The Book of Philemon recently showed up in the Bible reading plan I use. If you’re like me, it may have been a while since you read this short epistle from Paul. In fact, to be honest, Philemon was a book that I often forgot about.
Tucked in between Titus and Hebrews, it is easy to skip this small letter. What is more, at first glance, the letter doesn’t seem relevant to life today. It comes across as a personal letter to a solitary individual.
If we think this way, we miss out on a biblical book that is both radical and bold. The brevity of this letter means that Paul doesn’t waste time in declaring what he believes the gospel demands of Philemon.
The letter is short and to the point. Similarly, rather than being disconnected from our lives, Paul’s letter to Philemon speaks to us. It highlights important matters regarding our Christian witness.
We would all do well to dive into the letter to Philemon. Yet, to fully appreciate this short letter, we need to be aware of what lies behind the scenes.
Otherwise, we may miss the full nuance of what Paul is saying and what the Lord is teaching us. Here are four things you need to know if you wish to read Philemon.
1. The Situation
Paul’s letter centers on the relationship between two individuals, Philemon and Onesimus. Philemon was a Christian man of financial means who hosted a church in his home. It is believed that he lived in (or near) the city of Colossae. Onesimus was his slave.
This meant that Philemon, in a legal sense, owned Onesimus. Onesimus had no rights and no citizenship. It is important to recognize that slavery, particularly in Roman colonies, were both accepted and widespread. Owning slaves was not uncommon for the Christians of the day.
At some point, Onesimus fled Philemon’s household. However, complicating matters is the implication that Onesimus stole from his master. This is why Paul writes, “If he has done any wrong, or owes you anything, charge it to my account” (v. 18).
Not only is Onesimus labeled a runaway slave, which is bad enough, but he is also charged with thievery. According to first-century law and morality, Philemon was free to punish Onesimus in any manner he chose.
The Roman manner of dealing with slaves was incredibly harsh. A runaway slave was free to be beaten or stoned, and if, like Onesimus, they had stolen something from their master, they could even be killed. Philemon, therefore, probably did not expect to see Onesimus return.
When Onesimus does return, however, the question on everyone’s mind would be how Philemon would respond to him. What punishment would he dole out against his disrespectful slave? For Paul, however, the question was, how did the gospel demand that Philemon treat Onesimus?
2. The Request
The issue of how to treat a runaway slave was common in the first-century world. Yet what is not common for the day was Paul’s response. Paul is convinced that the gospel produces radical transformation in people’s lives. Christian faith demands that we treat people differently.
The gospel calls Philemon to respond to his runaway slave with grace and love. Paul urges Philemon to receive Onesimus as a fellow Christian.
Importantly, Paul isn’t talking about simply forgiving Onesimus’ debt or returning him to his prior role. Instead, Paul asks nothing less than that Philemon free Onesimus. Onesimus is to be a slave no longer.
The manumission of slaves was relatively unheard of in the first-century world. Thus, Paul’s words would be highly controversial for that time. Yet such is the demand of the gospel.
Paul writes, “Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you may have him back for good, no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, a dear brother…both in the flesh and in the Lord” (vv. 15-16).
What Paul means is that Philemon is to see Onesimus as a fellow human being, one made in the image of God, redeemed by the love of Jesus, and equal to all the other members of the church.
The equality between Philemon and Onesimus is not to be merely a spiritual reality, i.e., “in the Lord,” but a physical one, “in the flesh.”
Occasionally, people point to the Book of Philemon to suggest that the Bible justifies slavery. The claim is that if Paul really understood the evils of slavery, then he would not have sent Onesimus back to his master.
Yet as we see here, by sending Onesimus back to Philemon, Paul is urging Philemon to live out the radical nature of the gospel. Paul says, “I could order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love” (vv. 8-9, emphasis mine).
Paul argues for the complete manumission of Onesimus while teaching Philemon the transformative effect of the gospel.
Furthermore, Paul wishes that the freeing of Onesimus be lived out before the entire church, therefore providing a witness to how the Christians of the day ought to respond to their own slaves.
3. The Aftermath
Paul’s letter to Philemon does not indicate whether Philemon heeded Paul’s words. Yet, the Book of Colossians helps us see what took place following Onesimus’ return.
Current scholarship dates Paul’s letter to Philemon sometime between A.D. 57 and 62; Paul’s letter to the Colossians is dated at approximately A.D. 62, or potentially a little bit afterward. This means that the letter to Philemon precedes the letter to the Colossians.
This is significant due to the reference that Paul makes to Onesimus in Colossians. In his letter, Paul writes that Tychicus is “coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you” (4:9).
By the time the Colossian correspondence is written, Onesimus is already known to be a fellow worker of the gospel. He is a Christian brother who is lovingly received.
It seems evident, therefore, that Onesimus is no longer a slave, bound to Philemon and his household. This small but important reference indicates that Philemon lives out the radical call of the gospel and frees Onesimus from slavery.
4. The Lesson
Philemon teaches us that we are to radically affirm the freedom and humanity of others. When Onesimus stands before Philemon, he is the quintessential person to be rejected and dismissed. Yet Christ calls us to look at others through the lens of his presence.
This often places us in opposition to the values and ways of the world around us. Society loves its cliques, naming who is in and who is out. Yet, as followers of Jesus, we must be willing to engage in radical forms of acceptance and mercy.
We must refuse to treat people based on human systems of rank or superiority; We must allow the love of Christ to be expressed to all people.
This is much more radical than we sometimes realize. Living out the love of Christ is not simply about being polite or kind. The gospel demands that we be transformed in our relationships. Like Philemon, we are to look past all manners of divisions.
Is there any person that we are tempted to dismiss or reject? Is there anyone we see as coming from “the wrong side of the tracks”?
As Christians, we are to live out the gospel reality that there is no longer “Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and is in all” (Colossians 3:11).
The loving acceptance of Christ is to be expressed to all people. Ultimately, this was Paul's message in his letter to Philemon.
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Reverend Kyle Norman is the Rector of the Anglican Parish of Holy Cross in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has a doctorate in Spiritual Formation and is often asked to write or speak on the nature of the Christian community, and the role of Spiritual disciplines in Christian life. His personal blog can be found here.