Philemon 1–21 (NRSV)
1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, 2 to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Philemon’s Love and Faith
4 When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God 5 because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. 6 I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. 7 I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.
Paul’s Plea for Onesimus
8 For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 9 yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. 10 I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. 12 I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 13 I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. 15 Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, 16 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.
17 So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
I have to be a bit honest with everyone today. The letter to Philemon is probably the least read portion of scripture in my bible. I do not really know why it is that way. Maybe it is because it is so short, causing an unconscious and erroneous belief that it is not that important. The reality is that this short letter testifies to some of the deepest challenges a disciple of Christ faces when they try to live their faith in the world.
The man this letter was written by Paul to a man by the name of Philemon. There is very little concrete facts known about this man, because all that we know about him is written in this short letter. Though some scholars believe that Paul wrote this letter to Philemon at the same time as the letter he wrote to the church of Colossae, if that were the case this letter was written as an semiprivate personal message that clarifies things mentioned in the general epistle. From this letter we know that Philemon is a fairly wealthy follower of Jesus, he is known to be hospitable providing rest, refreshment, and encouragement to the fellow believers. Of course one can be hospitable without being wealthy but most believe that Philemon’s house was used as the primary meeting house of the Christian assembly in Colossae. If this is true, as most scholars believe, then his house was more likely a manor on an estate, with outbuildings, dormitories for servants, and a fairly large hall for banquets. We also know that he did have slaves which was a privilege only for the wealthy in ancient Rome.
The other interesting thing about this man is that it appears that he was a fairly good friend of Paul. Of all the various people mentioned in Paul’s letters, very few are written to specific individuals; Timothy and Philemon. Of these letters, we know the closeness of Timothy’s relationship with Paul, Philemon we are left in the dark. There are numerous people mentioned in all of Paul’s letters yet this is the only place we hear about this man. I find this interesting.
Paul begins this epistle like pretty much every epistle, he greets the leaders and blesses them with encouraging words. This is no different, but in this case most believe that in this particular letter Paul is greeting the household, many believe the other two individuals mentioned are Philemon’s wife and son. And the son mentioned here is also mentioned in the letter to the Colossians, which speaks volumes of the devotion of this family. In the early church, this man and his wife hosted the assembly of Christ in their personal home and encouraged their son to participate in the active ministries of this church. But Philemon is a different type of friend to Paul, the tone of the letter seems to be that Philemon is not exactly gifted in the ways of being a pastor, but is a faithful friend that encourages those that are sent to speak. Philemon appears to be the type of friend that those in leadership positions can relax around because they know that this man does not have an agenda to push, and is not going to judge a leader for being human. Paul praises this man for the joy he brings those who seek his house for refuge. Paul hears the stories and whenever he hears about a person who has spent time with Philemon, Paul is prompted to give thanks to God for the love that Philemon allows to flow. Paul then prays that this ministry; this ministry of retreat that Philemon has found himself involved in will increase and that Philemon’s ability to share his faith though his gifts will broaden.
I want us to stop there for a moment and just consider the implications of this. Paul encourages Philemon in his ministry. His ministry is not like that of Timothy’s or even that of his presumed son. He does not appear to be a pastor, but in many ways is like the family in Bethany (Mary, Martha, and Lazarus) who provide a place to rest. Everyone is important in the expansion of the kingdom of Christ. When everyone uses the gifts that they have been given, when the church encourages and enables those gifts to be used, and when they are used for the greater good of the community without reservation the kingdom expands because it will. Love begets love. Paul sent a personal letter to Philemon, and the only real thing we know about him and his ministry is that he was generous. All of us have important roles in God’s kingdom work. Each of us have been gifted for the good of our community and church, and God wants us to use those gifts. Philemon received a personal letter from Paul because he knew that every role and individual fulfilling that role is important.
