September 3, 2014.
A while ago, someone asked me the question “Why is Philemon in the bible?” I had never really thought about it before, as I don’t regularly consider why a particular book is in the bible, whether the question lie with God or with those who canonized our scripture (or both). I thought about it for a little bit and replied “probably for the same reason song of Solomon is in the bible: because prominent people who had a deep connection with God wrote it.” Solomon’s wisdom came directly from a request of God, and though he might not have had the best relationship with him in the end, the connection at least at some point was definitely there. Following along this line of reasoning, Paul was a super influential apostle who did so much to further the Kingdom, establishing churches almost everywhere he went. So, logically, if Paul wrote it, it was probably considered pretty important.
As to its purpose beyond its authorship, I didn’t think much more. However, over the past day or so, I have been seriously reconsidering my stance on this. I have read through Philemon several times (that’s sounds like a lot more than it actually is, because it only has one chapter) and I think there are several things that we can learn from Paul’s letter to Philemon that we might miss if we just do a quick read over it, as I have done so many times in the past. I have come to appreciate the book much more with this deeper reading.
To really understand the letter that Paul wrote to Philemon, you need to know the background and context in which Paul is writing. Philemon seems to have been a leader in the church at Colossi, having a church that met in his home. He is believed to be a wealthy man who Paul had at some point saved, whether this reference was to the salvation of his soul (as I believe it probably was) or physically. This gives an interesting insight (to me at least) about Paul’s relationship with the Colossians. When he wrote his epistle to them, it is implied that the has not physically been in Colossi yet (ref. Col. 2:1), but this letter, written by Paul as an old man, implies a strong relationship with the church, such that Paul had now been there at least once, probably more. As noted, this letter is written towards the end of Paul’s life as he is a prisoner in Rome. The subject of the letter is a run away slave named Onesimus who has run into Paul as he is in prison and been converted to the Christian faith (full disclosure, all the details are not listed in the book of Philemon, so we don’t know that this is exactly what happened, but we can infer from the text. This is the main consensus among scholars, though there have been some disputes. I think this is the most logical reasoning of what happened, so for the purposes of this post we are going to assume that this is the backstory). The reason for Onesimus’ departure from Philemon is unknown, but it was not on good terms, as we will see later. Paul writes this letter of reconciliation and sends it by the hand of Onesimus to Philemon so that he might accept him when he comes.
I have come up with five lessons that I think we can derive from this letter, though I am sure this list is not all inclusive.
1. The gospel is for all.
What I find most ironic about this story is how Onesimus became a Christian, or at least how he did as it is implied to me. For an unknown number of years, Onesimus had been a bondservant in the house of an apparently influential Christian. Paul praises Philemon at the opening of his letter for being such an inspiration to people. Whether he was trying to drive the next point he was about to make or not, Paul definitely has some encouraging words for Philemon:
“I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.”
It is obvious that he is a leader and is doing things to advance the cause of Christ. Except to Onesimus, so it seems. The first point that I believe that we can draw from Philemon is that the gospel is truly for all, whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. It seems that in all his teaching and encouraging of the saints, Philemon either never tried to teach Onesimus or Onesimus simply wasn’t willing to listen to his master’s teaching. The letter doesn’t specify which, or even technically if Onesimus was already converted. I speculate that he wasn’t as there seems to be a contention that was building between the slave and his master. This is what Paul has to say about Onesimus as he returns:
“I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalfduring my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. For this perhaps is 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—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”
Paul is appealing to Philemon to reconcile his servant, who had once been useless to him for reasons unstated, as no longer a servant, but more than that- a fellow brother. In all the time that Onesimus spent with Philemon, was he not taught the gospel? Did he have to wait until he met Paul to hear the good news of Christ? Were there social reasons for him not hearing the word in the house he formerly served? All these are questions that don’t really have clear answers from the text, but the main point I think is this: the gospel is for all. Period. We should proclaim it to everyone we know, regardless of social standing or prejudice. Paul had a reputation as doing such, even preaching to the guards who were chained to him when he was under arrest (for there is mention of believers in Caesar’s court… how do you think that happened?). Onesimus was no different when he came to know Paul, and he received the good news, becoming useful to both Paul and Philemon in the Lord.
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.”
(I Corinthians 12:12-13)
2. A bad situation is not an excuse to not act as a Christian should. Neither is a good one.
Now if you think that the letter Paul writes to Philemon only deals with what Philemon should do or should have done, then I would encourage you to read it again. Paul’s letter does not absolve Onesimus for leaving his master. Consider what he says here:
“I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord.”
The very fact that Paul was sending Onesimus back shows that Onesimus probably shouldn’t have left in the first place, except it be for the Lord to work his salvation as we will note below. I think the lesson we can draw from here is a lesson that is taught by another passage that deals with the situation Onesimus was in before he left Philemon.
“Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.”
(I Peter 2:18-20)
Now that is a hard teaching. Here’s the point. We are not allowed to use our situation as an excuse not to act as a Christian should act. Our situation should have no baring over what we say or do in the sense of allowing us to sin in the process. “But I work for an unyielding boss!” Show him the work ethic of Christ. “But the kids at school were all making fun of me!” Show them the humility of Christ. “But he/she hates me and does things to make my life miserable!” Show him/her the love of Christ. In all that we do, in every situation that we find ourselves in, we are still Christians. Period. Onesimus needed to know that, as did Philemon; being in a good situation allow us to slack off with our responsibilities as Christians. It is who we are, in all things, good or bad.
“And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
3. Everything happens for a reason?
Ah, the age old question: do you think everything happens for a reason? I don’t want to get into a lengthy discussion of predestination and destiny here, but my short answer is yes and no. But even if everything does happen for a reason (I suppose that reason could be good or bad), I don’t think we will really know what that reason is. Paul didn’t, though he speculated. Here’s what I mean:
“For this perhaps is 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—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”
My friends who are convinced that everything happens for a reason would be quick to jump on this verse and say “See, look! Paul said that Onesimus’ departure happened for a greater reason- so that he might be saved!” At first glance it does seem to imply that, and it very well might be for that reason. But notice what Paul prefaced it with: Perhaps. That implies to me that Paul didn’t know if this was for sure the reason that Onesimus left, on a grand scale. He just said it could be the reason. And I think that is the best we are going to get. So does everything thing happen for a reason? Perhaps. Do certain things happen for a reason? Certainly. Will we know that reason? Probably not, at least not in the short term. It is easier to see the providence of God in retrospect than in the present. Be sure that he does work his providence in our lives (ref. Rom. 8:28), but don’t get hung up on figuring out the reason everything happens. Just let God do his work, and us what we are called to do.
4. Correct in love, not out of command.
Paul does something really interesting at the beginning of this letter in the way that he presents his case to Philemon.
“Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment.”
Have you ever seen a television show or movie where a military commander is talking to someone of lower rank causally and suggested that he do something, but then he says “don’t make me make that an order,” or something to that effect? I relate that to what Paul is saying here. He’s like “I could command you… but I don’t want to.” Later he even adds this:
“So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self.”
Paul’s like, “I’ll repay anything he has cost you, (even though you owe me your very life… but I digress).” The point is, even in correction, we should do everything out of love. Paul could have just commanded Philemon to take Onesimus back, or said that he was going to stay with him, and that would have been that. He had that authority. But he didn’t. This is not the only time Paul writes like this. He knows that he is an apostle and has the authority to bind and loose things on earth. But he rather appeals to his brethren out of love, so that they might consider their error and return without hard feelings. As we have seen over the past couple of days, Paul is not afraid to be very bold and blunt with people he loves if they will not repent after he is nice about it. But he does give them the easy option first. I think we can look to this as an example to follow before we just jump on people’s back at the first sight of wrongdoing.
5. We do not always get the full story, but we do get stories.
This is a lesson that is outside of the text of Philemon that I have had to learn the hard way over the past few years. The bible is full of really interesting and cool stories. If you don’t believe me, I would encourage you to read it more deeply than you have before. Put yourself into the story as you would if you were reading a novel or watching a movie. I wasn’t always able to read the bible this way, but when I started to read it like this, when I started to actually grasp all the context and connecting elements, it was almost surreal. The bible is beautiful, and when you get past the “read x number of chapters” to get my daily reading in (though this is helpful to form a habit of reading) you will be enticed. It is the word of God, living and active, sharper than a two edged sword. It is amazing.
But some of these stories come at a price, that price being that we don’t get the full story. Once I read Philemon in a way to where I could read into the context and meaning behind it, I was enticed. I wanted to know more. How did Philemon receive Paul’s letter? Was there actual reconciliation? What happened in the first place? How did Onesimus get to Paul? What did he do that was considered “useful”? Did Paul ever get to visit Philemon and the church in his home after the letter was delivered? All of these are questions that will be left unanswered, at least for now. And this isn’t the only place in the bible where I want to know more. There are whole books that are mentioned that have been lost to history. I want to read those books so badly! But the Holy Spirit, for whatever reason, did not see fit to have them preserved throughout the ages. What we do have preserved we can rest assured is what He did see fit for us to have, and that are sufficient to all life and godliness.
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
(II Timothy 3:16-17)
So, the book of Philemon, though short, is in the cannon for a reason. Is it the reasons I laid out above? Perhaps. (See what I did there?) Are there more reasons? Undoubtedly. But I hope these five have helped you in some way. Feel free to let me know what you think some other reasons are.
Suggested Daily Reading: Colossians 1, 4, Philemon 1.
The Lord bless you and keep you.