Updated: Oct 9, 2022
How does the gospel of Christ affect our everyday lives? What does the gospel look like in the real world? These are a few questions we are considering as we explore Paul's letter to Philemon.
Philemon is a New Testament letter written by the apostle Paul. It's addressed to a man named Philemon, who lives in Colossae. Philemon has a bondservant (or an enslaved person) named Onesimus. Onesimus has run away from Philemon after stealing something from Philemon (Philemon 18).
Somehow Onesimus found himself in the company of Paul, where Onesimus was led to faithful obedience to Christ. As a brother in Christ, Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon. There needed to be reconciliation and fellowship between Philemon and Onesimus as brothers in Christ.
However, returning to Philemon could be a costly decision for Onesimus. Under Roman law, Onesimus "...risked punishment — a beating, death, or even crucifixion."(1) Will the gospel of Christ and the love of Christian fellowship overpower and break through the chains of a master and enslaved person? Can the gospel transform lives in the real world?
IN THE FIRST CENTURY
One of the difficult questions we struggle with in looking at the letter of Philemon is the topic of slavery. We know of the horrific injustice and suffering experienced by the Atlantic Slave Trade peoples. Injustice, suffering, and pain that no person should have to endure. In America, this led to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The skeptic and Christians struggle with a question: "Why did Jesus or Paul not simply end slavery?" It is a difficult question to consider. I am not going to pretend I have the answer to that question. However, I do think Paul is writing from a kingdom perspective. It's a view that understands something new has been inaugurated through Jesus. A new creation has been planted amid old creation dynamics. Old creation are fading and dying with their corrupt systems of injustice and suffering. Living under the authority of Jesus will not be under the authority of unjust and immoral institutions.
Pliny the Younger, who lived shortly after the apostle Paul, wrote about a similar situation to Paul's in Philemon. Pliny the Younger's letter to Sabinianus is about a freedperson who has offended and fled from Sabiniaus. Pliny is socially superior to Sabiniaus and appeals to Sabiniaus to demonstrate mercy concerning his former enslaved person. To me, the difference between Pliny and Paul comes from the position that Pliny's request, although generous, argues to keep the social status the same.
Paul's letter sees Onesimus and Philemon as brothers in Christ and partners in the gospel. Paul desires for Philemon and Onesimus to come to the table of fellowship, where they are to sit and eat together as peers in the kingdom.
Philemon 10–16 (NKJV)
“I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me. I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel. But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary. For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him 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.”
Paul requests that Philemon receive Onesimus back as if he were receiving Paul himself. The word "receive" or "welcome" describes hospitality. Paul is not asking that Onesimus be able to come back but that he is received as a full partner in the gospel, as a brother in Christ. How much benefit to the kingdom is Onesimus as a brother in Christ?
THE MUSTARD SEED
What Paul is doing is radical. He tightly balances between two worlds for the sake of the gospel. At work in the world is old creation dynamics, the status quo. A system that does not view people as equals. A system of oppression and enslavement. However, as followers of Christ, Paul nor we live in this system. Instead, we live in a new creation inaugurated by Christ Jesus as He overcame the systems of enslavement and death. Paul ministers in this new system.
Matthew 13 contains several kingdom parables. For example, Jesus taught about a mustard seed when describing the kingdom of God.
Matthew 13:31–32 (NKJV)
“Another parable He put forth to them, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.”
A mustard seed is a tiny seed, almost seeming insignificant. Yet a fully-grown plant could grow to 10ft. tall. The work of God's kingdom could appear small. How could such a tiny seed grow to anything significant? It may not seem significant, but don't let the appearance deceive you. From this tiny seed, a plant will grow so that many birds of the air will come and find rest and security in its branches.
At first, what Paul is doing may seem insignificant compared to the existing powers at work in the world (old creation dynamics). But, he is planting the seeds of the kingdom of God, a mustard seed that will radically transform the lives of two people as it affects an entire community. He is demonstrating the power of the gospel in everyday life, the gospel in the world.
How do we take the principles of the kingdom Paul sets forward in his letter to Philemon and apply them to our lives today?
First, realize many things in our world are not as God would intend them to be. Decisions, systems, and power dynamics are not aligned with God's kingdom. Unfortunately, it's easy for us to see these as "normal" because it's much of what we see daily. Our challenge is to run all things through the filter of God's kingdom and His word. Is what I see aligned with the principles of the kingdom of God? The scriptures encourage us to "Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” (1 Thess. 5:21-22)
Second, understand the significance of the mustard seed. The kingdom grows with YOU. We can become overwhelmed when we look around. Things that don't seem to change. Challenges that seem too large to overcome. All of this can overwhelm and seem to overrun us daily. With Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus, one of the principles we learn is the kingdom starts with one relationship. Paul writes in Romans, "And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God." (Rom. 12:2). In our daily interactions and within the relationships, we share each day, be transformed. Take your relationships and align them with the principles of God's kingdom. How do we treat others? How do we interact with others? Are these relationships demonstrating the principles of the kingdom of God?
What relationships in your life need to better reflect the principles of God's kingdom?
Where can I plant the seeds of God's kingdom in my world today?
Unless otherwise noted; Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 Guin, Jay F. “Paul and the Faithfulness of God: Philemon as Guide.” One In Jesus, 1 Dec. 2013, https://oneinjesus.info/2013/11/paul-and-the-faithfulness-of-god-philemon-as-guide/.
download (article and handout):
BibleProject Philemon (video): Overview Philemon
N.T. Wright and Michael F. Bird: The New Testament in Its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians