[K:NWTS 6/3 (Dec 1991) 38-45]

Paul, Philemon, Onesimus and the New Creation in Christ Jesus

Epistle to Philemon

James T. Dennison, Jr.

How do we approach this letter to Philemon—the shortest epistle in the Pauline corpus? Perhaps we could begin with William Lloyd Garrison, radical Northern abolitionist, editor of the newspaper the Liberator from 1831, joint founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. "No man can love God who enslaves another," said Garrison. The corollary is that any Christian holding slaves in America in 1830 was to be barred from the Lord's Supper and expelled from the church. Now as I read Paul's letter to Philemon, I did not notice remarks from this inspired apostle which would support Mr. Garrison's sentiments.

Well then, suppose we turn to Benjamin Morgan Palmer, Southern Calvinist, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of New Orleans during the Civil War. In his Fast Day sermon of 1861, Palmer stated that the African system of slavery was a "divine trust" which the South was duty bound to "preserve and perpetuate" to the point of taking up arms against the Union. Again, not the flavor of the inspired apostle's comments to Philemon. 

It was Charles Hodge who would point out in the pages of the Biblical Repertory and Princeton Theological Review that the shift in Southern opinion from a Biblical permission to hold slaves to a Biblical mandate to perpetuate slavery was a move beyond the Biblical data. In an analytical tour de force, Hodge argued convincingly, in my opinion, that slavery was an institution destined to die of attrition.

The recent superb and poignant Public Broadcasting System (PBS) series on the Civil War raises Hodge's salient point anew: would an archaic institution (slavery), once isolated and restrained from metastasizing like a malignant cancer, would such an institution have died naturally—dribbling out by the end of the 19th century as social consciousness was raised and Christian principles prevailed? 

But secession was rebellion. And rebellion had to be quelled—that is what he said; that is what Abraham Lincoln said!

The tone of the apostle in his letter to Philemon is not virulent invective against slaveholders with the demand for excommunication. Nor is his tone a bill of infallibility for slavery as an institution to be perpetually extended by secession and rebellion. The apostle is neither a crusading abolitionist, nor a defender of slavery in perpetuity. The epistle to Philemon raises issues in our native consciousness; and in raising them, invites us to reflect upon and learn from these issues once more; yea "with malice toward none, with charity for all."

Structure of the Epistle

Perhaps we should approach Philemon by first analyzing its structure. You will observe that the first three verses include the names of five persons: Paul, Timothy, Philemon, Apphia, Archippus. You will further observe that the last three verses (vv. 23-25) conclude with the names of five persons: Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke. Now observe also that the pattern of verses 1-3 is five names plus the phrase "the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ." This is precisely mirrored in verses 23-25: five names plus the phrase "the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ." The greeting or salutation of the epistle ends with the Lord Jesus Christ. The closing or conclusion of the epistle ends with the Lord Jesus Christ. A perfectly balanced inclusio structurally envelops the tender plea of the apostle on behalf of Onesimus. Paul, Timothy, Philemon, Apphia, Archippus—members of the church; Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke—members of the church. Within the church, something new is occurring!

Again, perhaps we should approach this letter by considering its epistolary structure. The Pauline epistles have been found to follow a marked rhetorical pattern: Salutation, Thanksgiving, Body of the Letter, Close. In our case, verses 1-3 have been suggested as the Salutation; verses 4-7 as the Thanksgiving; verses 8-22 as the Body; and verses 23-25 as the Close.

Some have even compared the Pauline epistles to contemporary Graeco-Roman letters and have attempted to assign patterns of rhetorical similarity, especially in the deliberative section of his epistles—in our case, Philemon 4-22. The so-called Exordium secures the goodwill of the reader (vv. 4-7): "I thank my God always," "I hear of your love," "I have come to have much joy." The main body or so-called Proof of the letter urges the main argument of the writer through appeals to honor and reasonable motivation—even strong feelings (vv. 8-16): "I appeal to you," "without your consent I did not want to do anything." Finally, the so-called Peroration sums up the argument of the letter by restating the appeal, gaining the reader's favor, enlarging the argument and moving the reader to a favorable emotional frame of mind (vv. 17-22): "If he has wronged you . . . charge that to my account;" "I know that you will do even more than what I say."

