At first I struggled with Paul’s letter to Philemon. And it’s not because it’s pronounced ‘Figh-lee-min’…
Despite the fact that God saw fit for this 335-word letter (in the original Greek) to be included in His story, the letter makes for strangely tough reading. It’s a rather personal letter to one person, about one person, and is written in such a way that no matter how many different translations I read it in still made me feel weirdly uncomfortable: there’s an array of serious content laced with puns and seemingly tongue-in-cheek comments. Very un-Paul like if compared to his other letters and, to be honest, it felt un-Bible like in general.
Here is a quick synopsis of the already short letter, as it’s always good to know the basic context:
There’s Paul – old (yes, this is relevant) and imprisoned in Rome, yet still actively on a mission for Jesus and His gospel. Over in Colosse we have Philemon – a wealthy believer whose overtly Christ-like character is noteworthy. Caught in the middle is a slave by the name of Onesimus who belonged to Philemon but had run away and in the process seemed to have stolen from his master. Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon with the letter in question which basically asks Philemon to take his wayward slave back. But not in the way we’d expect…
Paul first appears to resort to flattery in verses 4-7, but then drops in the following phrase in verse 8: “That is why I am boldly asking a favor of you. I could demand it in the name of Christ because it is the right thing for you to do.” He tops it off by using his age as leverage for the request and offers to pay any debt owed by the slave yet “won’t mention that you owe me your very soul!” (verse 19). He also uses a play on words saying that the once useless slave is now useful, because Onesimus means “useful”… lol.
Paul appeals to Philemon to not only take Onesimus back, but to take him back a beloved brother! This would have been an absurd request considering the punishment under Roman law for a runaway slave was either crucifixion or, if they were lucky, being branded (courtesy of a metal brand as red-hot as the fire from whence it came) with the letter “F” on their forehead so all would know they were a fugitive.
This is where I knew the true meaning behind this letter was, at this point, beyond human comprehension… or at least mine. This is right where God wanted me – only the Holy Spirit can make the Word come alive and reveal its spiritual significance.
The letter to Philemon is the most incredible picture of Salvation. God, in his sovereignty, orchestrates the meeting of a fugitive-slave, hiding in the largest city in Europe at the time, with someone who is so lost in Christ that it impacts his life for eternity. Not to mention that Paul ‘just so happened’ to know Philemon, and that there must have also been a very special relationship between Paul and Philemon that allowed Paul to speak to him so personally and candidly.
From his letters we can see that Paul took certain things very seriously: Jesus as Lord and the Gospel; loving, encouraging, and correcting believers; and transformation of sinners to Christ-likeness. Through this lens we start to see the incredible image of Grace unfold.
Paul encourages Philemon in verses 4-7 that his heart for Jesus is noticed, and brings joy and refreshing to Paul and the other believers. He then appeals to Philemon’s new nature in Christ to do this favour because he wanted to and not because Paul could have demanded it in Jesus’ name. Too often I have read the Bible as a rule book and not as a call to be completely consumed by the goodness and grace of a powerful and transformative God (hence my comment about this letter feeling un-Bible like). There’s so much more to God than simply following His law.
Paul explains to Philemon that Onesimus has undergone a transformation from being a slave (a commodity) and a criminal, to a beloved and useful brother in Christ, and Paul’s spiritual child. This radical transformation could only have taken place by the power of God’s spirit, and he mentions that Onesimus was once lost but that he would now return to Philemon forever, which speaks of eternal restoration. Philemon would have been faced with a growth point in his Christ-likeness by having to set aside what he was entitled to by law and truly accepting this “new creation in Christ” (2 Cor 5:17). Paul’s challenge to the now transformed Onesimus was that by the power of the Holy Spirit he was to face his past, and as David Pawson so beautifully phrases it “you can go and put your past right now!”.
Paul is a picture of Christ and His extravagant gift of Salvation, Onesimus the picture of a sinner not only redeemed but transformed, and Philemon being both a reminder of the fact that God wants to do a complete transformation in us, but, more importantly a picture of a loving, generous, gracious, merciful, powerful, and holy God who desires and deserves to be intimately in charge of our journey from sinner to Christ-likeness.