For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:27-28).
[You] have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all (Col. 3:10-11).
There is neither slave nor free. What does this statement mean? I think we often misread these verses, and I think, for the first time, I understand why. When Paul writes “there is neither slave nor free,” I think we read him as though he said “there is neither slave nor master.” We then get caught up in taking this as evidence that Paul really thought the institution of slavery was evil, and certainly Christians shouldn’t ideally be engaged in it in any way. (I do think that these statements make that implication, but it wasn’t even close to Paul’s point in these verses.)
Was Paul saying that no human being, or at least no Christian, should be a slave, or should be treated as a slave? If he was, we’d have to also conclude that he’s saying no human being, or at least no Christian, should be free. “There is neither slave nor free.” I’m not sure that makes any sense.
So, what do these verses mean? Well, let’s pull Paul’s own explanations front and center. In Gal. 3:28, after he says “there is neither slave nor free,” he says “for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Slave and free are one in Christ. Slave and free are united together as they are united to Christ. In Col. 3:11, after he says “there is not...slave, free,” he says “but Christ is all, and in all.” A few weeks ago, Pastor Barry unpacked this verse beautifully for us, and he showed how Paul is painting a picture of the new humanity that God is creating, and Paul is saying that what formerly might have divided us—things like ethnicity or social status—no longer should divide us. Instead, “Christ is all,” meaning Christ is the determiner of our relationships; Christ is the one who maintains our unity and prevents these “old humanity” distinctions from actually dividing those who are in Christ.
Most of you know I have a tattoo on my arm. Many of you have asked me what it means; it is two Greek words taken right out of Col. 3:11: Χριστός πάντα, which translates to “Christ is all.” I don’t recall anyone here asking me why I got this tattoo, so I’ll take this opportunity to tell you! After graduating from LeTourneau and just before deciding to continue my studies at Wheaton College, I was emboldened by my best friend to get a tattoo, and my wife offered to let that be my graduation present from her. Why did I want a tattoo? (And this is not an encouragement to anyone to go out and get one!) I wanted a permanent reminder of the permanent change God had accomplished in me. Why did I choose these two words from Col. 3:11? I wanted a reminder of what’s most important; I saw this verse as a call to identify myself as a Christian and to have Christ alone dictate how I view people. It reminds me to pursue unity with every Christian I engage, regardless of what differences or disagreements we may have.
Paul’s shortest letter, addressed, it seems, to a Christian slaveholder named Philemon helps us see how Paul expected Col. 3:11 to be lived out in a particular relationship. As we unpack the message of this letter, I think we’ll be able to see how each of the individuals in this story have been radically transformed by the gospel.
The letter can be broken down into four basic sections:
1. Paul’s greeting to Philemon and the Colossian church (vv. 1-3)
2. Paul’s thanksgiving and prayer for God’s work in Philemon (vv. 4-7)
3. Paul’s appeal to Philemon concerning Onesimus (vv. 8-20)
4. Paul’s concluding expectations and greetings (vv. 21-25)
So, let’s see what God has for us in this letter. In verse 1, Paul introduces himself as “a prisoner for Christ Jesus.” Normally, in his letters he introduces himself as an apostle, an authoritative spokesman for God, but here we’ll see that Paul wants to appeal to Philemon in a way that doesn’t directly exercise his authority over him. He also mentions “Timothy our brother,” and calling Timothy “brother” actually sets the stage for the way this letter unfolds; the whole letter works under the assumption that Christians are brothers and sisters in the household of God, and that reality governs the way we ought to relate to each other.
Paul addresses the letter primarily to Philemon “our beloved fellow worker,” but notice that the letter is also addressed to “Apphia our sister,” and to “Archippus our fellow soldier,” and to “the church in your house.” So, while we can say that this is a personal letter from Paul to Philemon, it is not considered to be a private matter. Indeed, we might say that this issue concerning Philemon and Onesimus is “family business.” Archippus was mentioned at the end of Colossians, as was Onesimus and several folks Paul greets at the end of this letter to Philemon, so we are on solid ground in concluding that the church Paul refers to in verse 1 is the assembly of believers in Colossae who meet together in Philemon’s house. The address to the whole church helps us see that Paul intends for this “personal letter” to be read at the public gathering of the believers.
