Why did Paul write the Book of Philemon? Who was Philemon? What can we learn from it?
A Changed Relationship
Sadly, many misconstrue this book by the Apostle Paul as saying God approves of slavery, but nothing could be further from the truth. For one thing, slavery is not even in the context of the Book of Philemon. Paul was writing Philemon as a brother in Christ about his slave, Onesimus, and now that Onesimus had trusted in Christ, Paul wanted Philemon to consider him as a brother in Christ. Instead of a master-slave relationship, it should now be a brotherly relationship. That meant Paul wanted Philemon to change the relationship between himself and Onesimus because there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free…for we all are one in Christ. If necessary, Paul said he would take care of any crime Onesimus committed (probably due to theft; Phil 1:17), but that likely occurred before Onesimus came to repentance and faith in Christ. Our relationship with God changed due to Christ because the former hostilities that God had toward us during our unbelief (John 3:36b) was lifted by Christ, and now there is no more condemnation, and we’re at peace with God (Rom 5:1, 8:1).
Paul must have witnessed to the runaway Onesimus somewhere in Rome because he refers to him as his own child, meaning he had led him to faith in Christ. Maybe Paul met him in prison and found out whose slave he was. They might have even shared a roman prison cell, or Paul may have met Onesimus while he was under house arrest. The Roman authorities could spot runaway slaves rather easily because they had a notch or cut in their ear, so God, acting in His benevolence, caused Onesimus to meet Paul, either in prison, or in some other way. In a similar manner, God acted in benevolence or for our good when He called us to saving faith. He must have sent someone into our life to help us trust in Christ. In this context, Paul acknowledges that after Philemon was saved, he was a great blessing to the church at Colossae which was in Phrygia. That’s why Paul begins the letter by telling Philemon, “I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ” (Phil 1:4-6). Paul didn’t see Philemon as a harsh slave owner but as a man who regularly shared his faith in Christ with those he knew, or at least supported the missionaries financially, so Philemon would have likely treated Onesimus and the other slaves in a very benevolent manner.
Servants and Slaves
In the Roman Empire, it was about impossible to buy your freedom from slavery. To become a free Roman citizen in the Roman Empire, a slave had to work extra hard to be able to purchase their freedom, but there was a huge difference between slaves and servants. Slaves had more family rights than a servant did because a slave was actually more endeared to the family than a servant. A servant could be fired or quit, and they always went home after work, but a slave had a home, clothing, food, and a place to lay their head every night. Freemen in Rome often had it more difficult due to lack of work, and many freemen in Rome suffered through harsh poverty. Over time, many of the slaves were allowed to go free, but in many instances, they decided to stay with the family because they had grown to love the family, and in fact, even became part of the family. Many would even be legally adopted by the father of the household, so slavery then was not what we think of it today. Slaves were not taken at random by masters. Some slaves intentionally sold themselves into slavery because of their debt, or to help them feed their family, so for the men and women, it was a matter of life and death. They were not taken captives as slaves, but sold themselves into slavery out of desperation.
Brothers in Christ
Paul writes to Philemon that Onesimus was now a brother in Christ, writing, he is “no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother” (Phil 1:16). By the way, the actual Greek is not “bondservant” but “slave” (doulos), but Paul led Onesimus to faith in Christ which explains why Paul wrote an appeal for Onesimus’ sake, “to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment” (Phil 1:10). Paul was Onesimus so-called spiritual father who led him to saving faith, just as he had Timothy and Titus, and countless others, so now Paul desires to have Philemon consider Onesimus as a brother in Christ too. Paul writes, “if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me” (Phil 1:17), and just like a brother would do for a brother or a sister for a sister, he says “if he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account” (Phil 1:18) or “I’ll pay for it!”
Paul declares himself to be the author in this short, one chapter book, and Paul not only says who wrote the Book of Philemon (himself), but he also tells us who he wrote it to, writing, “Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved fellow worker” but this letter is also addressed to “Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house” (Phil 1:1-2). Paul wrote this around AD 60 or so while being imprisoned, and even though it is the shortest of all of Paul’s letters, it contains a rich amount of biblical teachings on forgiveness and godly relationships. All too often I’ve experienced or read about other Christians who simply chose not to forgive others, but what a waste of energy to hold onto a grudge. You know the old saying: “It’s like drinking poison, hoping the other person will die,” but if you die outside of faith in Christ, it will be worse than poison. If only you would turn to Christ today and turn away from your sins (repent), and then you would receive the gift of eternal life and be among the brothers and sisters in Christ, including Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus.
May God richly bless you
Pastor Jack Wellman