The apostle Paul’s New Testament letter we recognize as Philemon, carries incredible impact for such a brief correspondence. Its messages are revolutionary and transformational. It is a deeply personal letter. It is all about a slave named Onesimus.
First let’s identify Philemon. He was likely a wealthy man due to slaves within his household. He was non-Jewish and known by Paul. He lived in a city named Colossae and obviously was a very crucial part of the church there since it met in his house.
Now, let’s briefly consider this church. It most probably was planted by a man named Epaphras (Colossians 1:7; 4:12; Philemon 23) and/or by Philemon himself. Either could have heard the gospel during Paul’s ministry stay in Ephesus and then returned home to Colossae to start the church. However it occurred, Philemon became a friend and co-worker of not only Epaphras but of Paul also.
Slavery in Ancient Rome
This brings us back to Onesimus. He was a slave owned by Philemon, thus making him a part of his household and subject to whatever jobs or duties Philemon chose. Slavery in the Roman context was not racially driven. Slaves could be any nationality. Many were losers in border wars in the ever-expanding Roman Empire. Some volunteered enslavement to pay off debt. Others were the product of generational slavery—the offspring of slaves. Numerous unfortunate pathways could take someone to the slave block in Rome. However Onesimus got there—he was there. He had extremely limited rights; was the sole property of and at the complete mercy (or often lack thereof) of his owner. His value lay in whatever he produced for his owner. The hope of buying himself out of slavery (a practice called “manumission”) existed, but only a small percentage of slaves were ever able to do so. Onesimus certainly benefited from having a Christian owner, but still a slave’s life in Rome was a slave’s life—it was not their own.
So Onesimus ran away from home and from Philemon (which was far from legal and put Onesimus in great danger if caught). He ran to Rome and eventually to Philemon’s friend Paul, who was himself imprisoned there. Influenced by Paul, Onesimus became a Christian and a significant aid to Paul (vss. 11-12). This then created a dilemma—what to do with the now-Christian runaway slave of a friend and brother?
Legally Paul could have been complicit in harboring Onesimus. It was a tricky situation. Paul’s answer? Suggest something quite revolutionary!
“ As a Dear Brother”
Paul’s solution to this dilemma on the surface sounds quite simple. He asked Philemon to accept Onesimus back not as a slave, “but better than a slave, as a dear brother…even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord” (vs. 15-16). This simple request, however, masked many complexities and certainly challenged Philemon to reconsider relationships in the Lord.
In the Roman context slaves were in no way socially equal to their owners. In no area of life did the barrier between slave and owner not exist. Slaves were property—no more, no less. An owner would never view a slave as his equal; never treat him like a brother. To do so would have been scandalous and no proper Roman would ever consider it for the briefest of moment.
Add to that the fact that Onesimus had cheated Philemon in some manner before he ran away. Perhaps he stole something on his way out or had been slack in performing his job. The specifics are not clear, but Paul recognizes the situation. Certainly Onesimus had briefed him on it.
So stop to consider what Paul is asking of Philemon—to not only receive back this slave who cheated him and ran away from him; but also to receive him back without penalty or punishment AND no longer as a slave but as a brother–an equal! What an incredible request!
On what basis could Paul request such a scandalous action? On something actually more scandalous—the cross of Christ! While not specifically mentioned, it underscores Paul’s reasoning to Philemon. First, it changed and redefined Onesimus just as it had Philemon. Onesimus was now a new man—from slave to free in Jesus; a son and dear brother to Paul and therefore to Philemon. Second, Christ was the very reason Paul and Philemon were friends and co-workers in the faith—now Onesimus shared in this partnership. Third, Paul was willing to pay the ransom (just as Christ had paid for all) for the transgression of Onesimus. “Charge it to me” says Paul (vs. 18). Paul put himself in the role of redeemer and reconciler–at least in regards to the wrong committed by Onesimus against Philemon.
This course of action recommended by Paul undermined all social norms and supported his call for a brand new community—one not bound by earthly constructs but defined by heavenly values. One he described to Philemon and the church that met in his house as:
Here there is no Greek or Jew; circumcised or uncircumcised; barbarian; Scythian; slave or free, but Christ is all and in all. (Colossians 3:11. See also Galatians 3:28)
Now was test time for Philemon. Could he live this out? Would he be courageous enough to put this to practice? Would he run the risk to his reputation and to his household to honor Paul’s revolutionary request? Could he ever see a slave as his equal in Christ?
Think about the transformational themes within the brief book:
These are among the hallmarks of the new community of Christ. This community exists to destroy the harmful, artificial, and oppressive culture of the world and replace it with a community of grace, justice and mercy–a community where all are equally welcome based upon freedom in Christ. Only through Christ can this ever be accomplished.
This still presents quite the challenge to our way of thinking. Christ levels the playing field. The same grace that saves me—saves everyone. I am in no way superior than anyone else. My relationship with others in Christ should trump all accepted social and cultural norms. Being ashamed of your sister or brother (Romans 1:16; Galatians 2:11) is not acceptable. In Christ we are all one—all equal— as slaves and other friends and brothers. That is the revolutionary nature of God’s community to which Philemon and us were called to live out.