by: Denise Robinson
Small But Mighty: Philemon
We are in the middle of a sermon series called Small But Mighty, where we are looking at the five shortest books of the Bible. We are on a countdown which began with the fifth shortest, Jude, and then last week, the fourth, Obadiah. Now we come to Philemon, ranking at #3 with twenty-five verses and 335 words in the Greek text. In one respect, this little letter is unique because unlike Paul’s other letters which were written to churches and intended to be passed around and read, this one was private and dealt with an issue between two people. Undoubtedly Paul wrote numerous private letters, but only Philemon has survived. The letter is addressed to Philemon, who is identified as Paul’s dear friend and co-worker, although Paul also mentions by name Philemon’s wife, Apphia, and a man named Archippus, who was likely their son.
We don’t learn much about Philemon in the letter that bears his name, but Paul’s letters to the Colossians gives us more of the story. The letter describes Philemon, his wife, and his son as believers in Christ, and we learn that Philemon was the leader of a church that met in his home. He was likely a wealthy Christian in the city of Colossae, which is located in modern-day southwestern Turkey, wealthy enough to own a home large enough for church meetings – which most people did not – and to own at least one slave named Onesimus.
It’s that man – Onesimus – who is the object of the letter we are looking at today. Who was Onesimus? We are confronted almost immediately with why this little letter has been, and is still, considered controversial. Onesimus, we learn, was a runaway slave and perhaps a thief as well who had found his way to Rome and to Paul who was on house arrest awaiting trial, and he has become a Christian. The name Onesimus means “useful” or “profitable,” and in this letter, Paul hints that Onesimus has been useful to him. During his imprisonment Paul has been allowed to preach in Rome, but by now he is aging and suffers from various illnesses. We can’t be certain, but early church tradition tells us that Paul was nearly blind and possibly suffered from epilepsy. It seems that Onesimus and Paul have become close because in v. 10, Paul refers to him as his “child.” Despite his personal desire that Onesimus stay and help him, Paul wonders if Onesimus shouldn’t go back and make things right with Philemon. Paul’s hope is that Philemon will forgive and take Onesimus back into his home, not as a slave but as a brother in Christ.
This letter was likely written near the end of Paul’s house arrest in Rome and shortly before his execution, sometime between 60—62 AD. We don’t know how Paul knows Philemon, Paul apparently having never gone to Colossae, nor are we told how he meets Onesimus in Rome. Paul seems to know Philemon personally, rather than by reputation alone, so it’s possible that Philemon and Onesimus travelled to Rome together and Onesimus elected to remain behind. Onesimus may then have intentionally sought Paul out knowing of his faith and charity to those in need. But now Paul is asking Onesimus to return to slavery and depend upon Philemon’s good will. It’s a lot to ask, too much we might say. And yet, we need to remember that Paul has no way of enforcing his request. Paul is under arrest himself so has no means of forcing Onesimus to return; this is a request that the two of them likely discussed. Paul also knows Philemon, and must have some expectation that he will respond favorably to the letter.
Slavery was common in the Roman empire and Rome had very specific laws about how to treat runaway slaves, and thieves as well. Onesimus’ return will have implications for him and for Philemon. Society will expect Philemon to act according to law; on the other hand, he is a Christian and a leader in the church at Colossae, and how he treats another human being goes to the very heart of Christianity. Paul reminds Philemon that God has forgiven him and, in turn, the Christian faith dictates that he is to love and forgive as he has been forgiven. Paul encourages Philemon to welcome Onesimus just as he would welcome Paul. What will he do? What does this letter say and perhaps just as importantly, not say, for Philemon and for us?
Paul begins by giving thanks for Philemon’s love and faith, and he writes that he is making his appeal on Onesimus’ behalf on the basis of love. The word “love” here has several layers: God’s love for Philemon, Philemon’s love for God, Paul’s love for Philemon, and Philemon’s love for Paul. Paul is reminding Philemon of the gospel of love and the words of Jesus when he said, as recorded in John 13:34-35: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” One of the qualities of a redeemed life is love. We receive love, so that we can give love. It’s not a suggestion; it’s a command. This meant for Philemon, and means for us, that we are to love others as God loves us. We’ve all heard those simple words time and time again, but they are incredibly difficult to live out. It means we don't attach conditions to our love. What Paul is reminding Philemon is that love forgives.
