We cannot help but notice how Paul’s union with Christ radically altered his relationship with every believer who shared this same sacred bond. Personal union with Christ extends into corporate communion with all His people. That is, just as in our natural families we and our siblings share our parents’ DNA, so in the family of God we share the same spiritual DNA, so to speak, with Christ our Elder Brother and Redeemer. For the Apostle, this transformed the way he viewed his relationship not only with the newly converted Onesimus, but also with Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus (who was thought to be a fellow-worker in the church that met in Philemon’s house).
At face value, Paul’s letter to Philemon seems like a private letter written to address a painful problem that had arisen in a Christian family in the New Testament world. It is indeed just that; but, in God’s wider purpose, He saw fit to include it in the New Testament canon for the benefit of the church through the ages.
At one level, the issue it addresses is plain to see. A slave called Onesimus apparently stole from his master, Philemon, and ran away, likely to Rome. Under Roman law, such an act carried serious consequences for the perpetrator—extending to the right of the slave owner to execute his slave if he so desired. However, in the case of Onesimus, as he tried to run away from his earthly master, he unwittingly ran into the arms of a new and heavenly Master when he encountered Jesus through the preaching of Paul while he was a prisoner in Rome.
Without condoning Onesimus’ theft, the Apostle saw this slave’s life turned around by grace. He was transformed from being seen as a “useless” runaway in the eyes of Philemon to being “useful” not only to Paul, but to his former master as well (Philem. 11). The force of this turnaround is seen in the play on words bound up with his name, Onesimus, which means “useful.” The Apostle wrote to Philemon not merely to ask that he receive Onesimus back but that he welcome him as a brother in Christ. More than this, Paul promised Philemon that he would cover the financial loss he suffered through the theft.
How do we explain this countercultural response to Onesimus’ misconduct on the one hand and Paul’s seemingly incredible request to Philemon on the other? The answer is Christ and what we become in Him when we are joined to Him in salvation.
1. Christ Enables Us to See Our Circumstances through a Different Lens
Paul was in prison yet again, and yet again the Apostle responded to his incarceration not by grumbling and complaining about the situation, but rather by acknowledging God’s providence in it all.