The bible study I’m a part of took a look at Paul’s letter to Philemon this week, so I’m going to reflect here a bit after my study and our discussion. I definitely have a lot to grow in terms of bible study participation. I neither communicated well nor listened well. Hopefully that will change as the study progresses.
First, I had this letter memorized in the NIV (from participating in teen bible quiz), so I was most familiar with that translation. As I ventured out beyond the NIV, I tried to look at some other translations, and the underlying Greek. Verse 5 in particular jumped out to me, which I rendered as, “I hear about the love and faithfulness that you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints.” That doesn’t quite bring out the distinction between Jesus and the saints (Paul uses two different words which can be translated as toward), but this seemed more vibrant than the NIV’s “because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints.” Notably, I think Paul is commenting on Philemon’s love and faithful loyalty toward the saints and toward Jesus. Philemon is demonstrating loving faithfulness in his actions toward God and God’s people, enough so for Paul to hear about it.
Verse 6 also made more sense as I studied it further, “I pray that the fellowship/partnership (gk koinonea) of your faith would effectively grow toward the knowledge of every good thing that’s ours in Christ.” Seeing the Greek word koinonea excited me, because it brings out tones of not just partnership, which Tom Wright highlights, but also of rich, Christian fellowship. Both the ESV and the NIV render the beginning of the verse to like this, “I pray the sharing of your faith would be…” To me, the term “sharing your faith” seems foreign to the New Testament but very common in contemporary evangelical lingo. Perhaps that’s why Tom Wright, Eugene Peterson, and the TNIV translate along the lines of “partnership” instead of “sharing your faith.” For me, this fits in better with the rest of the letter, which is not primarily concerned with evangelism (though evangelism is important!) but with the reconciliation of a runaway slave to his master, which will hopefully result in liberation for Onesimus. Among other things, this would mean that Onesimus could continue helping Paul in Philemon’s place (verse 13) Verse 7 brings out the depth of joy and affection which Paul feels toward Philemon. It’s clear that Philemon is a very dear friend in the Lord, and that Paul is deeply encouraged and joyful because of his vibrant, godly life.
This, I think forms the basis of the appeal for Onesimus. He appeals on the basis of love (verse 8), on the basis of a deep affection and encouragement (verse 7), and on the basis of a shared partnership and fellowship in the gospel (verse 6). This is why Paul can make a very bold appeal to Philemon. Of course, this love is not just toward Philemon, but also toward Onesimus, whom he calls, “my very heart.” (verse 12) Paul cares deeply for both, and for their sakes and the sake of the Gospel he makes the appeal for reconciliation (there’s interesting connections here with 2 Corinthians, perhaps worth exploring elsewhere). Paul also drops subtle hints of their equal standing before God, which he develops elsewhere in Colossians and Ephesians. He wishes that Onesimus could “take your [Philemon’s] place” in helping Paul, and urges Philemon to welcome him back, “as much more than a slave, and a brother in the Lord!” The deeply subversive nature of the christian gospel fascinates me. Paul recognizes the legal and practical bases on which Philemon could punish or even kill Onesimus, but he urges him to consider the Gospel, to consider what I have done for you, to consider our koinonea in the faith. These clearly trump the reasons which come from an earthly point of view (what about the other slaves; our economy is based on slavery! etc). Paul persuades christianly. He doesn’t lord his authority over Philemon (though he does remind him of their past together). That’s one thing I think we need to learn from Paul: how to persuade christianly. As christians, we have to learn not to beat people up with scripture (or anything else). Instead we have to argue on the basis of love and affection. We have to persuade in the shining light of what Jesus has accomplished. To beat people up or “lord over people” in the name of Jesus, even for something good, is to undermine the faith we declare (especially when we beat up our brothers and sisters!). God, help us sort this out!
But of course, the greatest theme we see here is the theme of reconciliation. The ministry of reconciliation which we have been given is astounding. As God made his appeal through the apostles, “be reconciled to God!” so he continues to do into the present age. We are to be his ambassadors, his peacemakers, his agents of reconciliation. Undoubtedly, this won’t be easy. Sin is nasty. The full fruition of sin in the fall works out into a fractured and divided humanity. We have blood feuds which go back generations. Yet, we must hear God’s desire for reconciliation, and prayerfully step between the slave and his master, all in the name of Jesus, motivated by His love and power. The world desperately needs this news. Reconciliation won’t be quick or easy. Indeed, we won’t see its full fruition until the parousia, until God puts the whole world to rights, but we absolutely have to anticipate it now, because our labor is not in vain: Happy are the peacemakers, because they will be called children of God.