Colossae was a bustling city in Phrygia, in the southwest region of Asia Minor. In the time of the apostles it had seen its better days. Once famed for its soft wool and colorful dyes, commercial competition had muted its influence.
There was a church there, perhaps established by Epaphras (Colossians 1:2; 4:12). The saints met in the home of a man named Philemon, who was a convert of Paul’s on some earlier occasion (Philemon 19). Apparently Philemon was well-to-do, for his home was large enough to accommodate the church assemblies, and he was a slave owner.
Herein lies the crux of this charming book. Onesimus, a slave belonging to Philemon, had fled from his master, possibly stealing money in the process (vv. 18-19). The fugitive made his way to Rome, one thousand miles to the west (via land). There he came in contact with Paul, who was under house arrest awaiting the disposition of his case before Caesar (Acts 28:16). Though Onesimus proved helpful to the apostle, a decision eventually was made that he should return to his master. Thus, in the company of Tychicus (cf. Colossians 4:7-9), Onesimus would depart for Colossae, bearing this letter—Paul’s briefest and most personal epistle.
Though this little book is only twenty-five verses in the English Bible, it is packed with abiding truths so needed in our modern world. Let us consider several of these:
The letter to Philemon is a brilliant affirmation of Christian ethics. Both Paul and Onesimus were convinced that the right thing to do was for the latter to return to his master, making right the earlier wrongs. This may seem strange to the modern mind—return an escaped slave?! But slavery was a longstanding, legal institution in that age, and Christians were to respect laws pertaining to such until a better day should dawn. Thus they did not initiate an attempt to violently overthrow the practice of human bondage; they did not march in the streets in emotional protest. They would simply live Christian lives and wait for the leavening teaching of Christ to work its power.
Moreover, to these godly men the issue was not: “What is the safest thing to do?” Nor: “What is best for us?” Rather, it was: “What is the right thing to do?” This was character!
The document is a tremendous tribute to courage. Onesimus was a relatively recent convert, but his passion for doing right was tremendous. Consider the fact that the owner of a slave had complete control over his “property.” He could whip him or kill him at his own pleasure. A runaway could be branded on his forehead with an “F”—for fugitivus, a fugitive! Onesimus had no certain knowledge as to his fate, but he forged ahead anyway. That was bravery!
The book is unique for the social impact it has exercised. It has been said that no document in the history of the world has so altered humanity’s attitude toward the institution of slavery as has this letter. Paul urged Philemon to receive Onesimus “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, [as] a brother beloved” (v. 16). When a man treats others as “beloved” kinsmen, the master-owner relationship fades into oblivion, regardless of the legal sanction. This caliber of Christian “leaven” was precisely that which eventually called for formal emancipation.
Law keeps a man in check (1 Timothy 1:9); the gospel changes his heart. In the fourth century A.D., particularly under the influence of Constantine, the emancipation of slaves became an accelerating phenomenon. Even the crusty old skeptic Bertrand Russell acknowledged that Christianity paved the way for slavery’s demise (1950, 137).
The Providence of God
This epistle is a thrilling affirmation of the reality that the providence of God may be working in circumstances of which we have not dreamed. Paul cautions Philemon that “perhaps [Onesimus] was separated from you for a season, that you might have him forever” (v. 15). While the apostle could not say for certain that God had orchestrated at least some of these events that had worked out so wonderfully—for him, for Onesimus, and presently for Philemon as well—the situation appeared to have divine “fingerprints” all over it.
The passive voice form, “was separated,” hints of an action initiated by someone other than the runaway himself. Noted scholar F. F. Bruce suggested that the agent implied by the passive “is God.” How Heaven is able to orchestrate human events while honoring man’s freedom of choice is a mystery that no person can fathom.
Persuasion Versus Power
This beautiful letter is a masterful example of the art of gentle persuasion, as opposed to the stiff force of authority. It is a psychological masterpiece—in the best use of that term. Paul does not wish to flex his apostolic muscle, but he does intend to “nudge” Philemon in the right direction.
The following words would be like a burning coal in Philemon’s heart:
So if you consider me your partner, receive [Onesimus] as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self (vv. 17-19 ESV).
This clearly indicates that at some point in the past, Paul had been instrumental in leading Philemon to the Lord—not that the apostle would press the point!
“Could you not grant me a small concession in view of—well, never mind.” Add to this the fact that the apostle tells his friend that, God willing, he plans to visit him soon: “Get my room ready” (v. 22). That’s a pressure point!
Always Seeking the Lost
The letter to Philemon admonishes us to remember the power of evangelism. Onesimus was a native of Phrygia (Colossians 4:9). The slaves of Phrygia had a particularly nasty reputation. It was proverbial to suggest that Phrygian slaves grew better with beatings. In Onesimus, however, Paul saw not a worthless cause, but a potential servant of Christ, and he was not disappointed. The gospel can work its power in any heart that is honest, regardless of one’s jaded background.
The Long View
Finally, this little epistle packs a thrilling eschatological message. By “eschatology” we mean a fact pertaining to last things—eternal issues. There is some indication that Philemon had affection for Onesimus in spite of what his servant had done. As indicated earlier, there are words of comfort in the possibility of a providential action in this seemingly unfortunate set of circumstances.
“Perhaps he was separated from you for a season, that you might have him forever” (v. 15). The key is that word “forever.” It implies that:
- now that Onesimus is a Christian, a “beloved brother,” these two will enjoy an entirely different relationship with one another;
- that the relationship is not merely one of time, but of eternity;
- and their familiar relationship (one of recognition) will endure beyond the temporal aspects of earth’s environment.
Spiritual relationships are not destroyed by death! What a thrilling piece of evidence in the case for post-earthly recognition.
It may be the case that Bible students have neglected the book of Philemon to their detriment. It is a joyous document. Study it and be enriched thereby.