Story of his life:
Slavery in the first century
Before we consider the life of Philemon we need to firstly consider slavery in the first century.
Slaves have always been a part of the society in which men live. And as slavery still exists now, it most certainly existed in the first century. Like all other slave law that has existed, Roman law in the first century had to address the dual status of slaves :
For by nature, slaves were persons, but in addition they were seen as being property. So they were perceived as being people but also as being property. The head of a household could legally execute his slaves, and this law was taken even further if the head of the household was murdered, for then all the slaves would be executed.
Slaves composed a large part of the agricultural work force in parts of the Roman Empire, they competed with free peasants for the same work. But slaves were found in all professions and generally had more opportunity for social advancement than the free peasants. They were able to work for and achieve freedom, and some freed slaves became independently wealthy.
Paul mentions slaves in his writings, but he just about always refers to household slaves. These types of slaves were usually better off than most free persons in the Roman Empire, for most free persons were rural peasants working as tenant farmers on the vast estates of wealthy landowners. Some slaves were happy but others were not.
So, slaves sometimes took the opportunity to escape if they were sent on an errand by their master. But if the slave was recaptured he would be punished severely. The main reason behind this severe punishment was that the lost time of an escaped slave was lost money to the slave owner. But more importantly, slaves were not cheap, and they cost a lot of money to replace. So slave owners were not in overly good moods when their slaves disappeared. But the situation would be even worse if not only did that slave escape but he stole some of his masters property at the same time.
The background of Philemon
We'll come back to
slaves in a moment but first I want to look at a man who lived in the
first century A.D. In the first century there was a city called Colosse.
It was situated in an ancient area called Phrygia. If you got a map out
you would find that the city of Colosse was in the area now occupied by
modern day Turkey.
I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, Philemon 4-5
He indeed seemed to have the virtues which a baptised believer should have. Why did Paul write this letter to Philemon besides expressing his love towards him? Well, it seems that Philemon was a slave-owner and among those slaves who worked on his property was one called Onesimus.
The actions of Onesimus the slave
This slave called Onesimus one day ran away from the property but as he ran away he stole some of Philemon's valuables. The obvious place for a runaway slave to hide was in one of the big cities (of western Asia) like Ephesus, Smyrna and Pergamum. However instead of doing this, Onesimus made his way down to Rome. Why did he run so far away? The simple explanation is that he had a special motive for going to Rome, and that is, that he knew that his brother Tychicus was there. Even though the Bible doesn't specifically say they were brothers, it is implied in the letter to Colossians .
It seems that Tychicus lost no time in introducing his brother to Paul, and Paul in turn lost no time in transforming this runaway slave into a brother in the truth. Once Onesimus was baptised he gave himself over to assisting Paul in all matters concerned with the truth and he became a good brother.
However, it seems that after a short while Paul learnt of Onesimus past record with Philemon, and knowing Philemon personally, he instructed Onesimus to go back and submit himself to his master and ask for forgiveness because of what Onesimus had done to Philemon.
Paul did this for two reasons. Firstly, he knew that Roman law stated that people were not allowed to harbour escaped slaves and if they did harbour them there were serious penalties. But Paul also did it to try to reconcile the two baptised believers. Paul knew that by Roman law Philemon could punish Onesimus severely, but he also knew that because Philemon was a brother in Christ, that Onesimus should have little to fear.
So Onesimus returned to Philemon with this letter that we have recorded in the Bible (the book of Philemon). It would have been interesting to have known Onesimus frame of mind as he travelled towards where Philemon lived. He would have felt some reassurance from what Paul had said. But he would also have been thinking that here is a man, who a few months previously, he had not only run away from (when he was a slave), but he had also stolen from.
At the same time, it would be interesting to know what Philemon was thinking, when they meet. Philemon may have initially, even if it was for the briefest of time, felt his anger well up inside him as this man, who had cost him a lot of money in stolen goods and also, in finding a replacement slave. This man now stood before him. But Onesimus held in his hand a letter from Philemon's good friend Paul. Paul would have been like a spiritual father to Philemon.
