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Core Christianity: Tough Questions Answered

Gospel Implications from Philemon

by Christina Fox posted January 25, 2022

I shy away from awkward and difficult conversations. Whether it’s dealing with conflict, having to admit my own sin, or even just standing up for something that’s true and right, I’d rather do anything else. I prefer to pretend there’s no problem—to ignore it and move on.

Let’s be honest, I prefer life to be comfortable and conflict free.

But life in a fallen world isn’t comfortable, is it? It’s complicated and messy, filled with awkward situations and difficult circumstances. The path of life is not smooth, but filled with potholes, bumps, and obstacles. This is especially so because we don’t live on isolated islands. We were created to live life with other people. But because we’re all sinners, our sin intersects with other people’s sin and sparks fly. We want to be right and have the last say. We let each other down. We hurt one another in the things we say or do. Indeed, it’s a wonder we’ve made it this far in history!

We would all be a hopeless mess if it weren’t for the gospel.

Philemon is a little book, one easily overlooked when flipping through the pages of the Bible. Yet, while small—one chapter containing twenty-five verses—it’s profoundly practical, filled with gospel implications for the Christian life. Philemon helps us see how the gospel remakes us, how it transforms all of life, and then how it  shapes our interactions and relationships with others.

In Philemon, the apostle Paul handles a complicated situation through the lens of the gospel. The letter concerns a young man named Onesimus, a slave who has run away from his master, Philemon. At some point, Onesimus met Paul, heard the gospel, and came to faith in Christ. Paul intervenes on his behalf by writing a letter to Philemon, asking him to accept Onesimus back—not as a slave, but as a brother.

I think we can observe three gospel implications in Philemon:

1. The gospel changes our identity.

What’s interesting about Paul’s letter to Philemon is how he refers to Onesimus’s name in verse 11: “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.” The name Onesimus in Greek means “useful” or “beneficial.” F.F. Bruce points out that it was common to give slaves a name like this in the hopes that they might perform up to that name.[1] 

Paul makes a play on words. Before Onesimus came to faith in Christ, he was useless. How so? From Philemon’s perspective, Onesimus wasn’t trustworthy. He was a thief and a runaway, and according to Roman law, Philemon could punish him for this theft.

But now Onesimus is useful. This is a profound change! Because the gospel had gripped Onesimus’ heart, he was transformed. As Paul wrote elsewhere, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). Onesimus revealed his usefulness, serving Paul during his imprisonment. He changed from one who would steal and run away, to one who would meet another’s needs.

The gospel transforms our very identity. We too were once “useless.” We lived life our own way, following the passions of our sinful hearts. Rather than worshipping the one who made us, we bowed down to false substitutes. We didn’t live as the image bearers we were created to be. But now, in Christ, we’ve been remade and given a new identity. We can now live for the glory of God. Like Onesimus, we are now “useful.”

2. The gospel changes our relationships.

In eternity past, God chose us in Christ to be adopted as sons (Eph. 1:5). Upon our justification by faith, we are immediately brought into the family of God through adoption. God is our Father, Jesus our elder brother, and other believers are our brothers and sisters. Paul refers to these truths in his letter to Philemon. He describes Philemon as his brother (v. 7) and Onesimus as his son (v. 10).

Onesimus was brought into the family of God. Once an outsider, he was united to Christ by faith and then to every other believer throughout time. This meant that Philemon was also his brother in the faith. That’s why Paul urges Philemon to welcome Onesimus back, not as a slave, but as a brother (v. 16). Philemon and Onesimus both stood before God on level ground, as brothers who were called to faith by grace before time began.

The gospel transforms our relationships. Our relationships with one another in the church go deeper than those with whom we share a similar DNA. We share the blood of Christ and are united together for all eternity. This is why New Testament writers so often use familial language when talking about members of the body of Christ. Because we are family. And this has a significant impact on how we interact with one another in church, and more importantly, how we deal with conflicts with one another.

3. The gospel changes the way we handle conflicts.

According to the law of Paul’s day, Philemon had the right to punish Onesimus. Paul, too, could have faced legal charges for harboring a runaway slave. But Paul leaned on the gospel in his letter to Philemon. He pointed out how the gospel changes how we relate to one another. “So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account” (v. 17–18). Paul mediated between Philemon and Onesimus as Christ mediated for him. He acted as a substitute, asking Philemon to charge him what Onesimus owed. Philemon knew the grace of God at work in his own life, bringing him from death to life in Christ—how could he then refuse mercy to Onesimus?

Paul wrote in another letter that Philemon likely also read, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col. 3:12-13). The gospel changes how we respond to fellow believers: We forgive as we’ve been forgiven.

Philemon is a small letter, but it’s big on gospel implications. In the story of Onesimus and Philemon, Paul shows us the far reaches of gospel grace. We were once runaways like Onesimus, running from God until he captured us by his grace and changed us from the inside out.


[1] F.F. Bruce. The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1984), p. 213.

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Christina Fox

Christina Fox is a counselor, writer, retreat speaker, and author of several books including A Heart Set Free: A Journey to Hope Through the Psalms of Lament, Idols of a Mother's Heart, and Like Our Father: How God Parents Us and Why That Matters for Our Parenting. She writes for various ministries and publications including TGC, Ligonier Ministries, and Revive Our Hearts. She serves as editor of the PCA's women's ministry blog, enCourage and is active in women's ministry at her local church. You can find her at www.christinafox.com.

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