Narrative Pattern of the Epistle

More important than these formal structural patterns, even though they contain theological overtones, is the narrative pattern of the epistle. Yes, surprisingly, there is a story here—a story with a cast of players, drama, pathos, anticipation.

Our drama opens in v. 19. Philemon owes Paul a debt. It is his own conversion—a transformation which precedes that of Onesimus. Philemon had heard the gospel from Paul and had received the Holy Spirit through the apostle's word—possibly at Colossae (ancient patristic commentators thought it was at Colossae). But scene two is in the prison at Rome. At Rome, Paul is bound in chains for the sake of the gospel. Around him are gathered those named in vv. 23-24 plus Onesimus, Philemon's slave. Onesimus had run away—perhaps after stealing something, as was supposed by the aforementioned patristic commentators. Onesimus was in debt to Philemon. In the providence of God, Onesimus reached Paul. He too heard the gospel from the apostle and received the Holy Spirit through the apostle's word. Having heard of Philemon's love and faith, Paul sends Onesimus back to his master. Onesimus himself undoubtedly carries the letter asking Philemon to receive him as "more than a slave, yea a beloved brother." The final scenes are left to our imagination. Onesimus arrives at the home of Philemon with Paul's letter. Philemon reads the letter and responds, we trust, affirmatively. Paul then visits Philemon to follow up his letter (an event which may never have occurred). 

We have two stories here—two narratives. One story is about Philemon, his old nature, his useless slave. The other story is about Onesimus, his new nature, the fact that he is now a useful beloved brother. The father of both is Paul—to the one, begotten in freedom; to the other, begotten in bonds. This narrative therefore focuses on relationships: Paul and Philemon; Paul and Onesimus; Philemon and Onesimus.

The Drama of Relationships

As we examine the vocabulary of the epistle, we begin to notice that the drama of relationship is supported by the language of relationship. The terms "brother" and "sister" occur five times; "beloved," a term of Christian affection, occurs five times; cf. "fellow worker," "my very own heart." These terms of horizontal relationship are touchingly spread through the apostle's appeal. Onesimus is Paul's "child"; Onesimus, while Philemon's "slave," has become by God's grace, Paul's "brother." Onesimus is a "debtor" to Paul, even as Philemon is a "debtor" to the apostle. "Fellow prisoner," "fellow soldier" of the "old man," the elder statesman of the gospel. This wonderfully personal epistle is full of expression of loving and tender relationship.

Yet the relationship pivotal to the epistle is the relationship between master and slave. Paul's appeal is an appeal on behalf of a fugitive slave. It is an appeal which seeks more than emancipation—it seeks reconciliation of slave to master. It would be simple enough to reduce this epistle to a treatise on social ethics—whether abolitionist, pro-slavery or something in between. It would be easy to reduce this letter to the horizontal dimension of superiors and inferiors with all their political overtones. It would be easy to reduce the epistle to Philemon to our allegedly enlightened social consciousness.

The Drama of the Lord Jesus Christ

But that is not really what this letter is all about. It is not about abolition or emancipation, human subjugation or bondage. This letter is not really about Philemon and Onesimus. Like all of Scripture, this epistle is about Christ. The Lord Jesus Christ is the focus of this letter. This radical concept—for it is radical in today's church to expect pastors to focus on Christ rather than on some topical or practical or applicatory agenda—this radical concept is even found in the structure of the epistle.

The salutation begins with Christ Jesus (v. 1) and ends with Jesus Christ (v. 3). The thanksgiving and body of the letter begin and end with Lord (Kyriou), while the sequence of Christological names comes to a focus in the pregnant Pauline expression en Christo (v. 8). That eschatological phrase "in Christ" will also reappear at the end of the letter (vv. 20, 23). Finally the conclusion (vv. 23-25) will close with the names of our Savior in the very same Christological sequence as they occurred in the greeting (vv. 1-3): Christ-Jesus-Lord-Jesus-Christ. A remarkable pattern of Christological focus, the chiasm is a literary bonus!

