Philemon’s Hidden Gospel

As Christ-followers, it is quite easy for us to skip or glance over the shorter books of the Bible, such as Philemon; yet, in such short pieces of Scripture, there is so much to unpack. In most Bibles, Philemon is just a page long with 25 verses. In spite of its length, the Lord simultaneously displays the rich intricacy and concision of the Gospel. Let’s jump into His Word.

I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.)
- Philemon 1:10-11

In these verses Paul appeals to Philemon, his fellow worker in Christ, on behalf of Onesimus, a runaway bondservant of Philemon. Onesimus, though he has sinned against Philemon, has since found the Lord, as Paul became his mentor while in prison. 

Now, I want to take a quick detour to discuss the Parable of the Prodigal Son, as it is crucial to exegeting the rest of this passage. Luke 15:11-32 depicts a father who gives his son a portion of his inheritance, and the son runs off and squanders the wealth, becoming destitute. Yet, when his son returns, the father is loving and kind to receive the son warmly with a grand ceremony even after the son’s willful rebellion. The point this parable makes is that though we have rebelled against our Father in heaven, He is rich in mercy to restore us when we recognize our spiritual poverty and come back to Him. The parallels of the gospel message are highlighted in both Philemon and the prodigal son story (note the striking similarity between Luke 15:32 and Philemon 1:11):

Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.”
- Luke 15:31-32

Onesimus, who was once useless, is now useful; likewise, the prodigal son, who was once dead, is now alive (figuratively speaking). In cross-referencing the text, we can come to an understanding that we are no different than Onesimus or the prodigal son. We were once enslaved to the elementary principles of the world (Galatians 4:3), and in coming to know our Creator, we acquire a renewed sense of purpose. Christ is liberation to those who understand and cherish His redeeming work, and Onesimus’ physical bondage illustrates the inward reality of his former state of depravity. 

Thus, having been transformed, Onesimus is charged by Paul to go back to Philemon, no longer indebted, but a free man, spiritually and lawfully. Paul requests that Philemon would receive him as such:

For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. 
- Philemon 1:15-16

This propounded relationship between Philemon and Onesimus, bolstered by Paul, is the essence of New Covenant revelation: we are all like Onesimus, having run away from our Master in heaven, to whom Philemon serves as an analogous figure. Paul intercedes on Onesimus’ behalf, acting as a type of Christ, to restore the fractured relationship between the two parties. Christ is our Blessed Intermediary: 

For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus. 
- 1 Timothy 2:5

Just as Jesus is the lone mediator who reconciles sinners to the Master, Paul reconciles the servant Onesimus to his master Philemon. Paul goes a step further to illustrate Christ’s role in our relationship with the Father:

So if you consider me a partner, receive him as you would receive me. 
- Philemon 1:17

Paul requests that Philemon would receive this rebellious servant as he would receive Paul, a man whom Philemon would have had the utmost respect for. We bring absolutely nothing to the table before a Holy God except filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6), and yet, Christ our Deliverer became the propitiation for our sins (1 John 2:2) so that we might be made holy through Him. Having been redeemed, our Father no longer sees our filthy rags, but sees the glory of Christ within us. In the same manner, Paul exhorts Philemon to see Onesimus in a new light, with the imputed righteousness of Christ:

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 
- 1 Corinthians 5:21

At times, understanding the transformation which occurs at the moment of salvation can be very confusing for us believers. In exchange for our brokenness and moral corruption, Christ gives us the joy of God’s love and the promise of eternal life. This reality, which seems too good to be true, is enabled by an undertaking:

If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 
- Philemon 1:18

Paul effectively transfers the debt Onesimus owes Philemon to himself, bearing the burden so Onesimus would no longer have to. This debt of Onesimus is analogous to our sin. Jesus also calls us to come to Him with our burdens, for His burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30). Although there is a long statement of sins which have accumulated debt in our account before God, those who belong to the Way have witnessed their sin debt blotted out once and for all. The means for this taking place was provided over 2000 years ago on Calvary:

He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. 
- Colossians 2:13-14

He literally nailed our statement of debt to the cross, declaring it null and void. The spiritual transaction which takes place here is just as legal as the physical transaction we find in Paul’s Epistle to Philemon. In correspondence with Christ, Paul declares Onesimus’ debt null and void by taking it upon himself to repay. 

The many parallels between Paul and Jesus are quite remarkable in this brief letter; however, the intention is not to draw more attention to Paul, but rather for us to meditate on our own spiritual walk with God. We are all prisoners for Christ Jesus as Paul is (Philemon 1:1), called to live in imitation of Him. The spiritually reborn have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16), and our decisions should reflect those of redeemed creatures dwelling in Him. Perhaps the writing of this epistle was not originally intended to reveal an implicit gospel message. Regardless, Paul preaches the gospel through his deeds. As it is written, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18). Everything we do must speak of Him. Here at Penn, if our mission is to evangelize and build God’s kingdom, we must point people to Christ in ways which extend beyond word of mouth. Actions speak louder than words. May the grace of God uphold and exhort us.

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