In verse 3, he offers his usual blessing, asking God to grant them grace and peace. In English we can’t see that the “you” in verse 3 is plural; beginning in verse 4 and going all the way down to verse 21, however, all of the verbs and all of the pronouns referring to the addressee will be singular. “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” together are the only true source of grace for Christians, and Paul wants the Colossian Christians to experience God’s grace, and he particularly wants Philemon to experience God’s grace and then express that grace toward Onesimus. “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” have also provided peace for Christians, peace with God that should also transfer into peace between Christians. In fact, it’s peace that Paul is pleading for between Philemon and Onesimus, peace that can only come because of their relationship with God as Father and Jesus as Lord.
Moving into his direct concern for Philemon specifically, Paul expresses his gratitude to God every time he prays for Philemon. Verse 5 tells why Paul thanks God: because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints. The way the ESV words this, it sounds like he is thanking God because Philemon has love for Jesus and faith in Jesus, and also love for all the saints and faith in all the saints. However, this is an occasion where translating literally and following the word order of the Greek is confusing and misleading in English. A Greek reader would recognize that Paul intends for love to go with “all the saints” and faith to go with “the Lord Jesus.” The NIV makes this most clear: because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. But, the shape of the sentence in Greek is actually important, as he puts love for all of God’s people centered around faith in Jesus, as you can see illustrated on the screen. Thus, we might say that faith is the hub or the center out of which love for God’s people flows.
In verses 6 and 7, Paul will mention faith and love again, as he highlights what he continually prays for Philemon. But, before we move there, notice two things about this thanksgiving in verses 4 and 5. First, notice that he thanks God because of Philemon’s faith in Jesus and love for God’s people. I think that rightly implies that God is the one who should get the credit for Philemon’s faith in Jesus and for his love for God’s people. At first glance, we might take this as a commendation for Philemon, and I suppose it is, but it is primarily drawing attention to the source of Philemon’s faith and love. Second, notice that Paul has heard about Philemon’s faith and love. Who did he hear it from?
Two specific possibilities present themselves; Paul had used almost this precise language back in Col. 1:4: since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, and there he was talking about the whole Colossian church which he heard about from Epaphras, the one who had preached the gospel to them at first (Col. 1:7-8). So, it’s possible that Paul also heard specifically about Philemon’s faith and love from Epaphras. In our study of Colossians, we noted how Paul had never met these Christians in Colossae; does that mean that Paul had never met Philemon? We’ll come back to that question in a few minutes, but it’s at least possible that he had not, in fact, met Philemon.
The second possibility is that Paul heard about Philemon’s faith and love from Onesimus. Paul hasn’t yet mentioned Onesimus, but we will discover that he is Philemon’s slave who has somehow come into contact with Paul. We’ll talk more about that in just a few minutes as well, but, for now, we can hold out the possibility that Onesimus has been commending Philemon as a faithful Christian master, a faithful Christian slaveholder. The question Paul’s already moving toward, however, is: since God has enabled you to express such love for “all the saints,” how then should you express love toward your slave Onesimus?
In verse 6, Paul begins telling Philemon what he’s been praying for, and “this verse is universally recognized as the most difficult in Philemon.” The ESV says, and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. To illustrate the main ways this verse can be understood, on the screen you’ll see the ESV rendering that I just read along with the NIV rendering of this verse, which says, I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. The most significant difficulty is the underlined phrase. The Greek word translated “sharing” in the ESV and “partnership” in the NIV is koinōnia, a word that usually is translated “fellowship.” Now, in English, we often speak of “sharing our faith,” and we are usually talking about telling people who don’t know Jesus about Jesus, or telling other people what we believe about Jesus. So, this verse is sometimes used to inform our praying for Christian outreach events and personal evangelism.
However, I think the NIV has it right in this case. Later, in Philemon 17, Paul is going to refer to himself as Philemon’s “partner,” and the Greek word is koinonos. A koinonos is one who engages in koinōnia with another person or group of people. Paul’s definitely concerned to highlight his partnership with Philemon in this letter. One commentator puts it like this: “The faith that Christians share produces a fellowship, or participation with one another, that Paul is praying might become effective in Philemon’s case.”
Paul’s praying that their partnership or their fellowship that is produced by their common faith in Jesus may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. The word for knowledge here probably indicates an experiential knowledge, so that Paul is asking God to cause their partnership to enable Philemon and Paul together to experience every good thing God has for them, and we’ll see a little later that Paul has a particular “good thing” that he wants to happen. And don’t miss that he wants all this for Christ’s sake, not simply for Philemon’s benefit.
