A few weeks back I posted about some fresh insights I was having about how to interpret and apply God’s Word as I read through Paul’s letter to Philemon. These fresh insights could be summed up as…
Wear the Bible like a glove.
So, how might we begin to wear Philemon?
A Brief Review
Maybe it has been awhile since you last read Philemon, or, like me, you’ve never really read it and sought to understand it. Let’s do a quick review:
- Paul writes this letter to Philemon and his family and the church that meets in house. Philemon lives in Colossae and this letter is delivered at the same time as Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae – aka the book of Colossians.
- Philemon has come to Christ because of Paul (evident in the letter).
- Paul is sending a man back to Philemon, who will personally deliver this letter. This man is Onesimus and he is key. He is one of Philemon’s slaves and has somehow escaped (an offense punishable by death). He has found Paul who, doing what he does, leads him to Christ. Paul and Onesimus become very close and Onesimus ministers to Paul during his imprisonment.
- The whole point of the letter is for Paul to reconcile Onesimus and Philemon’s relationship. He asks Philemon to accept Onesimus back into his home… but in a little bit different way than when he left.
Now, you probably know what partnership means, but you may not be too familiar with koinonia. No worries, just click that link and maybe spend a few minutes reading up on it. The short version is that it is a Greek word used throughout the New Testament that talks about our community or our participation together in the Gospel. I’ll try to talk more about this later but it would be helpful to read up on it a bit more.
The theme of partnership is evident throughout Paul’s letter. To sum it up, the letter is Paul asking Philemon:
What will it mean for us to be partners in the Gospel? It means that your slave must become your brother.
And this is no small matter. Slavery in ancient Rome was much more of an entrenched social reality than even our own most recent experience of slavery in the US during the 18th and 19th centuries. It is hard for me to even really imagine the gravity of what Paul is asking of Philemon. However, I think that is the most appropriate reaction because what Paul is asking is nothing but a practical extension of the mind-boggling , earth-shattering work of Jesus Christ on the cross. It is supposed to blow our minds… or transform them. With such a task as this, Paul goes to great lengths to both destruct and re-create Philemon’s perspective on his former slave. In the process, he shows us a way to approach one another in love and build partnership when dealing with very touchy subjects. Finally, Paul reveals just how much he expects from Philemon in this reality called koinonia, as well as how much he is willing to give.
BOOM goes the dynamite
Paul is faced with some serious de-construction work before any real reconciliation can occur between Philemon and Onesimus. Think for just a minute about what happened in our own country after the Civil War? Were freed slaves welcomed into society? Not really. After a few decades, we ended up with Jim Crow. Why? Because the old way of seeing and relating to people who were once slaves was alive and kickin. Since slavery in ancient Rome was even more of an established social norm, Paul really had to bring out the dynamite.
First, he prepares the place where the dynamite must be laid. If you’ve ever watched a Discovery channel special about how buildings are destroyed using dynamite, you know what I mean. Someone has to analyze the building’s designs and determine the best locations for the dynamite to be placed. You don’t just dump a pile of dynamite in the basement and hope for the best. In Philemon 1-7, Paul prepares the building for demolition. He does this by establishing and affirming his relationship to Philemon and Philemon’s current ministry. In verse 1 he calls Philemon his “beloved fellow worker” and already we see the hints of partnership. “We are workers for the same goal. We share a common purpose.” Not only fellow workers, but “beloved”. Here Paul uses the Greek word agapetos. If you’re familiar with the four Greek words used for love in the New Testament, you’ll recognize the base word of agape. This is the highest form of love. It is sacrificial and unconditional. After establishing the depth of their relationship, Paul affirms Philemon’s ministry and thanks him for the work he has done thus far. Then, in the midst of his encouragement and thanksgiving, Paul lays the dynamite and he does it with a prayer. He says in verse 6, “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.” Here koinonia is translated as “the sharing of your faith” – not “sharing of your faith” like evangelism, but more like your participation in the death of Jesus Christ and in the new life He now offers through His resurrection. The key word though is effective. It means powerful, effectual, or energetic. Paul says to Philemon, “I pray that your koinonia will be filled with POWER and will RESULT in new life. I want the life of your church to BEAR FRUIT.” Whether Philemon realizes it yet or not, this prayer is the beginning of the end for all the social constructs and realities that have defined his relationships up until now. True to form, Paul is turning the world upside down.
