By: Daniel Goepfrich
The Personal Letter
The short letter to Philemon is the most personal of all of Paul’s preserved writings. In his three decades of ministry, Paul certainly wrote many other short notes and personal letters, but God chose to preserve only this one for our benefit. Although nowhere does this letter give the location of Philemon, Colossians 4:7-18 provides a list of names almost identical to those in Philemon, including Philemon’s slave, Onesimus. It seems that Paul sent Tychicus and Onesimus back to Colossae from Rome with two letters – one for the whole church (Colossians) and one for Philemon.
The purpose of this letter was three-fold. First, because Onesimus had run away from Philemon (presumably having stolen something), Paul needed to return him to his rightful master (Philemon 12, 14). Regardless of our beliefs about slavery, this was the right thing for him to do, given the culture in which they lived. (The comment in Colossians 4:1 about how Christian masters should treat slaves is not coincidental.) Second, Paul wanted to vouch for Onesimus’ conversion to Christianity personally. He had been saved through Paul’s ministry while Paul was under house arrest in Rome (Philemon 10, 15-16; Acts 28:16, 30-31), and Paul insisted that he be the one to tell Philemon. (Philemon may not have believed Onesimus, thinking it was only an act to secure his pity.) Third, Paul wanted to ask for Philemon to pardon Onesimus for his crimes. Although Philemon owed Paul a great spiritual debt, Paul promised that he would personally repay Onesimus’ financial debt, should Philemon choose to pursue it (Philemon 18-19).
Many people have argued that Paul should have done something more to secure Onesimus’ freedom since slavery (in their minds, anyway) is wrong. Opponents of Christianity point to Paul’s silence and condemn the Scriptures for condoning slavery. In reality, Paul acted exactly as he should have in this matter. Slavery is never called a sin in Scripture and was often mutually beneficial to both the master and the slave, depending on the circumstances. The sin was always in how masters would treat their slaves, something that Paul clearly addressed both here and in Colossians 4:1, as well as in other letters. However, verse 21 is often overlooked though it contains an implication that Philemon should treat Onesimus far better than Roman law required. While we cannot say that Paul necessarily meant that Philemon should completely pardon and free Onesimus, the suggestion is certainly there, and Paul allowed the Holy Spirit to place that conviction on Philemon if that was what God wanted.
Thus, this brief letter demonstrates that even our social and economic decisions are to be ruled by biblical truth. It also provides an example of how believers can tactfully and lovingly point out truth and error to help our fellow believers live godly in this world.
Each Thursday DPH runs a Chapter-by-Chapter blog by Daniel Goepfrich, progressing readers chapter-by-chapter through the New Testament. This series is taken from New Testament Chapter-by-Chapter, published by Trust House Publishers, a division of DPH. Daniel serves as Pastor of Oak Tree Community Church in South Bend, Indiana, and blogs at www.TheologyIsForEveryone.com
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