Many people are confused about why the book of Philemon is even included in the Bible. A short letter of only twenty-five verses, Paul's letter to Philemon seems to go beyond "deeply personal," perhaps even being "private." Additionally, the letter's content has been the object of abuse at various times throughout church history. This letter is written by Paul to Philemon on behalf of one of Philemon's runaway slaves, named Onesimus. Paul is sending Onesimus back to his owner. At first glance, it appears to many that Paul's actions are at odds with our own values. Doesn't Paul know that slavery is wicked?
Perhaps, one might think, we should jettison the contents and potential theology from this letter in light of Paul's outdated, backward, and wicked sentiments. But that would be a gross misreading of the text. In this short span of verses, the Apostle Paul actually gives some of the most powerful theology condemning the first century's system of slavery. Even if there first appears to be no hope or prayer that Philemon is a book that would bring a wicked system like slavery to its knees, it is. How, you ask?
Paul doesn't appeal to Onesimus's owner on the basis of a moral argument over the evils of a system of human ownership. He makes no case for first-century abolition. Paul doesn't point Philemon to the local anti-slavery chapter, where people could learn to peacefully protest this practice. He doesn't recommend that Philemon change his mind based on outstanding statistics or studies of the number of people enslaved — no doubt the number would have been truly staggering! Paul doesn't even appeal to a Christian-based political movement to topple the Roman slave laws and criminalize the enterprise. Rather, he appeals to Philemon on the basis of adoption — that is, on being a member of the family of God. We could phrase it yet another way and label it as Paul's appeal based on what Christ has done for him, for Philemon, and even for Philemon's slave, Onesimus.
In verses 8–10 Paul writes:
8 Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, 9 yet for love's sake I prefer to appeal to you — I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus — 10 I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment.
Did you catch it? Paul calls himself the father of the runaway slave subject to punishment under Roman law. Why is that significant? For at least two reasons: First, Paul was alsosubject to punishment under Roman law. Like Philemon, he was at odds with a system of laws that could require his very life. But legality is not the same as morality. Secondly, not wanting to coerce Philemon to do the right thing by pulling out his Apostle Membership Card, Paul appeals to him by calling him his "brother" (vv. 7 and 20). It's easy to connect the dots. If Philemon is the brother of Paul, and if Paul refers to Onesimus as his son, then Philemon and his runaway slave are in the same family! To what law will Philemon appeal? To what standard will he now subject Onesimus? Though we aren't given an answer in this letter, the implication is clear: God's standard supersedes any law of man. F. F. Bruce writes, "What [Paul's letters] do is to bring us into an atmosphere in which the institution of slavery could only wilt and die."
So what does that have to do with us? How does this apply? Does it even apply?
Like the Romans, we live under laws that legally allow something that isn't moral, don't we? "Abortion" is the first on a long list of usual suspects that come to mind. How can we respond to abortion in our society so as to create an atmosphere in which abortion will wilt and die?
Again, the tenor is subtle, but look at verses 4–5:
4 I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints,
Although we might miss it, Paul writes in this way to clarify that faith in the Lord Jesus results in love for the saints. There it is — the first wave of ripples of Gospel transformation. It isn't top down. It isn't legislation (though the state is a legitimate place to constrain evil). A love for others that roots itself in Christ — that sounds a lot like "love thy neighbor," doesn't it?
Because it is.
The greatest single act of "becoming a neighbor" was the incarnation — Christ becoming flesh and dwelling among us. And now we come to the Gospel according to Philemon.
We are the runaway slaves.
Yet while we were subject to a law that condemned us, one interceded on our behalf, making himself low — indeed, even lower than Paul during his imprisonment. He bore our sins on a cross, was crushed for our iniquities, and accomplished his perfect will in crushing death. Because of this act of intercession, we can now be adopted into the family of God.
What's our response? Among acts such as obedience, gratitude, and worship, comes this: rooting our faith in Christ so that our love for others flows out of the riches of his mercy.
And that is where our obedience is best rooted to oppose wicked institutions, heinous practices, and evil schemes. Not in our strength. Not in guilt-tripping other Christians. Not ultimately in the ballot box, though that is a legitimate way to be active in the life arena. Our grateful and joyful obedience rests in a faith placed in Christ, resulting in love for others. It means we are "mercied merciers." That sounds a lot like being a rescued rescuer, doesn't it?
 F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Eerdmans, 1977), 407.