Proper 18 • Philemon 1–21 • September 8, 2013
By Michael J. Redeker
To be sure, Paul’s letter to Philemon is about reconciliation between two people. However, if that were all that this letter was about, then Paul’s advice would be no different from what can be found in the secular world. Reconciliation is more than simply exchanging greetings afterwards, keeping up appearances for a few days and then parting once more. It goes deeper than that in a Christian worldview. Thus, on another level, this epistle is about koinwni,a—life in Christ—and putting Christian faith into practice. Living Christianly makes people more human, not less. After all, what good is preaching good sermons and Christian doctrine if it cannot be put into practice when it is needed? Pastor Paul wants to put faith into practice as he approaches the subject matter from a Christian worldview. He points out that Christian reconciliation affects Christian’s κοινωνία. κοινωνία is strengthened through the reconciliation that takes place between fellow Christians—the body of Christ. Reconciliation not only affects the individuals involved, but it also affects the κοινωνία of the congregation.
Exegetical and Homiletical Thoughts
Three main people are involved as the situation unfolds: Onesimus, Philemon and Paul. Onesimus was a runaway slave who belonged to Philemon. It is not certain why Onesimus ran away, or even whether or not he had embezzled money. That is not important for the sermon at hand. What is known, however, is that Onesimus was a pagan slave in the household of Philemon. He was in the wrong when he ran away, which caused financial loss to Philemon due to lost work.
One other important item to note is that this pagan slave had been exposed to Christianity and the working out of the Christian faith. He witnessed it from the outside looking in. Onesimus knew enough about Christ and Christianity to know that there was a special relationship between his owner and Paul. This is why he sought out Paul to mediate the situation.
Philemon was a man of financial means as evidenced by his ownership of slaves. He was also a Christian who was brought to faith through Paul’s witness and ministry. For this, Philemon was in “debt” to Paul. He was also the spiritual leader of a house-church.
Paul writes this epistle from prison. The location is debated; refer to commentaries for the arguments. It seems that Paul has taken a risk harboring a runaway slave, since he himself was imprisoned. Such a thing would not help his case for an early release. However, Onesimus sought intercession through Paul. His intention was to return to Philemon, thus he was not considered a fugitive slave.
Verse 4: Paul reminds Philemon of his identity, namely, that he has faith in the Lord Jesus. In other words, he is a believer. Paul likes to use indicative-imperative pairings in his epistles. The indicative is often used first to remind Christians of who they are and where their identity is found. Paul then uses the imperative to urge believers in what they ought to do or how they should behave because of their identity in Christ. The imperative is found in v. 17: “receive him as you would receive me.” Paul’s persuasion for a willing (rather than by compulsion) reconciliation to occur, takes place between verses 4 and 17.
Verse 6: κοινωνία “sharing”: this can easily be missed in English translations. κοινωνία might be understood by some Christians as nothing more than “fellowship.” κοινωνία is more than simply getting together for coffee after worship services or an occasional Lutheran potluck in the fellowship hall. κοινωνία is the idea that, in Christ, Christians belong to one another. More than that, Christians identify with fellow Christians. Thus we rejoice when others rejoice and we weep with those who are going through troubled times. The main idea is that there is a “sharing” or “mutual participation” in and of the faith. Reconciliation, or the lack thereof, has ramifications that extend beyond the immediate parties involved. Reconciliation affects the body of Christ as well! Paul wanted to see a willful reconciliation take place between Philemon and Onesimus as brothers in Christ. But he also knew that this would result in benefits for the house-church congregation. Reconciliation between the two parties would only strengthen the house-church’s κοινωνία among them. It would become ἐνεργής “energy” among the congregation. The related word κοινωνός is used in v. 17.
Verses 10–11: “Onesimus” means “useful,” which expressed what a master wished from his slave. Paul uses wordplay to express that Onesimus is now more useful to Philemon as a new brother in Christ. Thus, Philemon needs to view the situation through the lens of a Christian-to-Christian relationship rather than a master-to-slave relationship. This Christian-to-Christian lens is a good reminder for modern day Christians too!
Verse 15: ἐχωρίσθη “was parted”: Onesimus sinned in running away. However, Paul tries to “lessen” the sin by pointing out to Philemon that God used this for the greater purpose of repentance, which brought Onesimus to faith.
Verse 17: See v. 6
Verse 18: Paul, who did not sin against Philemon, takes on the role that belonged to Onesimus. Paul willingly agreed to pay any debt owed to Philemon because of Onesimus’s actions. This is an outworking of Christian faith on the horizontal level of what God in Christ has done for us on the vertical level.
The preacher can help the congregation understand that unbelievers (with a non-Christian worldview) do, in fact, watch how Christians treat other Christians and non-Christians. Onesimus watched the Christians in the house-church as well as observing the relationship between Paul and Philemon. That relationship led Onesimus to seek out Paul. It was through the time spent with Paul that the Spirit brought Onesimus to faith in Christ.
The preacher can also help the congregation understand reconciliation in the context of Christian fellowship and their mutual participation in the Christian faith. We know that reconciliation brings about healing in strained relationships and strengthens fellowship among the believing community. However, what we do not know is how God can use a particular reconciliation for the furthering of the gospel. For example, Philemon and Onesimus reconciled. Philemon then released Onesimus for a time to Paul for service in his mission work (cf. Col 4:7–9). It is also a possibility that this same Onesimus went on to become bishop of Ephesus in the early second century at the age of 70. What would have happened if Philemon had held a grudge?