Each of the last two chapters in this short series has focused on slavery and the impact it had on this world. While I can in no way, shape, or form condone slavery in our world today, I will also not condemn every single one of those ancient characters throughout the Bible who practiced slavery yesterday. It’s not appropriate to compare the two because they were different practices at different times and while it was wrong most of the time, it was not necessarily sinful every time.
We spent so much time studying the history of slavery because Paul’s Epistle to Philemon was more groundbreaking than we realize. It may be the most radical piece of Scripture in all the New Testament outside of the Gospels themselves. It asked questions and made statements unheard-of in that age. It challenged the status quo and drew a line in the sand that aimed to destroy a foundation of the world itself.
Philemon is about value, more specifically, the inherent value each Christian possesses because of their devotion to Christ.
In their ancient world of predetermined value, of profit and property, of kings and slaves, a person’s value wasn’t a frequent topic of discussion. In fact, before a person was born, their value was set. A slave was born into slavery and a king into the throne room. The idea that value existed outside of a person’s societal rank wasn’t even a consideration. Yet, here is the Apostle Paul, giving a runaway slave value. It’s not hyperbole to say that would have been shocking to many First Century citizens (Christian or not).
Without much hesitation, I feel comfortable saying Philemon tackled a topic many would have ignored and it asked Christians to do things against their very nature. It realigned the expectations of Christians throughout the ancient world. It was so much more than a letter between old acquaintances. It was a wake-up call for the modern world of Christianity.
So what exactly do those twenty-five verses teach us? Quite a bit, if we’re willing to listen and observe. As we break down the letter, notice that much of the interaction is based upon a common faith, a relationship that needs redefining, and a hope in God that transcends everything else.
We must begin with the short greeting. Philemon 1-3 says:
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved friend and fellow laborer, to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
This is incredibly similar to Paul’s greetings in other letters (see 1,2 Timothy, Titus, Colossians). Notice that Paul and Timothy call Philemon their “beloved friend and fellow laborer” in verse 2. This was more than a casual relationship.
As we continue, we see the authors brag of Philemon’s faith and love. Verses 4-7 say:
I thank my God, making mention of you always in my prayers, hearing of your love and faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints, that the sharing of your faith may become effective by the acknowledgment of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus. For we have great joy and consolation in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you, brother.
That Paul prayed for Philemon constantly shouldn’t be overlooked. It seems that Philemon and the upcoming decision about Onesimus had weighed heavily upon Paul and brought about a constant need to pray and hope. Because Paul knew Philemon, he prayed. Because Philemon was faithful, he prayed. Because the circumstances were extraordinary, he prayed. Paul prayed because the situation demanded it.
We should be thankful that Philemon’s example was well-known among the brotherhood by the time this letter was written. There’s no reason to believe Paul was just blowing-smoke at Philemon here, instead, it seems he was genuinely thankful for the example of his friend and his service to both God and others. Paul revealed some deeply personal experiences by telling Philemon the congregation in Rome had “great joy and consolation” and had been “refreshed” by his actions even though they are separated by many miles. For some people, that statement would produce a sense of pride that could undermine their work, but not Philemon. Paul felt comfortable bragging on him. It could have backfired in some instances, but here it seems genuine and deserved.
In the next section (verses 8-16), Paul made a passionate plea for Onesimus. The passage says:
Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting, yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you – being such a one as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ – I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me. I am sending him back. You, therefore, receive him, that is, my own heart, whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel. But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary. For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, 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.
This section is the heart of the epistle. It begins with Paul saying he could command Philemon, but instead “appeals” on behalf of Onesimus. There is a lesson in that decision worth heeding today. Far too often, we spend too much time lording our power over people instead of using our powers of persuasion to convince them about what is right. We like power and we tend to abuse it. Some times, our ability to influence someone could contain a conflict of interest or even a misuse of something God blessed us with to honor Him instead of ourselves.
Paul described Onesimus as the “son” whom he had “begotten while in chains.” Paul doesn’t call many people his son – but those he does are very important to him (Timothy, Titus, and now Onesimus). I’m sure that word would have signaled something to Philemon as he read the letter. I wonder if it made him wonder how? or even why? After all, wasn’t Onesimus a thief and a runaway?
