January 27, 2005

Philemon: We are all Onesimus

(This post is adapted from a Sunday school lesson delivered some time in 1999, and was my contribution to a series titled "The Little Books," discussing the shorter letters of the New Testament. It's one of my earliest attempts at exposition [only the two sola Scriptura pieces, below, are older] and despite the fact that my methods and outlook on Scripture have matured over the intervening six years, I'm still quite pleased with it.)

You are the wealthy head of a Roman household in the midst of the first century: a wealthy, respected man in the city of Colosse. You own a number of slaves. The institution of slavery is essential to your society's infrastructure. Imagine how you would feel if one of your slaves ran away  and what's more, you suspect that he has stolen a lot of money from you as well.

Think forward to a few months to a year later. You're relaxing in your house. One of your slaves or servants comes in and announces a messenger.

I should add you are a Christian. Not only that, but you're a close friend of a man named Paul - the Billy Graham of your generation. So you recognize the messenger. It's a man named Tychicus, one of Paul's most trusted associates. He's got a letter , which you take, and read . . .

How do you feel? What do you do?

This letter, which today we usually call the Epistle to Philemon, was most likely written by Paul when he was imprisoned in Rome, probably around AD 60. We also know it was written and delivered at the same time as Colossians, because Paul mentions the situation in Col. 4:9. But unlike Colossians, this letter is uncannily obscure. It is Paul's most personal letter. It doesn't teach any specific doctrines. I've never seen it quoted in any book of theology. Of the 3,500 sermons of Spurgeon's that saw publication, none of them were from Philemon. And, as I found out while doing my research, it apparently never inspired any hymns. In fact, over the years, it has been debated whether it rightly belongs in the canon of Scripture at all.

Nonetheless, Philemon is a personal favourite part of the Bible for me. As a rhetoric graduate, I can appreciate Philemon as a textbook example of the ancient art of letter writing, and I enjoy seeing how Paul structures his arguments. But Philemon is more than just a rhetorical model. It isn't just form and function. Rather, Philemon is evidence of the power of the Gospel to change lives. It is a true parable - a living analogy for God�s forgiveness and redemption of sinners.

Let's begin with the person of Onesimus. He is a slave. As I have already said, slavery as an institution was crucial to the Greek and Roman economy. Aristotle had once said that it was the natural order of things for some men to be slaves. Slaves were the personal property of their owners; they were "living tools."

But Onesimus was a runaway slave. He was rebellious. There were 60 million slaves in the Roman Empire. They had to be kept down, because if they had all decided to revolt, they had the raw manpower to overthrow the empire. Thus a slave owner had absolute power over the fate of his property. At best, a runaway slave might have been marked with a brand on his forehead, an "F" that stood for fugitivus - runaway. At worst, he would be crucified. Paul never said anything against the institution of slavery, at least directly, which is probably understandable given the social situation at the time.

But then, something happened to Onesimus. It seems he found his way to Rome. If you didn't want to be found, a big city like that was probably a good place to go. But while Onesiumus was there, he got in contact with Paul somehow, and as a result he became a Christian. And after he came to Christ, he decided that he wanted to do the right thing and risk returning to Philemon's household.

Paul, obviously agreeing, sends him back to Philemon in the company of Tychicus, but he also sends along a personal letter to Philemon. He begins the letter with a personal commendation (vv. 4-7), because Philemon loves for the saints, and because he has encouraged them.

But Paul then turns around and, having built up Philemon, becomes an advocate for Onesimus. He says that Philemon ought to welcome back Onesimus as though he were Paul himself, writing:

I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds: which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me: whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels: whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel: I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, who was once unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me. I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart. (10-13)

Incidentally, Paul's use of the words "profitable" and "unprofitable" here is a pun. Onesimus' name means "useful."

Furthermore, Philemon was to welcome Onesimus back, but not just as a returning runaway slave. Thanks to his changed relationship in Christ, Philemon was now a brother:

For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever; not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord? (15-16)

And then Paul guarantees the repayment of any debt Onesimus might owe Philemon. Maybe Paul made an educated guess that Onesimus would have had to steal to make his escape possible. Maybe Onesimus admitted it. We don't really know the situation, but whatever it was, Paul made a legally binding promise to cover Onesimus' debts (18-19). In that day, letters were customarily dictated to a professional amanuensis, or scribe. Writing in one's own hand signified a serious promise, as binding as a signature on a contract today.

We are Onesimus. Paul wrote his letter to Romans, he said numerous times that we were formerly "slaves to sin." We are all spiritual runaways from our true master, who is God. All men know who God is: "For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse" (Rom. 1:20). But although we knew that God is our Lord and Creator, we chose instead to run away from him:

Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. . . . [a]nd changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things. (Rom. 1:21,23)

Instead of glorifying God for who he is, all of us wanted instead to run away from him, like Onesimus, and risk the death penalty that we had rightfully earned.

But then we, too, heard the Gospel, the Good News, and it transformed us, from willful runaways into willing servants. 2 Corinthians 5:7 says that "if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature." Where before we were useless, now "we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:10). Or, as Paul wrote to Titus:

This is a faithful saying, and these things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable unto men. (Tit. 3:8)

Moreover, we too return to God as more than a slave: Galatians 4:7 says that "thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ."

