You might think that the letter to Philemon is a weird place to start when addressing Paul’s writings. Many people don’t seem to think of it as much of a letter, and fail to see its importance in the scriptures. It is an extremely short letter, but it packs a big punch when you really understand what is being said. The truth is that it is one of my favorite books in the entire Bible.
Philemon seems to have been a pretty close friend and confidant of Paul. We know this because the letter is very personal, and Paul addresses their friendship within the letter itself. Philemon also seems to have been in charge of a house church, and was probably pretty wealthy because he owned slaves. One of those slaves is the subject of this letter.
Onesimus is the slave in question, and he seems to have wronged his master in some way. We don’t know exactly what he did, but we know that it was pretty serious because he goes to Paul for help. Somewhere along the way Onesimus becomes a Christian, and his life is forever changed. However, this does not change the fact that he could have been imprisoned or even worse for what he had done, and therefore the reason for Paul’s letter.
This is where the letter becomes extremely powerful and impactful. Paul requests two things from Philemon. First, he lets him know that he is sending Onesimus back and that he wants Philemon to treat him as a brother. Second, anything that Onesimus owes Philemon is to be charged to Paul’s account.
It is hard to overstate the craziness of the first request. Slaves were given no status in society, and they were allowed to be treated however their masters saw fit. Onesimus wronged his master, and now Paul wants Philemon to welcome him back as a brother? This was unheard of in the ancient world! Paul had no right within society to make such a request. However, Paul is not appealing to society, but rather he is appealing to Christianity.
If Philemon is truly a Christian, Paul is essentially saying, then he should have no problem with this request. At its core, Christianity is about forgiveness. The only reason we can even be Christians is because God forgave us! It is true that Paul never actually comes out and calls slavery wrong, but it is also true that his handling of it in this letter shows you exactly what he thinks of the practice. In Jesus Christ there is no slave or free, there are only brothers and sisters. Paul challenges Philemon to welcome his former slave back, not as a slave but as a brother.
The second request demonstrates that Paul isn’t just commanding Philemon to be a Christian, but that he also is willing to back up his command with self-action. Paul offers to take ownership of whatever wrong that Onesimus has done to Philemon. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Paul mimics his master, Jesus, who took on the sin of the world, even though he was completely innocent.
Paul’s actions backed up his words. He wants Philemon to know that true Christianity involves self-sacrifice. It REQUIRES us to not only view fellow Christians as brothers, but to also completely forgive them any debt they may owe us, no matter their social standing. On top of that, Philemon must not forget that he owes Paul a debt, and yet Paul has never collected on that debt.
As I’m sure you can see, this letter still has ramifications for us today. In this letter, Paul shows what it is truly like to be a Christian, and the importance of viewing everyone in the family of God the same way. No matter our race, culture, ethnicity or social standing, we are all one in Jesus Christ. Paul doesn’t outright condemn slavery, as that would have been foolish in his day. However, he completely undercuts it by showing us how important each one of us is to God, and that we are all equal before him.