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The Epistle to Philemon: Community and Social Justice In The Early Church

The epistle to Philemon is a masterpiece of Christian persuasion, of mercy, of grace and of the God of second chances. It is a plea for genuine mercy to be exercised towards Onesimus the runaway slave. When the historical context is taken into account it gives us a glimpse into the principles of community and social justice in the early church. The glimpse may be through the small window of this brief epistle - but it has an amazingly wide view! We shall go verse by verse and watch the story unfold.

Verses 1-3

(Phile 1:1-3 NKJV) Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved friend and fellow laborer, {2} to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: {3} Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

The opening greetings which we will study today give us a glimpse into church life in the first century. There are three things that show up. Firstly that the church was made up of active people, secondly that the church met in houses, thirdly that there was a strong mutual affection between a widely dispersed network of active Christians. Lets look at each of these in turn.

The church was not a group of spectators, it was active. When Paul refers to them he uses terms like "laborer" and "soldier" indicating strenuous effort and determined endurance. This seems not to have been true of just the apostles but the ordinary active Christians of this little house church. How many people met in Philemon's house? Twenty? A dozen? Yet of that small number 3 are commended by Paul. The church contained an appreciable percentage of active Christians who were real workers for the Lord.

Secondly and quite obviously the church met in houses. The New Testament always refers to the church as the people - never the building. The church can "meet", but buildings cannot gather! In many places in the world and increasingly in the West Christians are meeting in homes as their primary means of fellowship. This is perfectly legitimate. You can be just as good a Christian at home as at Winchester Cathedral. But not at home alone. The church meets - remember! Its a gathering! You must have a number of people present for it to be a church. The location can be grand or humble - the Lord will still be present.

Thirdly the house church was not isolated from the wider Christian community. It was not tucked away. It was part of a much larger network that accepted the authority of Paul the apostle. Paul knew them by name and treasured them as people. There is obvious warmth in his greetings and later he tells Philemon that he may stay there on his way through. There was a flow of fellowship between Paul and Timothy, the church at Philemon's place and the church at large. The church at Philemon's place was no cult. It was a natural part of the body of Christ as a whole and participated in its life and accepted the authority of its apostles. House churches need not be small-minded - they can still embrace the larger Christian community.

Should we all rush out and start house churches? I don't know. It is certainly a biblical model with many advantages which can work very well. Yet the leaving of denominational churches can be counter to Christian love. If your denominational church is any good - stay there! Nurture the relationships you have and do not leave in bitterness or found a house church out of an independent spirit. House churches and denominational churches can work together as part of God's Kingdom to achieve His purposes. House churches are generally better at relationships and acts of mercy and love. Denominations can have missionary boards, hospitals, Christian schools and orphanages. Each has their place.

Verses 4-7

There are some significant differences between bible versions in these verses...

(Phile 1:4-7 NKJV) I thank my God, making mention of you always in my prayers, {5} hearing of your love and faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints, {6} that the sharing of your faith may become effective by the acknowledgment of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus. {7} For we have great joy and consolation in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you, brother.

(Phile 1:4-7 NRSV) When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God {5} because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. {6} I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. {7} I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.

(Phile 1:4-7 NIV) I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, {5} because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. {6} I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. {7} Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.

With all this diversity I went back to the Greek and did a literal translation of verse 6 which comes out as:"in order that the commonality/fellowship of your faith will become productive - in the experiential knowledge of every good thing - that is in you in Christ".Not much better huh? Paul seems to want Philemon to have a faith that is participating in community so actively that he discovers in a real experiential way all the good that Jesus Christ has placed inside Philemon's heart.

People are undiscovered treasures. Undiscovered both to themselves and others and it is only as we actively share ourselves with others that we will discover all the wonderful things that God has put inside us in Christ. To give you an example. God is gradually turning me from tactless into gracious. This new graciousness is often a surprise to me. It is when I find myself being gracious in tense situations that I think "where did that come from". It came from Christ within me! It is my involvement with others that brings to the surface the good that Christ has worked deep down in my life. I discover in a real experiential way ("epignosko") the good things Christ has put in me - and in those around me. We discover what Christ is doing in each other as we relate in a dynamic community of faith.

