Philemon: A Slave Set Free

In the ancient Roman world, if a person were placed in house arrest as Paul had been he could still receive visitors.  Think of it like a modern prisoner who wears an ankle bracelet that would alert the authorities if he were to leave his house; visitors can still come to your house, bring you things, and even stay awhile but you aren’t going to the movies, on that family vacation, or — in Paul’s case — to Spain to spread the gospel as he wished.

One day while the apostle Paul was under house arrest in Rome, a slave from Colossae (Col. 4:9) showed up at Paul’s front door.  Maybe he had run away from his master Philemon, or more likely he had been sent by his master to Paul with a message, supplies or money.  His name was Onesimus, a name that means “useful,” but ironically as a slave he was anything but (c.f., Phlm 10-11).

While Onesimus was in Paul’s house, the great apostle did what he did best: he shared the gospel with Onesimus and the slave became a Christian.  Now, in the new humanity, in Christ, where God does not see gender, race or social position (Col. 3:11), Onesimus was Philemon’s brother not his slave (Phlm 16).

I love how Paul’s point is driven home by the words he chose to use in this short letter (word frequency cloud done at Wordle.net in which larger words occur more often)

What would Philemon do now?  Paul was sending Onesimus back to Philemon and it is clear that Paul thinks his friend should release his slave from slavery and send Onesimus back to Paul to become one of the many missionaries that worked with Paul:

Because of all this I could be very bold in the king, and order you to do the right thing. . . . That way, when you did the splendid thing that the situation requires, it wouldn’t be under compulsion, but of your own free will. (Phlm 8, 14)

We don’t know how this situation turned out.  But Philemon is an excellent example of how the theological belief in a new creation was intended to have a significant effect on everyday relationships, as discussed yesterday.

One further historical question: how in the world did Bible-believing slave-owners and slave-traders in the nineteenth century ever read Philemon and think the institution of slavery was defensible?

What caught your eye in this tiny letter?

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5 thoughts on “Philemon: A Slave Set Free

  1. Pat

    What caught my eye this time is the hospitality that Philemon is known for.

    Verse 2: The church meets in their house. Verse 5 mentions his love for all the believers. Verse 17: Paul requests that Philemon welcome back Onesimus just as he would welcome Paul. So, obviously Philemon was a hospitable Christian. Verse 22: Paul requests that Philemon get a room ready for him, knowing that Philemon would be more than willing to do so. It was most likely Philemon’s habit to keep guest rooms ready for visitors.

    I have had the great experience of receiving wonderful hospitality at some churches I have been with and the even greater blessing of being allowed to give hospitality. It is a blessing that gives the giver much more than she can imagine.

    Hospitality was such an important characteristic of the early church.

    • You are absolutely right. Hospitality — true greeting and inclusion of strangers — was key to early Christianity. Nice synopsis of how that is seen in this book.

  2. Pingback: Equals in Christ « The Daily Bible Plan

  3. Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas make an excellent point about American slavery in their book “Lord, Teach Us” – “That African Americans remain Christians at all is a miracle since they were told Christianity justified slavery” (82).

  4. Peterson’s paraphrase really punctuates how strong and compelling Paul’s language and rhetoric in this book it. Almost manipulative. He wants Philemon to release Onesimus from slavery and let him join Paul as a missionary. He lays it on thick.

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