American Journal of Biblical Theology
November 5, 2006
It is not often that we turn in the Bible to the small book between Titus and Hebrews. If one is to ask the typical Christian to describe the contents of the book of Philemon, the response would probably often be described as a blank stare. Some might know that the book contains a plea from Paul for the safe return of a slave to his owner. The book is not often used as a source of sermon topic, nor quoted often from studies from other scriptures. Consequently, it might be valuable to take this opportunity to investigate this small, but meaningful, book.
There are very few scholars who would dispute that the letter was written by the apostle Paul to Philemon, the owner of the slave, Onesimus, who lived in the Lycus valley of Asia Minor. Most agree that the letter was written during Paul's imprisonment in Rome, somewhere around 58 - 60AD. The form of the letter was formal, and parallels similar letters of a similar purpose (the intercession for a delinquent slave) that have been found in both pagan and Christian documents of the era. This points to Paul's unusually competent literacy. He also uses a variety of word-plays that would almost be considered humorous by readers in his culture, plays both within the text, and plays between the text and similar standard letters. It is because of this literary form, not because of the salutation, that Paul's authorship is largely uncontested.
Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother, unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellowlabourer, 2And to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellowsoldier, and to the church in thy house: 3Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul identifies himself as a prisoner of Jesus Christ, rather than a prisoner of Rome. We know that he fully believes that his imprisonment is for the gospel alone, and his chosen bondage is to Jesus Christ rather than to Caesar. Often in his salutations, Paul refers to himself as a bondslave to Jesus. However, such an address might be inappropriate given the purpose of this letter. Paul also includes Timothy in his salutation. Timothy was well-known for his faithfulness to the gospel, and well-respected in Asia Minor, his home.
As Paul addresses Philemon, he refers to him as his 'fellow-laborer', clearly identifying him as a Christian, and furthermore as a Christian leader. By using this word, Paul makes it clear that he considers Philemon to be his equal in the Kingdom of God. This equality would also be noted by Philemon as he reads. Paul never demonstrated any social stratification among Christians. He held all to be equal in the eyes of Christ, so he considered them equal to himself. He had, more than any, reason to boast of his resume, boast of his accomplishments, of his persecutions, etc.
Paul also includes two others in his address: Apphia, the wife of Philemon, and Archippus, a religious leader in the region. In their culture, the wife had the responsibility of managing the slaves, so it is appropriate that she be included in the address. Archippus represented local church, "thy house", and was probably a pastor or similar type of leader to whom Philemon was accountable. By including Archippus in the letter, Philemon's response to it would carry the nature of that accountability. So, for Philemon to ignore Paul's plea in this letter, he would have to stand against Paul, Timothy, Archippus, and maybe his wife.
Paul then states a blessing, grace (charis) and peace (eirene). I often sign letters and Emails "Charis" as a way of blessing upon the reader. Usually, however, readers have no idea of what it means, and when they ask, an opportunity arises for a bit of theological interaction.
I thank my God, making mention of thee always in my prayers, 5Hearing of thy love and faith, which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all saints; 6That the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus. 7For we have great joy and consolation in thy love, because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother.
There is little question that Philemon was an upright man, a leader in his church, respected, and well-liked. Paul is not writing to someone whom he is about to castigate for ill behavior. Paul notes that when he prays, he remembers Philemon, and is thankful to God for him. The work that is being done for the Kingdom of God by Philemon is apparently significant enough that he has heard of it through the testimony of others who have come to him or written to him. Philemon demonstrates in his life the love and faith he has for Jesus Christ and toward the members of the church.
If Paul (or Jesus) were to write you a letter, would he say this about you? Is the love and faith that you have well-known by your peers? As you interact each day with the people you know well, do they perceive you as a person of love or faith? Is your love demonstrated to those around you in a way that people actually talk about it? This was the case for Philemon. How can we live this way? Paul's next statement eludes to the methodology as he gives a blessing in the form of an imperative: that the communication (the continuing working) of his faith would be effective in demonstrating the good of Jesus Christ. We make choices every day: choices that reveal our true hearts. Are those hearts self-centered and disrespectful of others? Or, like Paul and Philemon, do we demonstrate a true God-felt love for one another? Such love constrains us to, like Paul, realize that we are not better than one another, but rather we stand together as equals at the foot of the Cross of Jesus Christ.
Finally, Paul states that the "bowels of the saints", or a more modern translation would state, the "hearts of the saints" are refreshed by him. That is quite a commendation. I would like to meet a person like Philemon, and experience this same blessing that Paul experiences.
