We continue our look at the short, personal letter of Philemon this week with a little review. Last week, we looked at the occasion for the letter—the apostle Paul is trying to reconcile a runaway slave named Onesimus (which means “useful”) with his master Philemon, and in doing so Paul wants to erase the distinction of status between them. He wants them to see each other as brothers in Christ, no longer as slave and master. Such is the reconciling power of the gospel that Paul preaches.
In many ways, this letter is also an echo of the very thing that Jesus taught and practiced. In fact, we might look at the situation in Philemon as being very similar to the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. You remember how that story goes—a young man takes his inheritance early and runs off on his own to a far country. In effect, he is saying to his father, “I wish you were dead, I am taking what’s coming to me,” and he heads off to a far country where he squanders everything. He is so broke that he finds himself slopping pigs and eating what they’re eating—about as low as a Jewish boy could go.
But as Jesus tells the story, the young man “comes to himself”—he has an epiphany, and decides to return home to his father. It’s his last resort, but he has no reason to believe his father will receive him. He has disgraced his father and the rest of the family and deserves nothing but contempt. But Jesus then gives an amazing twist to the story—instead of shunning the wayward son, the father runs down the driveway to meet him, hugging him, welcoming him home, and throwing a party for him. The one who was lost is found, and it’s cause for celebration!
This is the gospel that both Jesus and Paul preached—it is the power of grace and reconciliation, welcoming the wayward home. It’s a gospel about bringing God’s world and God’s people back together. Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon—the prodigal runaway coming to himself and going back to make amends—and Paul urges Philemon to receive him not as a runaway slave who deserves punishment (even the death penalty), but—as Paul has already called Onesimus—a “son” and a “brother” in faith. Paul urges a joyous reunion where there is forgiveness, reconciliation, and a new relationship.
That’s why this letter is so important and why I think it found a place in the New Testament—it is the practical application of the gospel in a real life situation—a comment on what happens when the gospel begins to run loose in the real world. The gospel is not merely a theological concept, but something to be practiced. As with Jesus, all of Paul’s theology is practical and all of Paul’s practice is theological.
We often get this wrong, however. The word “gospel” gets used in a variety of ways that can lead to the reduction of its power. For some, the word “gospel” is simply the good news of how a person can get to heaven when they die. For others, “gospel” is a program of social justice. Both of those gospels have some truth to them, but in and of themselves they are incomplete. As the late great Methodist missionary E. Stanley Jones once put it, “A personal gospel without a social gospel is a soul without a body; and a social gospel without a personal gospel is a body without a soul. One is a ghost, the other a corpse.” In fact, I would argue that one of the major things dividing the church of Jesus Christ today is a misunderstanding of the gospel and what that word actually meant to Jesus and to the apostle Paul—it is both personal and social, spiritual and practical, it’s about reconciliation with God and with others. If we misunderstand this, we misunderstand the goal that God has in mind and we misunderstand what the church is all about, too.
All of that is in the background of Paul’s letter to Philemon. The central symbol of Paul’s thought was the church as a new human race made possible by the good news of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension. As the angel would say to the shepherds on the first Christmas morning, this is “good news which shall be for all people.” God is not simply about preparing souls for a heavenly escape, nor is he merely about making peoples’ lot in life a little better—he is about making everything new, and that begins with restoring and reconciling humanity.
Paul sees this all as part of the larger story that the Scriptures are telling. He would never reduce the gospel to a few verses, but rather sees the whole Bible as a series of interlocking narratives—stories within stories. Think of it sort of as a Shakespeare play like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is a play within a play within a play—all the stories intersect and only mean what they mean in relationship to one another. It’s a story with plots and subplots where everything matters and leads to a climax at the end.
For Paul, the big story—the overarching story—is the story of God and creation. The Creator God creates the world as his temple, a place in which he intends to dwell and that reflects his glory. Within that story is the story of humanity, whom God creates to be priests in this temple. Humans are made in his image and are given the vocation to have dominion over the earth, reflecting God’s righteous reign and rule and being stewards of all that God created. But the humans chose to exchange the image of God for an idolatrous image of themselves, and sin entered the world and death along with it. Both creation and humanity are scarred and enslaved by these alien forces.
And so there is a third layer—the story of Israel, which is the story of God’s plan to rescue the people he created through the family of Abraham—a family that will become enslaved in more ways than one, and then be liberated by God to freedom and a promised land. This family, this nation, struggles to be faithful to God’s covenant, but it is out of that family that the fourth layer emerges—the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. This is the story that fuses all the other stories together and brings resolution and reconciliation—Jesus is Israel’s Messiah, the divine human who redeems humanity, and all of creation. As Paul puts it in his letter to the Colossians:
The Son is the image
of the invisible God,
the one who is first over all creation,
Because all things were created by him:
both in the heavens and on the earth,
the things that are visible
and the things that are invisible.
