God's Reconciling Work in Relationships
A Study in Paul's Letters: Philemon
December 1, 2001 - What relevance do the letters of the Apostle Paul have for us today? This article concludes our exploration of Paul's writings with his letter to Philemon. Our prayer is that through these Bible studies you have come to live more fully in the grace of God and of our Lord Jesus Christ.
by Richard Melick Jr.
Christians around the world today often find it difficult to live by their Christian values in societies where those values are not honored. Our choices and lifestyles often conflict with societal norms and practices.
Christians who lived in the first century faced similar obstacles. They too had to make difficult and unpopular choices to live in accord with their Christian principles rather than social or legal precedent. They searched for theological foundations that enabled them to focus on eternity rather than on time.
The Social Setting of Philemon
The Apostle Paul's shortest Letter, Philemon, addressed one of the most entrenched social ills of the day, human slavery. Philemon, who was one of Paul's converts, owned slaves. One of them, Onesimus, managed to escape from his master and flee to Rome. At that time, nearly one-third of Rome's occupants were slaves because the Roman military had successfully captured human and material bounty.
Initially slaves had no rights and no appeal against injustices, but by Paul's time public sentiment had curbed extremely harsh treatment of slaves. Runaway slaves, however, had virtually no legal protection. Most masters severely punished recaptured runaways, often by death.
While in Rome, Onesimus met Paul, who led him to faith in Jesus Christ. (Perhaps Onesimus found freedom unexpectedly difficult, since jobs were scarce and fugitives create their own bondage.) His new faith in Christ led him to return to his master Philemon. Having been forgiven by God, Onesimus desired reconciliation with people, but, for Onesimus, attempted reconciliation with Philemon could cost him his life.
This situation raised ethical issues for each person involved. First, why would Onesimus—he was one of the few slaves who had successfully escaped—voluntarily return to bondage?
Second, Onesimus' return forced Philemon to wrestle with the ethics of slavery. Considering his responsibilities to the government, to other slave owners and to the Church, could Philemon simply forgive? If he did forgive Onesimus, then other slaves contemplating escape would use Onesimus as an example.
Third, Paul faced personal issues. Would his advice to one of his converts be detrimental to the other? Further, how should Paul submit to his government? He was one of the few Jewish Roman citizens of his day, and subversion could affect his release from prison when he appeared before Emperor Nero. And if anything Paul said were to encourage a slave rebellion, then masses of people would face death at the hands of the Roman army.
Onesimus, Philemon and Paul had in common their faith in Christ. How does Christian faith affect economic and social structures? The Letter to Philemon provides powerful insight into the application of Christianity to complex life situations.
God implants an eternal perspective in our hearts, and so our commitment to Christ provides wisdom and power to act appropriately in life's complex circumstances.
Paul carefully balanced three primary concerns: his deep friendship with Philemon, his responsibility to Roman law, and his desire to help Onesimus reconstruct his life based on Christian principles. The Letter to Philemon goes beyond slavery and it vividly addresses responsible Christian living and proper Christian relationships.
Appreciation for Philemon
Paul began the Letter by praising God for the character of his dear friend Philemon. Paul commends Philemon for his "faith in the Lord Jesus"(1) for the active and ever-present faith of living life in simple trust and commitment to Christ. Paul also commends Philemon for his "love for all the saints,"(1) for the indiscriminate love that is agape, truly enriching the lives of others.
These two qualities, faith and love, along with hope, most often describe the heart of New Testament Christianity. Philemon's love had already led to some specific occasion of refreshing the hearts of the saints(2) that uniquely met needs and enhanced his reputation in the Church.
Knowing Philemon's genuine Christian maturity, Paul confidently wrote a prayer that he would develop a "full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ."(3) Paul hoped that Philemon's Christian faith would positively affect his relationship with Onesimus. If Philemon responded in a Christian manner, then he could realize the satisfying interpersonal relationships promised in Christ.
God expects life to be lived with mutual concern for the well-being of all Christians. Corporate growth brings a greater good than can be achieved in individual isolation. Although such ethical dilemmas cause deep soul-searching, Paul fully expected this mature saint to apply his faith to the most difficult of situations.
Interceding for Onesimus
Though Paul believed Philemon would do what was right, Paul requested that he act responsibly,(4) reminded him of God's providence in the situation(5) and appealed to the relationship between them.(6)
Request for Responsible Action
Paul based his request on love,(7) a virtue in which Philemon excelled.(8) Strangely, Paul never explained the specifics of how Philemon should react, though clearly Paul hoped Philemon would not penalize Onesimus. After all, Onesimus had returned of his own accord. Paul noted that
Onesimus, whose name means "profitable," became doubly useful to Philemon, as a returned slave and as a Christian brother. Conversion changes people, bringing renewed value both to humanity and to God's service.
God's Providence in the Situation
Paul saw God's hand in Onesimus' life, though His providence defies explanation. Onesimus' actions were illegal, but God orchestrated His will in spite of, through and above human circumstances. Onesimus, once a slave, by grace became family; he became a brother to Paul and Philemon in God's eternal family. Earthly relationships pale compared to eternal ones. Here Paul planted the theological seeds of human equality. In Christ even slaves are our family.
The Relationship Between Paul and Philemon
The idea of substitution dominates this section. Onesimus came to Philemon "clothed in Paul." Philemon was to welcome Onesimus and to treat him as though he were Paul himself. Onesimus owed Philemon money and lost labor, yet Philemon should forgive him because of Philemon's own spiritual debt to Paul for bringing him the Gospel. If Philemon could not see his way to do that, then Paul offered to pay Onesimus' debt for him.(9)
No greater illustration explains what Jesus does for the believer. The debt we owe to God, He put on Jesus' account. In the spiritual transactions of conversion we approach God clothed in Jesus Christ. God sees us and treats us as intimately connected to His Son, Jesus, and we are. As Jesus does for us, so Paul as reconciler demonstrates the truth of redemption applied to broken and sinful relationships.
The Message of Philemon
Often theologians explain that the Letter to Philemon illustrates complex theology. They often point to the theology of imputation—that God puts our sins on Jesus even though He does not deserve them.
While the illustration powerfully applies, the Letter to Philemon illustrates at least three other theological truths of significance:
First, in Christ all people have equality. The redemptive work of Jesus applies to all persons equally, and those who receive Jesus Christ live as brothers and sisters for eternity. Because of the implications of Christianity, Christians need to work to reverse all social injustices.
Second, Christians should be willing to be agents of reconciliation. Paul, acting as the intermediary to heal broken relationships, had clear theological convictions about the truth of Christianity. Christians need to have courage to risk personal securities for what is right.
Third, Paul exemplified the Christian mind.(10) He pondered grace, the cross and the implications of salvation.
Reconciliation is God's work, yet God does His reconciling work most often through the people He has reconciled to Himself.
Philemon leaves the reader with the soul-searching realization that God expects us to live our lives as Jesus did—regardless of personal cost.