Philemon: A Case Study of New Life in Christ (Part 1)

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We see in Paul’s letter to the Colossians[1] that Christians are to put on the new self with new practices, new characteristics. And Paul tells us about the unprecedented unification and reconciliation that happens in Christ between all sorts of different people. Paul says, “there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11 cf. 1 Cor. 12:13-14; Gal. 3:26-27).

But will this really work?! Paul is talking all this big talk but can it ever be practiced. He says, here there is neither slave nor free, and yet there truly were slaves and freemen. There really were Greeks and Jews. There were and are people that are in the world and see the world in all sorts of different ways. How can they be united? Is it really possible? And if so, how?!

If you read Paul’s letter to the Colossians and then Philemon you realize there is a progression from theology to the “so what” of that theology.[3] In Paul’s letter to Philemon, we see a case study in how Paul’s theology works in real life between a slave and his master.

Can Paul’s lofty claims actually be realized in the life of the local church or is he just speculating from an easy chair about how his theology should hypothetically work? We know that Paul had no easy chair, he just had chains, and his theology was not theoretical but eminently practical. In fact, it was because his theology was practical that he was in chains.

So, what is the situation here, how is this a “case study”? What is it in this situation that makes it such a good test of Paul’s teaching?

Philemon was a wealthy Christian who lived in the city of Colossae which was about 100 miles from Ephesus. Apparently, during Paul’s three-year ministry in Ephesus (AD 52–55), Philemon heard the gospel and was saved. He began serving the cause of Christ in the Colossian community and opened his home for a group of Christians to meet there regularly.[1]

Paul wrote to Philemon because his slave ran away but Paul came into contact with his slave Onesimus and actually lead him to Christ. So, Paul writes to Philemon, the slaveowner, in regards to Onesimus, the slave. How will Paul’s theology of union in Christ be carried out in such a circumstance? Can it? 

No longer is Paul dealing with mere exhortations like, “Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven” (Col. 4:1). He is dealing with a flesh and blood situation. So how will he do, how will his theology hold up? Can it stand the tension of such strain or will it simply snap?

We’ll see the answer in “Philemon: A Case Study of New Life in Christ (Part 2).

If you are interested you can also see “Slavery and its defeat.”

____________________

[1] See ESV Study Bible.

[2] It is likely that Paul had Tychicus take the letters since he would be traveling to the church of Colosse, where Philemon was a member, Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon in the company of Tychicus. Tychicus carried, in addition to Paul’s letter to the Colossians, Paul’s letter to Philemon.

[3] There have been people that have wondered what the point of this book is and why it even got preserved through time. The reason is simple: narrative and epistle are both vital. Some people learn better by reading a Manuel and some by just diving in and getting their hands dirty but the best option is a little of both. Colossians is a Manuel of sorts, it has lots of theology and “how to” stuff in it but it does not have the grittiness of everyday life. Through Philemon, we can really “get our hands dirty” and see how Colossians applies.

 

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About Paul O'Brien

I am a lot of things; saint and sinner. I struggle and I strive. I am a husband and father of three. I have been in pastoral ministry for 9 years. I went to school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary but most of my schooling has been at the School of Hard Knocks. I have worked various jobs, including pheasant farmer, toilet maker, construction worker, and I served in the military. My wife and I enjoy reading at coffee shops, taking walks, hanging out with friends and family, and watching our three kid's antics. :) View all posts by Paul O'Brien

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