Let’s be honest. Philemon is an odd little book. I know it’s not okay to call sections of the Bible “odd” or “random,” but I remember reading Philemon for the first time and thinking, Why is this in here?
If you haven’t yet read it, go ahead! It will take you less than five minutes (it’s shorter than this blog post). Though much of the New Testament is composed of letters, this one feels far more personal and occasion-specific than the others. It’s literally reading someone else’s mail. But random though it may be, this little book carries some powerful truth.
Paul was under house arrest in Rome when a runaway slaved named Onesimus somehow crossed his path. Paul led him to the Lord, and saw him turn from “useless” to “useful” (Paul uses these terms, playing on the fact that “Onesimus” means “useful”). Paul is able to refer to this converted slave as “my child” and even “my heart.”
As Paul worked with Onesimus, they came to the conclusion that Onesimus should return to his master. As it turns out, this master was a wealthy landowner who hosted a church in his house and who faithfully used his means to further the gospel and strengthen the church. His name was Philemon.
So Paul wrote the letter of Philemon to facilitate Onesimus’ return to his master, who was likely to be angry.
Paul subtly crafts this little gem of a letter to persuade Philemon to react to Onesimus in light of the truth of the gospel. For one thing, he addresses the letter to Philemon, but also to Apphia, Archippus, and the church that meets in Philemon’s home. So while the business only directly relates to Philemon, the church is brought into the loop, thereby reminding Philemon that he is accountable to the whole body of Christ.
He then praises Philemon for his love and generosity, and for the way “the hearts of the saints” have been “refreshed” though him. Paul isn’t exactly buttering him up here—these are legitimate praises. But we can see Paul praising Philemon for the same displays of Christian grace that he will ask Philemon to extend to Onesimus.
Then comes the appeal. Paul says that he could lean on his authority as an apostle, but instead has decided to make an appeal “for love’s sake.” Onesimus, he explains, was once useless and had wronged Philemon. He may even owe money. But Paul explains that Onesimus is now useful, and that if he owes anything, Paul will gladly be held responsible for the damages.
Don’t miss how remarkable this is. Paul is putting his own neck on the line—making himself personally liable—for a runaway slave! This isn’t the kind of thing that happens in the real world. But it happens in the church. Paul says that Onesimus is not the same slave who ran away. He is now a “brother.” Everything has changed.
Put yourself in Philemon’s shoes. Here comes your thieving runway slave walking back to your house. Feel the emotion. Then you learn that he has been transformed by the gospel. Jesus paid for his sins. The Holy Spirit now dwells inside of him. Is he a thief? A slave? Useless? Or is he a brother? A useful fellow laborer for the sake of the gospel?
The odd little book of Philemon pushes us to wrestle with these important questions, to view the institutions in our society and the situations in our lives in light of the gospel. The gospel changes everything, and we see this clearly in the random letter we intercepted from Paul to Philemon.