by Gabe Bernal
Read all of Philemon (it's only 25 verses)
Reread it again.
Philemon is a short letter and often gets overlooked. We either don't pay any attention to it or because of it's length we quickly skim through so we can get to more practical books like Hebrews and James.
But so many consider this one of the most "explosive" letters Paul wrote and Paul was no stranger to making radical statements in the name of Jesus. He went to jail several times for it.
John Trapp, an English biblical commentator, said of the letter of Philemon, "This is a notable Epistle, and full of worth; each word having its weight, each syllable its substance. From an abject subject, the receiving of a runaway servant, St. Paul soars like a heavenly eagle, and flies a high pitch of heavenly discourse."
I read something like this and wonder, what have I been missing in this letter. So let's take a deep dive together into this underrated book.
About the Letter
As I've mentioned before we're taking this quick detour into Philemon because it is considered to be closely tied to the Colossians. Many scholars believe that it was written at the same time as Colossians.
There is also evidence to point to the idea that this letter written at the same time as Colossians. But it has also lead to many to believe it was delivered at the same time, with Onesimus accompanying the messenger back to Colossae.
To me, the letter of Philemon is an interesting study. Even though it is a short letter, there is so much contained in its contents. Even in just a few short verses, we can glean so much of the background of the letter and the two main parties involved.
The master and the slave.
The recipient of the letter was a man named Philemon. The master.
In 9 of the 13 letters Paul wrote to churches or individuals, Paul calls himself an apostle. This is one of the three where he doesn't.
In the next couple of verses, Paul greets the household of Philemon. Apphia, his wife, and Archippus, who many assume is his son. Archippus is also called a fellow soldier which means that Archippus was also probably a very prominent member of the church in Colossae.
He also greets "the church in your house." This means that the church (or a part of the church) of Colossae met in Philemon's house.
The address the family members here are rare in letters of Paul, but considering the contents of this letter, Paul addressing Philemon on the issues of a runaway slave, it makes sense that he does so since this would involve the entire household.
We can also gather from reading verses 4-7 that Paul, even though he had never been to Colossae, had met Philemon in a previous missionary journey. Some speculate it was at Ephesus, but there is no way to know for sure.
This also points to this being a more personal letter and appeal to Philemon. He addresses him and his family warmly and specifically Philemon as a friend and respected brother in Christ.
This letter is reminiscent of his letters to Timothy and Titus that are much more personal and pastoral in nature.
The subject of the letter was a man named Onesimus. The slave.
When we look at the last part of the book of Colossians, you will notice that Onesimus is mentioned as one of Paul's faithful and beloved brothers. Because of this, we know Onesimus was someone who travelled and served with Paul. But in this short letter, we find out so much more about this young slave.
The fact that Onesimus belonged to Philemon, yet was with Paul meant that he was a runaway. In fact, Paul alludes to Onesimus' escape possibly being the will of God as Onesimus found his way to Paul and was saved.
Paul calls Onesimus his child in verse 10, "whose father I became in my imprisonment." This didn't mean that Paul was his father in any legal manner or that he adopted him. What he means is Paul himself brought Onesimus to Christ.
Paul often spoke of his converts has his "children."
Timothy (1Corinthians 4:17)
Titus (Titus 1:4)
The Corinthian Church (1 Corinthians 4:14)
The Galatian Church (Galatians 4:19)
Each of them, Paul called his "children."
We also know that Onesimus wronged Philemon in some way. Whether Onesimus wronged Philemon which lead to his running away or that Onesimus running away was the wrong he had done, it didn't matter. Onesimus wronged Philemon and Paul was aware of this.
Now that we know those basics let's look into the request Paul makes in this letter.
From what we can gather from this text, Onesimus has been with Paul for a while. At least for long enough for Paul to trust him with ministry and allow Onesimus to serve alongside him. And Onesimus has done well enough that Paul would like Onesimus to continue to serve with him.
But Paul recognises some considerations needed to be taken into account.
First, Paul recognises that Onesimus was obligated to return to Philemon. Onesimus was his slave and Paul didn't want to risk a division or jeopardise their friends and ministries.
Paul plainly states that if Onesimus was to continue to serve in any capacity, it needed to be with the permission of Philemon.
Second, in v17, Paul recognises that Onesimus was not blameless, and some kind of payment or punish was warranted. However, Paul exhibits Christ in verse 18 when he says, "if he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account."
