We heard an interesting sermon at the Presbytery worship service that has me rethinking my assumptions about the book of Philemon.
You often hear something like this: Philemon and Onesimus were master and slave. Onesimus committed some kind of offense and fled from his master, Philemon. Onesimus found Paul and was converted, and Paul now sends Onesimus back to Philemon with the charge that this slave be received as a brother.
What I had never noticed in the text — but picked up as it was being read even before it came up in the sermon — is that Paul says this:
“For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” (Philemon 1:15–16 ESV)
Paul says that Philemon and Onesimus are brothers “both in the flesh and in the Lord.” He also says that this is the reason why Philemon and Onesimus are brothers in a way that Paul and Onesimus are not. In the Lord Jesus Onesimus is Paul’s beloved brother. But “how much more” for Philemon, since Onesimus is a brother “in the flesh and in the Lord.”
Were Philemon and Onesimus actual brothers? If Paul wanted to say that these two men were blood brothers, “brothers in the flesh” is the plainest way to do so.
If Philemon and Onesimus are brothers, what is going on in the book of Philemon? And why is Onesimus described as a bondservant? Here are two possible scenarios I’ve come across:
Scenario 1: Philemon and Onesimus are sons of the same parents. Maybe Philemon is the older brother who is the heir, and Onesimus is the screw-up younger brother who squanders his inheritance and sells himself into servitude (does this sound a little like the story in Luke 15?!). Onesimus is not Philemon’s slave but he has become a bondservant through his own folly and reckless living. Perhaps Philemon has to buy his brother out of servitude and bring him home for the sake of his family’s honor.
Scenario 2: Philemon and Onesimus have the same father, but Onesimus was born to a slave woman. Onesimus is Philemon’s half-brother, but because he was born to a slave woman he shares the same status as his mother. This is very close to the traditional view that Philemon is the master and Onesimus is the slave, but adds the missing element that they share a common father. In the ancient world, the child of a freeman and a slave-woman would not be acknowledged as a brother by the rest of the family (think Abraham-Hagar-Ishmael).
Whatever the case, the book of Philemon is a powerful testimony to how the gospel creates new relationships that transcend and transform natural and social relationships. This is especially the case if Philemon and Onesimus were actual blood brothers!