It’s hard to believe that we’ve already arrived at Thanksgiving week this year. Seems like only yesterday it was Fourth of July and we were enjoying the summer sun. Advent and Christmas will soon be here, so we’ve reached the beginning of the “holiday season.”
The holidays bring a lot of joy, but also a lot of stress—particularly the kind of stress that revolves around relationships. As we gather with distant family and friends, there are bound to be old conflicts that surface, old grudges that don’t seem to go away, and annoyances that tend to be magnified. As someone put it to me once, “I like the holidays because they remind me why I don’t live close to my family!” In a culture that is always talking about “family first,” we sometimes forget that family can be our most significant challenge.
And that’s just our family of origin. As we said in the last series, the church is also a family—a family on mission, an oikos of faith. The relationships within that family are vital and they have some bearing and impact on the relationships we might have with our biological family or family of origin. It’s in the church that we learn how to be better at living with and loving one another as Jesus commanded.
That’s one of the reasons I chose to look at this little New Testament letter of Philemon as we begin the holiday season. This is perhaps the most personal letter in the whole Bible and it’s written as a way of mediating what amounts to a family conflict—in this case a conflict between Philemon, a friend of the apostle Paul, and Philemon’s slave Onesimus, whom Paul sees as equals in the family of Christ. It’s a letter that demonstrates in a very powerful way how the gospel of Jesus Christ can be a source for radical reconciliation in situations that might seem impossible to reconcile. Paul was attempting to be helpful in the family of the church in Colossae and, in doing so, I think he can be helpful for us as we manage family conflicts in light of the gospel.
In one sense, reading Philemon is like listening to one end of a phone conversation. We don’t hear the other side, but we do hear the heartbeat of the apostle. Paul writes this letter from prison, which requires a little background at the outset. In the Roman world, being in prison wasn’t the end result of a crime as it is in our age. There was no such thing as a long prison sentence; instead, prison was a temporary holding place until the Roman government decided what to do with you—either to exile you, punish you in some other way, or to execute you. Paul is awaiting word on his fate as he writes this letter—most likely from prison in Ephesus. We get this because, at the end of the letter, Paul tells Philemon to prepare a guest room for him. Colossae is only about 80 miles from Ephesus and it’s hard to imagine Paul saying this if he were in his final imprisonment in Rome—an almost impossible distance away.
Paul had never been to Colossae, though he was familiar with the church there. People in Colossae regularly traveled to Ephesus, a larger city, on business, and that’s likely how Paul met the Colossian businessman Philemon. Philemon became a convert to Jesus under Paul’s preaching and teaching. In verse 19, Paul says that Philemon “owes” him “even your own self,” which is to say, his very salvation. Even from prison, Paul is still preaching!
But now there is a problem. A slave of Philemon’s named Onesimus has run away from his household in Colossae and, apparently, he flees to Ephesus and attaches himself to the apostle Paul—the slave having heard his preaching and seeing him as a person of peace. During his time with Paul, Onesimus became a believer and aided Paul in his work, even from prison. In fact, that’s what Onesimus’ name means in Latin: it means “useful,” which is why it was a popular slave name in the empire.
But runaway slaves had a price on their heads. The letter seems to indicate that Onesimus had escaped from Philemon with something that belonged to his master. This puts Paul in a difficult situation. He’s already in prison, could he now be charged further with aiding and abetting an escaped slave? With being an accessory to burglarly? What is an apostle to do?
To put this situation in perspective, we need to know a little bit about slavery in the Roman empire and contrast it to the kind of slavery we are most familiar with in our country’s history. In the early history of the U.S., slavery was bound up in race and ethnicity—indeed, African slaves were not considered to be people. Not so in the ancient world. Anyone could become a slave at any time, especially if you were the loser of a battle. You could go from nobility to slavery in a heartbeat if you were on the wrong end of a Roman spear. In fact, you could argue that slavery was one of the reasons the Romans kept expanding their territory in the first place—slavery was how things got done in the empire.
There were many gradations to slave life—the worst of which was working in the mines—but many Roman slaves became like family to their masters. They were property, but unlike the chattel slavery that we’re most familiar with, most Roman slaves were considered to be people. As such, they had the opportunity to earn money and even buy their freedom if they were industrious—something no African slave in American ever had a chance to do. In fact, many historians say that a Roman house slave was probably in a more advantageous position economically than a free man working as a tenant farmer.
That’s not to say that slavery was a good thing in the Roman world. It was still a repugnant institution—people owning another and in control of his or her life. We want Paul to say that this is a wicked institution because it is. But in Paul’s day, even those who wanted to reform slavery knew that it was a difficult proposition. What would happen if you suddenly had tens of thousands of people out of work? It would be dangerous.
