The Gospel According to Paul’s Letter to Philemon

Reading Time: 6 mins

This is no isolated or obscure fragment of New Testament writing. Contained within Paul’s correspondence to Philemon is one of the most striking portraits of the gospel ever recorded.

Nestled between the rich ministerial theology of Paul’s Pastoral Epistles and the covenantal theology of Hebrews is, perhaps, the most personal book in the entire New Testament — in the entire canon, even. Along with 2 Corinthians, Philemon is easily the most intimate canonical letter Paul ever wrote and remains one of the great early examples of personal scriptural correspondence. One might wonder why epistles such as this one are included alongside such doctrinal treatises as Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews, and the like. The occasion for a letter like Philemon, though, is discovered as you realize that the cardinal objective of God is to speak to hearts and not merely heads. Therefore, do not let the individuality of a letter like Philemon fool you. This is no isolated or obscure fragment of New Testament writing. Contained within Paul’s correspondence to Philemon is one of the most striking portraits of the gospel ever recorded.

St. Paul opens by addressing Philemon, a wealthy slave-holding Christian living near Colossae, who is also the apostle’s “dear friend and co-worker” in the ministry of the gospel. (Phm. 1:1) The apostle’s affection for Philemon is likely due Philemon’s conversion under his ministry. So zealous is Philemon for the gospel, therefore, that he and Paul’s “fellow soldier” Archippus form a church in Philemon’s house. (Phm. 1:2; Col. 4:17) It is this devotedness to the ministry of Christ’s faith and love that becomes indicative of Philemon’s reputation. (Phm. 1:4–7) The composition of the letter itself evidences Paul’s pastoral care for Philemon. They were brothers in Christ, and such is how Paul addresses him.

Instead of laying down the “apostolic hammer” and browbeating Philemon on the proper response to their present circumstance, Paul pulls at the heartstrings of the matter and appeals to Philemon on the “basis of love.” “Although I have great boldness in Christ to command you to do what is right,” the apostle declares, “I appeal to you, instead, on the basis of love.” (Phm. 1:8–9) Rather than pull the “apostle card,” Paul writes to Philemon as a friend. As a matter of fact, the title “apostle” is completely missing from Paul’s customary epistolatory greeting. (Phm. 1:1–3) In its place is the designation “prisoner,” a label which appears four other times throughout the letter. (Phm. 1:9–10, 13, 23) This is characteristic of Paul’s personal appeal in this epistle. “I write to you ‘as an elderly man,’” he goes on to say. (Phm. 1:9) “Elderly man” is not only descriptive of Paul’s age, it is also illustrative of his ambassadorial role fundamental to the epistle itself.

“I, Paul,” he declares, “appeal to you for my son, Onesimus.” (Phm. 1:9–10) Evidently, one of Philemon’s slaves, Onesimus, absconded with money or property. As a fugitive slave, a price is now on his head. Such is why he flees to Rome, likely seeking to hide himself among the urban sprawl of the densely populated metropolis. But as fate would have it (read: God’s providence), Onesimus happens to make contact with a Roman prisoner named Paul, who subsequently brings Onesimus to a saving knowledge of Christ Jesus. Such is what Paul means when he says he became Onesimus’s father “in chains.” (Phm. 1:10) The gospel of grace made this runaway stop in his tracks. Paul denotes the drastic change that occurred in Onesimus’s life in a clever play on words. “Once he was useless to you,” he writes, “but now he is useful to both to you and to me.” (Phm. 1:11) Paul’s shrewdness is understood when you realize that Onesimus is a name which, in the Greek, means “profitable or useful.” Thus, Onesimus was the “useful one” who had become useless but is now useful again.

Paul makes a compelling petition for Onesimus’s life, urging Philemon to be cognizant of just how profoundly Onesimus had been changed by God’s grace. And even as Paul sends Onesimus back to the auspices of his master, he confesses that he is sending his “very own heart.” (Phm. 1:12) “I wanted to keep him with me,” Paul continues, “so that in my imprisonment for the gospel he might serve me in your place. But I didn’t want to do anything without your consent.” (Phm. 1:13–14) Onesimus had evidently become a dear friend in the faith. And such is how Paul endeavors Philemon receive him now, “as a dearly loved brother . . . in the flesh and in the Lord.” (Phm. 1:15–16) Paul proceeds to assume Onesimus’s faults in and of himself, offering to pay whatever is owed at his own expense. (Phm. 1:17–19) The apostle gives Philemon a blank check to cover Onesimus’s debt. In their restored relationship, Paul would greatly rejoice. (Phm. 1:20)

When applying Philemon to a contemporary context, some see the letter as Paul addressing Onesimus’s enslavement from a social premise, as though the apostle is seeking Onesimus’s emancipation. This is likely inferred from Paul’s plea for Philemon to receive Onesimus as a “dearly loved brother.” (Phm. 1:16) Whether or not emancipation from Paul’s chief intent is difficult to say. The eradication of the institution of slavery is an obvious byproduct of the gospel. Paul insists as much through his New Testament epistles as he everywhere opposes the inhuman treatment of fellow-image bearers. (1 Cor. 12:13; Eph 2:11–22; Col. 3:11) Paul’s point in the letter to Philemon, though, is to save Onesimus’s life from the inevitable sentencing that awaited him. Such is why he implores Philemon to see his brotherhood.