The New Creation in Christ

But to what end? What is the point? It is the eschatological relationship present "in Christ" who is "Lord and Master" of Paul, Philemon, Onesimus and the church. Paul has a Lord and Master—in Christ, he has been set free through the eschatological invasion of history by the Son of God. This Paul, bond slave and prisoner to the beggarly elements of this present evil age, has been emancipated in the "fullness of the times" by the life, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. "In Christ" Paul is no longer a slave to the powers of this present evil age; "in Christ," Paul has been raised up to become a son, an heir, a child of the heavenly, glorified Lord. In the glory of the risen Jesus, Paul is no longer in bondage—no longer a prisoner—no longer a debtor. 

And so this new age—this eschatological era—this age of Christ and "in Christ"—breaks in upon Philemon and Onesimus. In Christ, they too are made members of the Lord of glory—risen, ascended, seated in heavenly places in him. They are members of the church above—heirs of light—the sons and daughters of the great king of glory. Slave, Onesimus, is "in Christ," raised up even now to the glory not yet fully revealed. Master, Philemon, is "in Christ," lifted up to the heavenly arena and seated with the slaves of King Jesus even now in glory. 

The relationships of this epistle have been transformed. They have been transformed by the eschatological new thing which God has done in Christ Jesus our Lord through his church. Philemon has been purchased from bondage and marvelously brought into Christ. Onesimus has been emancipated from servitude and wonderfully ushered into Christ. Together, through the eschatological transformation of the ages, they are sons, children, heirs together of God and joint-heirs of Jesus Christ.

Slavery is not the issue. Christ is the issue and where men and women are in Christ, transformed by the eschatological death and resurrection of their Lord, made new by the divine and heavenly light which has translated them out of darkness into the marvellous glory of the kingdom of Christ—where such men and women have been possessed of the eschatological Christ, then "in Christ" they receive one another as "no longer slaves, but more than slaves—as beloved brothers and sisters in Christ." In such an eschatological arena, in such an eschatological setting, in such an eschatological fellowship—can slavery—I ask you, brothers and sisters—can slavery long endure? Surely not—in such a kingdom—in the eschatological kingdom of Christ where there is no more bond or free—slavery must wither and die. It, like this present evil age of which it is a part, it too must pass away. It must pass away—so that men and women may possess the dignity of the sons and daughters of Christ. En Christo, in Christ who became a slave that he might emancipate those who are subject to bitter bondage. En Christo, in Christ who made himself a bondservant to sin and death, that he might manumit us through his very own emancipation—his eschatological death and resurrection.

William Lloyd Garrison was wrong. His abolitionist methods were those of the flesh. Benjamin Morgan Palmer was wrong. His pro-slavery sentiments failed to weigh the eschatological transformation of those in Christ.

But Philemon and Onesimus knew. In Christ, in the new relationship in Christ Jesus—they understood. No longer a slave, but a beloved brother. No longer a master, but a beloved brother. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ had set them both free. Eschatologically free—free at last. Free in Christ both now and forevermore.

Westminster Theological Seminary
Escondido, California

Suggestions for Further Reading

F. Forrester Church, "Rhetorical Structure and Design in Paul's Letter to Philemon." Harvard Theological Review 71 (1978): 17-33. 

Norman R. Petersen, Rediscovering Paul: Philemon and the Sociology of Paul's Narrative World(Fortress Press, 1985).

J. H. Roberts, "Pauline Transitions to the Letter Body," in L'Apotre Paul: Personalite, Style et Conception du Ministere, ed. by A. Vanhoye (Leuven, 1986), pp. 93-99.

Wolfgang Schenk, "Der Brief des Paulus an Philemon in der neueren Forschung (1945-1987)," in Principat 25, 4: Religion, ed. by W. Haase (1987), pp. 3439-95.