Twenty-one verses. That is just about the whole of Paul’s epistle to Philemon (twenty-five verses in total). The driving theme here will be “partnership" or “participation,” even “communion” (ἡ κοινωνία) in the faith. All these translations are to be preferred over the weaker and culturally diluted “fellowship.” This partnership in the labor of the Gospel, this mutual participation in our holy faith, however, is as prisoners of Christ Jesus (v.1). It is the only place in the New Testament Paul describes himself as, “lowly.” He will exploit this status (setting aside his title of Apostle) as he makes an appeal to Philemon.
Paul personally knows Philemon. In fact, the latter was converted under the former (v.19). This makes the mood of the letter different than that of Colossians. There is a warmth, an established bond between the two, plus Timothy. So much so Paul speaks of Philemon as, “our beloved friend and fellow-worker (τῷ ἀγαπητῷ καὶ συνεργῷ ἡμῶν)” (v.1). So, Paul is saying, you, me, Timothy and Onesimus (whom we will hear more about in just a moment), yeah, we are in this thing together. There is a higher principle at play when it comes to left and right-hand kingdom matters, in other words, when it comes to matters of law and grace.
Philemon, now in Colossae, was a man of means and influence. Paul was overjoyed to have such a man baptized into Christ’s Kingdom and join the cause of the Gospel. In fact, Paul salutes Philemon’s wife, Apphia, and son, Archippus, who likewise had embraced the truth about the world’s rightful King—Jesus—and, following their baptism, set their hand and resources to the promulgation of the Gospel of God’s grace through the once-crucified, now-resurrected Christ.
But now there was a problem. Philemon was a slave-owner. In those days, it was utterly commonplace, a fixture of society and the economy, totally disassociated from race. Anyone could be made or make themselves a slave. So, as challenging as it might be to contemplate with a modern mindset, first century slavery held none of the stigma or reprehensions of the nineteenth century. And, significantly for this letter, one of Philemon’s slaves had run away; a capital offense, with the owner holding the very life of the runaway in his hands should he or she be found. The slave’s name was Onesimus and he ran away to Paul. Further, he had also become a Christian. Perhaps Onesimus sought after Paul, knowing a good report about him from Philemon’s family. In any case, he was currently—with a heart full of grace and gratitude—tending to Paul amidst his imprisonment. They were now partners in the Gospel, having communion together in this holy faith.
Paul frankly confronts both with the new situation and appeals to them to be possessed by the Gospel of God’s grace, the freedom which comes with pardon, and come to terms under the divine kingship of Christ since they (Philemon and Onesimus) are now servants, nay, prisoners of love in Christ. Onesimus is to return to Philemon. Philemon is to receive Onesimus (as if he were Paul!) without retribution and, as Paul hints, consider actually releasing Onesimus.
Paul’s proposal was radically counter-cultural and dangerous. It called for overturning, in this instance, an established societal structure. How could Philemon even consider such a thing? Simple, says Paul, you are a servant, as well… to Christ Jesus. He freed you from the penalty of death by His grace to make you a partner in God’s Kingdom. N.T. Wright plays out the implications with this reflection:
The reason for it all, and the method by which it had to happen, were contained in the Gospel itself. The Gospel, after all, is not simply a message about how people ‘get saved’ in a purely spiritual way. It is about the lordship of Jesus the King over the real world, over people’s lives, over the difficult decisions that real people face.
What Wright is getting at, and what Paul before him was also saying, is we have a King. His name is Jesus and, so, life must be lived in the light of this reality and the ethical expectations of His Kingdom of grace, mercy, truth, peace and love. But that is not all. Through Holy Baptism both Philemon and Onesimus, as well as you and me, have received the Holy Spirit of God, who moves and motivates us to follow the kingdom ethic, good works for us to walk therein (Ephesians 2:10). Having been justified by God’s grace alone, by faith alone, on account of Christ’s righteousness alone, received through the water and the Word (John 3:5; Matthew 28:18-20), the same Christ gives us grace. This is not grace as a “thing,” but the Holy Spirit of God. The effect will be, “in realizing every good thing that is at work in us” (ἐνεργὴς γένηται ἐν ἐπιγνώσει) (v.6). This realizing is both informative and formative. It is an understanding and practice. The Gospel itself is at work in Christians by the power of the Holy Spirit. As the Spirit does His work, He produces new ways of living for individuals, households (like Philemon’s) and communities, that is, the Church.
Baptism demolishes all demographic divisions. So, Paul elsewhere in Galatians 3 and, as it should be, everywhere in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church:
23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.
Congregations need to hear this message today: baptism explodes demographic dividers. There is neither black nor white, Democrat nor Republican, Spanish-speaker nor English-speaker, PC user nor Mac user, upper-class nor lower-class. You are all one in Christ Jesus. That is the Gospel. The implication comes by way of the Spirit empowering us—by the Word and Sacraments—to actually live this way now.
Concordia Theology -Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Philemon 1-21.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Philemon 1-21.