Behind the letter is the crazy story of Onesimus, a slave, who has run away from his master, Philemon. In the process, he has disrespected Philemon’s authority, stolen from him, but he has also met Paul. Whether Onesimus sought out Paul, or God sought out Onesimus is not immediately clear from the letter, but an interesting twist evolves in the story when the slave finds the apostle: Onesimus becomes a Christian. It’s all very interesting because Philemon, his master, is also a Christian who was most likely taught by Paul, as well.
Now, the estranged slave and master share many things in common, the most important of which is their new-found unity in Jesus Christ, and Paul decides it is best if Onesimus returns to Philemon. These two brothers in Christ must reconcile their differences, and become brothers indeed. So, Paul sends Onesimus back to his master carrying the letter we call “Philemon.”
The impressive thing about Paul in all of this is his care for everyone involved. Paul calls Onesimus his “very heart” as he appeals to Philemon to welcome the runaway slave home as a brother. Paul reminds Philemon that he prays for him, and thanks God for him when he does so. Paul appeals to Philemon, pleading and encouraging him to do the Christ-like thing. And Paul even offers to pay whatever outstanding debts Philemon might hold against Onesimus.
Paul is a true leader to Onesimus and Philemon, not only telling them what ought to be done, but showing them through his love, compassion, instruction, and action toward everyone involved. Paul becomes Christ in the story, reconciling master and slave, just as Jesus, through his life, death, and resurrection, reconciles us to God. Paul took on Onesimus’ debts, just as Christ took on our sin-debt. Paul was truly Christ-like, truly Christian.
I’m not sure I understood this concept quite so well before studying Philemon, the concept of being Christ-like. You see, being Christian is not about being polite and moral, or giving to charity, or voting for the right people, or holding the right beliefs. It is about being Christ in our own particular communities. It is about reconciling estranged relationships, helping to heal diseased marriages and broken families. It is about taking on other’s debts, even the financial ones, because we care about people. It is about confronting, correcting, and instructing other Christians in extravagantly loving and encouraging ways, the way Paul confronted Philemon. It is about appealing to others, Christian and non-Christian, to follow Christ.
The book of Philemon, as N.T. Wright puts it, is a “Gospel parable,” a picture of Christ’s redeeming work in the real, slave-driven economy of the first century. And what it teaches us in the twenty first century is that our mission is the very same: to fashion our lives into “Gospel parables.” Then we would be truly Christian.