Christmas is About Radical Togetherness
Christmas is About Radical Togetherness
On the first Christmas, Jesus didn’t just come to save individual sinners. He came to bring us into fellowship with himself and with each. Because of Jesus, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). This means that the gospel has fundamentally changed the way we relate to one another despite our differences. Jesus brings us radically together.
The book of Philemon outlines this gospel implication perfectly. Philemon gives a case study for relationships between diverse groups of people who have been brought into union with Christ. There is no group more privileged than another in the kingdom of God. Even a well established Roman institution like slavery was no reason for brothers in Christ to be divided. In the book of Philemon we will see that the fundamental all Christians are to relate to one another is as brothers. Let’s see this at work by looking at the book of Philemon.
Who is Philemon?
Paul was writing this letter during a time when he was a prisoner. The primary recipient of this letter is Philemon. What we know about Philemon is that he was a relatively wealthy man. He had a house big enough to hose the church in the city where he lived (Phil. 2). Philemon was likely converted by the Apostle Paul (Phil. 19), he had partnered with Paul in ministry (Phil. 17), and he also owned slaves (Phil. 16). It is his ownership of one particular slave named Onesimus that is the occasion for Paul penning this letter.
Who is Onesimus?
There are a few things to recognize about Onesimus. Onesimus, in this letter, is the Onesimus mentioned in Colossians 4:9 by Paul. In that verse, Paul refers to Onesimus as “our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you.” Onesimus, who wronged his master Philemon in some way (Phil. 18), has become a Christian. We also know that Onesimus is from Colossae because Paul says that Onesimus is “one of you” when writing to the church at Colossae. Onesimus is likely being sent by Paul to deliver the letters of Colossians and Philemon along with Tychicus (Col. 4:7-9). In many ways, Paul’s letter to Philemon will be an act of intercession for Philemon’s slave Onesimus.
A New Identity
In verse 10 Paul claims that he intends to appeal on behalf of “Onesimus.” Paul identifies Onesimus as his child and one to whom he became a Father while in prison. Paul here is stressing how beloved Philemon is to him. In verse 12 Paul even mentions that sending Onesimus back to Philemon is akin to sending his very heart. N.T. Wright correctly points out that the critical point here is that Paul views Onesimus not as a slave but primarily as a son. What Paul has in mind in calling Onesimus his son is that in Christ, Onesimus has a new status. No longer identified as a slave primarily, Paul is emphasizing that Onesimus is a part of the new creation. In verse 11, he states that Onesimus was once useless to Philemon, but now, post-conversion, he is useful to both Philemon and Paul.
Paul never comes out and condemns slavery. He does, however, say in verse 16 that he wants Philemon to treat Onesimus “no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother.” In Christ, the relationship between a slave and a slave master has changed. Philemon is not merely being asked to receive his former slave back as if he had not been wronged. Paul’s comments in verse18 seem to lend itself to the view that Philemon had a legitimate complaint against Onesimus. Despite that, Paul appeals to Philemon to receive his slave back as a beloved brother. The words that Paul uses in regards to Onesimus are also words that he has used for Philemon. Doug Moo says that both Philemon and Onesimus are “beloved brothers” in the same spiritual family and that this new family relationship is the foundation of their relationship with one another moving forward.
A New Relationship
The question is, in what way does this new relationship affect Philemon and Onesimus in regards to their relationship as master and slave? Well, the household codes found in Ephesians 6:9, Colossians 4:1, and 1 Timothy 6:2 make it clear that Paul never explicitly argues for the liberation of the salve. However, the trajectory that Paul’s appeal that Onesimus is to be received as more than a bondservant and as a beloved brother means that Philemon must treat him as more than a brother. Perhaps that means “not treating him as a slave at all”.
I do believe that if followed to its logical conclusion treating someone as a brother would lead to not treating that person as a slave at all. Again, Paul is not here commanding Philemon to do anything, but he is making it clear that to not act in love toward Onesimus is to act in a way that is not consistent with the gospel truth that believers in Christ are united as brothers and sisters (Romans 12:5).
While Philemon was a slave master who may have been wronged by his slave Onesimus Paul makes it clear that he desires that Philemon would receive Onesimus as “a beloved brother” (Philemon 16). Paul also states towards the end of the letter that not only is he confidence that Philemon will do what Paul is requesting but that Philemon would go beyond what is required and “do more than I say” (Philemon 21).
In Christ, no identity matters more than the fact that everyone has been united with Christ, that their sins have been forgiven, and that they now are a part of one singular family (Romans 12:5; 1 Corinthians 12:26). Paul did not condemn slavery in this letter. Instead, he claims that such a relationship makes little sense in the kingdom of God because the proper relationship between members of the body of Christ is that of brothers and sisters. So what Paul does is provide a trajectory to strive for which transcends the slave and master distinction and moves Philemon and Onesimus into a deeper fellowship. What takes primacy is their familial bond in Christ.
Our Connection to Christ
Another aspect that must not be forgotten is the connection to Christ. There are many similarities between what Paul does for Onesimus and what Christ does for us. For one, Paul uses the language of adoption when he says that he became Onesimus’ father (Philemon 10). Paul is making this appeal about a slave and, in a sense advocating for Onesimus. Christ is the one who stands as the advocate for his people (1 John 2:1). He pleads our case before God when we sin.
Similarly, Paul pleads for Onesimus on behalf of Philemon. Paul also takes upon himself any debt or wrongs incurred by Onesimus. Christ does this in greater measure for the church. Colossians 2:14 says that God has made us alive together with Christ “by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands.” In light of verses such as Romans 6:20, which states that we “were slaves to sin,” it seems that in Philemon, we have a picture of Christ loving us by appealing for us.