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Philemon: Reconciliation

Updated: Oct 8, 2022


Philemon is the shortest surviving letter penned by the apostle Paul. In this brief letter, the apostle appeals to Philemon, the owner of a runaway slave, Onesimus, to receive him back and to be reconciled.

Others have said, and I agree, when we read the New Testament letters, we are reading someone else's mail. For example, Paul may write a letter to the church in Corinth or the Christians in Colossae. These letters are written to a specific group within a particular context. It would be much the same as sitting down to write a letter to our friends today. However, Scripture is "God-breathed" (ref. 2 Tim. 3:16). Within these words, we learn of God's wisdom. Wisdom, for Christians, to shape and transform our lives today. How do we see God's wisdom revealed in Paul's appeal for reconciliation between a runaway slave and his master?


Paul begins his letter by identifying himself as a prisoner. We learn Timothy is with him as he sends greetings.

Philemon 1–7 (NKJV)

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved friend and fellow laborer, to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God, making mention of you always in my prayers, hearing of your love and faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints, that the sharing of your faith may become effective by the acknowledgment of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus. For we have great joy and consolation in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you, brother.

It isn't easy to imagine what must have been in the mind of Onesimus. As a runaway slave, what must it have felt like to be sent back to Philemon, carrying this letter from Paul? The punishment could have been severe, even to the point of his life being taken from him. Paul treads lightly as he sows the seeds of God's transformative kingdom amid cultural expectations. Why even get involved? Why not just tell Onesimus to keep running? Much more is in view here. Will the gospel work in the real world? Perhaps we should pause and ask, "Will the gospel work in our world?" How would Philemon be viewed as a master who forgives a runaway slave in the community? Each person introduced in this short letter has much to lose and much to consider as the balance of reconciliation, Jesus' kingdom message, pivots on the scales of everyday life.


As Paul introduces himself, he identifies as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. Paul, himself, is in chains as he pens this letter. Although bound by the shackles of Rome, Paul is ultimately tied to Christ Jesus. Even if he were to be freed from his bonds, he would remain to be held captive by Christ. The compelling message of reconciliation binds him to Christ Jesus and the gospel. The gospel, as Paul proclaimed, is not simply about how someone "gets saved." The good news of King Jesus, who is over the real world, affects our decisions, relationships, and actions daily. The gospel, as Paul understood, must intersect our lives in our world.


Perhaps the core purpose of this letter can be found in the heart of Paul's prayer. Tucked in Paul's thankfulness for Philemon is his thankfulness for partnership.

Philemon 4–6 (NKJV)

I thank my God, making mention of you always in my prayers, hearing of your love and faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints, that the sharing of your faith may become effective by the acknowledgment of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.

The (NKJV) makes this a bit challenging to see. However, I believe the (NIV) helps bring clarity to Paul's prayer.

Philemon 6 (NIV)

I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ.

The word "partnership" is the English word translated from a word meaning fellowship or participation in Greek (κοινωνία). So Paul and Philemon, having believed the gospel of Christ, are brought to participate together in the gospel. This participation is to be productive in producing the powerful effects of the gospel. The unimaginable reconciliation between a runaway slave and his master is now the powerful effect of participation in the gospel.


How is the gospel intended to work in the real world? Some people view "faith" as some unseen working. Faith is active. Faith is to work through love (see: Gal. 5:6). The gospel should also actively work in our lives and the real world.

How is the gospel practical?

For many Christians, the gospel has been reduced to “Jesus saving me from my sins so I can go to heaven”. Salvation from sin is certainly part of the good news of Jesus! However, the gospel is about more than simply my salvation. I am afraid, for many Christians, this simplified gospel has reduced the message of Christ to the confines of buildings made of wood, brick, or stained glass. Moreover, this simplified message has resulted in an attitude of escapism from the world around us. It's hard to imagine the gospel in the real world when it has been greatly simplified.

The gospel, proclaimed by Jesus, Paul, and the other apostles, was not only for me but for the world around me. It was good news in the real world. A gospel that penetrated through cultural norms.

Galatians 3:26–29 (NKJV)

For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

What was on the mind of Onesimus as he carried this letter back to Philemon? Would Philemon receive the runaway back? Paul appealed to their partnership in the gospel as they redefined their world.

Unity and reconciliation were core to the message of Christ, and they were core principles of Paul.

2 Corinthians 5:17–20 (NKJV)

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. 18 Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ's behalf, be reconciled to God.

The gospel working in the real world is a faith that reconciles.


If you had to write a summary of what the gospel of Christ is, what would you write?

How is the church (the body of Christ) a partnership in the gospel?

What can you do in your world today to assist in the ministry of reconciliation?

end notes:

Unless otherwise noted; Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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additional resources:

BibleProject Philemon (video): Overview Philemon


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