Philemon seems to have been the perfect host. His ability to "refresh the hearts of the saints" is noted as is Philemon's exceptional love for God's people - "your love for all the saints". It may seem a little strange to us for Paul to say " For we have great joy and consolation in your love,". It is unusual for us to commend people for their ability to love others. We commend people for their financial giving, their preaching ability or their zeal. We tend not to publicly commend them for being loving and hospitable. When was that last time your church gave an award for "being very loving" ?. Yet love is top of the biblical agenda. Its top of Peter's list of virtues - brotherly love and agape (2 Peter 1:5-7) and it is the basis of the two great commandments. Therefore if we are to commend anything about anyone - it should be their ability to love others. Paul was spot on in doing so!

What does this say to us? It says to me that the most important ability I have is the ability to love others and to draw out of them the riches that Christ has placed within them. Any intellectual, physical or spiritual abilities I have need to be servants of love and to the community of faith. I am by nature competitive, yet I find that two different atmospheres exist - the ethos of love and the ethos of competition. Its either-or. I cannot develop my "killer instinct" and love my neighbor much at all. I can choose to live in love and for love or in competition to win. If I live in love I bring the riches of Christ out of myself and my neighbor. If I live in competition I bring out envy, jealousy and strife.

May I call you into the deep abiding realization that your great ability - the ability God and the apostles observe, is your ability to love others and to draw out of them the riches that Christ has placed within them.

Verses 8-13

(Phile 1:8-13 NKJV) Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting, {9} yet for love's sake I rather appeal to you; being such a one as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ; {10} I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, {11} who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me. {12} I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, {13} whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel.

I always chuckle when I read this part of the letter. It is about as manipulative as you can get and still be a good Christian. Paul, having told Philemon what a good chap he is, in a public letter, now starts a bit of arm twisting by bringing to mind certain pertinent facts. "For love's sake I appeal to you", "Paul the aged", "though I might ... command you", "in my chains", "my own heart", "my son Onesimus". It is a relentless flow of reminders that create an absolute obligation on Philemon - and yet more obligations will follow in succeeding verses!

Is it right to remind someone so forcefully of their moral obligations ? If the epistle to Philemon is Scripture, and it is, then the answer must be "Yes". Christian community involves maintaining proper moral obligations to each other. It can be said that we have legitimate demands on each other. It is not a community of the irresponsible but of the accountable. One of the most commonly acknowledged of these demands is that those who do God's work should be paid for it. It is a Christian moral obligation that "those who preach the gospel should get their living from the gospel". What happens when this obligation is not being met? The minister concerned has every right to hold the community accountable and to remind them of their clear, scriptural moral obligation to him - but if the minister is wise he will do so as tactfully as Paul does here. Moral obligations to one another exist - and we can insist on them being upheld.

Would everyone would leave church if we did that? I don't think so. This intuition comes from the observation that companies which tactfully insist on staff meeting their obligations (say not taking long morning tea breaks) actually end up with more committed staff and a better happier work environment - whereas those that are "soft" on such things end up miserable places to work. I'm not sure you can translate this to churches but I suspect that you can to some extent. If people are lovingly held accountable then the jobs around the church get done, the new people get greeted and taken home for lunch, and the worship is better organized. Also if we are held accountable for the way we love others and the way we treat people at church - then we will lift our game a bit. Not that love should be all obligation - but a certain expectation of right living helps us watch our moods, our temper or our sarcasm.

The particular moral obligation being asked here was the restoration and right treatment of Onesimus the runaway slave. Paul was insisting on a gracious reception for a Christian brother, he was asking Philemon to lay aside his "legal rights" to punish Onesimus and instead to treat him well. Sometimes a Christian brother sins against us in a way that is punishable by law or actionable in a civil court. The Scriptures are quite clear that we must not go to court against each other before unbelievers (See 1 Cor 6:1-8) because of the disgrace this causes. Legal action and the spirit of revenge tears to shreds any Christian community very quickly. Paul wants Philemon to build Christian community through the exercise of true Christian grace, restoration and forgiveness - not to destroy it through punitive legal action.

