Philemon, Paul, and a Gospel Story
The Book (to the Christian)
The greatest joy of preaching verse by verse on the Lord's day is we do not skip anything. The preacher cannot capture it all, but we strive to cover every verse of every book. My partner & brother in Gospel ministry, Minister & Evangelist Jesse Schreck, via The Practical Mission’s Cohort & Vera Vita, specializes in apostolic church planting and a major component of the approach is preaching the word of God. For the PMc readers who are new to the blog, apostolic church planting is not based on a type of apostolic succession in the sense of the Catholic Church or Classical Protestantism. Both he & I affirm the apostolic office to be closed. Instead, it is representative of the commitment to following after the apostolic deposit or the devotion to the Apostle's teaching (see Acts 2:41-47). Its basic premise is to model each church plant after the approach of the Apostles. The ‘word taught’ (the bible) is primary and absolutely necessary for equipping the saints for ministry and every good work. This is what we seek to do while residing in Italy.
As contemporary bible teachers, we seek to always be expository in our approach to the bible. Jesus modeled this perfectly for the church and I believe he was the greatest expositor ever to live. In brief, we examine the book of scripture in its entirety. With that in mind, our church gathering recently completed preaching and being transformed by the book of Philemon; Philemon is an epistle or letter (25 verses in its parts) written specifically to the man the book is named after, to include the house church he presumably presided over. This letter is one of Paul’s famous prison epistles; our beloved Apostle though physically imprisoned, preferred to identify first & foremost as a ‘prisoner for Jesus’ and makes no mention of his apostolic office or its inherent authority (Philemon verse 1).
Recall, Paul in his letter to the Corinthian church says that he or anyone in gospel ministry ‘isn’t anything’ as he gave all honor & glory to God when referencing Apollos & himself being used to justify division. Unfortunately, still a thing today but I digress. His introduction to Philemon is ‘so Pauline’ is it not? Paul is a lowly servant and a humble instrument of mercy who remains an incredible example for us to imitate. Our seasoned apostle writes an appeal as a brother & friend, addressing a devoted partner of gospel ministry (Philemon) on behalf of a new brother in Christ (Onesimus). It is important to note, the letter deals with a hard & challenging topic and potentially a legal one. Not to mention an ethical and moral dilemma. This scenario also a presents theological case that needs to be addressed as well.
There is the Greco-Roman era legality of how bondservants (slaves) were treated by Roman law, the ethical approach to a human being’s existence, the moral or lawful obligation on how we treat others in Christ, and the massive gospel and ecclesiological implications considering all parties present are in Christ and citizens of the Kingdom of God.
His gracious approach and pastoral prose soften the blow to his audience as he could have easily written as an authoritative overseer of the church with a list of ultimatums. He chooses not to do that but still manages to cover all of his concerns without sounding concerned. There is also zero confusion. Philemon is the primary audience for the apostolic note to include others mentioned briefly in the first few verses. Timothy is present with Paul (Philemon verse 1), as he is directly mentioned by Paul, however, the apostle insists he wrote the letter with his own hand. I love the fact that Timothy is there; I think it means Pastor Timothy is watching and learning from his father in the faith on what it means to be a Pastor. I imagine this particular letter making an impact on Timothy by either affirming what he knew already or seeing how Pastor Paul addresses this circumstance with grace and an effortless approach and pastoral finesse. Personally, I am convinced Paul’s approach in this letter required social and cultural brains as it did a theological one. Paul was a Roman citizen and knew what was at stake for Onesimus should Philemon take this situation in a different direction but Paul also emphasizes his confidence in Philemon to do as requested and even more.
What We Know
Philemon was an affluent Christian (wealthy & likely married) and an active partner in gospel ministry with the Apostle Paul. The local church in Colossae gathered in his home to worship God every Lord’s Day (Philemon Verse 2). More than likely, this letter was read to the church body immediately if not eventually. The story itself is simple in its contents, however, dense in meaning and rich in practical theology. Here we see the Apostle Paul model the gospel and teach it through word & deed, rather than explicitly providing theological instruction from a doctrinal lens (think Romans or Galatians). Paul penned this letter addressing Philemon’s runaway bondservant or slave, during the Greco-Roman era, runaway slaves were often put to death or punished for attempting to escape. Culturally, during this period of time examples of harsh or savage treatment toward slaves or bondservants were plentiful, though this was not always the case. Much of the slave system though despicable, primitive, and not at all helpful (in many cases wicked) was complex, layered, and in some cases resembled more of an employer / subordinate context during this period of time of History. It does not justify the system, but it helps us understand it contextually in order to bring clarity to it. Slavery, though not the ideal existence by any stretch of the imagination in contrast to one’s absolute freedom, one could during that period of history live a productive life and be afforded many comforts, having their basic daily needs met and beyond. Some bondservants even enjoyed a bit of social status depending on who their master was e.g. ruler, physician, or politician. The word bondservant is used in Holy Scripture often in modern translation, though the Greek word ‘doulos’, translates to the masculine noun ‘slave.’ The term itself and the wide-ranging narratives associated with its biblical, cultural & contemporary context is a tall scholarly topic to qualify and navigate.
