In the NT epistles, what’s assumed, communicated, and considered important about Christian faith typically falls into three categories. Given first priority is usually the correct content of faith, what ought to be believed – redemptive history, the character of God, the work of Christ, the promised inheritance, etc. Then there is the reality of faith, those things that are true for the saints because of belief in Christ’s gospel – things like adoption, eternal life, forgiveness, belonging to one another. And finally there is the fruit of faith, those behaviors that are expected because these other things are true. In all but one of the epistles, you will find each of these three aspects of faith expressed at one point or another.*
The exception is Philemon. This little letter (which scholar N. T. Wright has likened to Reepicheep standing beside the talking bears and elephants*) stands out from the rest in that Paul never once pauses to rehearse the content of the Christian faith – that is, the historical events and promises that make up the gospel. Instead, he is entirely concerned with the reality of faith and the fruit of faith, emphasizing the former in order to elicit the latter in his friend Philemon.
This is not to say that Jesus is absent from the letter; far from it, as this brief missive is saturated with references to the Lord. But it’s worth noting that every reference assumes a historical gospel already known and absorbed. There is not a single mention of what Jesus has done or will do, nor even one of Paul’s characteristic descriptive phrases tacked onto the Name of names.* The letter to Philemon offers us instead a distilled example of the implications of the gospel, when it has been embraced wholeheartedly.
So in his appeal to Philemon for the sake of the runaway slave Onesimus, Paul rests his case on things that are true because of a shared faith. He doesn’t need to rehearse the content of the gospel that gave rise to that faith, because he’s confident that his friend knows the basics already. Now he’s calling Philemon on to the next level of maturity. If he really believes what he has been taught in the Lord, will he live like it is true? This isn’t just an abstract question anymore: suddenly the question has legs and arms and a heart and a name.
Philemon and Paul have enjoyed this shared faith for some time already, and it just so happens that Onesimus, through Paul’s instruction, has also recently entered into the circle of believers, a development that causes Paul much rejoicing. But there’s a problem. Onesimus, slave of Philemon, has gravely disobeyed his master in running away, probably also stealing some cash to finance his journey Paulward. There’s going to have to be a reunion of master and slave, and a confrontation. Legally speaking, Philemon has every right to punish and even execute the runaway thief. Paul hopes he will respond instead to a higher law.
Here’s how he puts it, more or less:* “Philemon, my good friend, I know you love Jesus, and we are members of each other in Christ. Guess what. Your slave Onesimus is now in Christ, too. Think about this a minute. There are huge implications for this ‘fellowship of faith,’ and I want you to have — alive and in person – the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.
“Onesimus is so dear to me that it is gut-wrenching to let him go, but I know this is the right thing to do, since you ought to have some say in what happens next. And I know that you will do the right thing, too. Do you see the implications of his conversion? You’ll be receiving him back no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, as a beloved brother – especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
“A brother, Philemon – get it? That’s what you are to me, and I am to you in Christ. So—” (and here the universe itself braces for an immense tectonic paradigm shift) “—so welcome this slave of yours as you would welcome me, your partner, to whom you owe your very self (though I shouldn’t need to mention it!).”
As Paul sent Onesimus off to Colosse with the letter-bearer Tychicus, he knew he was taking a risk. It was possible that Philemon would resent his involvement in the master-slave relationship, and that his new friend and son wouldn’t be recognized as a brother for whom Christ died, but only still as a piece of personal property. But I think we can conclude that his hopes were not unfounded and that his prayers were answered. The very preservation of this seedling of a letter, and its planting in the canon of Scripture, indicates a happy ending to the story.
For the rest of us reading (and speculating!) about Onesimus today, there’s more to the inclusion of Philemon among the epistles than just the passing on of a snapshot of the gospel lived out. Even though there’s no direct instruction to the general church in this persuasive piece of writing, we shouldn’t overlook the significance of the mouse that roared. Perhaps little Philemon, much like a pen-and-ink Zacchaeus, plays a part in the canon that the “wee little man” played in person in his home town of Jericho after the love of Jesus got hold of him.
Philemon, as a letter and also as an individual, represents the next stage in the development of the Church and the maturing of the believer, after the apostolic revelation has ceased and the elementary lessons have been learned. The world is truly turned upside-down when slaves become brothers and are as welcomed into the family circle as Paul himself would be (did Philemon prepare a guest room for both, I wonder?). But this is what happens when salvation comes to a house, to a relationship, to a mind. When believers walk in obedience to the implications of the gospel, the results are often unexpectedly huge.
*And yep, they overlap. Sometimes in the epistles the reality of what is now true for believers in Christ needs to be taught to the readers, so it ends up just being further content. But I’ve decided to distinguish between the gospel’s time-related events and promises (data about God’s actions in the past, present, and future) on the one hand, and the implications of those events for believers and the world on the other – hence the distinction here between the content and the reality of Christian faith.
*See Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Fortress Press (2013), p.16.
*For example, from Titus 2:13:14 – “our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession. . . .”
*The biblical citations come from the ESV, though mostly I’ve just paraphrased.
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