But what we see Paul doing here is putting a time bomb against the institution of slavery by saying that people should be treated fully as human beings and as equals, not just chattels or property. And what makes Paul say that? It’s the surpassing, reconciling power of the gospel. Indeed, that’s the point of the letter—when it comes to the family of Christ, there are no slaves and masters—only brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s hard to imagine a more radical message of equality and family in the ancient world.
In fact, Paul calls Onesimus his “son” (v. 10). So what should Paul do? Help him escape? A slave would have been branded or marked in some way (sometimes through a piercing in the ear lobe), so that was problematic. Should he just keep things on the down low and have Onesimus continue to be his assistant? That would make sense, but Paul is after something much bigger here—he is about the work of the gospel and, for Paul, that work is primarily about reconciliation. Something has gone wrong between the slave and his master, whom Paul sees as brothers in Christ, and he wants to deal with it.
So, the apostle, having thought and prayed about it and loving both men as brothers in Christ, decides on a risky strategy—to send Onesimus home to his master with this letter as a way of brokering their reconciliation and bringing them into a new relationship—no longer as master and slave but as equal members of the family of Christ. It’s a radical step that no one else in the Roman world would have even considered. But Paul considers it because he is a preacher of the gospel.
In fact, in the letter to Philemon we learn what the gospel, the good news about Jesus, is really about—it’s about reconciliation of people to God and people to each other. It’s about the power of grace altering relationships and making new life possible. What Paul suggests here is good advice for us as well—if we believe the gospel, it will change our relationships, too!
So, let’s take a look at the letter in some detail. In verses 1-5, Paul begins by telling Philemon and those of his oikos what he is praying for. He gives thanks for their love for all God’s people and their loyalty to Jesus. This is clearly a family on mission where people are coming to know Christ. In verse 6, Paul prays that this sense of family—this koinonia—will bring this sense of family to others. In fact, Paul sees himself in this koinonia in kind of a partner relationship with Philemon—almost like business partners in the gospel. Paul has received much joy and encouragement from Philemon and sees him as a brother in the work Paul himself is doing.
But a problem, a conflict, has arisen over Onesimus and Paul wants to offer an alternative solution because of their partnership in the gospel. In verses 8-9, he issues a challenge to Philemon: “I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal on the basis of love (oh, and by the way, I’m an old man and in prison, so, hear me out). “Look,” he basically says, “I’m not telling you what to do” (though anyone who says that usually is!), but let me help you understand why what I am about to propose is the right thing to do.”
And what is Paul proposing? Nothing less than a reversal of status. One of the primary images of the gospel for Paul is the image of Jesus coming as a slave and dying as a slave to set his people from slavery to sin and death. We see this in Philippians 2, for example, where Paul says that Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, and being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (2:7-8).
That’s in the background here as Paul writes to Philemon—the grace that was in Christ Jesus is given to those who follow him. It’s the grace that levels us—we are all sinners in need of salvation; we are all slaves in need in being set free. Thus Paul is saying that Philemon should no longer regard Onesimus as inferior—one who is useless—but as one who now lives up to his name “useful” because he has become a brother in Christ. Paul “fathered” Onesimus in the faith and now he is as “useful” to Paul as he is to Philemon. He is a new person—a member of the family of Christ.
Paul and Philemon are partners in the gospel, and now Onesimus is a partner, too—an equal member of the family. In effect, Paul puts his arms around both men and asks them to see each other in a different way because of Christ, to be reconciled. Paul says something very similar in 2 Corinthians 5:16-18 –
“From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”
It is grace that makes us useful in God’s eyes and helps us to see others as similarly “useful” as well. That’s the ministry of reconciliation.
That’s how the family of Christ works—we regard one another as brothers and sisters, partners in the useful work of the gospel, no matter our status or gender. The boundary lines are erased in the ministry of reconciliation—the old ways are done, the new creation has begun.
Next week we’ll see more details of the kind of reconciliation Paul proposes for these two brothers in Christ. For now, however, I want to suggest that we need to take a similar posture when we come to the Thanksgiving table this week. Those old hurts and grudges are in the background. We might even think of that weird uncle as “useless.” But if we are truly disciples of Jesus, we need to see those at the table from a different point of view—to see them as people who can become “useful” because we have chosen to be agents of reconciliation and grace.
It sounds like a radical approach—it was certainly radical in Paul’s day. But it’s the way of Jesus. How might you approach the holidays seeing yourself as a representative of Jesus? How might you come to the table seeking reconciliation instead of holding on to that image of another as “useless?” How might you take the attitude of Christ and humble yourself, seeing the other not from a human point of view but through the eyes of grace? How might you act as a partner in the gospel?
Yes, there’s a chance that our efforts might be rejected—but, like Paul, you may be planting a seed for reconciliation. Never underestimate the power of grace!
“Philemon.” NT Wright Online Course. (Note: You can currently download this course for free. Well worth it!).