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Relationship to New Testament. The relationship of Philemon to the New Testament as a whole is discussed at New Testament: Organization.
Story / text.
Message. Themes, symbols, and doctrinal points emphasized in Philemon include:
- Philemon addresses the tension between the ideal of loving one's neighbor as thyself and social inequality perpetuated among fellow members of the church - here extreme inequality in the form of slavery where one member actually owns another.
- Philemon can be read as an analogy to the plan of salvation, with Paul's offer to pay Onesimus's debt analogizing to Christ's atonement.
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- Philemon and the plan of salvation. The book of Philemon in the New Testament is only 25 verses. It is one of the least referenced or quoted books in all of our scriptural texts. This epistle is a private letter to Philemon concerning his runaway slave named Onesimus. After Onesimus ran away and was disobedient towards Philemon, he became acquainted with the apostle Paul and converted to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The friendship between Paul and Onesimus had become so strong that Paul even considered Onesimus to be his son. However, Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon with his personal letter of recommendation which tenderly pleaded that Onesimus now be accepted by Philemon as a brother instead of a slave.
- The common tendency today is to overlook this short book of scripture. It appears to be only a private matter of importance to people in ancient times. Commentaries on the New Testament do not credit the book of Philemon with much unique doctrinal content. Even the LDS edition of the Bible does not give Latter-day Saints very many reasons to diligently mine the book of Philemon in order to extract buried nuggets of wisdom. No footnotes to the Joseph Smith Translation are found. The chapter heading that “the gospel changes a servant into a brother” is helpful but not overly insightful. Useful facts about Philemon and the other Pauline epistles can be learned from the Bible Dictionary, where we also learn that Paul’s epistles were written to members of the Church who already had some knowledge of the gospel. However, the book of Philemon should not be overlooked or neglected. Knowledge of the plan of salvation makes Philemon a marvelous story. By considering the story in Philemon as a parable applicable to all of us today as well as a factual historical record applicable to a few individuals of long ago, the role of Jesus Christ as our true Savior is clearly the central element.
- There are three principal individuals: Paul, an apostle; Philemon, the master; and Onesimus, the converted servant. I have found that most Latter-day Saints will readily identify themselves with Onesimus without really knowing why. We identify ourselves with Onesimus because we seem to be able to relate to his status as someone who has done wrong and run away to avoid punishment. And like Onesimus, we want to do what is right after becoming converted to Christ, repenting and joining the church. By analogy, (One)simus = every (one)ofus.
- The key to understanding the analogy in Philemon is to view each of the main characters as symbolically representing somebody else. Philemon is representative of Heavenly Father. Onesimus is Adam, all mankind, or every individual. Paul symbolically represents Jesus Christ, and Christ’s role in the atonement is significantly demonstrated through this analogy. When combined with an understanding of the plan of salvation, the return of Onesimus to Philemon is similar to how we must also return to God. Christ’s atonement is necessary in order to be received back into God’s presence.
- Philemon means beloved. Similar to the way we address God in prayer and thank Him for His goodness, the epistle begins with the mention of Philemon in prayer, thanking him for his love and faith toward all saints. “Hearing of thy love and faith, which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all saints…for we have great joy and consolation in thy love” (vs. 5, 7).
- Onesimus is a runaway slave prior to becoming converted and figuratively “re-born” as Paul’s own son who eventually sends him back to his master. In verse 10, Paul [Jesus Christ] is beseeching Philemon [God the Father] for “my son Onesimus [each of us], whom I have begotten…which in time past was to thee unprofitable [in our unrepentant state], but now profitable to thee and to me [in our repentant state].” Verse 10, “my son” and “whom I have begotten” can symbolize our becoming born again as sons or daughters of Christ and taking upon us the name of Christ. Like Paul in behalf of Onesimus, Jesus is beseeching our Father in Heaven in behalf of each one of us. “Listen to him who is the advocate with the Father, who is pleading your cause before him— Saying: Father, behold the sufferings and death of him who did no sin, in whom thou wast well pleased; behold the blood of thy Son which was shed, the blood of him whom thou gavest that thyself might be glorified; Wherefore, Father, spare these my brethren that believe on my name, that they may come unto me and have everlasting life” (Doctrine and Covenants Section 45:3-5).
- Paul continues, “But without thy mind would I do nothing” (vs. 14). As a partner with God, Jesus does nothing of his own will. Christ says, “Father, thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever” (Moses 4:2).
- Paul sends Onesimus back to his master with the letter asking that he be forgiven and received as Paul himself, no matter what the cost. Even though Onesimus departed for a season [we left the presence of our Father into mortality], Paul entreats Philemon to “receive him forever” (vs. 15). In the letter, Paul [Christ] describes Onesimus in verse 16 as a “brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee!” (emphasis added) and asks Philemon to receive him “Not now as a servant, but above a servant.” He continues with “If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself. If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account…I will repay it” (vs. 17-19). Paul explained to the Corinthians, “For he that is called in the Lord, being a servant, is the Lord's freeman: likewise also he that is called, being free, is Christ's servant. Ye are bought with a price; be not ye the servants of men” (1 Corinthians 7:22-23).
- When superimposing elements from the plan of salvation that are familiar to Latter-day Saints into the story, the entire book opens to new insights. We begin to realize with more poignancy, that after this life, we must return back to our Father in Heaven. We really cannot continue to stay here on earth forever to avoid punishment for our sins. And perhaps we realize and appreciate a little more clearly, just how impossible it would be to return to live with our Father in Heaven without the intervention and atonement of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
- Diving into the depths of the allegorical aspects of the story recovers some unique gems of wisdom that are otherwise lost. Thanks to modern day revelation, some of these lost treasures come to the surface. For instance, when Onesimus was a fugitive and literally subject to a death sentence upon his capture; he was an enemy to Philemon. He would not have wanted to return to his former master. This is the condition of the “natural man” who is an “enemy to God.” “For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father” (Mosiah 3:19). Onesimus provides a real example of being born again as a child. After his conversion to Christ and especially to return to his former master, Onesimus must have really lived the experience for what it means to be meek, to be humble, willing to submit to any consequences which could have been inflicted upon him.