Paul explains, in verse 7, why he is praying for Philemon this way: For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you. Notice three things. First, Paul has experienced joy and comfort or encouragement, even while he is in prison, because of the report of Philemon’s love for all the saints. Second, see that Paul experienced this joy and comfort or encouragement “because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.” The word translated “hearts” is translated as “bowels” in the KJV, and this is literally what Paul refers to. He’ll use this phrase again in verse 20, and it becomes a very important part of his appeal. We tend to translate the word as “heart,” because in our culture today “heart” communicates the idea of the seat of the emotions, the place where deep feeling and impulses come from. We speak of loving someone from the bottom of our hearts. Well, the Greeks would have spoken of loving someone with their guts or bowels. It’s a reference to the deep core of our emotional being. So, Philemon’s love for all the saints translated practically into him being a source of encouragement, refreshing, and renewal for them. Paul loves hearing those kinds of reports! Third, don’t miss the fact that Paul refers to him as “my brother.” So far, he has specifically referred to Philemon as a “beloved fellow worker” (v. 1) and now “my brother.”
Now, as we step into verses 8-20, we begin to see what Paul’s after in this letter. He begins the section by noting that he could exercise his apostolic authority and just command Philemon to do what needs to be done. But look at verse 9: yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus. Rather than commanding Philemon to act, Paul appeals to him “for love’s sake.” Now that’s an ambiguous phrase, isn’t it? Does Paul mean he’s appealing to Philemon because of his own love for Philemon? Or does Paul mean he’s appealing to Philemon because of God’s love for Philemon? Or does Paul mean he’s appealing to Philemon because of Philemon’s love for all the saints? It’s impossible to be certain, but I think Paul might be appealing to Philemon this way for the sake of Philemon’s love for all the saints. What Paul wants Philemon to do is going to relate to how Philemon expresses love for a particular saint.
In verse 10, we’re finally introduced to Onesimus. I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. Paul calls Onesimus his “child” and indicates that he “fathered” him in prison. Apparently, what Paul means is that, while in house arrest in Rome, this young man Onesimus arrived and heard Paul preach the gospel, and God gave Onesimus new life. He was born again! God used Paul’s preaching to cause Onesimus to be born again “through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Pet. 1:23), so that Paul can say he “begat” or “fathered” Onesimus.
In verse 11, Paul adds a clever pun, a play on the meaning of Onesimus’ name, but we must ask what the point of this statement is. He says, Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me. The name Onesimus certainly can mean “useful,” but in what sense had Onesimus formerly been “useless” to Philemon? This is where speculation can get us headed in the wrong direction. Many through the years have suggested that Onesimus was a bad slave, who often disappointed his master, Philemon. I think that conclusion is not warranted. The Greek word Paul uses for “useless” is achrestos, which sounds just like achristos, which means “Christless.” This supports the positive point Paul is making. Now that Onesimus has become a Christian he is uniquely able to live up to his name. The Greek word Paul uses for useful is euchrestos, which actually sounds like the Greek word Paul uses in verse 4 to “thank” God, eucharisto. As a Christian, he is useful as a brother in Christ, and he is useful as a partner to Paul, and Paul would be thankful to have him back, as we’ll see in a couple of verses.
Verse 12 says, I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. So, as Paul is composing this letter to Philemon, we can imagine Onesimus sitting with the chained apostle, waiting to carry the completed letter back to his master Philemon. Paul calls Onesimus “my very heart,” or, actually, “my bowels.” Earlier, Paul had thanked God for the ways Philemon “refreshed the hearts of the saints,” and now Paul says that Onesimus is his own heart. Hold onto that thought.
In verse 13, Paul reveals that he really wants to keep Onesimus with him, but in verse 14 he indicates that his better judgment won out. Look at verses 13 and 14: I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. That first phrase, translated in the ESV, as “I would have been glad,” simply means “I wanted to,” and it expresses Paul’s actual desire. But he prudently lays aside his desire for Philemon’s sake. He asks for Philemon’s permission; he says, I preferred to do nothing without your consent; that is, “I decided not to keep Onesimus without your permission.”
Paul goes on to say that he’s appealing to Philemon this way so that, as the ESV puts it, your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. The NKJV puts it this way: that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary. Remember back to Paul’s prayer for Philemon that their partnership would become effective so that he might experience “every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.” This is the particular “good thing” Paul had in mind, and he wants to give Philemon the opportunity to do this “good thing” voluntarily, without being forced. Isn’t it ironic that, in a letter dealing with the relationship between a master and a slave, the contrast between “forced” and “voluntary” would come up? “Paul has decided to grant [Philemon] the freedom to act according to his own will in light of their partnership in Christ,” probably with the intention of motivating Philemon to grant Onesimus the freedom to act according to his own will to continue serving Paul.
