A Devotional Journey
led by Dr. Gene Pearson
Thru the Bible in a Year
Philemon is so short that it barely takes a page in the New Testament.
It is a letter from Paul on behalf of a slave who has run away from a Christian slave owner. This is the only private letter (a letter not written to a group of Christians) which we have from Paul. He must have written otheres, but this one was preserved because it dealt with a critical issue in society.
Paul appeals to Philemon (a slave owner and Christian) to pardon Onesimus (a slave who's run away and become a Christian in Rome), for the capital offense of stealing from his owner and running away. Paul has providentially met this fugitive and through his ministry brought him to know Christ as Savior. So the letter assures Philemon that in fact the slave truly is converted and urges that upon his return, no further punishment be applied: “... welcome him as you would welcome me.”
The entire letter is a reminder of the complications in a slave system such as Rome for Christians who were both slaves and free men and women.
As William Barclay says in his commentary (the Daily Study Bible Series)
"What Christianity did was to introduce a new relationship between man and man, in which all external differences were abolished. Christians are one body whether Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free men (1 Corinthians 12:13). In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free man, male nor female (Galatians 3:28). In Christ there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free man (Colossians 3:11)."
Nothing could change the reality of Onesimus' circumstances: he was a slave and he'd run away; yet now he was also a brother in the Lord. Paul's purpose is not to speak about slavery -- a given in the Roman world. Rather, he is speaking about freedom: the freedom two brothers in Christ should have to relate in a spirit of mutual respect and love.
Because the human grades of society ceased to matter in the teachings of Christ, and because Christ's followers could no longer legitimately treat any person (servant or not) as a thing, but had to consider them all subjects for God's grace and potential (or actual) brothers and sisters in Christ, the practice of slavery could never be accepted, even if it had to be endured.
The letter to Philemon is private, sent by Paul to urge this Christian to receive back Onesimus, not as a pagan master would, but as a Christian receives a brother. It doesn't address all the issues of slavery or human inhumanity, but it's a beginning.
© A. Eugene Pearson