Philemon

This is exciting, I always find the letters of Paul so thought provoking and engaging and this letter does not disappoint. Even though it is the shortest letter Paul wrote, it is quite explosive and tactfully written in a personalised light hearted tone. It concerns the escape of a slave from his master seeking a better life for himself, who in fact finds Christ and wishes to return to his master as an equal and he does. 

Philemon is a unique letter from Paul, as it is the only personally addressed letter to someone, from Paul in existence. And that someone is, his brother in Christ Philemon who is believed to have started the Church at Colossae. It is commonly thought and agreed that Philemon was most probably converted to Christianity by Paul in his period of ministry in Ephesus.

Regardless though, Philemon was a wealthy slave owner and well-respected and committed Christian, who helped establish the Church of Colossae in his own house, freely opening his home up to all people around him including slaves to attend and participate in worship together. Now we mention slaves, as this letter is in respect to the forgiving of a slave, who ran away from Philemon, named Onesimus.

Now before you judge Philemon, it is important to realise that slave ownership in this period of the first century was common and it was not based off culture like the history in America. The majority of slaves in the New testament were spoils of war and all kinds of people of the Roman Empire as such, became slaves. Some individuals even sold themselves into slavery to pay off debts.

Did you know, more than two thirds of the Roman Empire were slaves in the first century, however the number rapidly decreased as a direct influence of Christian ideals taking hold in the pagan society.

Believe it or not, Roman Masters of slaves, usually treated their slaves with a measure of Respect, with many slaves holding responsible positions in their master’s households. However, as expected slaves where on the bottom rung of the social ladder and were their masters, to do with, what they saw fit.

Ephesians 6:5-9, gives us an insight to these Christian ideals of slavery as it was a common way of life in those days. This passage in Ephesians instructs both slaves and their masters.

Summarising it for you, it tells slaves to serve their masters with Obedience, as that you would serve the lord. It tells slaves to serve with hope in the lord for blessings and that master’s should treat slaves with sincerity, not violence and to remember that God will judge both slaves and master the same.

I cannot help but think this teaching can be applied to our lives also in service to God. Live with obedience to Christ, serve and work in life in hope of the blessing promised by Christ and serve with sincerity, compassion. As there will be a day of judgement.

Can I ask, do you see different statuses in todays church?

Importantly, the early church recognised no difference in status between a slave and master and as such they all sat in assemblies (church) together listening and preaching the word of God, with slaves free to serve as elders of the church. This is what would have been happening in the church of Colossae. Philemon homes.

Also at this time, Paul as we know was in Prison in Rome. He was under house arrest and was in the frequent company of a visiting Timothy. Paul whilst in prison was allowed to be active in receiving visitors and writing and receiving correspondence.

It is at this time, we believe a male known as Onesimus actively sought out Paul. I say this with confidence as Paul was under house arrest, apart from being easy to find, Paul was not in the position to wander around the country seeking people out.

The word of God was though.

I wonder If this is what captured the attention of Onesimus?

Was Onesimus seeking answers to life? He was definitely seeking a better life. He was a fugitive in a strange land. The last place you think you would find him was hanging out with a Roman Prisoner.

Regardless we understand that Onesimus decided to seek out Paul for reasons known only to him. However, we can be certain a mustard seed was planted somehow. So through his action, he found Paul and in finding Paul, Onesimus found comfort, peace, and life. As such, Onesimus stayed with Paul for a while learning of Christ and becoming a Christian.

I’m sure we all agree that people knew of Paul and his teachings and if people wanted to see and speak to Paul, all they had to do was simply go to him and knock on his door.

I wonder does this sound similar to the world and God today? We all know of Jesus Christ, We all have questions, yet only some choose to seek him out and knock on his door. For those that do, we too also find Peace, comfort and life.

Anyway, Onesimus as we know is a runaway slave belonging to Philemon and he was not only a runaway slave, he is believed to have stolen something from Philemon of great value and owed a great debt to him.

This action by a slave in this period of time was serious and punishable by death.

We discover through this letter to Philemon, that Onesimus had now, become a Christian through finding and learning off Paul and had become very useful to Paul and his ministry in Rome.

Before we move on, can you start to appreciate the design here in Gods work.

