By Robert Kinney
Though often passed over as short and insignificant, Paul’s letter to Philemon might actually be the perfect message for a moment in history consumed with questions of identity and self-realization, social justice, the assertion of rights, and mercy. More importantly, it presents an opportunity to apply the gospel—the essential and authentic gospel as Paul understands it—to these difficult concepts.
What are the challenges, then, to studying and teaching this little letter? What should you know to get a good handle on it?
1. Consider Philemon’s particular challenges
In setting out to study or teach Philemon, we have to consider two fairly substantial issues in the letter’s context: the reconstruction of the circumstances that prompt the letter, and the letter’s references to slavery.
One major challenge is that the background to this letter is difficult to reconstruct. Certain theories introduce enticing drama into the mix, but we have to hold such reconstructions tentatively.
One proposal is that Philemon (the letter’s recipient) once had a slave named Onesimus, who escaped and stole from Philemon, serendipitously made his way to Paul in prison, became a Christian, and was now being sent back by Paul. One variation of this theory suggests Onesimus didn’t just happen upon Paul but intentionally sought him out to intercede with Philemon on his behalf. Another variation offers that Philemon sent Onesimus to Paul to serve him in prison, and Paul was now asking Philemon to free Onesimus.
Good critical commentaries (such David Pao’s in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary series) will articulate the difficulties with each of these theories. An exposition of Philemon that seeks to say no more or less than can be demonstrated in the text will have to hold each theory tentatively, even if it means forgoing a more dramatic telling of the story.
An equally challenging aspect of this letter is its reference to slavery—a loaded concept in our era. Some translations seek to soften the “slave” reference by using “bondservant” for the Greek word doulon (which appears twice in v. 16), but the concept of slavery remains a significant part of the background. The difficulty is that, while Paul seemingly seeks the freedom of Onesiumus, he stops short of condemning the institution of slavery.
There are significant similarities and dissimilarities between the practice of slavery in the first century and, for example, the Atlantic slave trade of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. As we work through this letter, we need to be aware of both the commonalities and differences. Teachers and preachers need to respect how people will hear the word and concept, rather than being dismissive in explaining the differences.
2. Identify Philemon’s main point
With those challenges in mind, someone seeking to study or teach Philemon will want to spend some time considering the structure and purpose of the letter.
Introduction (vv. 1–7)
Establishing common ground
The opening section of the letter consists of a typical greeting, a thanksgiving, and a prayer. We should observe that the focus here is on Paul’s personal relationship with Philemon, with no mention of Onesimus. This gives an important clue to Paul’s personal way of working and to his eventual purpose, most clearly expressed in verse 6: that “the sharing of [Philemon’s] faith may become effective.”
Body (vv. 8–20)
Arriving at the primary request
Within the main body of the letter, verses 15–17 present the primary argument—really a request. Here Paul not only describes Onesimus in affectionate terms, similar to how he describes Philemon, but also asks for their reconciliation. He wants Philemon to treat Onesimus no longer as a bondservant but as a beloved brother in the flesh and in the Lord. Verse 17 makes this clear: “So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me.” The argument is made in emotional terms throughout.
Paul provokes sympathy by referencing his imprisonment (vv. 1, 9, 10, 13; also see v. 23). He also speaks in characteristically familial terms, referring to becoming Onesimus’ father (v. 10), describing Philemon as a brother (vv. 7, 20), and suggesting that Philemon should treat Onesimus as a beloved brother (v. 16).
Paul’s use of “heart” is also strategic. Early in the letter, he mentions how Philemon refreshes the hearts of the saints (v. 7); toward the end, he asks Philemon to “refresh my heart” (v. 20). In between these references, Paul declares that Onesimus is his heart. In other words, Paul is asking Philemon to refresh his heart by refreshing (or accepting) Onesimus.
Paul is also deliberate in noting that if any worldly debt is owed, he is happy to pay it, strategically using irony to relate this to Philemon’s apparent debt to Paul: “I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self ” (v. 19).
Paul makes the case that this new relationship between Philemon and Onesimus will be a productive one, claiming that Onesimus is useful (v. 11). Indeed, the meaning of the name “Onesimus” is related to the Greek words for “useful” (euchrēston) and “beneficial” (onaimēn, v. 20).
Closing (vv. 21–25)
Expressing further reasons
Paul also gives other reasons for these two men to reconcile. His hope to visit Philemon—articulated in the final section, along with final greetings—is an obviously good reason. Here Paul also boldly proclaims his confidence that Philemon will comply and much more.
3. Note Philemon’s gospel implications
The biggest reason for Philemon and Onesimus to reconcile remains the gospel. Their new relationship would be nothing less than a living embodiment of the gospel, in which Christ sacrificed much more than pride and possession to demonstrate loving reconciliation. Onesimus’ new identity in Christ—along with Philemon’s identity in Christ—requires living out this gospel message in front of all who look on, both in that moment in history and in our own. This new identity—experienced by both men—is one that revolves around the surrendering of rights rather than the demanding of rights, as Jesus Christ demonstrates in the gospel (see Paul’s hymn to Christ in Phil 2:5–8).
In our world, which is rightly concerned with social justice, Paul’s plea to be merciful and to give up rights is a profound gospel challenge to us.
Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version.
Robert Kinney (PhD, University of Bristol) is a New Testament scholar and a fellow at the Center for Pastor Theologians. He is the director of ministries for the Charles Simeon Trust, a global ministry that trains the next generation of biblical expositors.
This post is adapted from the March/April 2020 edition of Bible Study Magazine. The title is the addition of an editor.