Paul's private letter to Philemon is a short
letter dealing with a private matter concerning a slave and his master.
The letter is about the fate of a runaway slave, Onesimus, as he returns
to his slave master. It gives us a glimpse into how Christians of the first
century approached problem solving. It is in this letter that we see Christian
compassion in action.
You can't understand the book of Philemon
until you understand the plight of slaves in the first century. There were
60,000,000 slaves in the Roman Empire who were considered as property.
They were under the absolute control of their master or mistress. A slave
owner was free to do whatever he/she wished to the slaves. They could beat
or kill slaves. However, slaves in the Roman world, as a rule, fared quite
well. To be owned usually gave security and peace of mind.
The punishment for runaway slaves was usually
severe and could mean a death sentence. Runaway slaves were usually branded
with the letter "F", which stood for "fugitivus" or runaway. The reason
for cruel punishment of slaves was to discourage an uprising among the
slave population of Rome. It would have meant social chaos for the slaves
to rise up against Rome. The social and economic structure of Rome was
built around the slaves. The Romans would have never voluntarily freed
their slaves, and any revolt would have been crushed savagely.
Onesimus was not only a runaway slave, but
perhaps a thief also. Paul says, "if he has done you any wrong or owes
you anything, charge it to me," (v. 16). If this is true this compounded
Onesimus somehow met up with the apostle and
was converted to Christ. He may have been captured and thrown in prison.
He may have been converted as he met Paul in prison.
The outcome of the story of Philemon and Onesimus
is never told. We can only wonder what impact this personal letter had
on Philemon. There is a piece of historical information that might be helpful.
Fifty years after Paul wrote Philemon, Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch,
was being taken to Rome to be persecuted. Along the way he wrote a letter
to the church at Ephesus. In this letter he extolled their wonderful bishop,
whose name was Onesimus. He referred to Onesimus as one who was formerly
useless to them but now he is profitable. It was almost the same language
Paul used in Philemon 1:11. It may be that the runaway slave became bishop
The first collection of Paul's letters was
made in Ephesus. This may explain how this personal letter was preserved
and included in the New Testament. It may have been Onesimus that included
this note as a vivid demonstration of how great Christ can change and use
even a fugitive slave like himself.
Christ's Impact on Our Relationships
The book of Colossians was penned at the same
time as Philemon. Tychicus and Onesimus were the bearers of the letter
to the Colossians. In this letter Paul mentions Onesimus as a faithful
and dear brother who is one of them. (Colossians 4:7-9) It is in this letter
that Paul reveals the impact that Christ is to have on our relationships.
But now you must rid yourselves
of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language
from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your
old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being
renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Greek
or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free,
but Christ is all, and is in all.
Therefore, as God's chosen people,
holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility,
gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances
you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And
over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect
Let the peace of Christ rule
in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace.
And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach
and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns
and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever
you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus,
giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Wives, submit to your husbands,
as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh
with them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases
the Lord. Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.
Slaves, obey your earthly masters
in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win
their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever
you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for
men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord
as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Anyone who does wrong
will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favoritism.
Masters, provide your slaves
with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master
in heaven. (NIV)
Paul penned these words not as some doctrinal
statement to be embraced, but to define the kind of life they were to live
in relationship to each other as they entered into the body of Christ.
The book of Philemon gives us insight as to how these words in Colossians
are to be applied to daily living. The book of Philemon resonates with
an understanding of life Jesus set forth in the Sermon on the Mount. It
gives a dynamic meaning to faith in the market place.
How to Approach Problem Solving
We must approach problem solving out
of a concern for the persons with the problem.
Paul, a prisoner of Christ
Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and fellow
worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the
church that meets in your home: Grace to you and peace from God our Father
and the Lord Jesus Christ. I always thank my God as I remember you in my
prayers, because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love
for all the saints. I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith,
so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have
in Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because
you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints. (NIV)
Paul was sitting in a prison cell when he
penned this letter. He was there because of the same gospel he had proclaimed
to those in the city . No one could question his concern for those concerned.
Paul was not only in prison, but he had also considered his privileges
of birth and personal achievements as mere "rubbish" for the cause of Christ
(Philippians 3:8). The driving passion of his life was to know and proclaim
Christ, therefore he was a prisoner in more ways than one. Paul had paid
this price out of his concern for those to whom he had preached and this
included the church at Colossae.
Paul saw Philemon and his family as fellow
workers with him. He is thankful to God in his prayers for such fellow
Sharing our faith is a means to solving
our problems. One version says, "that the sharing of your faith
may become effective by the acknowledgment of every good thing which is
in you in Christ Jesus" (1:6 NKJ). The NIV says, "I pray that you
may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding
of every good thing we have in Christ." I have
personally learned through preaching and teaching that the sharing of God's
word is a great means to grow in your knowledge of God's word. But I believe
what Paul is saying here to Philemon goes much further than sharing our
knowledge of God's word. Paul has shared his faith with Philemon and now
he is asking Philemon to share his faith so that he might have a full understanding
of everything that is his in Christ.
