The letter to Philemon is Paul’s shortest letter, but nevertheless has rich content. Philemon was a wealthy man from Colossae. As was customary at that time, he owned slaves as well. Philemon had been converted by Paul‘s preaching. One of his slaves, Onesimus, ran away and fled to Rome. Such an act resulted in capital punishment in the Roman Empire. But in Rome, Onesimus met Paul through God’s providence, which resulted in his conversion to Christianity. Onesimus served Paul very well in Rome, but Paul knew that Philemon was still entitled to his slave. Therefore, Paul sent Onesimus back to Colossae with an accompanying letter. This is the letter we can still read in the Bible.
First of all, Paul greets Philemon with the church in his house (Philemon 1:2-3) and thanks God for Philemon’s love and faith (Philemon 1:4-7). Next, Paul pleads on behalf of Onesimus. Paul asks Philemon to receive Onesimus again, not as a runaway slave who deserves punishment, but as a brother in the Lord: “For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother.” (Philemon 1:15-16).
Thus, the power of the gospel to change people’s lives appears in the conversion of Onesimus. Paul concludes his plea with an appeal to Philemon’s obedience and willingness: “Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.” (Philemon 1:21). The letter ends with the usual greetings and blessings (Philemon 1:23-25).
In this letter, Paul does not ask Philemon to grant Onesimus freedom. A sudden abolition of slavery would have disrupted the society of that time. However, it is obvious that the new Christian brotherhood relationship between slaves and masters eventually would make slavery impossible. “For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:26-28).
Lessons for us
- Forgive the one who has done harm to you
- Do not discriminate on the basis of social position
- All believers are brothers and sisters, one in the Lord Jesus Christ