After reminding Philemon of his obligation to love, Paul says, beginning in v 17: “So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it.” The law says that Philemon is right and society says he is above, better than, Onesimus; he has been wronged, there’s a price to pay, and Onesimus should be held accountable. But Paul writes and says if there’s a price he must pay, I will pay it. And, by the way, greet him not just as a brother, but as a beloved brother. Paul often writes that the greatest example of forgiveness was when Jesus died on the cross. As his last moment on earth drew near, Jesus said “Father forgive them.” Jesus had every right to be angry and every right to turn his back – but instead, he forgave. Paul was asking Philemon to forgive as he had been forgiven. Paul is reminding Philemon of the power of Christian forgiveness.
Finally, Paul ends his letter by reminding Philemon of the grace of Jesus Christ. The word "grace" means "favor." It is used in the New Testament to remind us that it is only by the generosity or favor of God that Jesus came to redeem or save us. It reminds us that we have received, and continue to receive, blessings from God: joys in this life and eternal life in the next. But if we live in God’s grace, we are expected to show God’s grace to others. Paul reminds Philemon that he can’t expect to enjoy the benefits of God’s grace if he takes those benefits away from another of God’s children, especially a fellow believer in Christ.
What meaning does this private letter, made public almost 2,000 years ago, have for us today? The themes of love, forgiveness, and grace are certainly as true for each of us as they were for Philemon. But as I struggled with this little letter over the past week, I think there is more to it than that. Paul, in his letters, speaks often of his belief that he, and we, are born slaves just like Onesimus. Due to our human nature, he repeatedly writes, we are born slaves to sin. In the book of Romans, Paul struggles with the fact that even after committing to following Christ he sins or misses the mark Christ has set for him – I do the very things I don’t want to do, he says. But as Paul also writes repeatedly in his letters, Jesus, through his death on the cross, sets us free from sin. When we come to Christ, as Onesimus was sent to come before Philemon, we are accepted no longer as slaves but as children of God and joint heirs with Christ. We come to God deserving death for our sin and Christ is there saying to God these words from Philemon: This is my beloved brother, my beloved sister; welcome him or her as you would welcome me. If he or she has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Jesus, have paid it.
For us today who struggle with this letter, why didn’t Paul come right out and condemn slavery? One easy answer might be that Paul lived in a world where slavery had always existed and he knew no different. Another easy answer might be that given he was under arrest himself he knew he was powerless to change a system. But I don’t think either of those are correct. Remember this was intended to be a private letter written to one person on behalf of another. But more importantly, if we look at what Paul wants Philemon to do, then it is obvious Paul’s message was that for Christians, slavery cannot exist. Behind the letter stands Paul’s conviction that in Christ we are part of a new creation in which there is no longer Greek or Jew, slave or free, male or female, only Christ who is all and in all. Paul offers a vision of a transformed community in Christ whose model of mutual love, unity, and peace serves as a counter to the political and social structures of the world. Paul envisions a Christian community living by different standards, guided by different expectations, and acting out of love.
If we consider Paul’s words in this letter and think of slavery in our country, had those who purported to be Christians clearly heard Paul’s message, slavery would have been a Christian impossibility. The same is true for racism, or any of the other “isms”, that exist today. We cannot accept another person as a beloved brother or sister and treat them as anything less than an equal. Our faith, in the end, commands us to be witnesses to the love, forgiveness, and grace of Christ.
We’re left with one question: What happened to Onesimus? We get an answer from the writings of Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch in Syria (Paul’s home church). When being taken to Rome for execution shortly before AD 110, Ignatius wrote that he was visited in Smyrna by the bishop of Ephesus who was – Onesimus. After the visit, Ignatius wrote a letter of thanks to the church of Ephesus and in it cites to language from the letter to Philemon. Onesimus, apparently a young man when Paul’s letter was written (remember Paul calls him his “child”), is, fifty years later, the head of the churches in Ephesus. This also explains the inclusion of this little letter in Scripture – it concerned two persons of importance in the early church – one in Colossae and the other in Ephesus – two Christians who began in very different places but became family because of faith in Christ.