Christian community involves us in moral obligations based on grace. Love is holy and responsible. Love forgives. Love remembers what is due and performs it. If we are part of God's network of believers, if we receive good from those we know in Christ, if the gospel has come to us through others, then we should contribute back into that network and "pull our weight" for the edification of the body of Christ in love and fulfil our obligations to each other. And we can lovingly exhort others to do what is right also.

Verses 14-19

(Phile 1:14-19 NKJV) But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary. {15} For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, {16} no longer as a slave but more than a slave; a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. {17} If then you count me as a partner, receive him as you would me. {18} But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account. {19} I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay; not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides.

This is diplomacy at its best. How far Paul has come in himself! In his early days of ministry before he went to Arabia for up to thirteen years) he was tactless and abrasive, so much so that Acts wryly puts the following narrative together..."(Acts 9:29-31 NKJV) And he (Paul) spoke boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus and disputed against the Hellenists, but they attempted to kill him. {30} When the brethren found out, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him out to Tarsus. {31} Then the churches throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and were edified. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, they were multiplied."

Paul was so tactless in his boldness that he was actually dangerous! He had to be removed from ministry and sent home to Tarsus - then the churches enjoyed peace! Paul was Luke's hero but he records his early days as a humiliating flop. Later on Barnabas remembered this firebrand and sought him out when someone with a passion for Greeks (Hellenists) was needed at Antioch. Now the great disputer has mellowed with the years and is using clever persuasion to gain his way with Philemon. Paul appeals to Philemon's better nature and draws the desired response out of him. He gives Philemon freedom to choose so that his good deed may be a voluntary one and not done "under compulsion". He reminds Philemon of the new status of Onesimus as a "beloved brother" - not just property, a slave, and beloved also to Paul. He implores him to receive Onesimus "as you would me" and with many other persuasions makes his point.

Philemon is not humiliated, those hearing the letter read would gain the impression that Philemon was being given the choice to be noble about sending Onesimus back to Paul as Paul's personal servant (see verses 11-13) This is a good example to us - perhaps we could draw the desired response out of people not by compelling them, or guilt-tripping them but by appealing them to show how noble they can be, by calling on their best side and asking them to show the nature of their love.

Finally Paul deals with the thorny practical problem of any financial losses that Philemon may have occurred through the loss of his slave. Paul takes personal responsibility for them saying "put them on my account, I will repay.". Then Paul tactfully reminds Philemon of his obligation to the apostle who shared the gospel with him: "not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides." This is strong language! In times of old if someone saved someone's life then the person who was rescued owed the rescuer a huge debt forever. We have forgotten this principle today. Yet it is biblical. Paul, as the one who shared the gospel was "owed the life" of those who came to believe through his sacrificial ministry. The debt we owe towards those who have shared the word with us is immense! The effect on Philemon was to create an obligation that could not be got out of. Onesimus would have to be received with grace then sent back to minister to Paul.

To sum up what we can learn from this cameo historical situation: Firstly that people can change! Paul has changed from a tactless young missionary who had to be sent home to a master diplomat and statesman. Onesimus has been changed from a useless runaway slave to a "useful" (the name Onesimus means useful, and Paul describes him as such in verse 11) and beloved brother in the Lord. Secondly we learn that people need advocates - Saul had Barnabas to say that he was now useful and now Onesimus had Paul. When we have fallen and "messed up" we need someone who believes in us to come alongside and help us up as part of the restoration process. This is part of the healthy Christian fellowship that we have been talking about in this series.

Thirdly we see that we are all in debt to someone and we need to remember that before we "exact our dues" from others. We are all in debt to Jesus Christ, we are all in debt to those who have shared the gospel with us, we are all in debt to those who have helped us through the rough patches of life. We should not go around "collecting our dues" from others unless we want God to "collect His dues" from us. The parable of the King and the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:23-35 makes that point very clearly. We owe big - therefore we must be merciful to those who owe us a little.

