A Biblical scholar has written, “Few ideas in New Testament studies produce higher levels of agreement than the notion that Paul’s letter to Philemon has little or no theological substance.” All that statement says is that a lot of smart people are really quite dumb.
This book may not tease out the doctrine of redemption, but I dare you to find another one that works it in so well. Only if your Christianity is all brain and no heart or limb can you say such a thing. Only if you approach the Bible with an academic processor and not an ardent heart, could you be so blind.
Theology here is worked out further than many care to go. It is worked pass the brain, into the heart, and out the hands. This is theology well digested and carried through the body. This is what it looks like when the blood of Jesus gets into our bloodstream. Here you see the doctrines of union with Christ, adoption in Christ, the family of God, redemption, and forgiveness as they take root in the heart of man and produce the fruit of the Spirit. Philemon is applied theology.
Just as the aforementioned doctrines are light in a dark world, so too, the life they produce in man is contrary to this culture. The gospel is foolishness to this world all the way down and all the way out. Thus, Philemon just might have been the most shocking little letter in the ancient world. If we too so ingrain the truth of Christ and his redemption, it is still surely so today.
In the first half of this little letter, all that we explicitly know is that Paul is appealing. We are not told what Paul is appealing for, only how and for whom he is appealing. Instead of speaking as one with authority, that is, instead of speaking as an apostle of the Lord Jesus, Paul appeals as a prisoner of Christ Jesus.
In line with this, though Paul would have liked to have kept Onesimus, he is sending him back to Philemon so that Philemon can act freely. Parents should long for that time when law-like commands transition to Proverbs-like appeals. Obedience is the glory of children, but there is a kind of obedience that exasperates. “Bring me my glass son.” “Ok, which hand should I use? Where should I touch the glass? Do you want me to fill it up? How full?” When a child is older you can say “mow the lawn,” and walk away with confidence. While they’re younger, you have to stick around to direct and answer questions. Likewise, shepherds may speak more gently to mature sheep. They make appeals so that the sheep may act freely. A sheep that can be led with the slightest touch is a joy to the shepherd.
Shepherds shouldn’t coddle the sheep into immaturity. Sheep shouldn’t cultivate a Toys-R-Us attitude wherein they play the day away unless commanded to do something. Maturity in Christ means that not everything needs to be spelled out and that appeals come as powerfully as commands.
When one reads through the Bible each year, while Exodus lasts a matter of weeks, and Ezekiel seems to never end, Philemon is mist soon forgotten. It is read one day a year and with a few other chapters from another book. But what we are so quick to pass over might have been one of the most shocking letters in the ancient world.
The nature of one’s slavery in the Roman Empire depended on the nature of their lord. A slave’s lot might be such that he is envied by many free men, or, it might be horrid beyond our comprehension. The slave/lord relationship would most often be dominated by fear. Lords fearing their slaves and slaves their masters. Slaves comprised upwards of a third of the Roman Empire. Most were owned by few, and no double many of the non-elite would side with the slaves. Though over a century past, Spartacus’ slave rebellion was an indelible cultural memory. Once that rebellion was quelled, some six thousand captives were crucified lining the Appian Way, the major highway to Rome, for over a hundred miles. Roman men were taught to dominate their households and ensure the submission of their slaves by whatever force necessary.
A runaway slave being returned to their master could expect the harshest of treatment and likely death. But, here is Philemon, returning, not by force, but willingly, with a letter from Paul, asking that his lord receive him as a brother.
This kind of thing can only happen in Christ. Paul doesn’t attack slavery head on. He attacks no social evil in this way. Sinners gotta sin. Outside of Christ, all is Babel. In Christ, there is Pentecost. Outside of Christ, man doesn’t understand man, man is fearful of man, and man is against man. Outside of Christ fear rules the relations of men. Outside of Christ, the powerful enslave the weak in a multitude of ways. Outside of Christ, even brothers kill one another. But in Christ, Pentecost has brought the different together. In Christ, Jew and Gentile, slave and free sup around one table as brothers with their Lord serving them. In Christ, we are speaking and hearing one message—Jesus. Only in Jesus do we see reconciliation and forgiveness of this magnitude and we see it in Jesus because it is dwarfed by that which we have received in Him.