Now we come to the last letter of Paul in the New Testament. It’s not the last letter chronologically: That would be 2 Timothy. But since we’ve gone through much of the material in 2 Timothy in other studies, I wanted to use the limited time we have to spend just one day on this.
First, let’s have some background. Paul was still in prison (under house arrest), the same place from which he wrote Philippians and Colossians. In fact, it’s highly likely that he sent this short letter along with Tychicus, who was also the courier for the letter to the church at Colossae.
This is what we can gather from this letter and from Colossians. Philemon was a wealthy citizen of Colossae, and at some earlier point Paul had met him and had led him to faith in Christ. Philemon had a slave named Onesimus, which means “useful” (a common name for a slave). Onesimus stole some money from his master and ran away to Rome. Through circumstances not recorded in Scripture, he ended up in prison and met Paul.
Paul had gotten to know him, had become close friends with him, and had led him to Christ as well. Onesimus had been a huge help and comfort to Paul in prison, and Paul’s natural desire was to keep Onesimus with him to continue helping him. But. . . Onesimus had stolen money and had ran away, which was highly illegal, to say the least. So Paul was sending him back to his old master, asking Onesimus to submit himself. This was quite a risk, because the penalties for an escaped slave were incredibly harsh: The common means of punishment was branding the slave’s face, cutting his tendon in order permanently cripple him, or torture him to death. You remember that citizens were exempt from crucifixion as a punishment? It was reserved for the basest of criminals, rebels against Roman authority, and for slaves.
So Paul sent him back along with this letter.
The point here was to appeal to Philemon not only to forgive Onesimus but to treat him as a brother in Christ. Ideally, he’d like Philemon to voluntarily send Onesimus back to Paul. Not to detract one iota from the inspiration of the Spirit, but humanly speaking this letter is a masterpiece in persuasion.
Paul started his letter off with calling himself merely a “prisoner of Christ Jesus.” Notice that he doesn’t invoke his apostolic authority, like he did with the book of Romans and 1 Corinthians and Galatians. No, this is a personal appeal to a dear friend. He’s not telling him to do anything; he’s gently pleading.
Notice the pattern in this letter: “You know, I could order you to do this. I’m the one who led you to Christ, so you owe me more than you could ever repay. Also, ‘in Christ’ I could order you as an apostle. I could also order you to love him as your brother, since Christ commanded us to love each other like he loved us. But I don’t want to do that. You’re a dear friend, a brother in Christ, and partner in sharing the Good News. So let’s not talk about obligations at all. Let’s talk about a favor for a friend.”
But even though he’s appealing to the bonds of friendship, he still just casually mentions some reasons for accountability here. He says in the first verse that this letter is supposed to be read in the church that met in their home, and Tychicus would know that it was supposed to be read to everyone there. On top of that, Paul also casually mentions that he’s planning on visiting Philemon soon, so he'd eventually get to see how Philemon treated Onesimus firsthand. So there was that. One of my favorite verses (hard to pick, obviously) is verse 21: “Confident of your obedience, I write to you. . .” In other words, “I just know that you’re going to do even more than I ask here.” So he’s gently twisting his arm.
Let’s talk for a moment about slavery. We did a two-day study regarding slavery, so I’m reluctant to spend much time on it here. To summarize what I said there, nowhere in Scripture does God forbid slavery per se. However, he placed such restrictions on it in the Torah so that if someone was really mistreated, they could leave their master at any time. Under God's explicit command, slavery as practiced in the United States could never have existed.
And it was portions of Scripture like this letter which eventually undermined it from the inside-out. Even under the harsh legal system of slavery in Rome, Paul called for Philemon to see Onesimus not as property, but as a dear brother in Christ. Not only that, but Paul the Apostle completely identified himself with Onesimus: “Welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.” How could you own your brother, like a piece of furniture or an animal? If your own brother wanted to leave your presence, would you keep him by force, with whips and chains and threats? And if Paul came for a visit--who personally led you to faith in Christ--how would you treat him?
Over time, abolitionists looked at their Bibles and found what was written there to be completely incompatible with slavery, no ifs, ands, or buts. They worked on both peoples’ hearts and the laws, but they realized that any real and lasting reform has to work from the inside-out; just changing the laws would never really change the system until enough people were changed.
And finally we have a wonderful picture of salvation. Like Onesimus, all of us were on the run from justice. All of us were slaves, belonging to a the harshest, cruelest master who ever was. But we met Someone. He declared us free. And when faced with the Father’s justice, he says “If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.”
Aren’t you glad?
Father God, what right do I have to hold anything against anyone? To not forgive? To answer that with “none at all” would be a massive understatement. Lord Jesus, what Paul said to Philemon, you said to the Father’s justice. Thank you so much. I owe you, well, everything.