When we talk about the difference between epistles and letters, we see that this is clearly a letter, written to a personal friend, Philemon. As to the authorship, this is not an issue with regard to Philemon. Everyone assumes that it’s one of the authentic Pauline letters, so one doesn’t have to worry about whether Paul wrote this letter – it’s quite clearly his.
When was it written? It seems that is must have been sent along with the letter to the Colossians from Paul in Rome. There are several things here, but for now let me draw some similarities with regard to people. In Philemon [there are no chapters] v. 2, Paul says, “To Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house.” So this letter is written not only to Philemon but to Archippus. And if you look at Colossians 4:17, there we have a reference to him as well, “And say to Archippus, ‘See that you fulfill the ministry that you have received in the Lord.’” Philemon is addressed in part to Archippus in v. 2, and the letter addressed to the Colossian church has a reference to Archippus in 4:17. You have a reference to Onesimus in the Philemon letter (which we’ll talk about shortly), but in Colossians there’s also a reference to Onesimus in 4:7-9, “Tychicus will tell you about all my affairs. He is a beloved brother and faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts, and with him Onesimus, our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of yourselves.” So, in Colossians, Tychicus is one of the bearers of the letter, and Onesimus is along with him. And in Philemon, we see that this is also addressed to Onesimus as well.
There are other people in Philemon v. 23, “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you.” In Colossians 4:12, “Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you ….” So when Paul sends the letter to the Colossians, Epaphras is with him, and Epaphras sends greetings. When Paul sends the letter to Philemon, Epaphras is with him. And finally in v. 23, Epaphras sends greetings. In v. 24, “Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers”, also send greetings in Philemon; and we learn of Mark also in Colossians 4:10, “Aristarchus, my fellow prisoner greets you, and Mark the cousin of Barnabas ….” And then Demas and Luke are mentioned in v. 14, “Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas greet you.” So that, you have greetings sent to the Colossians from people like Epaphras, Mark, Luke, Demas, Archippus, and you have greetings being sent to Archippus as well. And then you have greetings being sent to Philemon from Epaphras, Mark, Luke, Demas, and greetings being sent to Archippus in Philemon v. 2. So they must have been written at the same time. If they’re both Pauline, Paul wrote both letters during his imprisonment in Rome, and they were being sent by Tychicus, who is the messenger bringing the letter, along with Onesimus, and both letters go to Colossae and to Philemon. And the question is whether Philemon was a member of the Colossian church, and he got a special letter because of the special issue that was involved. This is quite likely.
The occasion of the letter is that Paul sends Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave, who has been converted under Paul’s ministry and now he is returning back to Philemon. It raises some very interesting questions about all of this, because in this letter Paul says nothing about slavery – he doesn’t oppose it in any way, he doesn’t condemn it. Why doesn’t he just tell Philemon that this is a terrible thing? You should not have a slave in Onesimus – you should free him and all the others. What’s going on here? Some have suggested that Paul thought the end of the world, the Second Coming, was so close at hand that he didn’t think you should start meddling in social evils of one sort or another, because before you could get any real momentum going that way, the Lord will have returned.
For instance in 1 Corinthians 7:17, Paul says, “Only let everyone lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all my churches.” In other words, keep the status quo. And then in 7:21,
“Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in 6the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. So, brethren, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.”
So, that question has come up. Now Paul is sending a runaway slave back to Philemon. My goodness – does Paul understand what can happen to him? Well, if you look at the letter, Paul doesn’t have any doubt at all as to what’s going to happen to Onesimus. He seems to have great confidence that all will go well with regard to this fellow believer, Onesimus, the slave of Philemon. It’s such a short letter, it might be good to just read it from beginning to end. We haven’t done any other letter like that, but because it’s short enough, we can do it, and talk about some of these issues.
“Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ [a very typical introduction to the letter].
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, and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.
Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you – I, Paul, an ambassador and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus – 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.) [The meaning of the name “Onesimus” is “useful”. And there’s a pun here: ‘Formerly, Onesimus (Useful) was useless to you, but now he is really useful because he has become a believer.’] 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 free will. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother – especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. [So, in v. 8, he starts saying that he wants to ask something, but he doesn’t get to the question until v. 17. But all of this in between is to prepare the mood of Philemon for what’s coming up in v. 17.]
