The New Testament often paints its greatest truths with the broadest brush strokes. From it we get the big picture about the ministry of reconciliation, being ambassadors for Christ, and being compelled by love. But with these grand principles, the New Testament also sketches smaller portraits that show us what these truths look like in practice, up close and in person.
Philemon is one of these little pictures. As Paul’s shortest letter, coming in at only 335 words (in Greek), it is a treasure of practical Christian reconciliation and all it implies for our personal and social relationships. In this “Spotlight,” we focus on the marvelous story of Philemon, Onesimus, and the peacemaker who restored broken relationships and transcended the institutions that divided them.
The epistle gives the barest of detail about our two estranged fellows. Philemon is a householder and slave master, apparently of some means and status. He is also a “beloved friend and fellow laborer” of Paul’s who has a church in his house (vv. 1, 2). Onesimus is a lowly runaway slave. Under Paul’s influence, he has come to faith in Jesus Christ.
This scanty description entices questions: What happened to Onesimus? Why did he run? Who was at fault? We don’t have the answers. We are left with only the wide gulf that divides them. But this thinnest of outlines allows us to focus on Paul and how he actively pursues peace and bridges the gap as ambassador and advocate to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus. Let’s attend closely to his master class on peacemaking.
Verses 1-3, 22-25: At the beginning and end of the letter, Paul identifies himself as “a prisoner of Christ Jesus.” As a good soldier, he has been faithful to the cause of Christ in which they are all “fellow laborers.” They are united by “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.” These words frame not only the epistle but also the gospel work itself and Paul’s high expectations for it. Because we have “peace from God our Father,” the “church in your house” is indicative of a new family in Christ. Throughout the book’s twenty-five verses, Paul repeatedly refers to all parties affectionately as “brothers.”
Verses 4-7: Having established Jesus as the bridge that binds us, Paul turns to his friend Philemon. He expresses his thankfulness and prayers to God for Philemon, and commends him for the “love and faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints.” Paul praises him, not for his status or standing but for “the sharing of your faith” and the “consolation in your love.” He acknowledges the joyous refreshing Philemon has given to “the hearts of the saints.”
Verses 8-16: Having established that Philemon is a man of faith and love, Paul is ready to make his appeal on those same grounds on Onesimus’ behalf. Paul could command and coerce Philemon to do what is right, by the weight of his authority, “yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you.” The same love that motivates Philemon is what moves Paul to empty himself for Onesimus’ sake. This love has transformed the runaway slave into Paul’s own son, and Paul appeals to Philemon to receive him as his “own heart.” The self-emptying love of Christ defines all three men and requires that Philemon not act by external compulsion but by voluntary love. When he does, every boundary that separates them will be transcended. In this reconciliation, Philemon is called to receive Onesimus with divine acceptance, “no longer as a slave but more than a slave — a beloved brother.”
Verses 17-22: Paul and Philemon are partners in this ministry of reconciliation. The same sacrificial love that moves Philemon to receive Onesimus as an equal brother in Christ moves Paul to give also: “if he . . . owes anything, put that on my account.” Paul is confident that Philemon will be obedient to this love, and in the process, he will bring joy and refreshing to Paul’s heart.
The book of Philemon vibrantly illustrates what an ambassador for Christ does in actively pursuing peace: orient all parties as brethren in Christ; acknowledge the faith and love that animates them; appeal to, rather than coerce, voluntary and sacrificial action from the heart; and recognize the shared partnership that is in Christ and can transcend every personal and institutional division.
In 335 words, Paul drew a picture that challenges us today. It still breaks down every barrier and bridges every gulf, if we would let it. When we do, our own lives become God’s masterpiece and we, ambassadors of peace.
“The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen” (v. 25).