This article is part of the Distinctive Theology series.
A Distinct Letter
The theology of Philemon is not particularly distinct from Paul’s other letters. Some question whether we should even say it has a theology since it is merely a short, practical letter written to an individual Christian rather than a church. These features are perhaps what make Philemon most distinct. Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus, of course, were also written to individuals. But these letters were written to Paul’s representatives to different churches, whereas Philemon was written to an individual in the church of Colossae over one particular matter. Philemon is also the shortest of Paul’s letters by far. In this, it is distinct from Paul’s other letters but more similar to typical letters in the first century. For example, it is often compared with a letter written a few decades later by Pliny the Younger appealing to an employer to forgive a freedman in his service.
Still, in my view, the letter does contain quite a bit of theology, although its theology is more implicit than the theology of Paul’s other letters. The letter to Philemon was not preserved in the New Testament merely for historical interest but in order to teach us the practical difference that the gospel makes in reconciling God’s people.
A Surprising Focus
To modern people one of the most striking features of Philemon is that it involves a relationship between a master (Philemon) and his slave (Onesimus). This stands out to us because of the modern history of slavery and its abolition. But Paul’s letter to Philemon is not really focused on the topic of slavery, although the institution is certainly a factor. Rather, the theological focus of Philemon is how the gospel brings reconciliation between those who were formerly estranged.
Onesimus was a non-Christian slave of Philemon’s who had probably run away and perhaps stolen property. But then he met Paul and was converted. Onesimus’s conversion changed everything for him. It gave him a new name. Paul tells Philemon, “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and me” (Phil.1:11). The name Onesimus means “useful,” so Paul is surely playing on his name. Onesimus’s conversion also gave him a new family. Paul calls him his child and says that he became his father (Phil.1:10). He calls Onesimus “my very heart” (Phil.1:12). And most important for Paul’s letter, he became Philemon’s brother: “For this is perhaps why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother . . . ” (Phil.1:15–16).
Onesimus’s new family was a new web of loving relationships, and it is precisely Philemon’s love that forms the basis of Paul’s appeal to Philemon. He emphasizes Philemon’s love in the opening of the letter: “I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love. . . . For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you” (Phil.1:4, 7). As one who had come to believe in Christ Philemon had a genuine love for all the saints. But we all have room to grow, and in this letter Paul appeals to Philemon to grow in his love by accepting back his estranged slave Onesimus. Perceiving the difficulty of this request, Paul makes his appeal very carefully, not stating explicitly until Philemon 1:17: “So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me.” This appeal to receive another believer is similar to Paul’s appeal in Romans 14–15, which uses the same verb in Greek. But it is distinct in the personal example of love and reconciliation after a great rift in relationship.
Most interpreters think that Philemon listened to Paul’s appeal and reconciled with Onesimus, otherwise it is unlikely that this letter would have been preserved. But did he take him as a slave again? To many in the modern world this seems like a worse predicament than estrangement. For Paul, however, reconciliation was more important than freedom, a hard pill to swallow for those who live in the a liberal democracy. Still, it is possible that Paul does subtly appeal for Onesimus’s release in this letter.
Freedom for Onesimus?
In Philemon 1:21 Paul says this: “Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.” What is the “more” that Philemon would do? Some suggest that Paul expected Philemon to free Onesimus. Others suggest that Paul wanted Philemon to send Onesimus back to work with Paul, as he says he desires in Philemon 1:13–14. Would Philemon have to free Onesimus to send him back to Paul? Finally, others think Paul that had nothing specific in mind in Phil.1:21 but that he simply expected Philemon to exercise the full extent of Christian love, whatever that may entail. It is difficult to know.
We do know, however, that the gospel offered hope not only to the free but even to the enslaved in the first century. The gospel had changed Onesimus’s life and given him hope for the future. Imagine the courage it must have taken for Onesimus to go back to Philemon. But he had a new name and a new family in Christ, and this had eclipsed even the least promising of social arrangements. The gospel also changed Philemon’s life and enabled him to love the one who had wronged him. This letter, then, is not merely a practical letter but rather a practical letter rooted in the theological and life-changing truths of the gospel.
Kevin W. McFadden is the author of Hidden with Christ in God: A Theology of Colossians and Philemon.
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