The countdown has begun. However, since Paul knows that the purpose of this demolition is reconstruction, he uses a very controlled approach. This blast will occur in multiple stages. We’ll actually need to read the King James Version of verses 10-14 to see the three stages most clearly. Look for the three “whom I” clauses…
Stage 3: Whom I have begotten
Paul identifies Philemon as his son, who was begotten in prison. Of course, Paul is speaking metaphorically and means “son” in a spiritual sense. He says the same thing about the believers in Corinth and he calls Timothy his child. He means that he has led Onesimus to Christ and is his father in the faith. This of course makes Philemon and Onesimus brothers, as Paul also led Philemon to Christ.
Stage 2: Whom I have sent
Paul, as a good apostle, is all about sending folks. As an apostle, he doesn’t just send anybody. I think being sent by Paul is kind of a big deal. He only sends those who are very close to him, and those that he trusts. Once again, we have an example in Timothy. But even more than that, Paul describes Onesimus as “mine own bowels”. Seems a bit gross, but Paul means that Onesimus is like his own heart. “Philemon, I am sending you the very dearest and most intimate part of myself… this man, your slave and now your brother, Onesimus.” Paul identifies his own self with Onesimus.
Stage 1: Whom I would have kept
This part is very interesting to me. I can pretty easily understand what Paul is trying to do in the first two stages, but this one is a bit more confusing at first. Paul says that he would like to keep Onesimus to himself. He likes Onesimus so much that he doesn’t even want to send him back. But then he says, ” that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel” I added emphasis because Paul does too. He is claiming that Onesimus is serving in a role that Philemon SHOULD BE doing. Now, I’m no scholar of any sort so this may be far fetched, but I think Paul is subtly trying to compare his partnership with Philemon and his partnership with Timothy. Both of these men are Paul’s children in the faith and we know that Paul and Timothy are very close. The letter to Philemon is one of Paul’s three pastoral letters. The other two are to Timothy and Titus. Also notice how Paul includes Timothy in the greeting… as if to say, “Timothy is with me here in prison… and Onesimus is here too on YOUR behalf.” Maybe Paul is linking Onesimus with Timothy, who is also his “child”, and who is also with him in prison, and is also being sent out by Paul, and who is certainly ministering to him, as a way to highlight Philemon’s lack of service to and active participation in partnership with Paul as one of his “sons”? As I said, it may be far-fetched. At any rate, I think Paul is establishing the fact that Onesimus is “one of us now”. He is just like Timothy and, “He is just like you, Philemon.”
In verses 15 – 17, Paul lays it all out. “Philemon, Onesimus is now your agapetos” Remember that word? Its the same one he used to describe Philemon earlier. Paul makes it clear that the former relationship between Philemon and Onesimus was incomplete. A new relationship must now be made. One that is based on the truth of the Gospel – there is neither slave nor free. Paul makes his identification with Onesimus complete – “Receive him as you would receive me”. Significantly, his entire basis for making this claim is his partnership with Philemon.
Paul knows that his words are tough medicine. He knows that they will be extremely hard for Philemon to hear and even harder to implement. In verses 18-22, Paul begins his work of reconstruction. Partnership is always a two way street, and Paul is willing to do his part because what matters is reconciliation. He makes very practical assurances to Philemon by assuring him that any debt owed to him by Onesimus will be repaid. He encourages Philemon again by saying that he is confident of his obedience. Finally, he tells Philemon that he hopes to soon visit. I’m not sure if he actually makes it back to Philemon, but at any rate, Paul knows that this is something he will need to check up on personally. This is family business and you need to go see your family.
To Be Continued
Well, I really only discussed one part of the story. However, its getting late and I have my first day of seminary class tomorrow (yay!) so I’d better get to bed. Be looking for the followups though. I’d like to talk about how Paul uses appeal instead of command, and a few more specifics as to what Paul expects out of his koinonia partners.