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Journey Through Scripture: Philemon 1:15-25
November 2, 2019, 3:43 PM

Philemon 1:15-25   

15 Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever,  16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother -- especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.  17 So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.  18 If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.  19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.  20 Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ.  21 Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.  22 One thing more -- prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.  23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you,1  24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.  25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. ~Philemon 1:15-25

Interpretation (Exegesis) of 1:15-25

In verses 15 we see a real life application of Paul’s statement in Romans 8:28, “that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Or better what we might call “providence” – the idea that God is active in our lives and world to bring about his purposes in ways we can’t see or understand. In this case Paul wonders if, “perhaps”, this is the case here. Notice Paul can’t say for certainty which implies not all life experiences are necessarily God given. Often such providence is a matter of faith rather than sight. (NT Wright, “Tyndale New Testament Commentary”, pg.184) What God may have done is take Onesimus away for a time so that Philemon may receive him “back forever”.

What this means is explained in verse 16 as “more than a slave”, but a “beloved brother”. Onesimus’ faith in Jesus has two results for Philemon. First he will have a relationship with Onesimus “forever”, likely a reference to eternal life – so that now they will both live for eternity in Christ at the resurrection. Second he may still be a slave legally and socially, but in a deeper level he is no longer just a slave, he is a brother in Christ. The point is not if Philemon should free him, but that this new relationship in Christ implies a new relationship to each other. Onesimus can’t be seen as a tool, but as a fellow child of God. In a sense Paul leaves the implications of that open! Without overturning the entire social order, Paul lays the groundwork for what would become an early Christian questioning of slavery by such saints as St. Patrick.

Paul places his own self on the line for his convictions in 17-19. He starts with the rhetorical question, “if you consider me your partner”, which of course Philemon considers him more than that – Paul is an Apostle! But this sets the stage for Paul’s now command to welcome Philemon as if he were Paul, calling back similar identification we saw earlier in the letter. Not only that, but Paul goes further in verse 18! If Philemon owes any debt that Paul will be responsible. In a sense Paul is imitating Christ. Just as Jesus took on our debt so too Paul is taking on that of Onesimus. The text possibly implies Onesimus stole something when he left, maybe money to live in Rome. Regardless, and perhaps knowing the money was likely spent, Paul makes himself the debtor. It is important to remember that the consequences for a slave who stole from their master and fled could be severe. Paul may be placing himself at more than economic debt, but willing to take any punishment on Onesimus’ behalf. This is the type of love Paul expects and it’s the type he now models to Philemon. Of course Paul also knows Philemon owes his faith to Paul’s ministry, and so has a greater debt to Paul. This fact Paul reminds Philemon of in verse 19 when he says “I say nothing about your owing me even your own self”.

This knowledge of debt owed, and Paul’s final argument for how Onesimus ought to be received back, gives Paul the confidence in 20-22 to not only openly state he knows what decision Philemon would make, but also expects to be welcomed as a guest soon! Verse 20 is a general request to have that debt given to Paul, which he says would refresh him. This request being made on the basis of the greater debt Paul reminds Philemon he owes himself. Which is why in verse 21 Paul can be confident in his obedience. Considering Paul downplayed giving any command earlier in the letter, what is this obedience? It is an obedience to Christ! Paul is the parent saying, “well, you can do what you’d like, but I’d be disappointed in you if you made that decision”. Paul is masterfully reminding Philemon of his higher duty to Christ over this duty to Roman society while also avoiding any commands that would imply the Church was going to lead a slave rebellion against Rome. Often the Bible is primarily concerned with our personal decisions over political maneuverings. With that expectation out of the way, Paul knows he can expect to be welcomed as a guest in verse 22, with the hope of even being there in person. Likely Philemon knows that means he will have to tell Paul directly what decision was made. In either case, the ball is now in Philemon’s court to either make the right decision that reflects his faith in Jesus and debt to Paul, or rather to ignore those concerns and follow Roman justice in punishing Onesimus. Considering the tradition that Onesimus eventually becomes a Bishop – it’s fairly clear to say which decision Philemon made!

The rest of the letter, verses 23-25, are standard conclusion with a final blessing. Several of these names also appear in Paul’s letter to the Colossians (Col 1:7, 4:10-14) which is why many believe these letters were written at the same time to the same people. The final conclusion of Paul’s blessing for the grace of Jesus to be with their spirit also appears elsewhere. (Gal 6:18, Phil 4:23, and 2 Tim 4:22) This is evidence of a consistent “High Christology” of the bible – the idea that Jesus is God, fully divine and not just a human teacher or prophet. Firstly, remember that “Lord” was used to translate the Divine Name in the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint. Calling a person “Lord” in Jewish writings, which Paul was, already would present some indication of more to Jesus than a prophet. But not only does Paul refer to Jesus as the Lord, he also references Jesus as the giver of grace to the inner human being, their spirit. If Jesus is not God then this could be blasphemous! Paul is putting Jesus in the place of God as the giver of grace – which implies that Jesus is that God of grace.  

Application and Takeaway

Providence is one of those concepts we often downplay, ignore, or forget. We seem comfortable talking about “luck”, which is impersonal – but not providence. Yet, God’s providence is a major part of Scripture!

We Christians are “theists”, and not “deists”. Theism is the idea that God is an active agent in the world. Deism believes instead that God is inactive – merely an observer at best. Many, in fact, don’t even believe in an afterlife! But Jesus, who is God incarnate, is the ultimate answer to deism. For in Jesus, God (as the Second Person of the Trinity) literally showed himself to be so concerned for our world that he came down from heaven to become Jesus the Christ. Jesus then healed the sick, cured the blind, calmed a storm, and performed other miracles before dying for sin and rising again. Jesus shows that God is indeed active in the world.

Many of us will never experience that level of divine intervention in our lives. Instead God works behind the scenes in many ways. This work is providence. Too often we Christians fall into the trap of becoming “functional deists”. We may claim we believe God is active, but in heart and action live like God is not. We too often live as deists. The challenge for us is to learn to trust God is active, and to live instead as Christians who believe the same God who became Jesus is the same God who even now often guides us by his providence in the world.

The takeaway this month

In what ways do you find yourself living as a deist rather than a Christian? Ask God to help you both see his working in your life and trust him to guide you.