- Also, there are certain implications inherent for Philemon receiving Onesimus as a “brother.” This would mean that their social situations would now be different from what they had been previously. He who was once a slave would become equal to the master. One of the most readily recognized distinctions between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and other Christian churches is the compelling doctrine that those who gain exaltation through the merits of our Savior become as God is.
- Instead of thinking that Philemon verses 17 and 18 are simply Paul’s words pertaining to somebody else’s monetary debt from long ago, they become a powerful statement on the application of the atonement for each of us, as if spoken by Christ Himself on our behalf.
- “If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself. If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account” (Philemon 1:17-18).
- For anyone who appreciates finding symbolic references to Christ while studying the scriptures, these words now resonate with deeper meaning because the analogy helps us to appreciate a greater complexity in Paul’s magnanimous, but otherwise simple statement. The Lord said, “And behold, all things have their likeness, and all things are created and made to bear record of me, both things which are temporal, and things which are spiritual; things which are in the heavens above, and things which are on the earth, and things which are in the earth, and things which are under the earth, both above and beneath: all things bear record of me” (Moses 6:63). This is why we marvel at the account of Abraham and Isaac, the numerous parables, and enjoy passages like “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). Jesus Christ is also the Bread, the Living Water, the Light, and the Rock. These symbols and analogies, in their likeness, point us to Christ and bear record of Him.
- The question might be raised, why hasn’t the analogy in Philemon been pointed out before since it seems so evident in hindsight? An answer to that may be that Philemon is an actual letter dealing with an actual situation. If it had been written as a parable, perhaps any allegorical connections would be more frequently discussed. As it is, the fact that the letter pertains to a real situation brings the application of the analogy to an even more dramatic personal level.
- The atonement of Christ is as real for each of us today as it was for Onesimus and other scriptural figures of yesterday. The atonement is offered individually, privately, and intimately. This idea is shared in a comment by C. S. Lewis, “He [Christ] has infinite attention to spare for each one of us. He does not have to deal with us in the mass. You are as much alone with Him as if you were the only being He had ever created. When Christ died, He died for you individually just as much as if you had been the only man in the world” (Quotable Lewis, p. 248).
- Without this assurance from Christ, would any of us be willing to return to Our Heavenly Father, who “owns” us? From other modern day scripture, we know that justice has to be met, and our disobedience deserves punishment. Without Paul’s letter and assurance, Onesimus would not have wanted to return to Philemon. Likewise, without Christ’s saving atonement, we would wish “to be banished and become extinct both soul and body, that [we] might not be brought to stand in the presence of [our] God, to be judged of [our] deeds” (Alma 36:15). But with Christ’s assurance, not only can we hope to be received upon our return to God, we can hope to be received in the same manner that Heavenly Father would receive His Own Beloved Son. Where most Latter-day Saints would probably quote Nephi’s statement “for it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23), they might also use Paul’s statements in Philemon 1:17-18 as a perfect example for how we become free from sin, or purified, if we exercise faith in Christ, repent, and are cleansed through baptism. Our sins are then charged to Christ’s infinite “account.” The message is really the same. Christ has voluntarily offered to intercede for us to satisfy the demands of justice, analogous to Paul’s voluntary offer to pay everything Onesimus may have owed to Philemon. I like the fact that no specific details are mentioned about the debt that Onesimus may have owed, because, when compared to the infinite “payment” Christ offers us through the atonement, such details do not matter.
- Although the New Testament does not specifically mention if Onesimus was accepted back by Philemon or not, or if payment was taken from Paul or not, I believe that this short letter is included in the New Testament to give church members, already somewhat familiar with the plan of salvation, a specific example of the application of fundamental doctrines of the gospel. Through approaching the book of Philemon as an analogy, fundamental doctrines become wonderfully revealed such as a pre-mortal existence in the presence of Heavenly Father, the Fall, the roles of justice and punishment and mercy and repentance, our ultimate return to Heavenly Father, judgment, and the mission of the Savior with the power of the atonement to individually reward those for whom He pleads and so willingly paid the price. Just as the individuals mentioned in Philemon were actual historical people, the symbolism provided in this analogy affirms that it is also true that we can, although presently separated, return to live with Heavenly Father once again by choosing to follow the plan provided by the Savior.
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These are still pointed at Matthew
- Amplified • The Amplified Bible, 1987 update
- NASB • New American Standard Bible, 1995 update
- NIV • New International Version
- NRSV • New Revised Standard Version
- RSV • Revised Standard Version
Joseph Smith Translation
The Joseph Smith Translation made no changes to Philemon.
- Wayment, Thomas A., ed. The Complete Joseph Smith Translation of the New Testament. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 2005. (ISBN 1590384393) BX8630 .A2 2005.
Footnotes are not required but are encouraged for factual assertions that average readers cannot easily evaluate for themselves, such as the date of King Solomon’s death or the nuanced definition of a Greek word. In contrast, insights rarely benefit from footnoting, and the focus of this page should always remain on the scriptures themselves rather than what someone has said about them. Links are actively encouraged on all sections of this page, and links to authoritative sources are preferable to footnotes.
- Wayment, The Complete Joseph Smith Translation of the New Testament, p. 293-94.
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