Theological Themes in Philemon
Community in Christ
Paul repeatedly uses language that calls attention to the community that Christians share in Christ as the basis for his appeal to Philemon. He speaks of brothers and sisters, of coworkers, of fellow soldiers and fellow prisoners, thus calling attention to the mutuality of the relationship formed by being in Christ Jesus.
Doing a good deed
Though what it should be is never spelled out clearly, doing a “good deed” is the clear practical response sought by Paul’s repeated appeal (vv. 6, 14, 20, 21). When it does gain some specificity, it is characterized in terms of the communal relationship of the partnership Christians share in Christ: “welcome him as you would welcome me” (v. 17).
Faith and love
Paul gives thanks to God for Philemon’s faith and love that are directed to the Lord Jesus and to all the saints (vv. 4-5). The sharing of this faith and love have brought joy and consolation to Paul in the past (v. 7), and now Paul counts on that same love and faith to energize Philemon’s good deed in this particular instance (vv. 14, 20).
Partnership or sharing (in Greek, koinōnia) in faith is a key motif for Paul here as in other letters. He sees it as the basis for every good deed that Christians are able to do (v. 6) and thus as the motivating occasion for Philemon’s response to Paul’s appeal as Paul extends it to include this new brother Onesimus within its sphere (v. 17).