I’d also like you to pay careful attention to how Paul described Onesimus’ value to Philemon. “He is now profitable to both you and me” in verse 11. That doesn’t seem to be an insult, rather a compliment reflecting the inherent value a brother-in-Christ possesses. Verses 12-14 show us a conflicted but resolute Paul. He wanted to keep Onesimus with him for many reasons, but he was unwilling to do it without Philemon’s permission. This is a true testament to the power of ethical behavior. It wasn’t right for Onesimus to stay in Paul’s service and defraud Philemon. He couldn’t be useful to God’s Apostle (Paul) while hurting God’s servant (Philemon). Both Paul and Onesimus understood that the difference between “what is right” and “what is right, right now” wasn’t worth alienating a beloved brother in Christ.
Personally, I believe Paul was alluding to the providence of God in verse 15. The use of the word “perhaps” is not a question of faith, but merely perspective. The circumstances surrounding this letter sure seem to have God’s “fingerprints” all over them, but even an inspired Apostle was unable to see it with complete certainty. Might I suggest many of us use that restraint when we discuss God’s providence as well? Paul also believed the relationship between those two would mean more to them after Onesimus’ conversion (now that they were “beloved brothers”). That makes a ton of sense until you realize, that by all rights, Onesimus was still Philemon’s property. Do not be naive enough to believe that this request didn’t require some courage on Paul’s behalf.
He was asking his friend to do something people didn’t do. He was asking for grace, when punishment or retribution was the norm.
The final section of the epistle contains some personal requests from Paul to Philemon. Verses 17-22 say:
If then you count me as a partner, receive him as you would me. But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account. I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay – not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides. Yes, brother, let me have joy from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in the Lord. Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. But, meanwhile, also prepare a guest room for me, for I trust that through your prayers I shall be granted to you.
His final request was incredibly personal. He asked him to receive Onesimus as he would himself. That level of personal responsibility is commonly found within friendships much longer than this one. Many people after years of friendship would ask another to “receive this person as you would me,” yet this one was relatively new. It should be clearly seen that Paul’s attachment to Onesimus was deep, if not lengthy. We are to love one another, prefer one another, and cherish one another. With these words, Paul shows us the lengths that devotion should find itself marching towards in some instances. It didn’t take him long to genuinely love Onesimus and now that love was put to use.
Paul’s confidence in Philemon isn’t something we can fully appreciate. We haven’t been in those circumstances. We don’t know how much it meant to any of them. Yet I still don’t believe Paul sent Onesimus back expecting Philemon to reject him. May we learn from his confidence in his brother to hope they will listen to reason, reject stubborn and foolish ideas, and do what’s right in this world. I pray we’ll continue to hope they will be Christ-like in a world of anything but. The last bit of instruction to “prepare a room” (22) is a very optimistic request considering Paul was imprisoned at the writing of this letter. There is no doubt in my mind that he planned to visit his friend and his “son” in the faith to see the completion of their reunion. I hope we will live with that confidence, not just in the people we love, but also in the God we serve.
Now that we’ve seen the text, what is the big picture idea worth noting? At the end of the day, it’s simple – God’s children have value beyond this world. In fact, everyone does. We can’t get caught up in the ways our world values people. We must ask, how does God value them? The answer to that question should have led Philemon to forgive Onesimus and welcome him back into his home as a brother, and no longer a slave. The answer to that question can change the relationships in your life as well. Perhaps, God will bring a Philemon, a Paul, or an Onemimus into your life and make it a better place. Perhaps, he’ll give you an opportunity to change the world and its backward ways. Perhaps, he’ll change you and by changing you, change the world. He used Philemon for that purpose, can’t he use you as well?
After all this, I’ve come to one conclusion that must be said. Slavery doesn’t work, that’s obvious. Our world corrupted it, used it to devalue individuals, and ignore God’s commands. However, it wasn’t always wrong. Here, in Philemon, it brought people together. It introduced an opportunity to see something bigger and better. I hope Philemon made good on Paul’s wishes. I also hope he freed each and every slave in his possession. Since I don’t know, I’ll try my best to remember him as a “beloved brother and coworker,” not a slaveowner. After all, that’s how we should remember Abraham and Job and many others as well.
All Scripture is taken from the New King James Version. Copyright (c) 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by Permission. All rights reserved.