1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker— 2 also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home:
3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. 6 I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. 7 Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.
8 Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9 yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— 10 that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.
12 I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 13 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. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. 15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— 16 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 fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.
17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. 20 I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask. (NIV)
Philemon has a sordid history. The letter that is. Paul’s letter to Philemon about the slave Onesimus was one of the chief passages that was twisted to support the slave industry in the American colonies and the US during its formation. It was also one of the Biblical bases for the laws requiring the return of slaves to their owners. Of course it was out of context and reading into it what the particular preachers and readers wanted to see in it. The fact that Paul didn’t condemn slavery means that people took liberties with their own interpretation. And in our day, people condemn Paul for not making a stand against slavery, and even for sending Onesimus back to Philemon.
But Paul was making a bold statement in this letter in a world where slaves were the norm. He was sorting out how this new faith in the Christ, and its claim of love for all people, for oneness in Christ, was to be lived day by day. He is the one who understood that no ethnic divisions were to keep people apart any longer… “neither Jew nor Gentile all are one in Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 3:28, NIV) And he is also the one who said “neither slave nor free” in that same phrase. All are one in Christ Jesus. So what is Paul thinking here? We don’t know the timing of this letter. Had Paul already come to those conclusions? Or had his relationship with Onesimus helped him see that next step in the revelation of God’s truth? I think the latter.
But how we decide sort of depends on how we interpret what is going on here. We don’t have any other background on this letter. We only have what Paul has written. There are no other references to this situation. So what do we KNOW? We know Paul stayed in Colossae in Asia Minor on one of his missionary journeys. In the entry on Philemon in Luther Seminary’s ‘Enter The Bible’ website, we get a summary of how this letter is linked to the community at Colossae:
The fact that the letter to the Colossians speaks of an Onesimus sent to Colossae along with Tychicus (Colossians 4:7-9) and also mentions an Archippus (Colossians 4:17), the name of one of the recipients of the letter to Philemon (v. 2), has lead many to assume that Philemon and his house church must have been located in close proximity to Colossae in Asia Minor.
We know Paul is a prisoner, but we don’t know where or when. We know that Onesimus ended up being a prisoner in the same place as Paul because he “became my son while I was in chains.” (verse 10) Many assume this means that Onesimus came to the faith while imprisoned with Paul, but I don’t think that is an automatic assumption. It is assumed that Philemon became a Christ follower when Paul was in Colossae because of verse 19, where Paul says “not to mention that you owe me your very self.” Paul is implying that since he shared Christ with Philemon and Philemon came to believe, that Paul has ‘given him his (new) life.’ It stands just as good a chance that Onesimus came to the faith at roughly the same time Philemon did since he would be in Philemon’s household and would have heard what was going on. Many times the whole household was baptized at the same time if the head of the household came to faith. (See Acts 16:16-34 as one example.)
What if Onesimus, already a Christ follower, ran away (for whatever reason), was caught, was imprisoned and it just so happened to be where Paul was also imprisoned. Paul may not have known Onesimus as a slave in Philemon’s household, but Onesimus would surely have recognized Paul. He must certainly have made himself known to Paul. It seems he made himself useful. Paul tells Philemon that he wanted to keep Onesimus around because he had been ‘useful’ to him (v 11, 13) but he didn’t want to do so ‘without Philemon’s consent.’ Paul is recognizing Philemon’s claim on Onesimus as his master, whether we like it or not. I suspect Paul was willing to upset the societal norms to a point, but not too suddenly. If we push too hard for new things, extra resistance is created. If we take it slow, sometimes people are more willing to give. At any rate, the two became close in prison, and Paul wants to help Onesimus like Onesimus has helped him.
The letter alludes to what seems to be happening; that Paul is sending Onesimus back so Philemon can free him from his bondage, and possibly (by Paul’s implied request in v 20) send him back to be with Paul again. This letter is set in a time when slavery is normal; even though it may not be moral. Paul doesn’t speak out against slavery, though I wish he would have. I wish he would have taken a stand against such a practice but he didn’t. Does this condone slavery then? No. It does not. But it doesn’t support it either. Paul was making a statement that one Christ follower should not own a fellow Christ follower. They are to be brothers, not slave and master. But he wants Philemon to come to that conclusion on his own, not by Paul’s demand.
So here is what I think happened. I think Philemon came to faith and had his whole household baptized. Onesimus, having come to faith and been baptized, started to exercise the freedom in Christ that he would have heard about from Paul and ran away. Maybe it was in protest over his treatment, maybe out of a desire to go share with his family, maybe out of a misguided sense of spiritual release that he translated into a physical departure… no one knows. He left, that’s all we know. And he ended up in prison with Paul. We don’t know if he was captured for being a run-away or if he was imprisoned for preaching, like Paul. No one knows. He served Paul and they became close. The freedom in Christ is real, but so is the fact that he ‘stole’ himself from Philemon by leaving without permission. While Onesimus was a runaway, he was ‘useless’ to Philemon (v 11). When he goes back. Philemon could make him be ‘useful’ as a slave but is urging him to find him ‘useful’ as a brother in Christ and as a fellow human being.
This is a step forward. In the old system, there was no thought of emancipating the slaves of a household except by the fulfillment of their servitude. I am willing to give Paul a pass for not going as far as we have come in 2019. He took a step. I am also not willing to blame him for people in the past few hundred years twisting his words and taking them to their advantage. People will do that. It doesn’t condone them. It doesn’t forgive them. It does acknowledge them. Hopefully we can learn from them. Hopefully Paul can inspire us to take the next step toward full justice that is still eluding us today our society… in racial, economic, gender and other areas. We all have room to grow.
Blessings to you,
In what areas have you taken a step away from the accepted norms of your family/community? In what areas do you have some room for growth? How might you be open to the leading/revelation of the Spirit?
Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Enter the Bible at https://www.enterthebible.org/newtestament.aspx?rid=11 accessed on September 8, 2019.