Now Paul jumps into the main point of this letter. Philemon is a wealthy man that lives in Colossae. He has an estate of some size and on that estate he has slaves. Slavery in the ancient times was not exactly the type of slavery we learned about In American History class, but that type of slavery had its roots in this ancient society. Slaves came about in several ways but predominantly they were individuals captured in war, or people who were sold to repay a debt. We are not told how Onesimus came to be a slave in the house of Philemon, but what we do know is that Onesimus somehow left the house with the hopes of never returning.
This slave found himself in the company of Paul, and eventually was convinced of the Lordship of Christ and became a follower. This cause a dilemma for Paul and Onesimus, it was a crime to harbor a slave that had been deemed to be missing. If one was found harboring runaway slaves they were subject to disciplinary action. If a runaway was recaptured several things could happen; they could be forced to pay the lost profit caused by their absence, they could be physically branded as a runaway slave, or they could be killed. So both Paul and Onesimus could face harsh penalties. Yet Onesimus left Paul’s company and returned to Colossae.
Slavery was big business in the Empire, there were slave markets in every major city throughout the empire and one of the greatest markets was in Ephesus which was approximately 100 miles west of Colossae. Yet in this letter Paul encourages Philemon to go against the cultural norms, and to act graciously toward this runaway slave. This is where this letter goes deep, it encourages us to look at our own culture and consider what issues may be contrary to our witness as followers of Christ.
Paul explains to Philemon what has happened to this slave while he was away from his master. Onesimus is no longer a runaway slave from the house of Philemon, but was instead an equal to Philemon in the eyes of God. Paul also goes on to explain how important this slave became to him while Paul was in prison. Paul tells Philemon that Onesimus is no longer a slave but a brother in Christ and encourages Philemon to treat this slave accordingly. So Philemon is face with a problem, does he act according to the laws of Rome or does he look at things from a different perspective; that of God.
What is important to God? What are the things that would mark success when we are participating in a lifestyle devoted to Jesus? For many being faithful is following the laws that were established by Moses centuries before. For others it is a relationship. The fact of the matter is that God is more concerned with relationship than he is of the legal adherence. Paul is encouraging Philemon to consider the humanity of this slave. Onesimus is a runaway, He fled the house of Philemon yet found hope in Christ. While he was away from the house he was worthless, but now he again has value, not because of the labor he can perform to profit the master, but because of his identity in Christ.
This is why Philemon is an important letter, because it encourages us to examine our community and ourselves. Does the laws of the community promote or discourage us to focus on Christ and his ways? For centuries the Prophets of old cried out that God demands and desires mercy over sacrifice. This is the same theme with Paul in this letter. Sure Onesimus has cause loss, but what is valuable in the eyes of God.
Every day we are challenged with issues in our country that requires us to examine ourselves and to study scripture to assist us in providing hope to those who are hopeless. Is it right to pay taxes to fund projects and services that we oppose? What should we do physically during the playing of our nations’ anthem? What should we do if our government legalized something that we testify against? These are not easy questions to answer because there are layers of history and practice to consider, but in our consideration are we seeing the humanity beneath the surface?
Paul encourages Philemon to not just look at the social norm, but to look deeper and observe the humanity of this man who is his slave. Look beyond your rights and what you might deserve in recompense, and look at those around us with the companionate eyes of Jesus. Paul shows us that even though we may be right we can be wrong, and even when we are wrong in the eyes of the world we can be right. That all that we do should be done through the guidance of the Spirit and our responses to those around us should be saturated in the love of Jesus Christ. Who took on the shame of our sin, and died on the cross, while we were still his enemies, so that we could have the opportunity to rise with him in glory restored and redeemed by his blood.
Paul tells Philemon, treat your former slave as you would any other saint. Build a new relationship based of grace and mercy instead of demanding your rights. Could you do that? Could you look at a situation and instead of demanding your rights instead demand mercy? This short letter provides us with a rich testimony of the difficulty to truly live that holy rhythm of life. It shows us how important each of us are and how much we need the prayers and encouragement of each other. It also tells us that at times following Christ requires that we focus on love instead of rights.