Verses 20-25

(Phile 1:20-25 NKJV) Yes, brother, let me have joy from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in the Lord. {21} Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. {22} But, meanwhile, also prepare a guest room for me, for I trust that through your prayers I shall be granted to you. {23} Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you, {24} as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow labourers. {25} The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.

Philemon is greeted by some of the top names in Paul's traveling missionary band. This would be like saying Dr. James Dobson greets you, along with Bill Bright, Billy Graham, James I Packer and Mother Teresa! Philemon is greeted by three of the writers of the New Testament - Paul, Luke and Mark. Epaphras, Aristarchus and Demas were well known as well - despite Demas falling away later on. Its a very kind way of saying "all the top names are watching you to see how this turns out." These greetings would have given Philemon enormous status in the eyes of his house church while at the same time subtly putting pressure on him to comply.

A second thing this list of luminaries brings to mind is that "something is going on here". Why are all these top people so interested in the fate of a runaway slave? Because Paul's epistle to Philemon is setting a public precedent for relations between Christian masters and Christian slaves. It is a very diplomatic appeal by "the top brass" for Christian masters to treat their slaves well as brothers and to, if possible, set them free.

That is why we still have the letter today and why it was copied and passed around. It was of general application as a precedent for the entire Roman Empire, it was never meant to sit in the top drawer of Philemon's filing cabinet and be lost. This was never a personal appeal to begin with! It just looked like one! It was saying publicly "This is the way Christian masters should regard their Christian slaves - as beloved brothers." Precedents had powerful force in those days and the letter would have been absolutely revolutionary in its impact.

The list of luminaries are the top apostles of the Gentile church. Jewish Christians would have been used to regarding Christian slaves as brothers as that is the clear teaching of the Torah. Gentile Christians though would have had no such teaching in their culture and it would be easy for them to have a huge blind spot and deep economic interest in the preservation of slavery. They would not have listened to the Jews - they had to hear from their own and to feel that they were being respected in the process before they would "give up their legal rights". So all the main names are Gentile names or names of apostles to the Gentiles. Onesimus, Philemon, Paul, Luke, Mark...all the actors in this drama are people that Gentile slave owners could identify with. Philemon, the slave owner is not painted as a villain. He is complimented at every turn. Thus these "big three" apostles to the Gentiles are saying "To Christian slave owners: We appreciate the benefits of your wealth and your hospitality and your love but we would like you to treat your Christian slaves a lot better please."

Philemon is thus a strongly counter-cultural epistle. It is asking prosperous Christians to live a lifestyle that their wealthy peers would laugh them to scorn for. It is asking for them to live simpler lives, to sacrifice some of the monetary and social benefits of slavery and to treat their slaves so well that many around them would probably regard them as weak and silly. Its touching the hip-pocket nerve and the social status nerve and the sense of personal justice and sense of property all in one hit. It is applying the basic principles of redemption to the issue of slavery and asking Christian slave masters to take "the next step along the road" to emancipation of their slaves. Its social justice at its best.

However Paul is not content to make a written appeal and leave it to the persuasive power of truth alone. He knows too well (possibly from his experience in Ephesus) that when truth and money collide - money often wins. Paul backs it up with a personal visit to inspect how things are going. "But, meanwhile, also prepare a guest room for me, for I trust that through your prayers I shall be granted to you." To the epistle's wider audience of Christian slave owners Paul is clearly implying (in a way they could not have missed) "If any of the churches top leadership passes by your way they will check on how you are treating your slaves." Paul emphasizes the accountability of Christian slave owners by using such phrases as "your obedience" and "I trust you will do even more than I say". They are clearly being called to a lifestyle of continuing Christian grace and and generosity towards their slaves in the light of all that they themselves owe to God and to the gospel.

How can we apply this today? Obviously in fair treatment of our employees that goes well beyond contract conditions and treats them as brothers and sisters in the Lord. To the abandoning of economic rationalism, to repent of threatening people through continual downsizing, to refrain from using lawyers to oppress people at every turn. We are called to incarnate the principles of redemption into our economic situation - even if it costs us some money and some social position. God values all Christians - including wealthy ones. He isn't out to condemn them or judge them but He does want them to be kind, to love Christians they have economic power over and to act to others as Christ has acted towards them.


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