Wherefore, though I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee that which is convenient, 9Yet for love’s sake I rather beseech thee, being such an one as Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ. 10I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds:
Paul wastes no time getting down to business. After his short reverie, one that certainly would have been encouraging to Philemon, Paul literally begs for Philemon's support concerning Onesimus, his runaway slave. This statement must have come as quite a shock to Philemon the first time he read it. We are not given the details of the history of the drama between Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus, but some information is known from which reasonable speculation can occur. From the text, it is evident that Philemon came to Christ as the direct result of Paul's personal message. They knew each other. When Philemon came to Christ, so did his household, and apparently, the message was heard by his slave Onesimus. Now we find later that Onesimus ran away from his bondage and ran to Paul. We may speculate that Onesimus' pre-salvation experience in some way engendered a conflict in his interpretation as his status as a slave. It is likely that, as a slave, he would not again hear the teachings of the faith and sought this in his heart. We know that Onesimus ran away from his master and was found by Paul's side, presenting Paul with a very delicate situation. He was walking a fine line between Christian ethics and the Roman law. So, in his plea to Philemon, Paul presents a sincere, humble, and powerful plea.
He literally asks permission for his 'boldness' (using a word that eludes to his apostolic authority) in jumping directly into the matter. Then, he begs Philemon "for love's sake." The word for love, agape, would remind Philemon that it is the love of God that he is standing on. He also begs him as "Paul the aged," using a word that eludes to his social authority. The word used here is the base word for "gerontology," but is also the base word for the position held in the Roman senate. Paul literally describes to Philemon his authority to present the question he is about to ask.
I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds:
Finally, Paul reveals the purpose of his letter. Again, this letter was formatted in the common literary form of an intercession for a slave. However, as he turns to the description of the runaway, Paul's statement is quite different from the norm. First, he refers to Onesimus as his own son, literally birthed, while he was imprisoned. Paul clearly states that Onesimus came to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ while with Paul.
One might, at this point, note the inclusiveness of the gospel as it applies to all people without regard to race, economic background, or any other physical property. Paul was a Jew born to a prominent Jewish family and upbringing, Philemon was a gentile, a pagan who came to know Christ. When Paul met Onesimus, he met an individual at the very bottom of the social ladder. There was no person in the social strata below that of a runaway slave. Onesimus was an ignorant pagan, and as a runaway, a danger to those who he encountered. Yet, Paul respected him as any other man, and took the opportunity to lead him to Christ, then referring to him as his own son. This metaphor is all the more significant when we consider the importance of the father-son relationship in Jewish culture. Philemon would have known this, and would be suitably impressed.
Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me:
Here, Paul uses a play on words that is not evident in the English translation. The name, "Onesimus" means "profitable." However, the more common word for "profitable" was "Chrestos", used in this verse, a word that sounds like "Christos" the Greek name for Christ. It is unliely that Philemon laughed at this play on words, but it would have been noted. Through it, Paul points not only to the value that Onesimus has to Philemon, but now how valuable he is to both Paul and the Kingdom of God. Certainly, this is not the slave that Philemon remembered. However, he is the slave that Paul wants him to know.
Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels: 13Whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel: 14But without thy mind would I do nothing; that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly.
The status of a runaway slave was a dangerous one in ancient Rome. When captured, it was normal for them to be brutalized by their captors. Furthermore, as a gesture of "thanks" it was normal for the captor to keep the slave and make use of him (or her) for a period of time. Usually, that slavery was brutal, as opposed to the more servanthood manner of the state the slave would have experienced prior to running away. Consequently, Paul would be expected to keep Onesimus rather than to release him back to his owner. Furthermore, upon receipt of the runaway, it would be normal for the owner to also brutalize the slave as a punishment for running away. This brutality was a common and accepted way to deal with runaways, and was protected by Roman law.
Consequently, Paul's plea is an earnest one. He has no desire to see Onesimus brutalized, and he knows the heart of Philemon. Still, even the most earnest Christian is not perfect, and is subject to the consequences of sin, so Paul takes no chances. He asks that Philemon would receive Onesimus as though he were receiving himself, that in Onesimus he would find Paul's own heart. Though Paul had already given Philemon plenty of reason to accede to his desire out of obligation, Paul wanted Philemon to do so willingly.
And, though Paul had the right to keep Onesimus, he was sending him home to Philemon's mercy. He would not think to keep Onesimus without Philemon's personal request, though it would be very useful for Onesimus to stay with Paul. One can imagine how Paul's state of house arrest would be assisted by Onesimus' presence.
For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever; 16Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord?
Sometimes we tend to be a bit short-sighted when we observe events in our lives, recognizing only that which pertains to our own desires or purposes, unaware of God's purpose. We know that God uses all of the experiences of the faithful for His good purpose (Rom. 8:28-29), but forget its application is in all of life. Paul does not make that error. Rather than see the runaway at personal fault, he describes Onesimus act as "departing for a season", for a short period of time so that as a result, Philemon might have him in fellowship forever. This farsighted viewpoint would certainly be hard for Philemon to argue about.
As Onesimus returns to Philemon, he returns as his slave. However, the relationship they now have is greater than that. First of all, rather than referring to Onesimus as a slave, he uses the word for servant: a slave by choice, a bond-slave. Onesimus now comes to Philemon by choice, to serve him rather than to simply be owned by him. This is a significant difference in the owner-slave relationship. Paul desires that Philemon will make this first step in the relationship.
