David Pao’s commentary on Philemon has been helpful for me as I’ve preached through this letter Paul wrote to Philemon and the church that met in his (Philemon’s) house. Today I read Pao’s concluding application remarks and found some good and appropriate points based on Paul’s appeal to Philemon to receive Onesimus back as a brother in Christ. One thing Pao noted is the significance of conversion in this letter:
This letter deals with the effects of conversion: the conversion of Philemon and his household and the conversion of Onesimus. With Philemon’s conversion, he must live and act within a different frame of reference. An underlying purpose of Paul’s appeal is to have Philemon fully obtain “the knowledge of every good thing that is in us for Christ” (v. 6). In this respect, the function of this letter is comparable to that of the early Christian catechetical instructions, through which new believers learn to live out their new identity.
The conversion of Onesimus is the focus of a major subsection of this letter (vv. 8–16). If we can assume that the entire household of Philemon was converted when Philemon himself received the gospel message, Onesimus’s “conversion” during his stay with Paul signifies a personal and independent commitment to the gospel. Paul’s identification of this regenerated Onesimus as his “son” points to his incorporation into the household of God. This appellation does not function as a term of endearment; it reflects the Jewish understanding of conversion as a new birth. In light of the prevalence of kinship language in this letter, this conversion acquires added significance. Onesimus does not simply obtain eternal life; he is now part of a community that worships God as Father and Jesus Christ as Lord.
With the conversion of both Philemon and Onesimus, the relationship between them can no longer remain as it was. Philemon must receive Onesimus back “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother” (v. 16). This statement clearly points to the reframing of the relationship between these two. For the discussion of the theology of conversion, the phrase that follows is equally significant: “both in the flesh and in the Lord” (v. 16). Instead of arguing for two separate realms of existence, Paul clearly points to the interrelatedness of one’s earthly existence and spiritual identity. The fact that both Philemon and Onesimus are now part of this same community, grounded in grace, makes it necessary that their relationship be transformed according to the new rules of this kinship group.
Pao does write a bit more on this, but the above quotes are an accurate and helpful way to think about Paul’s letter to this Christian church in the 1st century. Or, as the Bible teaches elsewhere, true faith in Christ always works out in love towards others, especially those in the household of faith!
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