Just as Paul began his letter by identifying himself with Philemon, Christ identified himself as an emissary of his Father when he began his mission on earth. For example, John writes that at one point some Jews asked him:

Then said they unto him, Who art thou? And Jesus saith unto them, Even the same that I said unto you from the beginning. I have many things to say and to judge of you: but he that sent me is true; and I speak to the world those things which I have heard of him. They understood not that he spake to them of the Father. Then said Jesus unto them, When ye have lifted up the Son of man, then shall ye know that I am he, and that I do nothing of myself; but as my Father hath taught me, I speak these things. And he that sent me is with me: the Father hath not left me alone; for I do always those things that please him. (John 8:25-29)

But then, in his death, Christ identified himself with us sinners, as John also wrote, later in his life:

My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2)

Substitutionary atonement. Christ's death was an actual, real substitute for the death we deserved to die for our own sins. By taking our penalty on our behalf, Christ truly satisfied the justice of God, who no longer holds our sins against us, because our debt has been guaranteed by Christ, "in whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace" (Eph. 1:7).

So, did he or didn't he? What was Philemon's reaction to this letter? I'm personally convinced that his answer was "Yes!" Here's why.

Paul's tone suggests that Philemon is accountable to many people for his response. First, to Paul himself, who tosses out his authority as an apostle, and then mentions to Philemon that he owes him his very life, spiritually speaking. This is a rather transparent rhetorical tactic - Paul says he doesn't want to bring these things up, and in fact he appeals to Philemon on the basis of their friendship rather than Paul's authority or Philemon's life-debt - but, well, there it is, anyway.

Paul also makes Philemon accountable to the church in Colosse, where Philemon lived. In fact, they met in his own home. Paul addresses the letter not only to Philemon personally, but also to the Colossian church at large, and also an "Archippus," thought by some to be Philemon's son, but evidently a pastor in the church. The letter to the Colossians was obviously written and sent at the same time, and says that Paul sent the letter with Tychicus and "with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you" (Col. 4:9). So everyone in the Colossian church knew Onesimus, now a believer, was back.

He also makes Philemon accountable to Timothy, whom, it seems, was present with Paul and is named as the co-sender of the letter (Philem. 1). No doubt Timothy's assent to Paul's message carried some weight, as he was one of Paul's most trusted emissaries, as well as a pastor in his own right.

So with all these people watching you, what would you do?

Second, we can be sure Philemon carried out Paul's request, simply because we have this letter at all. What do you think would have happened if Philemon had been offended? Would he have kept it, much less given a copy of it to someone else? No, he would have destroyed it, and that would have ended the matter then and there. But here it is, prima facie evidence that Philemon joyfully received the message, in the same spirit that it was sent; not only that, but he must have made copies!

Finally, we have the testimony of history. One of the Apostolic Fathers, Ignatius, wrote an Epistle to the Ephesians, which began:

I have become acquainted with your name, much-beloved in God, which ye have acquired by the habit of righteousness, according to the faith and love in Jesus Christ our Saviour. Being the followers of God, and stirring up yourselves by the blood of God, ye have perfectly accomplished the work which was beseeming to you. . . . I received, therefore, your whole multitude in the name of God, through Onesimus, a man of inexpressible love, and your bishop in the flesh, whom I pray you by Jesus Christ to love, and that you would all seek to be like him. And blessed be He who has granted unto you, being worthy, to obtain such an excellent bishop.

Is this "excellent bishop" the same man for whom Paul wrote so passionately and graciously? To be honest, history doesn't tell us for certain.

But the romantic side of me wants to believe. I want to think that Philemon realized the ramifications of the changed relationship between him and Onesimus, that if they were equal in the eyes of God, he could no longer justify owning Onesimus as a slave, and he gave him his freedom. I'd like to believe that Onesimus made his way to Ephesus and became the overseer of the Ephesian church. History tells us that the Pauline epistles were first collected at Ephesus; I want to believe that Onesimus had kept a copy of the letter to Philemon, and that he went to the people who were compiling Paul's letters and said, "Here. Put this one in. It's my story. It's what God did for me. Paul wrote this. It's the Word of God."

Today we have received Philemon as the Word of God, which means there's an example in there for us. There is a practical message of forgiveness in this short book. Paul wrote Philemon to tell him to forgive Onesimus, not to demand his life as the law would have allowed, but to accept him as a brother, and even more. Legitimate personal grievances come to an end when the offender comes to Christ; forgive the wrong and move on. Paul knew something about this personally. Luke records, in Acts 9, how at first the church was afraid of him because they remembered that he'd been trying to kill them before his conversion. But Barnabas didn't hold a grudge: he took Paul by the hand and introduced him to the apostles. Those whom God forgives, we forgive. Our personal issues don't trump God's grace.

The story doesn't end there. We are all Onesimus. Sure, we don't all have a dramatic story to tell about escaping from slavery and running halfway across Europe, but for all of us there was a time when we were running from God. Yet God has accepted us back. God has been patient with those who are running from him, but there is a time appointed where his patience will finally end, and the just penalty for sin will have to be paid, and that penalty is death. But the good news is, if you will turn away from your sinful life, and will put your trust in Jesus Christ, then guarantee of eternal life wasn't signed only in pen and ink, but in Jesus Christ's own blood. Be a slave no longer; be received as a son.

Next Thursday: More on Philemon.


- Posted by Scott McClare @ 1:00 PM · Permalink