Verses 15-16 are the most important in the letter: For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. Paul sees Onesimus’ conversion under his preaching the bottom-line reason for his separation from his master Philemon. Now, traditionally commentators have concluded that Onesimus was a runaway slave, who had fled from Philemon, possibly stealing from him on the way out, and ended up in Rome with Paul. All that is certainly and clearly communicated in this letter is that Onesimus is Philemon’s slave; Onesimus heard Paul’s preaching and responded by trusting Christ; Onesimus remained with Paul for some amount of time and served him while he was imprisoned in Rome; Paul has decided to send Onesimus with this letter back to Philemon. Frankly, Paul does not state in any clear way how Onesimus ended up in his service. The hypothesis that Onesimus is a runaway slave is possible, but I think there are several clues in the text that point to a different situation, and there are several cultural facts about slavery and runaway slaves in the first century that make the idea that Paul is harboring a runaway slave for any length of time just nearly impossible for me to believe.
Let’s pay close attention to what Paul does say in these verses. First, he indicates that Onesimus was “parted from” Philemon “for a while.” This is surely an occasion of the “divine passive,” where God is assumed to be the actor of the verb. So, Paul is saying that God separated Onesimus from Philemon for a short while. God did this to accomplish an eternal change in the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus; Philemon will get Onesimus back, but not simply as a slave. Remember at the beginning of the letter how Paul referred to Philemon as “our beloved fellow worker” (v. 1), and then in v. 7 he referred to him as “my brother.” Now, Onesimus is being called “beloved” and “brother.” He says Philemon is to have Onesimus “no longer as a slave but more than a slave.” With this phrase, Paul is not denying the reality of the present slave-master relationship between Philemon and Onesimus; as Paul writes this letter, and when Onesimus arrives to deliver it to Philemon, Onesimus is still very much legally Philemon’s slave. Paul is saying, “Philemon, Onesimus is no longer simply your slave; he is also your brother. You work out whether that’s compatible.” I can almost imagine a sly grin coming across Paul’s face as he writes these words; he doesn’t outright ask Philemon to set his slave free, but he challenges Philemon to work out the implications of the gospel, now that he and Onesimus are brothers in Christ. Philemon must learn that Christ is all; Christ is the determiner of all his relationships.
You see, this is not simply about Paul wanting Philemon to set Onesimus free. In fact, in the first century, when a slave was set free by his master, they usually cut all ties; the slave could no longer count on any benefits from the master, and the former slave may even still have some obligations along the way. Paul doesn’t want Philemon to get rid of Onesimus; rather, he wants Philemon to elevate him to treat him like a brother, “both in the flesh in the Lord.” The meaning of this final phrase is debated, but it seems to me that it means that Paul is expecting Philemon to treat Onesimus as a full family member in his household, not only as a Christian brother in some loose sense, but as a dear member of his own family.
Paul finally issues a command in verse 17, and he sets it up by calling Philemon to remember his partnership with Paul: So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. When Philemon looks at his slave Onesimus carrying this letter, he is to welcome him and treat him as he would treat the old man and prisoner Paul; we would expect that means that Philemon should be gentle and caring and eager to provide for Onesimus.
Now verses 18 and 19 are where many folks see evidence that Onesimus had stolen something and/or ran away from Philemon: If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. This “if” is a very uncertain “if” in Greek; it “provides no indication concerning the veracity of the hypothetical scenario.” However, the verbs used—“wrong,” “owe,” and “repay”—are known to have been used in the context of making up for missed days of work. It seems odd to me, if Onesimus had run away or stolen something, that, in light of his new life in Christ, that Paul would not indicate Onesimus’ grief over his sin, or at least that he would indicate more clearly that he had in fact “wronged” Philemon. Instead, Paul rather seems to be keeping the ball in Philemon’s court, asking him to decide if he wants to insist on extracting from Paul some compensation for the work that Onesimus missed. At any rate, Paul is acting very much like Jesus, offering to pay a debt Onesimus could not pay.