Sharing faith in Christ has to do with sharing
the good which Christ is endeavoring to implant in us. It has to do with
sharing the love of Christ with each other through how we interact with
each other. This is the ultimate in sharing our faith. It is sharing this
living aspect of our faith as it impacts our relationships with each other.
Philemon is sharing his faith with the saints as the hearts of the saints
are being refreshed by his relationship with them (1:7). His faith has
strengthened the entire Christian community in Colossae.
Faith grows as a living faith is shared. If
you want to know what it means to be forgiven, forgive as you have been
forgiven. Your faith in God's forgiveness will grow as you share that forgiveness
The verses we read from Colossians 3:8-4:1
above places the emphasis on the resulting lifestyles of those who have
come to Christ by faith. Try to imagine what Philemon is thinking as he
hears the letter to the Colossian church read and then reflects on the
personal matter Paul addresses in the personal letter he received from
Paul. Philemon was a man of influence in the church as the church met in
his own home (1:2). Now he is being called upon to share his faith as he
exemplifies the attitude of Christ toward this runaway slave.
Problems are solved when we refuse to
make demands of others. Paul appeals to Philemon through Christian
love. The difficulty in problem solving is not figuring out what the Bible
says on an issue. The difficulty comes in figuring out the loving way to
approach the problem.
Therefore, although in Christ
could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do,
I appeal to you on the basis of love. I then, as Paul-- an old
man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus--I appeal to you for my son
Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless
to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. I am sending
him-- who is my very heart-- back to you. I would have liked to keep him
with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains
for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent,
so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. Perhaps the
reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might
have him back for good--no longer as a slave, but better than a slave,
as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as
a man and as a brother in the Lord. (NIV)
Paul's words are artful, tender, sensitive,
brilliant, understanding, and convincing. There is a balance of conviction
and compassion. There is a conviction about the worth of Onesimus and compassion
with Philemon as he faces the slave-master relationship of Christ. Paul
was not so foolish as to start a riotous uprising against slavery in the
city of Rome. Rather he attacked the very heart and core of slavery within
the Christian community without ever uttering the word "emancipation."
True emancipation comes as we share our faith in Christ with each other
and the world at large.
Paul speaks these words as one imprisoned
and enslaved by Christ. These words come from a heart that has become all
things to all men so that he might share his faith in Christ. He isn't
asking Philemon to doing anything that he, himself has not already done
for Philemon's sake.
Problems are best solved without force.Paul
says of Onesimus, "Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become
useful both to you and to me. I am sending him-- who is my very heart--
back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take
your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did
not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do
will be spontaneous and not forced."
The love of Christ is the only real force by which we can solve our problems.
There are literally volumes of scriptural
passages Paul could have quoted to command Philemon to do the right thing.
But he didn't quote one scriptural passage. However, the brilliant power
of the gospel shines through every word penned. It is revealed in loving
tones as it seeks to transform persons, relationships and circumstances.
It is Paul's love for Christ that causes him to send a slave back to his
master. It is his love for Christ that appeals to a master on behalf of
It is here that we find two men converted
by Paul's preaching compelled to face their relationship with each other.
Paul writes, " Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little
while was that you might have him back for good--no longer as a slave,
but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even
dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord." When slaves
become brothers relationships change for the better.
Paul has just planted the dynamite and ignited
the fuse to destroy the oppressive order of slavery. Coercion is out of
harmony, even contradictory to the spirit of the gospel. Paul walks a tight
wire but he retains his integrity. Coercion does not validate, but violates
the gospel. You can only wonder if Paul remembered the words of Jesus penned
I no longer call you servants,
because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have
called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have
made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed
you to go and bear fruit-- fruit that will last. Then the Father will give
you whatever you ask in my name. This is my command: Love each other. (NIV)
Love can only work in the context of
freedom. Paul would not force Philemon to generosity; for it would
not be an expression of love. Paul is willing to trust in the love of Christ
to lead Philemon to do the right thing. Only Philemon could determine what
love required of him in relation to Onesimus.
To solve problems we must remind ourselves
of what the love of Christ and other Christians has afforded us.
So if you consider me a partner,
welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes
you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand.
I will pay it back-- not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do
wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh
my heart in Christ. confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing
that you will do even more than I ask. And one thing more: Prepare a guest
room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. And
so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers. The grace of
the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. (NIV)
Paul is persuasive because of his personal
investment and personal identification and involvement in the cause he
is championing. He asks Philemon to receive Onesimus as he would receive
him. Paul says, "If you count me a partner, receive him [Onesimus] as
you would me." He was asking Philemon to put his money where his mouth
was. Paul offers to pay the debt himself.
Paul reminds Philemon of his debt to him.
This reminds me of the story of the Unmerciful Servant who refused to forgive
a small debt to his fellow servant when he had just been forgiven an enormous
debt. However, Paul is seeking Philemon to be obedient not to him as a
person, but to the gospel of Christ.
Sharing our faith with each other as we seek
to be obedient to the gospel is the only way our faith will grow. Sadly,
many churches don't know how to settle their differences in love. That
is why we have so many dying small churches. Churches cannot grow if Christians
do not grow through sharing their faith in their relationships.