In this letter (which we have a copy in our Bibles), we see Paul pleading the cause of the runaway slave. Paul urged Philemon to be reconciled to his slave and to receive him as a brother-in-Christ and fellow member of God's family. Reconciliation means reestablishing relationships. And the best example of this is Christ reconciling us to God and to others. Many barriers come between people whether it be race, being male or female, social status, or personality differences. But Christ can break down all of these barriers. Jesus Christ changed Onesimus relationship to Philemon from slave to brother (in-Christ). Christ can likewise transform our most hopeless relationships into deep and loving friendships.
The skills of Paul the apostle
So this is what Paul is attempting to do in this letter - he is attempting to reconcile two brothers. And in doing so we have an invaluable example of tact. Paul, being an apostle, could have exercised his authority connected to his high office, and laid down the law that Philemon must forgive this slave for his past deeds. But no, Paul chose not to do this, he did not assert any rights he may have had as an apostle. All Paul did was to limit his request to a gentle plea for forgiveness of any alleged wrongs which this slave did, and he then requested that if Philemon found it in his heart to do this, then he should restore Onesimus back in favour so that Onesimus could enjoy future affection from Philemon.
Yet Paul was so guarded in this plea, that he left Philemon plenty of scope to display the amount of generosity towards Onesimus that he felt he wanted to show. In other words, Paul didn't want to force Philemon to take back this slave. He left it up to this brother in Christ to show his love voluntarily. Look at the way Paul tactfully expresses himself:
I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me). I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be
by compulsion but of your own accord. For this
perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have
him back forever, no longer as a bondservant [or slave] but more than a
bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to
you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
outstanding skill in advocating the cause of Onesimus:
He knew the character of the brethren concerned, and tactfully and with confidence, brought out their finest qualities. Paul encouraged Onesimus to seek forgiveness and he encouraged Philemon to extend it willingly. And if both did this, they would become reconciled in Christ - that one thing which we all should strive to do.
What a difference Onesimus status as a brother-in-christ (baptised believer) made in his relationship to Philemon. He was no longer merely a servant, he was also a brother. That meant that both Onesimus and Philemon were members of God's family - they were now equals in Christ. Philemon had to now recognise that a brother's status as a member of God's family, transcends all other distinctions among believers. And ofcourse, this brings to mind the words of Pauls in his letter to the church at Galatia.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28
Paul's actions - 3 lessons for us
So the best way to reconcile ourselves one to another, is to remember that baptised believers are all equal in God's eyes. So Paul used great tact in delivering this message to Philemon - something we must also do. As well as learning from this letter how to use tact in our relationship with other brethren, we also learn two other lessons:
The first, is one which Philemon would have to learn. Philemon was shown that it is not enough to have a right to something, we must also show love. Philemon had the rights to Onesimus as his slave, but he had to also show his love through forgiveness to Onesimus. The same with us - it is not enough to gain the right to be Christ's brother or sister at baptism and then let it stop there - we must continue this throughout our lives showing our love.
But not only did Philemon learn a lesson from this letter, Onesimus also
learnt a lesson. He learnt that he could not presume on his relationship
in Christ - he must face up to the obligations of life, not taking
liberties. He had become a brother in Christ whilst in Rome and it was
up to him to go and seek forgiveness from Philemon for past wrongs. The
same with us :
These are the
obligations we face and we cannot assume that they will somehow correct
themselves because we are a baptised believer in Christ.
Onesimus had an obligation to go and see Philemon to seek forgiveness for his past deeds so he went and did it because he was a brother of Christ. And We have an obligation to seek forgiveness of our sins and to attempt to overcome any future temptations. And we can do this by continually remembering the life and sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ.
In summary, let us think of the lessons revealed through Paul, Philemon and Onesimus.
To Philemon it was shown that it is not enough to have a right to something, he must also show love.
Through Paul it was revealed that we must show tact in all things we do.
Onesimus learned that a disciple must not presume on his relationship in Christ, he must face up to the obligations of life.
And ofcourse the central lesson of this letter is reconciliation. We have to reconcile ourselves to our fellow believers always ensuring there is nothing but love coming between us.
When we are baptised, we partipate in the greatest act of reconciliation where we will be reconciled to God through the sacrifice made on our behalf by the Lord Jesus Christ.
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Last Updated: Sunday, 08 March 2015