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How to Read the Bible Book by Book: Philemon

Philemon 17-18: “So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to my account.”

We come now to the final letter of the apostle Paul. I had intended to talk about Philemon after I wrote on the book of Colossians, because as you will come to see in a moment, it is very likely that Colossians and Philemon were written at the same time, and were sent together, one letter being for the church in general, and the other for this man named Philemon. However, as I was writing along, I forgot to do that. That’s ok, no harm is done. We have simply followed the canonical order of the books of Paul and that is a perfectly appropriate thing to do.

Paul writes the letter to Philemon from prison, and as we noted when speaking of Ephesians and Colossians, there are two possible times when such letters may have been written. The more traditional idea is that Paul wrote these letters from prison in Rome, just as he did Philippians. However, there is a counter argument that is persuasive to some, including myself. It appears from what Paul said in letters like 2nd Corinthians, that Paul had a very difficult time while he was in Asia—specifically in Ephesus—and may have spent some time in prison there. Ephesus is close to Colossae, and that would make a lot of sense out of what we see in this small letter to Philemon. The letter is based on a slave that has run away from Philemon’s house, who also happens to be a believer in Christ. As luck (or providence) would have it, Onesimus is able to find Paul in prison. Could it be that Onesimus, as a runaway slave, traveled all the way to Rome? It is possible. But seems more likely that he ran away from Colossae and went to nearby Ephesus, where he then sought out the apostle Paul.

Whatever the case may be, Paul and Onesimus are together, and Paul has taken it upon himself to try to rectify what he knows must be a difficult situation between Philemon as a master, and Onesimus as his runaway slave. What do you do when you have two Christians in a master/slave relationship? What do you do when the slave has wronged his master according to Roman law? The letter of Philemon is valuable to us, not simply because it is another correspondence from the apostle Paul, but also because Paul takes the gospel message which is at the heart of his life and preaching and applies it to a real-life situation that is complex and difficult.

To watch Paul work in this letter is to watch a mature Christian who employs subtle but firm persuasion. He will not command Philemon what to do, though he could as an apostle of Christ. But he wants to appeal to Philemon, so that Philemon chooses freely, and therefore can put his own faith into practice.

Philemon is a man of stature. In this way, he is different from many who converted in the earliest years of the faith. Paul noted to the Christians in Corinth that not many of them were wise or of lofty stature when faith in Christ developed in them. It was the same in most places. But there were rare exceptions. Philemon was one such exception. He was wealthy, he had influence, and he also was the one who hosted the church (or at least one of the churches) in the city of Colossae. According to what Paul says in verses 4-7, he was known for his life for all God’s people, and for his unique way to refresh the hearts of the Lord’s people. Perhaps Philemon used both his wealth and his wisdom to provide for many of the saints in Colossae.

Because that is true, Paul has no qualms about asking Philemon to be gracious to his runaway slave. Rather than commanding him, Paul wishes to appeal to him on the basis of love; a love that Philemon was well known for in Colossae. According to Paul, Philemon’s former slave, Onesimus, had become a son to Paul while Paul was in prison. He feels the right thing to do is to send Onesimus back to Philemon even though Paul would rather keep him with himself. That is how much Paul valued Onesimus and came to enjoy his company and friendship in the Lord. But even as he sends him back, Paul is suggesting to Philemon that a change in their relationship might be appropriate. Paul says that perhaps God’s providence was at work in this whole situation, and that even though Onesimus did wrong by running away, it might have been so that he could have him back as a brother rather than a slave. Paul seems to be subtly suggesting that Philemon should free Onesimus from his servitude.

Verse 17 is a key verse. Paul says, “if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.” The idea of “partnership” is a repeated theme in Philemon. He said back in verse 6 that he prayed that Philemon’s “partnership” with them in the faith would be effective at deepening his understanding of every good thing they share in Christ. Now in verse 17 he returns to this idea of partnership. Now he says to Philemon, “if you consider me a partner, welcome Onesimus as you would welcome me.” He is asking Philemon to consider the deeper implications of the gospel, and to put that to work in his relationship with his former slave. If Onesimus has done him any wrong, Paul asks Philemon to charge it to his account, promising to pay it back in full. But he then mentions, perhaps not so subtly now, that Philemon himself owes his very life to Paul. It is likely that Paul was the one who converted Philemon and thus brought him to eternal life.

Paul ends the letter with a note of confidence in Philemon’s obedience. He assumes that out of the goodness of his heart, he will do even more than Paul is asking of him. But in the meantime, he asks Philemon to prepare a room for him, because once he gets out of prison, he plans to visit him in answer to his prayers.

Philemon is the smallest of Paul’s letters, but it is an interesting test case in gospel reasoning. The issue could not be more sensitive—the relationship of a master and a slave who are both servants of Jesus Christ. How should this relationship be handled? What is each man to do? Paul puts the power of the gospel to work in handling this delicate situation. It is a commanding testimony to us of how we need to apply gospel thinking to every area of our life.

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