Whether they are thrones or powers,
or rulers or authorities,
all things were created
through him and for him.
He existed before all things,
and all things are held together in him.
He is the head of the body, the church,
who is the beginning,
the one who is firstborn
from among the dead
so that he might occupy
the first place in everything.
Because all the fullness of God
was pleased to live in him,
and he reconciled all things to himself
whether things on earth
or in the heavens.
He brought peace
through the blood of his cross.
Once you were alienated from God and you were enemies with him in your minds, which was shown by your evil actions. But now he has reconciled you by his physical body through death, to present you before God as a people who are holy, faultless, and without blame…This message has been preached throughout all creation under heaven. And I, Paul, became a servant of this good news (Colossians 1:15-23)
This is the gospel that Paul is preaching and teaching, and it’s the gospel that is in the background of this letter to Philemon. Paul believes the church is the visible sign of this new humanity, thus he appeals to Philemon to receive back Onesimus in a new, equal relationship. Things are different now because of Jesus, Paul seems to be saying, so let’s act like it!
Indeed, there are echoes of these interlocking stories in what Paul writes to his friend. In verse 15, Paul writes, “Maybe this is why he was separated from you for a while so that you might have him back forever—no longer as a slave but more than a slave—that is, as a dearly loved brother. He is especially a dearly loved brother to me. How much more can he become a brother to you, personally and spiritually in the Lord!” We get a hint here of the Exodus story—that freedom from slavery is at the heart of Israel’s story and also the concept of “Jubilee”—that every fifty years debts would be released and slaves would be set free as a reminder of what God had done for Israel. For Paul, the coming of Jesus was a form of permanent Jubilee, thus the distinction between slave and master has been erased. They are now brothers, all of them together—both personally and spiritually. This isn’t merely symbolic for Paul, it’s practical!
They are all now partners together in the gospel because they are living it out in ways that would have shocked their Roman neighbors—a prisoner, a slave, and a businessman all brothers? That’s a very different idea of humanity! “So, if you really consider me a partner,” says Paul, “welcome Onesimus as if you were welcoming me” (v. 17). And the implication, also, is that as Philemon welcomes Onesimus, he is also welcoming Jesus, the one whom the gospel is about.
It is Jesus who has paid the debts and set those enslaved to sin free. Paul echoes that Jubilee when he says to Philemon, “If he [Onesimus] has harmed you in any way or owes you money, charge it to my account” (v. 18). Paul will pay the debts of another in order to bring reconciliation. Paul learned this from Jesus, who took on our debts of sin as well. If we owe God anything, it is put on Jesus’ account. The one who knew no sin, became sin (took on our debt of sin) so that we could be set free and have all accounts clear with God.
In verse 19, Paul reminds Philemon that the owes Paul his life—Philemon was himself set free by the gospel Paul preached and had his own debt of sin erased. Onesimus has now come home and, Paul says, all our accounts are square with God.
Paul writes persuasively, appealing to the gospel as the basis of his request to Philemon. He hopes to get out of prison soon and come and visit, so he tells Philemon to “prepare a guest room for me” (v. 22). Paul wants to come and check on the situation and see how the gospel is being lived out in this little Colossian house church that is primed to become an example of this new humanity.
The letter to Philemon raises some important questions for us as we think about the gospel and the church. Does the church really look like the new humanity made possible by the gospel? It’s hard to see it sometimes. Too often, we reflect the divisions, the stereotypes, and the status of the world. We see those divisions everywhere we look in our world—racial tension, the constant news of more people in power coercing others through sexual harassment, divisions of politics. Rather than looking like the new humanity, the church often reflects these tensions within. We have a hard time welcoming one another, of living a different kind of story.
But if we believe that the gospel is actually true, and that it actually does change things, then we will see things differently. We will see the church as God’s new humanity and recognize that the usual categories don’t apply anymore. We will learn to see one another as brothers and sisters rather than as women and men, black and white, rich and poor. We will rejoice with those who rejoice and suffer with those who suffer because we recognize that we are all part of the same story and have been set free by the same grace.
The world needs a church that provides an alternative to its broken systems. It needs to hear a different story. It needs a church that preaches, teaches, believes, and lives out the full gospel—not truncated caricatures of it. Like Paul, we must learn to be persuasive and to appeal to the truth with love and not rancor. We need to be a family in which prodigals are welcomed and wayward sons and daughters are greeted with joy.
That’s what it means to be partners in the gospel!