the fact that Paul was insisting that Philemon receive Onesimus back as a beloved brother was bound to have long term effects on the outside social order. That, incidentally, is exactly what it has done. As the Christian gospel permeates the nations, we see the status of women elevated, we see the eradication of chattel slavery, and we see ethnic hatreds removed in Christ. But Paul does not do this with carnal weapons. He uses far more effective weapons. Neither does he attempt to do in some sort of “quick fix” way, because a quick fix would be a bad fix.
Paul is thoroughly consistent on this point throughout his letters. In Ephesians, he tells slaves to be obedient to their masters, with fear and trembling, as though they were working for Jesus Christ (Eph. 6:5). Masters are also warned (Eph. 6:9). In Colossians, he assumes that faithful Christians can be masters, and he tells them to give what is just and equal to their slaves, remembering that they also have a master in heaven (Col. 4:1). He also teaches the slaves to work hard in their station (Col. 3:22). In his teaching, he also addresses the same situation we have here in Philemon—what is to be done when both slaves and masters are believers? “Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honor, that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed. And they that have believing masters, let them not despise them, because they are brethren; but rather do them service, because they are faithful and beloved, partakers of the benefit. These things teach and exhort’ (1 Tim. 6:1-2).
Impatience can sometimes look like a godly “refusal to compromise” but we are always to look to Scripture for our direction, and not to worldly wisdom. Yeast working through the loaf does its work slowly, but when the work is done, the work is done. Contrary to this approach, if a hothead said that the centuries involved in all this were way too long for him, and tied a packet of yeast to a stick of dynamite and stuck it in the loaf, the results would be impressive and spectacular, and worth talking about for days afterward, but they would not result in a leavened loaf of bread.
Those who think that Paul should have been picketing the Roman governor in Asia Minor to make him abolish slavery (which, if successful, would make Philemon release Onesimus to Paul), instead of doing what he actually did, is to wish that Paul would have fought those striking evils with a pea shooter instead of the tactical nuke that he actually used. What Paul was concerned to do, and what he is doing here in Philemon, is fighting to make sure the yeast stays yeasty. As long as Christians are behaving toward other Christians with this koinonia at the heart of all things, the effects are necessarily potent. If Christians were to lay down these weapons in order to topple the old age with the tactics and weapons of the old age, we will find at the end of the day that we have removed no evils—we have simply rearranged them. We will have banished one kind of slavery for another. Radical Christian faith is not a defense of the old pagan order, or a striving for a new secular order. Radical Christian faith intends to see the world discipled and brought into submission to Jesus Christ. This will not happen in the next two weeks, but it will happen. The great historian Christopher Dawson once said that the Christian church lives in the light of eternity, and can afford to be patient. But this patience is not to be understood as something that is ethereal and otherworldly.
Karl Marx once famously said that religion is the opiate of the masses. By this he meant that promises of heaven “by and by” make the oppressed masses content to put up with their oppressors. They remain in their chains, and all for the promise of a good afterlife, that in Marx’s view would never happen. In his atheistic system, they were being ripped off in the only life there was, with promises of repayment in a life to come, a life that would not come. But for thinking Christians, this is not a “by and by” issue at all, if by this we mean no more than the afterlife. It is quite true that there is an afterlife, and that there will be no slavery in heaven. But there is more involved. Paul was not returning Onesimus because after he died and went to heaven it wouldn’t matter anymore. That is quite true—but Paul was also after something crucial in the here and now.
He was after a certain quality of life at Philemon’s house. And the “by and by” he had in mind was probably just a week or so out, and Onesimus was quite possibly carrying the letter. And he meant for this koinonia at Philemon’s house to also be the characteristic of the other churches that got planted at Colossae . . . and Ephesus . . . and Laodicea. And when that happened throughout the Roman empire, there would be many more slaves affected (in a good way) than just Onesimus.
Paul also uses a double pun in his appeal to Philemon. This may be a real testing point for some in their commitment to the authority of Scripture. Many moderns tell us that punning is the lowest form of humor, but many scriptural writers do not appear to agree with this. Paul is one of them. The name Onesimus means “useful,” and was a common name for slaves—itself a humorous jab. The slave standing around to help out was named Useful, like a character in an allegory. “Give this to old Useful there.”
The name Onesimus comes from the same root that the phrase “have some benefit” does in v. 20. But in v. 11, Paul uses two other words to play off this. The word useless is achrestos and the word for useful is euchrestos. Formerly, Paul is arguing, Useful was useless, but now Useless is really useful. The double pun comes in because the underlying word chrestos would be pronounced in just the same way that the title of Christ would be—Christos. Onesimus is useful to Philemon in a similar way that Christ is.
One last point to be made. Speaking of this letter, the church father Jerome speaks of Paul’s use of the word perhaps (v. 15). “Sometimes the occasion of evil becomes the occasion of good, and God turns evil human plans to an upright end.” This is just another way of saying that God draws straight with crooked lines. Onesimus acted against his master, and Paul argues that perhaps it was so that Philemon might have him back forever, now as a dear brother. The perhaps comes in, not because Paul was unsure if something good was going to come out of this, but rather because he was unsure which good was going to come out of it. Philemon had not yet accepted Paul’s pleas and request. If he did, then the perhaps would be made certain. If he did not, then God would be working some other good out of the mess that Onesimus made.
We have every reason to believe that this situation resolved itself happily. First, we may assume that Paul’s assessment of Philemon’s character was not mistaken—and it is clear he had a great deal of confidence in him. The second reason is less obvious, but it is the fact that we have the letter to Philemon in our New Testament. We have it because Philemon obviously received it, treasured it, and saved it. It is unlikely in the extreme that Philemon would have had Onesimus flogged or executed (which he had the legal right to do), and then go on to save the letter in which Paul asked him not to do any of those sorts of things.
That being the case, we can be assured that Paul’s “perhaps” actually did become a certainty. Philemon received Onesimus back, not only as a truly useful servant now, but also as a beloved brother. It is also likely that he honored Paul’s request, and allowed Onesimus to become an assistant to Paul, serving Paul in Philemon’s name. I think it is very likely, given the potency of Paul’s argument, that Philemon eventually gave Onesimus his freedom. And in the growing Christian church in Asia Minor, in which there was no slave or free, we are free to think Onesimus the freed slave (and aide to the apostle) became a respected leader among the Christians. Although we cannot prove it, and should not be dogmatic about it, I think it is likely that this Onesimus is the same one addressed by Ignatius—a former colleague of the apostle Paul, and one found extremely useful by him. Such a man could hardly thought disqualified from such a position. Whether it happened or not, it is striking that it is beyond dispute that in this great church in Asia Minor, the apostle established the church in such a way that it certainly could have happened.
If this is the case, then Onesimus became a great leader in a great church. The church had its faults—drifting from their first love was one—but they hated the deeds of the Nicolaitans. They had the great letter of Ephesians as their possession. Paul had gathered their leaders at Miletus, and solemnly warned them all of the coming problems in the church. It was through Ephesus that all Asia Minor originally heard the word of the Lord. This was an influential city, with an honored and great history. And at the beginning of the second century, it is quite possible that it was headed by an ex-slave and former thief. Talk about the power of the gospel.