Then, Paul asks Philemon to also accept him as a brother in Christ, a brother who is loved by Paul. This again changes the relationship between owner and slave. There would be typically no such a Godly, loving relationship, and now Philemon is presented with one. And, since Philemon already had a close relationship with Onesimus prior to his departure, how much closer could that relationship be when Onesimus returns a loved brother in Christ?
This example of Onesimus makes it extremely clear that the "ground is level at the foot of the cross." There is never any place for stratification within the church. People are never in a position to lord it over one another, since Jesus is the only Lord in the church. We are all lost people in need of a Savior, and upon knowing Him, we all are dependent upon Him.
I pleasantly recall my remembrances of Faith Baptist Church in Kaiserslautern-Einsiedlerhoff, Germany. I was stationed in Germany from 1973 - 1975. During our stay, we were led to this body of believers, a body that was made up of a population that was about ten percent German, and ninety percent American. Services were in English. Almost all of the American men in the church were also members of the various branches of the US military, holding various ranks and positions. However, nobody ever spoke of their military positions while in the fellowship, and rarely was a military uniform seen. Consequently, nobody really knew (or cared) about the rank of other church members. After serving in various leadership capacities, I inadvertently wore my uniform to a service when several exclaimed amazement that I was a staff-sergeant. They all assumed I was an officer. That story simply illustrates a successful application of the equality we all have in Christ. Rank means everything within the body of the military, but military rank means nothing in the body of Christ. The church was a pleasant respite from the dogma of rank and file. Likewise, the church should be a respite from that same worldly dogma that stratifies people into groups. There is only one group in the church: believers.
If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself. 18If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account; 19I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it: albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides.
Paul closes his argument with a plea for Christian fellowship with Onesimus. Paul uses the word, kiononos, to describe the partner relationship he has with Philemon, a word that is also formed as kiononia, or fellowship. Therefore, he is not referring to their relationship as business partners, or friendship partners, but partners in the fellowship of the body of Christ. It is possible that Onesimus stole something of value from Philemon when he ran away, and Paul asks that he be allowed to pay the debt for Onesimus so that encumbrance would not stand in the way of their reunion. To emphasize how important this is to Paul, he notes that he wrote this letter with his own hand instead of using an amenuensis, or secretary, as he usually did. By writing with his own hand, the letter is a legal document, and his offer to repay the debt is legal and binding. Paul then goes on to remind Philemon of the debt he already owes to Paul for bringing him to Christ.
Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord: refresh my bowels in the Lord. 21Having confidence in thy obedience I wrote unto thee, knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say. 22But withal prepare me also a lodging: for I trust that through your prayers I shall be given unto you.
There has been no hiding Paul's concern for the nature of the reunion of Philemon and Onesimus. Paul states that he has confidence that Philemon will "do the right thing." It is often hard for Christians to make spiritually correct decisions when they are so overwhelmed by things of the world. Certainly, the culture within which Paul and Philemon lived had some very well-defined responses to the transgression of Onesimus. These would certainly be the first responses to come to the mind of any slaveowner, and Philemon would be no exception. So, Paul, having described the spiritual response to this event, encourages Philemon to follow it by expressing his confidence in him. He goes on to state that he believes that, if Philemon truly understands what Paul is writing, he will do more than just accept Onesimus, but will go beyond that, establishing a relationship with him as an equal. Paul never comes out and states that Philemon should release Onesimus from bondage, but this statement comes pretty close to doing so.
Paul is still not done in his defense of Onesimus. Of course, Paul has no idea of his future in Rome. Secular historical documents record that Paul died while under Roman incarceration, executed by an order from the Caesar. Paul never got to leave Rome, but he clearly planned to. Paul promised to come by and visit with Philemon upon his release, and adjoured Philemon to pray to that end. Certinaly, should Paul come by for a visit, he would find out, first-hand, what Philemon's response to the letter would be. Paul, by his offer to visit, provides some level of accountability to Philemon's decision.
There salute thee Epaphras, my fellowprisoner in Christ Jesus; 24Marcus, Aristarchus, Demas, Lucas, my fellowlabourers. 25The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.
Paul brings the letter to an end by sending greetings also from several of those who are with him. This is the same list that Paul presents in Colossians 4:10-14, implying that the letters were written about the same time, and placing their writing in Rome. Finally, Paul closes with the word, Grace, charis. Perhaps Philemon would be reminded of the grace that God has demonstrated for him, and so will demonstrate that same grace to Onesimus.
Because of the grace God has given each of us, likewise we have no choice but to be graceful to one another. There is no place for stratification or prejudice in the body of Christ. Just as the worldly culture would separate Onesimus and Philemon, this worldly culture separates people. We are not bond and free, but we are black and white, male and female, rich and poor, etc. However, these distinctions have no place in the body of Christ, for in Him we are one body, sharing one Spirit and called to one purpose: to love God, and love one another.