Onesimus escapes and travels to Rome where he somehow connects with Paul and converts to the Christian faith. He was evangelized and he repented from his sins and trusted Christ for forgiveness, redemption, and salvation. He is changed forever and yet there is something earthly that needs to be reconciled, namely, the way in which he went about securing his physical freedom and being able to function in his newfound freedom in Christ. Paul decides to send Onesimus back to Colossae, directly to Philemon in order to facilitate a biblical reconciliation. Here is a gesture that encompasses mind, body, and soul and I would remise if I didn’t say capture it in yours. So many Christians today refuse to reconcile or restore relationships as if Christ is not our Lord or not reigning supreme over their lives. The real option is that we do not have the option. Relational reconciliation is holy & good and proper & healthy – it is the gospel in real time and reflects the beauty of redemption, forgiveness, charity, and faith in God. We are His bride and He is not ours; we lean in closely to learn from the groom and in many if not all instances simply say: yes Lord, as you say. This is a safe haven for our marriages and raising children in a charitable and gospel-saturated home. The authority of Christ is benign and a gift and our gratitude can be best seen in how we treat each other in the power of His Spirit.
As modern readers, we rightly assume Onesimus not only agreed to the plan but was willing to risk everything that could accompany his return: death, imprisonment, or physical punishment. These penalties were unlikely but a reality & a real possibility. This would speak volumes about his conversion and willing submission to Paul’s authority and that of his new King and Savior, Jesus Christ. Noticeably, Paul’s pastoral approach managed to do a few things as well. One, show and declare the gospel without having to proclaim & teach it from the rooftop. Secondly, grow everyone in their faith: those with him, Philemon, the church, Onesimus, and my personal guess, everyone else who knew of or became aware of the circumstances surrounding Philemon & Onesimus. The audience would have read and understood the lesson Paul was modeling: grace, mercy, forgiveness, and the gospel being on display. They were primed by the letter to be prepared to embody all of these things toward their new brother in Christ Onesimus.
The Big Deal
This epistle is a wonderful portrait of the biblical gospel and fits wonderfully in the metanarrative of redemptive history. As I mentioned earlier, there are some amazing verses and depictions of grace & mercy in this little book. It is the ‘visible and tangible’ gospel that a reader experiences here that really gets me excited about the letter. Think about this, Paul is a prisoner and yet makes time for this situation. Let that sink in for a minute. Paul is in jail and working his ministry from this status. If we are honest, so many of us quit before we attempt sharing the gospel or evangelism. It could be something as simple as the common cold, haircut appointments, errands, or any excuse we can find to not share the gospel or serve the church unless it is completely convenient. Not Paul. Paul is sharing the gospel despite jail (which is difficult). Instead of being lethargic or apathetic, he thinks, prays, and writes on behalf of others and to others for everyone’s ultimate spiritual benefit, perhaps his included. He is very much engaged as an evangelist, apologist, apostle, and pastor. That alone is worth our imitation.
Next, he boldly but calmly addresses a hard issue – and he addresses a hard issue in love. Don’t you love that? I mean pause here for a second. Remember, we are speaking of the Apostle Paul…this letter could’ve been written so differently with totally different energy. Paul’s letter could have been framed as a preemptive rebuke or be filled with endless directives to obey but instead, it is presented as a strong appeal to gospel love which serves everyone. He could’ve commanded what he wanted (Philemon verses 8) but he doesn’t. He chooses gospel charity and loving his brothers and sisters in Christ to rectify challenges and obstacles.
Now Philemon is a believer, forgiven in Christ, active in the Kingdom of God, and now finds himself in the role of a leader. Paul inadvertently is also appealing to him while teaching what biblical leadership looks like. Philemon would have understood what was happening here. He was being asked to forgive in a big way (because he was forgiven in a much bigger way by Christ) and to view Onesimus as a brother (or equal) in the Lord, and to even employ him for the work of the ministry. He is being made to think of redemption, reconciliation, and forgiveness. Plus: RESTORATION.
The implication is Onesimus left Philemon an unbelieving & unforgiven runaway servant, only to return a believing, forgiven servant of God. Once unprofitable and now profitable (Philemon verse 11). Paul approaches it all with grace, tenderness, and pastoral care. He wants to intercede on behalf of someone else’s wrongs and if need be, even pay the debt they owe in full (Philemon verses 8-19). Sound familiar? Of course, it is the gospel - divinely and brilliantly taught in the school of Christ. You read the letter and your heart can not help but be moved by Paul’s method and approach to this situation.
The book is a cliffhanger. We aren’t certain what took place over the course of the next few years with Philemon and Onesimus but we can all guess that gospel love prevailed. We know this much – this book changed us and grew our faith in the last few months. It reminded me to be tender and thoughtful and patient & kind to others. It reminded me that the church needs the gospel just as much as the lost does. It told me, hard issues can be solved with truth and charity. Paul displayed Godly character as a man, leader, and friend. You know what else? This little book pointed out partnering or corporate gospel ministry so well - explicitly and implicitly. Have you read Philemon yet? I hope you do and share with us what you saw and learned. – God bless, Daniel Barea
Daniel Barea is a servant of Jesus Christ and a faithful and passionate preacher of the Gospel. He is a graduate of Wayland Baptist University, a confessing reformed Baptist, father of five, and husband to Mrs. Esther Caroline Barea. He is also a contributor to the PMc blog.