The Gospel in Philemon
“Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved fellow worker 2 and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, 6 and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.
7 For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you. 8 Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, 9 yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— 10 I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. 11 (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) 12 I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. 13 I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. 15 For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
17 So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. 18 If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.
21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. 22 At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.
23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, 24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.
25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”
Upon a first reading, Philemon seems like a strange little letter to put in the New Testament. Paul wrote it to his friend Philemon on behalf of a slave, Onesimus, who had run away from Philemon’s house. Paul’s basic message is, “Onesimus is your brother in Christ—treat him that way when you see him again.” It’s an interesting tale, but it almost seems like we are just reading some else’s mail. Yet if we will read this brief letter with a little more perspective, it comes to life as illustration of the grand story of the gospel.
First there is a master: Philemon. He is sovereign over his estate. What he says goes. Second there is a servant in the master’s house: Onesimus. At some point the servant rebelled against his master and fled from his presence. Now there is a separation between servant and master. Third there is a mediator: Paul. The servant meets the mediator and sees how he has hurt his master, but he still must be reconciled to him. This letter is the mediator appealing to the master on behalf of the servant, volunteering to pay whatever price necessary to reconcile the two: “If you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account…I will repay it” (vv17-19). Does any of this ring a bell?
First there is a master: God the Father. He is sovereign over all his creation. What he says goes. Second there is a servant in the master’s house: that’s us. We rebelled against our master and fled from his presence, creating a separation between servant and master (Isa 59:2). Third: “There is one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ” (1 Tim 2:5). When the servant meets the mediator, Jesus steps in and says to his Father, “I vouch for this one. I know he owes you a massive debt he could never repay. I will pay everything he owes you so you can be reconciled.” Has it sunk in yet?
I’m optimistic about how things between Philemon and Onesimus turned out. Paul himself expresses confidence in Philemon’s forgiving heart: “Confident of your obedience, I wrote to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say” (v21). But the story is left open-ended. We don’t know for sure whether the master welcomed the servant home. But in our story, there is no uncertainty. Our master has not only promised to welcome us home, but to treat us as his children, not servants. That means the ball is in our court. We, like Onesimus, must see the heartbreak we have caused to our master, humble ourselves before him, and repent of our sin. When we do, we have an advocate (1 Jn 2:1) who can pay the debt we owe, and a father who will welcome us home with open arms. This curious little letter is actually an illustration of the grand story of the gospel. Will you hear it?
By Drew Nelson
From Expository Files 23.3; March 2016