Did you know that among all of the letters Paul wrote in the New Testament, one seems to be written to a buddy asking a favor? Stick around and we’ll talk about it here on 5 minutes of truth.
Most people know that Paul wrote just about half of the letters that make up the New Testament. Of the 27 books that make up the New Testament, Paul was responsible for penning 13 of them. There are also a number of ways those letters are categorized today.
There are letters he wrote to churches. There are letters he wrote to churches he founded and those to churches he did not found. There are the “Prison Letters”, so-called because they were written during his first Roman imprisonment. There are letters he wrote to individuals and there are the so-called “Pastoral Letters” he wrote to individuals who were serving as pastor of a specific congregation.
In short, there are quite a few ways to designate and categorize the letters Paul wrote in the New Testament depending on the criteria of the category in question. And then there is Philemon. Suffice it to say that Philemon is in a class all by itself. In fact, it seems as if this letter is actually a personal correspondence between Paul and a good friend of his named Philemon. And the goal of the letter appears to be related to Paul asking Philemon for a favor.
Unlike Paul’s letters to churches and his pastoral letters of instruction to Timothy and Titus, Paul’s epistle to Philemon is arguably the most unique book in the entire Bible. Okay, Revelation might give it a run for its money…but let’s take a look at the uniqueness of Philemon. Especially as it relates to one of the most interesting aspects in our culture today, and that is the idea of social justice. Was Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, really instructing us as Believers some 2,000 years later how we are to interact with social justice? Let’s find out.
The backstory of this letter is simple but multifaceted. Philemon had been converted to Christianity by Paul and they had become good friends. Philemon, as was common for that time, owned a slave named Onesimus. This was more a voluntary servitude as opposed to the idea of slavery we have today, but it was a social ill nonetheless. At some point, Onesimus committed a crime by stealing from Philemon and running away.
Probably wanting to blend into a large city in anonymity, Onesimus ended up in Rome where he ran into, of all people, Paul who was under house arrest at the time. In fact, when Paul writes Philemon he confirms this by saying: “I appeal to you for my son Onesimus whom I have begotten while in my chains” (1:10). To make a sort-of short story even shorter, Paul does not hide or keep Onesimus with him to escape the horrors of slavery and a potentially vindictive master. Instead, he sends Onesimus back to his master Philemon. And he sends him back with the letter that now resides in the New Testament.
But what does Paul say in the letter? Does he support slavery? Are we supposed to turn a blind eye to cultural injustices in the world around us? Are we, as Believers, supposed to be social justice warriors? The short answer to this last question is…no. Not as the world defines it. For the world, social justice has nothing to do either with society or justice. The world’s idea of social justice only deals with some ambiguous definition of justice for some, but not all. It is more selfish justice than it is social justice. Which is why, as Believers, we are to have no part in it.
What we are to do is to look at God’s Word. How does Paul address the cultural injustice of slavery? Simple. He reminds Philemon that He is a Christian. And that as a Believer, he simply cannot engage and embrace the ways of the world if they are incompatible with Christianity. And slavery was certainly incompatible with Christianity.
Paul tells Philemon that though he has the right to command him, instead he would rather “appeal” to him as a Brother. He tells Philemon that Onesimus is not the same person he used to be but that he is now “a beloved brother”. He tells Philemon that he wants him to treat Onesimus “as you would me”. And he tells Philemon that if Onesimus owes him a debt, that Paul himself wants Philemon to “put that on my account”. Of course, by doing this, Paul is reminding Philemon that Jesus paid his sin debt when he was a slave to sin.
Paul did not ask Philemon to free Onesimus, but he knew that would be the end result. Why? Because Paul reminded Philemon that the cure for social injustices is not social justice. It is the Gospel. It is a transformed mind and a regenerated being that will lead individuals to treat people as they want to be treated. The goal of the Cross was not to right cultural wrongs. It was to save that which was lost. To redeem the unredeemable. To cleanse the unclean. To make righteous the unrighteous. And when that happens, the culture will be impacted. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2).
On behalf of myself, Robert Houghton and all of us here at Growth Project, keep reading God’s Word
Dr. Purvis started Growth Project after spending 20 years on active duty as a Chaplain in the United States Navy. After many moves and multiple deployments, he settled in St. Cloud, Florida to do God’s will. A glutton for educational punishment Danny has a BA in English from Carson-Newman College, an MDiv from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; a ThM from Princeton Theological Seminary; and a PhD in Organizational Leadership from Regent University. He has been married to his wife Kimberly (whom he met when they were 6 years old) for nearly 30 years and they have four wonderful children.