The reference to Philemon owing Paul even his own self seems to be an indication that Paul is responsible for Philemon’s conversion as well. So, returning to an earlier question, had Paul met Philemon? This probably indicates that he had, so that perhaps Philemon was traveling and ended up in a setting where Paul was preaching to the masses, and God converted him. However, it is possible that Philemon was converted under the preaching of Epaphras, who had been converted under the preaching of Paul. If so, Paul could still legitimately claim that Philemon owes him ultimately, as a sort of grandfather in the faith. Either way, the point is clear: the wealthy slaveholder is in debt to the old prisoner Paul, and he’s now also brother to a slave.
In verse 20, Paul summarizes his request in a metaphorical way: Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. He addresses Philemon as “brother” again, really emphasizing the family dynamics at play here. The verb translated “I want some benefit” is another Greek word related to the name Onesimus, and the final sentence puts a nice bow on his argument. Recall how earlier he had highlighted how Philemon had “refreshed the hearts of the saints” (v. 7), and then he said that Onesimus was his very heart (v. 12). Now, he commands Philemon to refresh his heart, which probably means, “Philemon, treat Onesimus with the same love that you treat all the other saints; refresh Onesimus and I will experience the same joy and comfort that I did when I first heard that you loved the saints so effectively.”
As Paul concludes in verse 21, he expresses his confidence that Philemon will obey, that he will indeed welcome his slave, regard him as a brother, and love him as he loves all the other saints. He also expresses his confidence that Philemon will do “even more than” he has asked specifically. This might go back to Paul’s indication that he wants Onesimus to be serving him. Does Paul want Philemon to free Onesimus? Probably. But not only that. Paul has called for Philemon to recognize the new relationship he has with Onesimus and to act out of that truth, to treat Onesimus accordingly, as the brother he really is in Christ. And if Paul wants Onesimus to serve him, and Onesimus wants to do so, Philemon would be gracious in supporting him in doing so.
Paul adds a request in verse 22 for Philemon to prepare for his arrival in Colossae. Paul apparently expects that his imprisonment will not be permanent or final, or at least that is his hope, and you’ve got to wonder whether he’s adding this note to apply some extra motivation for Philemon to respond favorably to Paul’s request. Moreover, he might be hoping to take Onesimus with him as he would continue his travels beyond Colossae. Notice that Paul says, I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you. Do we talk like this? Do we have the belief in God’s sovereignty that Paul has? Do we have the belief that God works in response to the prayers of his people as Paul has? Paul knows that if he arrives in Colossae or anywhere else he plans to go, it will be because of God’s grace in response to human prayer. And we should notice that the “your” in “your prayers” is plural, so that Paul is referring to the prayers of the Colossian Christians as a group.
So, what do we make of this letter? Christians are the family of God. All of us, regardless of race, language, location, gender, social status, or political party are brothers and sisters, adopted children of the King of the Universe. Jesus is our Lord and our union with him determines our relationship to each other. “The fellowship that is created among those who have faith in Christ (v. 6) brings with it obligations to one another.” When we make decisions, do we consider how those decisions are going to affect our family members? I typically take into account how my wife is going to be affected or is likely to respond to a decision I make; but do I typically take into account how my decisions might affect you all? Paul seems to be suggesting that “the household of God [is] the primary frame of reference within which decisions must be made.” This letter to Philemon was to be read to the church, implying that the other believers—Philemon’s other brothers and sisters in Christ—were likely standing as witnesses to hold Philemon accountable for how he would respond to Paul and Onesimus.
The gospel transforms us as individuals, but it also should transform the nature of our relationships. Our faith in Christ should be flowing out into a concrete expression of love for other Christians, particularly the ones we rub shoulders with regularly in this building. The way Paul goes about this appeal to Philemon depicts the gospel, as does the response he expects from Philemon toward Onesimus. You see, Jesus became a slave (Phil. 2:7) so he could make us his siblings (Heb. 2:7). “The Son of God himself calls us his brothers and sisters. And if the almighty Creator of heaven and earth is willing to become our brother...then surely we must be willing to regard each other as brothers and sisters as well—even when doing so goes against everything our culture has insisted upon.”
Jesus laid aside his rights, did not count equality with God something to be used for his own advantage, and he took the place of us sinful slaves. Paul lays aside his rights as an apostle, refusing to command Philemon so that he could get what he wanted, and offers to pay any debts Onesimus might owe. Onesimus, Paul, and Philemon are all brothers; regardless of whatever else they might be, they are brothers, and Paul expects Philemon to lay down his rights as slaveholder, master of Onesimus, and express genuine love for him as he does for all the rest of God’s people.
Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:4-11)