The Case of Philemon

A few hours post-Gate men's retreat, I am stirringly convinced that Philemon is the most underrated book in the New Testament.

A thorough analysis of the book is enough to present and pose the argument.

In our group discussion/lecture (led by Pastor Jeff Ling), which included a steady diet of background, content, and application, Paul's appeal to the wealthy slaveowner, Philemon, on behalf of slave, Onesimus, set as the cornerstone of our Scriptural examination.

Two concepts/ideas captured my attention during our pursuit in Philemon:

1) Paul reaffirmed his position as a prisoner of Christ, not once, not twice, but four times in his letter! This is imperative to understand since Paul desired Philemon to understand how both slave and slaveowner are equal before God (see Gal. 3:28). Also, though this epistle classifies primarily as a "personal letter", Paul acknowledges Timothy's presence in part to indicate his want for Philemon's church to receive the message as well. So in other words, the book of Philemon is more than just an exchange between Paul and Philemon - instead, it's a strategic dialogue between laborers and soldiers in Christ with Paul and Philemon serving as primary players of a broader platform. "The church in your house" reference in v. 2 could have been Paul's way of noting Philemon as the pastor of the church that met in his house. Either way, the themes in Paul's letter was to ripple through Philemon's realm of influence.

2) Onesimus risks death by fleeing from Philemon, given the reality of Roman law. But did he have a secondary motive in abandoning his responsibility? Did the idea of future reconciliation cross his mind in his plot of a gallant escape? Paul sheds light on the matter in V. 15, when he states "For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever."

How genius of Paul! Not only does Paul honor Philemon's free will concerning the future of Onesimus, but he furthermore addresses the existence of God's providence in the situation! A chance of a revitalized, renewed relationship was at stake, and Paul sought to drive this point home to Philemon, how in spite of bestowed embarrassment, the best option lied in treating Onesimus with consolation and love (like the thankful father in the prodigal son account).

Note Paul's brilliance in lavishing encouragement on Philemon early in the letter in v. 7 - Paul recognizes Philemon's authentic faith, granting him one of the most honorable phrases saying "the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you." In light of this, Paul beseeches Philemon to apply obedience in forgiving Onesimus of his debt (By doing so, Paul tells Philemon such action would refresh his own heart (v. 20)). Paul even willingly accepts the amount owed to Philemon (based from what Onesimus stole/damaged), a burden symbolic of the Cross. In essence, Paul was paving the way for Philemon to succeed in applying grace and genuine Christian reconciliation from wronged slaveowner to runaway slave.

So why all the hoopla with Philemon? Because it emphatically appeals to a modern-day issue that is just as relevant today as it was 2000 years ago: how to handle broken relationships the right way. Culture and the world screams to retaliate with justice bent on revenge. Paul speaks with a different perspective. No matter how others perceived Onesimus, Philemon's charge was to overlook his prior errors and silence the critics by tending to a cracked bond between slave and slaverowner - a short but sweet representation of our relationship with Christ.


Sara D. said…
A very true evaluation of an extremely overlooked letter. Says a lot for reconciliation. I've always wondered what Philemon's response was like...

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