2 Timothy 3:16 is very clear: ALL Scripture is inspired by God, and ALL of it is profitable for teaching, for reproof, and for correction in righteousness.
99% of the time, I have exactly zero problem believing that.
Romans talks about the nature of grace.
1 and 2 Corinthians both talk about carnality and it’s influence on the church.
Hebrews talks about the fulfillment of the Old Testament by the New Testament.
No problem with that.
Every once in a while though, I come across a passage that I have a hard time understanding its purpose. And today, Philemon fits that bill.
At only 25 verses long, a lot of us tend to skip right over it. It’s “hyper-personal,” we claim, arguing that because its personal, it has no bearing on our life.
Or we claim that since it doesn’t contain hardcore theological concepts, it’s not “as important” as others.
I would disagree with both of those assessments.
Philemon is incredibly poignant, and there are several lessons we could pull from it.
It’s a Letter That Addresses the Change in a Person When They Become a Christian
Onesimus was a slave. It says so in verse 16.
Onesimus was also a Christian. It says that in verse 10.
However, the key phrase for Philemon is verse 11, which says that Onesimus was once “formerly useless,” but is now “useful” to Philemon.
Paul is so sure of this fact that he even expresses the desire to keep on alongside him in his work (Philemon 13).
Doesn’t that, in a way, describe our own life as Christians? Ephesians 2:1-7 talks about how we were formerly aliens from Christ, but now have been reconciled because of God’s grace. It’s a stark reminder of our condition pre and post-Cross.
Funny enough, there’s a passage like that in nearly every one of the epistles (1 Cor. 6:9-11; Colossians 3:7; Romans 11:30). All of them allude to the radical change that takes place when we make the choice to become a Christian.
That freedom changes us. Galatians 5:1-6 argues that we need to “stand firm” and “wait for the hope of righteousness.” That slavery that we used to have to things of this world pales in comparison to the hope that we have in Christ.
I don’t think that’s the only lesson though.
It’s a Letter That Shows the Value of Christian Fellowship
I am not someone who ascribes to the house church theory. I do not believe that the Bible commands us to only worship in houses anymore than I believe that the Bible forbids church buildings.
But I do think that there can be some value in that type of a setup. It’s almost inevitable to have a closer body of Christians when you open up people’s homes and they sit on couches next to each other.
This seems to be the setup in Philemon’s case. Paul addresses the “church that is in your house” (Philemon 2).
The letter to Philemon is a plea to let a man who was formerly a slave — a piece of property, in those days — to join inside of that fellowship. That’s not a small request.
In Galatians 3:19-29, Paul talks about the unity that we experience as Christians. No matter where we come from, our faith binds us as one body.
If Philemon accomplishes nothing else, it shows us the radicalness of our fellowship, that even a slave can be joined to the same group as members of a higher social order. That may not mean as much to us in 2023, but it’s uber-powerful to a group of first century Christians.
It’s a Letter That Shows Love and Forgiveness From a Pure Heart
Maybe there’s a reason why the book is so laser-focused on one issue. Maybe instead of covering a bunch of different topics, Paul chose to hone in on one: the heart.
Notice the language used throughout Philemon. Paul says that he could have “compelled” Philemon to receive Onesimus, but he wanted to appeal to him as a brother instead.
Because that’s what Philemon needed to do.
This might also explain why Paul addressed Apphia as well. If the traditions surrounding her are true — that she is Philemon’s wife — then she would have had operational control of Onesimu’s future. Philemon would have the authority, but the day-to-day matters would fall to Apphia.
If that’s the case, then both of them needed to show hospitality and benevolence to Onesimus.
Paul did have one trick up his sleeve though. In Colossians 3:22-4:1, Paul addresses the behavior of both slaves and masters, giving instructions to each.
To slaves, Paul says that they should obey their masters “in everything.” That’s music to Philemon’s ears.
Paul tells masters, on the other hand, to treat their slaves with justice and fairness, “knowing that you also have a Master in Heaven.”
There’s a greater-than-average chance that Colossians came before Philemon (or maybe even circulated at the same time). As Philemon hears the command given to people like himself in Colossians, he then gets a real-life test of its application in his response to the book of Philemon.
It’s a Letter That Describes the Extent of Repentance
Imagine being in Onesimus’ shoes.
As a new Christian, you know that you need to repent of your sins in order to be saved.
But you also know that part of that repentance involves you going back to Philemon to make it right with him.
You also know that he has the right to kill you for what you did. And now here you are, arriving on his doorstep served up like a side of ‘taters at a barbecue.
How would you feel?
I don’t think many of us will ever be in that position. Our repentance is not usually a matter of life or death (like it was for Onesimus), but in some cases, we might wish it were. It could be a lot easier to swallow.
Consider this: Do you think it was easy for the Prodigal Son to return home (Luke 15:11-32)? Do you think he enjoyed looking his dad in the eye — the same one that he was too impatient to wait to die so that he could get the inheritance — and admit he was wrong? Do you think he wanted to confront his older brother who had spent the intervening period working in the fields?
Sometimes repentance forces us to do some really hard things. It requires us to have some uncomfortable conversations or talk to people that really don’t like us very much.
None of that makes it any less necessary, though.
What we do know is that, on the other end of that repentance, is a chorus of angels that are rejoicing because of our decision to push through the pain and return home.
And even though Onesimus couldn’t see it, he had to have faith that Philemon would feel the same way about him.
So…What’s the Point of Philemon?
I’m not sure what the major point is here. Maybe all four of them.
What I do know is that we tend to focus on some more than the others, even though all of them are applicable to us.
Paul was right, after all — All Scripture is beneficial for reproof, for instruction, for correction in righteousness.
We just have to read it.
Frequently Asked Questions
Did Philemon Forgive Onesimus?
Unfortunately, the Text doesn’t tell us whether or not Philemon forgave Onesimus. Judging from the fact that Paul calls Onesimus a “beloved brother” in Colossians 4:9 who was to inform the church there about Paul’s situation, it seems like Philemon would’ve forgiven him. It’s not for certain though.
What Does Onesimus Mean?
The name Onesimus means “useful,” which makes it a play on words from when Paul told Philemon that he was formerly “useless” but is now “useful” (Philemon 11). It’s a pretty common name, especially for a slave.
Who Wrote Philemon?
It’s widely accepted that Paul wrote the letter to Philemon. This letter is part of the group of “undisputed” books of Paul’s; books like Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians and some of the Pastoral epistles have been in doubt by some scholars.
What is the Relationship Between Paul and Philemon?
Nothing more is known of the relationship between Paul and Philemon outside of this letter. Since Philemon was a member of the church at Colossae though, it stands to reason that their first meeting would’ve been around the same time as when Paul visited Ephesus during his second missionary journey (Acts 18).
Paul does mention that Philemon “owes him his own life as well,” so it also stands to reason that there’s a closer relationship there than Paul has with most people.Last modified: January 26, 2023