Like the book of Ruth shows us, God has a plan for each of us and he is in control, working in our lives. The fact that Onesimus left Colossae as a wanted man on the run, only to end up in Rome, finding Paul under house arrest and converting to Christianity to return to Colossae shows Gods plans for us are unexpected and great and he uses us to fulfill his works.

It offers us comfort, ensuring us that God plans are always alive and working in the world though his people, even runaway slaves, as God is Sovereign no matter how dire the circumstances.

Reflect and take comfort in that.  Especially now during this Coronavirus Pandemic.

Like I heard on one news channel, recently, Self-isolation laws with the help of technology, have resulted in church going from being isolated to a few behind closed doors, inside a Building every Sunday morning, to,  into the homes of its members and family, more open and available to more people on the internet.

Before the pandemic, church at home was given little thought and would have been regarded as folly as we have these great buildings to use. It has opened so many more people up to the Good News.

Christianity at this time, as evident in Paul’s imprisonment was seen as antagonistic to the Jewish and Roman people’s way of life. Christians today if I am honest, are also viewed by the world around us as antagonistic.

But why? Is it because Christianity requires an honest personal conversation with our creator, God. knowingly aware that we may not like the answer we receive?

This question will soon be one that becomes relevant to Philemon.

We are born sinners and have a natural desire for selfishness and pride. We are born thinking we are deserving of more and that we are always justified in our actions. For this reason, our redemption in Christ is so important.

Now back to the letter, it is obvious to us that Paul, wished to Send Onesimus back to Philemon as he believes Onesimus is more needed in Colossae and would be useful to Philemon and the church there.

Paul was aware of the situation between Onesimus and Philemon and as such took a personal approached to helping the situation and encouraging Philemon to forgive Onesimus through the grace of God.

Paul’s letter starts, confirming what Philemon has more than likely already heard, in Pauls current imprisonment and situation as true. This not only causes Philemon to appreciate his current living environment and freedom preaching the good news of Jesus.

But it also highlights the sacrifices, we may have to undertake in following Gods will and provides a position of authority in the displayed confidence that Paul still keeps, in the faith and trust in Gods will.

Paul cements further proof that it is him, naming Timothy as being with him as well as personally greeting his believed wife, Apphia and Philemon’s son, Archippus who Paul describes as our fellow soldier in Christ. This speaks of a bond and personal connection between the two.

Almost suggesting to us, they have spoken of Archippus’s future role in the church at Colossae which they both hold in high regard.

Philemon would no doubt of taken this opening as very personal proof it was from in fact Paul and it would have ensured his attention.

Paul, then writes a thanksgiving and Prayer to Philemon. Singling [AR1] out Philemon’s personal actions and his faith in Christ by stating, “I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your faith in the lord Jesus and your love for all the saints.”  

This sentence would have been joyful to read. It would have been highly encouraging for Philemon, that the inspiring apostle, Paul acknowledged Philemon was on the right track and doing the right thing. We all love and appreciate encouragement.

Paul then prays for Philemon to be active in sharing his faith, to assist his own learning and knowledge of the Goodness of God.

The Scripture states, I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ.

The Key word here is Partnership, in Greek the word for partnership is KOINONIA. It means sharing and mutual participation. When two or more people receive something and share in it together becoming partners.

Paul is informing Philemon that as Partners in Christ, all Christians share and participate in the gifts of Gods love and grace. For Paul, the experience of a partnership is more than something that is a describing word or something that you think about. It is something you do with action in your relationships.

Paul is setting up to challenge Philemon’s development and maturing with further action to enable spiritual growth by linking his strong Christian beliefs.

Paul encourages Philemon to continue to seek challenging actions of faith by linking Philemon’s known works of love and how they have reached the ears of Paul and the others in Rome and in fact brought Joy and encouragement like fresh air to them and are as such, seen as blessings.

Paul in this next section of the letter, knowing he has Philemon on the right frame of mind, presents Philemon’s next challenge for him, in his maturing faith in Christ. Paul at this time, offers Philemon the free will, to decide for himself the correct response to a request he has.

Paul appeals to Philemon through love and the partnership he has in Christ to all Christians, when he knows full well that he could just order Philemon to do something. However, he is hoping that the shared partnership in Christ, will influence Philemon’s decision and God Guided action.

Through word play, Paul presents his appeal to Philemon. That he is sending Onesimus back to Philemon and is seeking Philemon to forgive him and welcome him back into his Colossian home for good, as a brother of Christ. As an equal and no longer a slave. To welcome him as if he were welcoming Paul himself.

