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Philemon 15 & 16

by Mark Horne

Copyright © 2002

When Paul wrote to Philemon asking him to forgive his runaway slave, Onesimus, he gave Philemon an interesting perspective on how God used Onesimus’ action to bring about his conversion:

For perhaps he was for this reason parted from you for a while, that you should have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord (15 & 16).

Onesimus had become a Christian. Paul says that now Philemon can get him back as “more than a slave” but as a “beloved brother.” Paul too claims to have Onesimus as a brother, but he argues that Onesimus gets a double benefit: “both in the flesh and in the Lord.” What do those two things mean?

Paul usually speaks quite negatively of “the flesh.” It represents humanity as originally created in contrast with what humanity will be when raised from the dead.

Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality (First Corinthians 15.50-53).

Because sin has entered this creation, “the flesh” is often a term Paul uses for sinful human nature.

But here Paul seems to not think so badly of the flesh. He is referring to the fact that Onesimus is now a reconciled member of Philemon’s household. That family unit, which entails all the relationships of the group and is not to be reduced to blood relations, is part of “the flesh” the old order. Someday, that order will be done away with–as Jesus told some skeptics, at the resurrection we will not marry. That form of life will have passed away and we will have been reborn into a new order if we trust in the God who raised Jesus.

If that is what “in the flesh” means, then how about “in the Lord”? Paul believes Jesus has been raised from the dead as the beginning of the new creation. And he, like “the flesh” involves a new family solidarity. That is why Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ” (First Corinthians 12.12). Notice that Paul uses the royal name of Jesus instead of saying “the Church” even though he is referring to Christian congregations and the people therein.

A similar juxtapostion is found in Ephesians 5.28-32:

So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body. For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh [Genesis 2.24] This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.

Again the family solidarity of marriage is used to speak of Christ’s solidarity with his Church.

The point here is that in the Church we have the beginning of a new order in Jesus Christ the resurrected one. In many cases, the two systems of relationships, “in the flesh” and “in the Lord” can co-exist. Families go to Church together. An employer and employee might belong to the same congregation. But the “flesh” always must be second place to the Lord. That’s why Jesus had to tell people in Israel, “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14.26).

This would also explain why baptism, the entrance rite for the Church, would be used as the cut off point for all other solidarities:

For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise (Galatians 3.27-29).

For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free (First Corinthians 12.13a).

…in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead… Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old human with its evil practices, and have put on the new human who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him-a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all (Colossians 2.11-12, 3.9-11).

We get our identity from our relationships, which in this world are at best passing away though temporarily from God, and at worst twisted and sinful. God gives us who believe the Gospel a new corporate identity “in the Lord.”

Copyright © 2002

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