Right here is living out what it means to be Christ. Paul and Philemon were fellow ministers of the gospel. Paul was also a respected apostle of Christ who brought the message of the gospel all over the Roman world.
Paul is not the one who owes anything to Philemon, yet was willing to take the burden of debt for Onesimus.
This is the only writing we have of Paul's that doesn't explicitly mentions the death and resurrection of Jesus. Time Mackie of the Bible Project says Paul doesn't need to "because he is demonstrating it through his actions. Paul is embodying the meaning of the cross."
With these in mind, Paul's request was simple, yet BOLD and RADICAL:
Accept Onesimus, no longer as a slave but as a beloved brother.
After making such a bold request, one may naturally begin to ask why.
Why should I accept him after he wronged me?
Why should I take him back without punishment?
Why should I lift him up to be equal?
I think Paul gives a couple of compelling reasons why.
First is partnership. The word in Greek is koinonia. A word usually associated with the end of Acts 2, but at its essence means partnership as much as it means community. When you are in koinonia, you are sharing something, and in this case, Paul felt as a fellow church leader Philemon was sharing in ministry with Paul.
Therefore, Paul pleads that if Philemon truly did consider him a partner in ministry, part of the same community of believers, fellow saints, that he will accept Onesimus. Their partnership should compel Philemon to honour this request from Paul.
Second, and maybe more importantly, is reconciliation. Paul appeals to Philemon's heart of service and obedience. Paul appeals to Philemon that if he accepts this slave as his brother, he is exhibiting Christ.
Onesimus is a fellow saint of Jesus Christ, who faithfully served in His name. Not only that, but he has been forgiven by the grace of God.
As Paul said in Ephesians 4:32 - "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you."
Because of the nature of what is written and how Paul speaks, some biblical scholars believe Paul never intended this letter to be read by anyone other than Philemon and his household.
While Paul wanted many of the letters he wrote to churches to be passed around and shared as it meant the gospel of Jesus Christ was being spread, this letter was never meant to be anything more than personal plea to a fellow brother in Christ.
Strangely enough though, many say it is because Paul never intended this to spread that it has so much credibility. Paul isn't preaching in this letter, Paul isn't making grand statements to galvanise believers.
Instead, Paul speaks to Philemon as a pastor. Paul speaks to him as a fellow brother in Christ. Paul gently, but firmly, speaks the truth in love to Philemon.
My pastor back in the states is like this. On Sundays, while from the pulpit, he is passionate and enthusiastic in preaching the gospel of Jesus.
In person... well... he is still passionate and enthusiastic! haha
However, what we don't see on the pulpit is he is also kind, compassionate, caring, and approachable. He is slow to talk and quick to listen. When you speak to him in person, away from the stage, you discover who I saw on stage is just an overflow of who he really is.
Not only does he have credibility on stage, but I soon found myself learning just as much if not more from him when he is off the stage.
That is Paul is this letter. The pastor, the relatable leader.
NT Wright said, "No part of the New Testament more clearly demonstrates integrated Christian thinking and living. It offers a blend, utterly characteristic of Paul, of love, wisdom, humour, gentleness, tact, and above all Christian and human maturity."
High praise! Which is well deserved in my opinion.
Slavery is a delicate topic. Even in Roman times. It isn't as racially charged then as it has been in more recent history, but people owning other people is a tricky subject, no matter the century.
But theologian David Guzik says about the letter, "Paul never called for an overthrow of the system of slavery, yet the principles in the letter to Philemon destroy slavery. The greatest social changes come when people are changed."
We know that this letter impacted Philemon. First, because we know Philemon didn't bin it. Or rip it up, then bin it.
Second, the fact that we still have it. That means that not only did Philemon didn't bin it, but he shared it. He passed on what Paul shared with him to others. Then those others shared it with more. Copies began to be made and sent out to even more people an churches.
It was shared and respected so much that it is now in our New Testament canon, alongside the Gospels, Acts of the Apostles, and dynamite letters like Romans.
Paul was a gifted writer and evangelist. But in the letter to Philemon, we see that Paul practices what he preaches. He walks the talk, and that is the mark of a true leader and pastor.
Does anything stick out to you in this letter?
Once again - If there is anything during your discussion or journaling as you went through those questions that you found encouraging, .. let me know! I'm no expert, and this blog is definitely not exhaustive. I am learning as much as you and would love to hear how God spoke to you through this passage.