How would you like to be owned completely by someone else. To do what your Master told you, to serve him always before yourself, to have no rights of your own, and to forfeit your very life for disobedience or rebellion? This was slavery in the Roman Empire of the first century, where it was not just a social habit but an institution that upheld the Empire. There were more slaves than there were free citizens.
It was in this milieu that Paul wrote the letter to Philemon, a friend whom he had converted - probably at Ephesus - and who lived at Collosae. He was well to do, a slave owner, and a devoted Christian in whose home the local Church met. One of Philemon’s slaves, named Onesimus, had run away to Rome, probably having stolen some of his masters money to finance his trip. While in Rome he had met up with Paul in his ‘home detention’. Paul, although chained and officially a prisoner under constant guard, lived In his own home with friends and workers around him including Timothy - mentioned in the greetings at the beginning of the letter – and the other five mentioned at the end of the letter.
While with Paul Onesimus had been converted, and had stayed on serving Paul in various ways that are not indicated. It was most likely as a personal household servant, but could also have been as an evangelist amongst his fellow slaves in Rome. Knowing the law regarding slaves Paul persuades Onesimus that he must return to Philemon, his legal master, although Paul himself would love to keep Onesimus with him as he was so useful. To smooth the way for Onesimus Paul writes this letter to Philemon. Although he could have written with the authority of an Apostle and Church Leader, he instead writes carefully and tactfully as a friend.
The letter can be divided into several parts. Firstly there is the greeting from Paul and Timothy to Philemon, Apphia (probably Philemon’s wife) to Archippus (possibly their son) and to the Church that met in their house.
Secondly there is thanksgiving and prayer for Philemon. In verse 5 we have a literary form called a Chiasmus where two aspects are linked to compare them in the readers mind. “because I hear of your love and of the faith which you have towards the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints” The love and faith towards the Lord Jesus and the saints - the Faith is in Jesus, and the Love or benevolence is shown to his fellow Christians. Possibly we can say that ‘because of his faith in Jesus he had love and benevolence to the Saints’. Verse 6 in some translations is somewhat difficult, but Barclay seems to solve it however taking the word ‘koinonia’ often translated as ‘fellowship’ to be ‘sharing’ giving us “It is my prayer that your way of generously sharing and giving away all that you have will lead you more and more deeply into the knowledge of the good things which lead to Christ.”
Thirdly comes Paul’s plea for Onesimus. Here again the informal nature of the letter is shown by the pun on the name Onesimus in verse 11. Onesimus mean ‘profitable’ or ‘useful’, and Paul says that he had been formerly ‘useless’ to Philelon, but was now ‘useful’ to both Paul and Philemon. The main plea is that Philemon accept Onesimus back into his household – and into the Church – without having any recourse to the law on runaway slaves. Paul also says that if Onesimus owes any money to Philemon that he – Paul – is to be charged with it and he will pay in full. The secondary implied request is that Paul would love to have Onesimus sent back to him to be his helper again.
Finally there is a section with a final request and promise – to come to visit Philemon – with greetings from all at Paul’s residence.
What happened we do not know. It is assumed that Philemon followed the directions of Paul and accepted Onesimus back again. Whether he ever rejoined Paul we do not know, but there was later on a famous and powerful Bishop of Ephesus named Onesimus. Who knows today ? Philemon’s for-giveness and acceptance may have led to a great good.
This letter of Paul’s is a powerful plea for Christian love between fellow Christians. In many cases there are injuries and incidents where one is hurt by the words or actions of another Christian. To strictly hold to the old law of ‘an eye for an eye’ is not in the spirit of Christ. One must forgive the fellow Christian and seek reconciliation with them in the Love of Christ. Paul did not write anything but an informal and friendly letter requesting a favour from Philemon, but in it he implied the ideas of Reconciliation, Redemption and Substitution.
Redemption is shown in verses 18 & 19 where Paul takes the whole of Onesimus’s debt on himself and promises to pay in full; just as Jesus took all of the believer’s sins on His own shoulders and God accepts that the debt is paid in full. Substitution is shown in the way that Paul instructs Philemon to accept Onesimus as if he were Paul. Just as God accepts Jesus’ acts as if we had paid own debt for sin.
Reconcilliation is the whole plea of the letter, and is based on Christ’s own teaching, as for instance in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5: 23-24. “Therefore if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. Girst go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer the gift.” Again, Paul in 2 Corinthians 5: 17-19 “Therefore if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation; the old has gone and the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to Himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And He has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors as though God was making His appeal through us.”
We do not have slaves today, probably few of us have servants or employees, but we are still open to resentments and grudges against members of our fellowship or our neighbours, and as this letter shows we should not hold those grudges to our hearts – even if we feel that they are justified. Reconcilliation is the way to healthy relationship in the fellowship and between neighbours. Listen to Paul’s plea to Philemon, and accept your estranged brother or sister in Christ as Philemon was asked to accept Onesimus; and as Jesus Himself has commanded us. You never know how much good you will be doing. The estranged member whom you welcome back into your friendship and fellowship may turn out in the future to be a great leader winning many more for Christ.
One last thought. At the beginning I asked how you would like to be owned completely by someone else. Well, I am, and so are you if you have given your life completely to Jesus. He bought us with a price that we could not pay and will never have to pay so long as we have accepted Him as our Saviour. We are his Bondmen and Bondmaids, servants – or more accurately slaves of Christ – that through Him we might become children of God and joint heirs of the Kingdom with Christ. If we don’t obey, if we try to run away from our responsibilities, our lives may be forfeit. Let’s all resolve to do as Jesus instructed us, and live our lives totally for Him and in His strength and love.