In the end, it is unknown what occurred as a result of Paul’s entreaty to Philemon. The likely scene which ensued is striking, as the apostolic missive written on behalf of a runaway slave is delivered by the selfsame slave into the hands of his master who is unaware of the spiritual catharsis experienced by his rogue slave. Philemon’s stern countenance surely melted into stunned silence as he read Paul’s words regarding Onesimus’s transformation — words that were not manipulative but, rather, pointedly manifested the concomitant effects of the gospel. “Since I am confident of your obedience,” Paul concludes, “I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.” (Phm. 1:21) Throughout, Paul never assumes to hold a place of authority over Philemon. Instead, he leaves all authority with “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Phm. 1:25)

In fact, Jesus himself is the interpretative framework for understanding the entire letter. “Jesus” or “Christ” appears eight times in this brief epistle. (Phm. 1:1, 3, 5–6, 8–9, 23, 25) This is indicative of the prevalence and prominence of the person and work of Christ which defined Paul’s life. “In Paul’s view,” Ben Witherington comments, “one is always in danger of saying too little about Jesus Christ, not too much."(1) Indeed, Jesus Christ was the hinge around which all of the apostle’s thoughts, energies, words, and actions revolved. But the light of the gospel in Philemon is discovered to an even greater extent when one is cognizant of Paul’s typification of Jesus himself.

Paul’s appeal to Philemon is an act of appeasement on Onesimus’s behalf. This fugitive slave has none other than an apostle as his collateral. Paul pledges to take full responsibility and liability for Onesimus’s wrongdoing. “Charge that to my account,” the apostle writes. (Phm. 1:17) “Impute that to me.” Thus, what Paul does for Onesimus is precisely what the gospel announces that Christ Jesus has done for every sinner. “Paul is more than just himself in Philemon,” John G. Nordling maintains; “he also represents and shows forth Christ."(2) In a very real and remarkable way, the apostle’s gesture echoes the grace of the Savior. “The apostle, so to speak,” N. T. Wright asserts, “plays Christ to them, his ministry of reconciliation mirroring that of Christ at every point."(3) What’s more, as Paul mirrors Christ, so, too, are we mirrored in Onesimus.

“What Christ has done for us with God the Father,” Martin Luther comments, “that St. Paul does also for Onesimus with Philemon. For Christ emptied himself of his rights and overcame the Father with love and humility, so that the Father had to put away his wrath and rights, and receive us into favor for the sake of Christ, who so earnestly advocates our cause and so heartily takes our part. For we are all his Onesimuses if we believe."(4)

The good news of Philemon, then, is that we are all Onesimuses. Sinners are the very ones for whom Jesus advocates. “The Letter,” H. A. Ironside proposes, “sets forth most beautifully the great truths of forgiveness, on the ground of the expiatory work of Another, and acceptance in the Beloved."(5) It is a living parable of that which has occurred in the lives of all those who believe in the advocacy of Jesus’s salvific substitution and perfect pardon. (Isa. 53:11–12; Matt. 1:21; Rom. 3:23–26; Col. 2:11–15)

We are the runaways. The fugitives. The criminals who await the requital for our rebellion. And yet, it is on our behalf that God’s Son stands and says, “Charge that to my account.” “Put their sins on me!” he says. “Receive them as you receive me.” Christ is the One who offers to settle all our debts. Who resolves all the damage done by our sin. Who pleads with the Father for fugitives to be welcomed as sons. (Phm. 1:17) We the unrighteous ones stand with a righteousness not our own. (2 Cor. 5:17–21; 1 John 2:1–2) And whereas the apostle sealed his pledge with his own signature (Phm. 1:19), Jesus the Savior seals his promise of redemption with his own blood.

"Free from the law, oh, happy condition!

Jesus hath bled and there is remission!

Cursed by the law and bruised by the fall,

Grace hath redeemed us once for all!"(6)

(1) Ben Witherington III, Paul’s Narrative Thought World: The Tapestry of Tragedy and Triumph (Louisville, KY: Westminster Press, 1994), 3.

(2) John G. Nordling, “The Gospel in Philemon,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 71:1 (2007): 77.

(3) N. T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 179.

(4) Martin Luther, “Preface to the Epistle of St. Paul to Philemon, 1546 (1522),” in Luther’s Works, Vol. 35, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1986), 390.

(5) H. A. Ironside, Addresses on the First and Second Epistles of Timothy (New York: Loizeaux Bros., 1951), 277.

(6) Philip P. Bliss, Memoirs, edited by D. W. Whittle (New York: Barnes & Co., 1877), 132.