The Epistle to Philemon is a private letter written by the Apostle Paul. Along with the letter, Paul is sending Onesimus, a slave who ran away, back to Philemon. This letter appeals to Philemon to take the right action and free Onesimus, but it speaks volumes to us today about how to live our daily lives.
- Paul wrote the letter to the Philemon during his first Roman imprisonment around 60-62 AD. This letter is being carried to by a man named Tychicus.
- Tychicus is also carrying the letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians. Traveling with Tychicus is Onesimus who is the escaped slave mentioned in Philemon.
- This letter is an appeal to Philemon to open his heart and free Onesimus.
- Paul opened the letter by telling Philemon how he is grateful to God for the evidence of faith he sees in the Philemon’s life.
- He prayed that Philemon’s faith would continue to make a difference in his life, especially as he faces this test Paul is about to ask of him.
- As an apostle, Paul has the authority to command Philemon to show Onesimus mercy, but he appeals to Philemon to do the right thing of his own free will.
- Paul says he does not presume that Onesimus ran to him in order to become his friend and brother, because maybe God intends Onesimus to become Philemon’s friend and brother instead.
- Paul typically dictated his letters to a scribe. In Philemon 1:19 he writes with his own hand to make his promise to repay Onesimus’s debt binding.
- In Philemon 1:20, Paul is appealing to Philemon to honor Paul as he would a father and relieve his anxiety over Onesimus’s fate.
- Paul doesn’t explicitly ask Philemon to free Onesimus but he strongly suggests it in 1:17 and 1:21.
- Assuming Philemon responded with mercy, all three of these men are willing to do the right thing despite great personal cost.
- Onesimus voluntarily returns to Philemon because he believes it is the right thing to do.
- Onesimus takes great personal risk to return. Upon arriving, not only could he be returning to a life of slavery, he could be beaten, maimed or killed.
- Paul would rather have Onesimus risk his life to do what is right than protect him from possible harm.
- Paul would rather have voluntary obedience than external results; thus he refrains from commanding Philemon do the right thing.
- Paul is prepared to pay Onesimus’s debt (which could be considerable) if it will help Philemon be generous and merciful.
- Freeing a slave means Philemon must now pay a salary for the work, which would be costly over many years.
- Assuming Philemon responded with mercy, all three of these men voluntarily do the right thing despite great personal cost.
- Paul, Onesimus and Philemon had to respond to a specific situation in which they found themselves. If it weren’t for this letter, we would never know about their choices. They did not act for show or spectacle. Rather they were called to be obedient in a particular circumstance.
Why doesn’t Paul condemn slavery?
- I think Paul had no expectation that any human society or institution could be morally pure – apart from the grace of God. His condemnation will make no difference.
- Slavery in Rome did not end through revolution or political activism. It ended as more people came to faith in the gospel and repented of the evil of slavery.
Application: How to be a hero
- We need to value doing the right thing so highly that we are willing to pay whatever the cost.
- Our primary goal should not be to reform society and its institutions, but rather to persuade individuals to come to faith in God.
- The “politics” of the gospel is the politics of heroism. We impact our culture by doing the right thing, especially when it costs me.
- There’s no value in grandstanding. The Lord does not require big sacrifice for the sake of big sacrifice.