The word play here is in Onesimus name, Onesimus means helpful or useful. Paul writes in verse 11, Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful to both you and to me. Paul then ads some light heartedness as he quite seriously mentions in verse 15, “Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while, was that you might have him back for good, no longer as a slave but better than a slave as a dear brother.”

I note the irony of Paul hinting to the possibility that this was and is part of Gods plan.

This appeal is huge and surely would have given Philemon some serious thought. Paul on the behalf of Onesimus the slave that robbed him before escaping was not just seeking forgiveness, he was seeking a loving reception by Philemon as a brother of Paul, a brother of Christ and a brother in Philemon.

Recognising themselves all in a partnership with Christs love.

This appeal, this moment is centre stage of this story.

We see Grace and the Law, go head to head.

Both the Roman law and the Mosaic Law of the Old Testament give Philemon the right to punish a runaway slave.

Philemon could have killed Onesimus and he who have been lawfully correct. Just like two positives can’t make a minus, Philemon was being asked to do something people would see in this time as absurd.

But don’t forget as mentioned earlier, the love and Grace of Jesus Christ was already on display and at work in his church.

We see it encouraged master and slave to fellowship as equals, through their love of Christ reflected as love for each other as brothers in Christ. As partners together in action for Gods love under the one roof with no segregation. All equal under the eyes of God.

Paul knowing the huge decision he was intrusting Philemon to make, and the potential for human concerns to distract him from Gods grace, further informed Philemon to charge any debts to him and he will carry the burden and take it on in the aid of redeeming Onesimus.

Of note, it is unknown what Onesimus stole, however through google, we can discover that a slave in 70AD around the same time as this letter was written, a Roman Empire slave sold for approximately 625 denarii which is equivalent to $49,350 Australian dollars in today’s society.

So the human concern for money would have been a hurdle anticipated by Paul. However, Paul politely reminds Philemon that he owes Paul his life for saving him through bringing him to Christ.

Paul encourages Philemon in making the right decision with the love of Christ on his mind and his faithful obedience to the teachings of Christ shows confidence and faith in Philemon that he will do as Paul asks and more. 

Paul finishes the letter asking to prepare a place for him in hope of visiting soon before giving some greetings from those around him, including one of them being Luke the believed writer of the Gospel of Luke and Acts.

The Letter ends with a benediction, the grace of the lord Jesus Christ be with you in Spirit, reminding Philemon the Spirit resides him and all Christians. And the kicker, Onesimus would have been there physically as he was delivering the letter.

Of note, this is the only letter of Paul, that he does not mention the Death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, yet it is still present. As Paul demonstrates it by action.

By offering himself in the place of Onesimus, so Philemon and Onesimus can be reconciled to god and to each other.

Paul offers himself in the place of Onesimus to redeem him. Even reminding Philemon, that without him, death is reality.

Paul was playing the role of Jesus, who reconciled us to God so we too can return home to the kingdom of heaven.  

Paul was passionate about this with another example using Jesus he wrote in Ephesians 1:7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace. It is so encouraging and comforting to know God loves us and has redeemed us to save us from the judgment of death.

The letter of Philemon is one forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation combined with the ability of another member of Christ family interceding and mediating to bring peace through realising we are all in a partnership and equal before God.

A key learning of this letter for us is the battle of forgiveness. And the answer is found by looking to and focusing on the life of Christ which is alive in us. All of us in an active partnership with each other and Christ, because of Gods Love and grace.

We take this teaching into our modern world of self-focus and indulgence. We are not to use others as stepping stones for our own glory or for our career benefits. We are not to treat our brothers and sisters in Christ with anything, but the love and Grace Christ showed to us.

By reading the letter, we understand the importance of prayer for the active sharing and participation of our faith in the world and the love and joy that it will bring for each of us and our almighty father in heaven.

We see, God working through the life of a slave, escaping then wanting to return… an imprisoned Apostle and a free wealthy Christian slave owner. Who would have thought that. God works in mysterious ways, always for his glory.

The best way to see God working in your life and those around you is, to see life through the eyes of faith. Philemon accepted the challenge as did Paul. Will you?

Next time you pray, ask God with conviction to open your eyes to faith so you can see his works and work in partnership with him and those around you.