All the Bible, Every Book: Philemon
Bondage to Brotherhood
Therefore, if you regard me as a partner, accept him as you would me.
(Paul to Philemon, concerning Onesimus, Philemon 17)
The thirteen Pauline Epistles develop the foundational truths of Christianity introduced in the Gospels. Paul wrote nine letters to churches and four to individuals. He writes from the perspective of the Apostle to the Gentiles, church-planter, pastor, and friend. His letters contain instructions, exhortations, and corrections that were real-time—messages to real people, gathered in real churches, with real problems as they endeavored to follow Christ and make a difference in their world. One consistent theme undergirds all of Paul’s teaching—the reality of every believer’s position in Christ.
Philemon is one of the most unique books of the New Testament. Much like Ruth in the Old Testament, Paul’s letter to his friend is an illustration of some of the greatest themes in Scripture. Philemon was a wealthy citizen of Colossae who hosted the church in his home. Apparently he came to Christ along with Epaphras when Paul was ministering in Ephesus during his 3rd missionary journey. Like most affluent citizens of the Roman Empire, Philemon owned slaves. One third of all who lived in the Empire were slaves. Most of those slaves were more like household, downstairs servants in Victorian Britain than like the African slaves of antebellum North America. (Fitzmeyer, The Letter to Philemon: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, pp 25-33) Nevertheless, Roman law ruled that runaway slaves could be severely punished or condemned to a violent death.
Onesimus was a runaway slave living in Rome. He had run to Rome from Colossae and the home of his master, Philemon. It was there that the slave came to faith in Christ as a result of Paul’s influence (v. 10). In Christ, the useless and rebellious runaway became a useful and valuable helper of the apostle. Paul wanted to keep Onesimus on his team, but he knew that God wanted Onesimus to make things right with Philemon. Paul and Onseimus both understood the danger and risk of trusting God, the character of Philemon, and the church in Colossae with this situation. Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon with Tychicus and this little letter. Tychicus also carried the letters to Ephesus and Colossae. It is one of the most touching pictures of grace and truth in relationships and community in the New Testament. It’s fitting that Philemon follows Titus in our English Bible, for it is an illustration of the key word of Titus—kosmeo, the verb that means to “adorn,” to set forth attractively—as a musician does, who plays a piece of music beautifully. (Tom Constable, Titus, p. 4). This letter proves that even a runaway slave under a death sentence can fulfill the God-given assignment to “adorn,” “show the beauty of,” “bring credit to” the teaching of Jesus (God our Savior) in everything:
Philemon: God will use your sad and broken life if you’ll trust Him.
Paul skillfully addresses a sensitive issue with tact and warmth. The letter divides into two major sections: (1) affirming Philemon; (2) advocating for Onesimus.