These reflections on Onesimus and the letter to Philemon came about after I was asked to speak on the subject as part of a discipleship and outreach series. After an initial reading, I had a sense of what God wanted to say through the text. But in order to be prepared, I read the short letter to Philemon in German, Greek and eight different English translations. Several things struck me while reading and re-reading the text – not least that Paul and Philemon get most of the attention when actually Onesimus should be at the centre.
The discipleship series was called “From lost and alone to found and at home” and wove various texts together around the central narrative of Luke 15 and the Prodigal son. We are all familiar with the prodigal son and I am learning to avoid the spirit of the older brother, but are you aware of the third brother? Here’s a quick summary before we go any further:
- The first brother is the prodigal – someone who is clearly lost in the world and so perhaps easy to spot.
- God’s answer – “while you were still a long way off, He came running” to give you: shoes, a ring and a robe (representing a role, authority and His righteousness).
- The older brother – harder to spot because they are in the right place, but with some faulty beliefs about the prodigal AND the father. Poverty minded.
- God’s answer – there is no shortage, everything I have
- Jesus, the Son of God the one modelling how a son of the Father acts – He is focused on reaching out and reconciling both by telling this story to both kinds of people (with thanks to Pastor Joel Sims).
Bear this in mind as we take a fresh look at the letter to Philemon.
Sent around 62AD, Paul is writing to a wealthy man called Philemon while Paul himself was in prisoned. Several sources suggest Philemon believed the Gospel during Paul’s time in Ephesus. And at the time of this letter is hosting the church in Collosae (modern-day Turkey) in his home. The events of the letter to Philemon are taking place roughly a decade into Philemon’s Christian walk.
Onesimus was a slave that – for whatever reason – ran away from his master, Philemon, and after meeting Paul becomes a Christian. But Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon with this letter…
1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker—
“Prisoner of Christ…” While Paul is indeed in prison at this point, he identifies himself as a prisoner of Christ Jesus rather than of the Roman Empire. This reminds me of something young son said a couple of years ago, reflecting on the resurrection: “the tombstone [that was put there by the Roman soldiers] being moved by an angel means: The Kingdom is more powerful than the empire.” In other words, from the very outset, Paul is seeking to subvert the rule of any kingdom that contradicts the Kingdom.
Vincent highlights that this is the only time that this particular salutation is used in the New Testament. Two points on the significance of this rarely used greeting: 1) It demonstrates how Paul gives to Caeser what is Caeser’s and God what is God’s. In other words, Paul sees himself as a citizen of heaven more than a citizen of the world empire – Rome. And therefore he has the authority to subvert whatever Rome does that is not in line with God’s Kingdom; and 2) By doing so, Paul identifies with Onesimus who would be seen by the world as a prisoner or on the run, but has rather chosen to serve Paul in his captivity. All very important themes that we come back to in the text.
For his part, Philemon is identified as “our” – that is Paul and Timothy’s – “beloved fellow worker”. This, again, raises Philemon’s (along with the rest of the list) expectation of what is coming. Paulis modelling a culture of mutual honour. The message? We are all valuable. And if Philemon is Paul and Timothy’s ‘beloved fellow worker’, we all are. To put it into more contemporary parlance – Onesimus’ life matters.
Getting Philemon and his apparently loving church to understand this was going to take fully empowered faith…