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Home > Online Magazine > Online Magazine: Edition 49 - October/November 2012 > The Letter to Philemon (by Norman Tew)

The Letter to Philemon

by Norman Tew

The Letter to Philemon ---  Thoughts from a personal letter almost 2,000 years old.

What relevance does a personal letter about a runaway slave have for Christians today?

I find it interesting that though I am sure slavery was not God's plan and is abhorrent to him, and the principles of the Bible would condemn it, yet the Bible does not forbid it.

The laws of Moses make provision for slavery (Maybe to make it more humane).  Jesus and Paul accepted it as a fact of life and did not speak against it.

If you have a modern translation or paraphrase of this letter then perhaps you should read it through before going any further in this article, so that you have an overview of what this letter is all about.

Maybe we should look at the background.  Philemon lived in Colossae, which was in what is now Turkey, not far from the 7 churches that are mentioned in Revelation.

How or why Onesimus ran away we do not know.  When he became a Christian is also not known, maybe he found Paul (remembering him from when he was in Colossae), or maybe he became a Christian first and then looked up Paul.  I tend to favour the idea that he somehow found Paul in Rome and was then converted because Paul calls Onesimus his child, and in other places he uses that term for his converts.  It is obvious from what Paul says that Onesimus served Paul while he was in Rome.

But first let us look at the letter as a whole.  Did Paul expect this to be read publicly?  Was it a breach of confidence to include it in the collection of general letters that we now call the New Testament?  Although it is a personal letter to Philemon, Paul includes his fellow worker Timothy in the introduction and addresses it not only to Philemon but also to Apphia and Archippus.  Who were they?  Again we do not know, though it is probable that they were Philemon's wife and son we cannot be sure.  Notice that it is also addressed "to the church in your house".  So Paul expected it to be read publicly to friends of Philemon.

What was "the church in your house"?  Does it just mean Philemon's household?  Or was his home a meeting place for other Christians?  The consensus is that in the early days of the Christian church meetings were held in the homes of those with big enough houses to accommodate meetings.

Another interesting thing is that 40% of the letter is greetings and closing words; only just over half is the message.  It is also interesting to compare the introduction and closing greetings with the similar parts of the letters Paul addressed to whole churches such as the ones to the church at Thessalonica that we now call first and second Thessalonians.

After the opening greetings Paul gets down to the business of the letter.  He comes at it diplomatically in an indirect manner.  He suggests that he has a right to command in the name of Jesus but he would rather ask in love.  It is also interesting that in the Greek Paul manages to get the name of Onesimus as the last word in the sentence, though this is not true in the King James Version, in the Message paraphrase this is cleverly done.

Since Onesimus travelled with the letter it is probable that Philemon may have had an idea of the contents of the letter. But Paul is diplomatic.  First Paul looks to the past and starts with a pun. for Onesimus means useful. And Paul writes that formerly he was useless to you but now is "useful to both to you and to me".

Some commentators see in the "but now" in this sentence a possible rebuke to Philemon that he had failed to introduce his slaves to Christ.

In one way he is thanking Philemon for the unconscious gift he had given to Paul for the services that Onesimus had rendered to Paul in Rome. But Paul says he did not wish to have that service from Philemon via Onesimus without Philemon's consent.

Paul then says that Philemon should take Onesius back as "more than a slave, a beloved brother".  This raises a big question.  Is Paul really saying that Philemon should give Onesimus his freedom?

At this time it is estimated that for every freeman in the Roman empire there were three slaves.  And some of these slaves were what we would today consider professionals.  So where would Onesimus fit into society in he were a freeman?   It did happen that ex-slaves when freed still retained a free servant status with their former owner.

Then Paul applies some personal pressure, and says that Philemon was owing Paul for "his own self".

How did Philemon owe Paul even his own self?  Was there some physical rescue that Paul did or is he talking of spiritual saving.

Paul then takes any debts that Onesimus owed to Philemon as personally his.  Paul was acting as Christ acted when he took our debts against God.

Paul comments that he was writing (this section at least) with his own hand, making his pledge of repayment very personal.  It is thought that Paul may have suffered from deficient eye sight.  It seems that most of his letters were written by a scribe, but he usually appended a few words in his own hand as a certification of the authenticity of the letter (There is a hint in 2nd Thessalonians that other letters were being circulated that were forgeries).

So we come to the end greetings.  Paul expressed a hope to come and visit when he was free from prison. Did Paul ever come back and visit again?  We do not know for sure.

The names at the end of the letter are also interesting.

So again what relevance does a personal letter about a runaway slave have for Christians today?

It is really about the attitude of a Christian to all others.  Whether they be friends, superiors or inferiors or whoever we come into contact with in our daily lives.

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