How do you define “family”? Biologically? Qualitatively? Some other way? As we continue studying Philemon verses 8-25, today we’re going to see Paul explain how Jesus defines family, and get ready, it is shocking.
So what did Paul say? Let’s continue his flow of thought from what we already learned in Part 1 and 2 of this series. We’ve come to verse 13, where Paul admits that he wishes the runaway slave, Onesimus, who has now become a Christian, could stay with Paul. Already in Part 2 we saw how Paul describes Onesimus as “useful” to him. So as Paul writes to Philemon, saying he wishes Onesimus could stay with him (Paul), that should show Philemon how highly Paul thought of Onesimus. What Paul says next is where it really gets interesting: Paul writes that if Onesimus could have stayed with Paul, Onesimus would be taking Philemon’s place helping Paul! That is a bold statement. Paul is saying that a slave could take the place of his master. In a slave society, that is laughable. There is no version of slavery in which a slave could take the place of the master. But when Jesus enters the situation, he turns society’s convention upside-down. A slave, Paul is saying, a lowly slave who is transformed by Jesus, can become equal with his master. Paul’s not done. It’s going to get even more wild.
Next in verse 14, Paul quickly says that he wants to honor Philemon’s consent. Philemon owns Onesimus and thus Paul is legally bound to send him back. Also, whatever Philemon chooses to do, Paul doesn’t want anyone to be able to say, “Paul forced this on me.” Paul wants Philemon’s response to be Philemon’s own free choice.
Now read verses 15-16 where Paul says there might have been another reason for Onesimus running away. Another reason? What other reason? Isn’t it fairly obvious, Paul? Think about it: normally when a slave runs away, there’s nothing but bad blood between slave and master. In the master’s eyes, slaves are property that equal money. Slaves create wealth for their masters. Thus slaves who run away are seen not only as missing property, but also as missing income. Add to that, slaves who runaway are disrespecting their masters. Clearly, masters would often disrespect and mistreat slaves, which is precisely why the slaves wanted to run away in the first place. So the slave/master relationship was often a fraught situation, and the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon was no different. Philemon could easily be reading this thinking, “I know why Onesimus ran away, Paul,” and he was almost certainly not happy about it. Paul is bold, then, in suggesting that there might be another reason.
What is this other reason Paul hints at? He tells Philemon that it so Philemon could have Onesimus back for good, which is no surprise, but then he adds a shocker in verse 16 when says Philemon “might have him back for good–no longer a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.” Do you see what Paul does there? He totally redefines the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon. Master and slave is gone. Now they are brothers. Dear brothers. Totally equal.
This is exactly what Paul taught in other places:
“You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”Galatians 3:26-28
Paul says the same thing in 1 Cor. 12:13. He also writes it in Colossians 3:11, which is interesting, because when Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon, almost certainly Onesimus and another ministry partner, Tychichus, were carrying the letter of Colossians with them too, a public letter which would have been read to all the Christians in Colosse, including Philemon. So Paul doesn’t want this to be just a private matter between Philemon and Onesimus, he wants all Christians to know that in Christ, there is a total redefinition of people’s status. No more ethnic stratification, he says, “neither Jew nor Greek.” Nor more gender stratification, “neither male nor female.” No more slave and master, “neither slaver nor free.”
All are one in Christ.
Paul was asking Philemon to embrace the full truth of Jesus’ teaching, that in Christ there is no more slave or free, Jew or Greek, but all are one in Christ. All are equal. Paul says in verse 16 that Philemon should consider Onesimus as even dearer than Paul does. A brother in the Lord. And a brother is family. Does your definition of “family” need redefinition to make it the same as Jesus’? Does your practice of family need to change?
In the next post, we’ll see how passionately Paul continues to argue for this redefinition of family.