So, if you consider me your partner, receive him 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 your very self. [In other words, you owe me your very soul, because I led you to the Lord.] Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.
Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be granted to you. [Verse 22 indicates that Paul is going to come and check out what has happened.]
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”
Paul has no doubt that Onesimus has nothing to worry about. The whole letter is a letter to Philemon asking a favor from Paul (he says that he could command him, but that he really doesn’t want to). He appeals to Philemon as a prisoner for the Lord’s sake and for Onesimus’s sake because Paul led him to Christ. At one time he was useless to you and now he’s useful – I’m sending you back my very heart. And this word “heart” has been used in v. 7, “For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.” You have refreshed the hearts of the saints – an idiomatic way of saying that you’ve helped so many people and now I’m sending you my heart, so you can refresh him as well – refresh MY heart through him. Verse 13, “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 free will.” He says that maybe that’s why he was parted, “… so you could receive him back not as a slave but as a partner. I write this with my own hand, and am confident that you will be obedient [v. 21].” So there’s no question at all that Paul is confident Onesimus will be received and will be given the status of a brother in the Lord.
The question that has been raised, though, is “Why doesn’t Paul simply condemn slavery?” Did any of you read anything interesting on the dictionary article on slavery in the Dictionary of Paul? You ought to be reading that. There’s a statement there that’s very unusual, two of them actually. One is, “Under Roman Law, persons in slavery could expect to be set free at least by the time they reached age 30.” Cicero said that after 7 years a slave could be expected to be freed. During the time of slavery they could earn money and put it aside. Different slaves from different areas were treated somewhat differently -- slaves in the Roman Empire that came from the east (from Israel and places like that) tended to be treated well and became household slaves. They could earn money, could purchase their freedom and usually were freed afterward, etc. Slaves from Germany and Gaul tended to be more rebellious in that sense, and were treated much more harshly. They were frequently used in the mines and had very harsh treatment. But the household slaves, many of those would be primarily associated with the east, and tended to be treated quite differently.
So, when we think of slavery in the New Testament, we have to separate that from the kind of slavery we had in America. Slavery in America was much, much more evil. It was racial, whereas in the Roman world it was economic. Because of that, in the Roman world, slaves could purchase their freedom quite readily and easily. If the statement is correct, then by the time one was 30, they could almost surely have become free, and if they were enslaved as adults, then in about 7 years or so, Cicero said, they would have been freed. If that’s true, that was totally different than what we had in our own country. So the slavery that Paul is dealing with is not the slavery that we had to deal with in our own country. Ours was much more evil, much more demeaning, and had nothing to do so much with economics as it had to do with feelings that these people were inferior racially. That was not true with household slaves in the Roman Empire. Many of them were more educated than their masters, and would teach their children. So you didn’t think then of a slave as someone who was somehow inferior; in economic terms, they were worse off, and someday they would be able to purchase their freedom. And many times, those who were household slaves when they were freed entered into a business relationship with their former masters, etc. So Paul’s attitude toward slavery in the New Testament was a different kind of slavery.
Furthermore, why was it that, by the second century, Christians were known for always freeing their slaves? There must be something with regard to what we find in the New Testament that leads to that. AND, what leads to that is the fact that Paul says Onesimus as a believer is to be treated as a brother. How can you have a brother who is a slave? And, in the American situation, in our own country, there were all sorts of theological attempts to justify this. And in our own country questions were raised as to whether slaves had souls. Can you imagine that? And the reason is evident, because if you once say “yes” and they’re believers, the evil of what’s going on becomes so much more apparent. That’s not a question in the first century.
So don’t equate the general kinds of household slavery that we’re dealing with in Philemon and the New Testament and the fact that the early church tended to liberate their slaves and become known for that, with American slavery. It only indicates that Philemon is understood as a liberating, not an enslaving kind of teaching in that regard. You have to always be careful that we compare like with like, and American slavery is not like that of what we find in the New Testament era and what we find in the Book of Philemon. So Paul, rather than simply commanding Philemon, gets at a much more deep theological basis, in saying, “This person is your brother in Christ. Treat him as a brother in Christ. You don’t treat brothers and sisters in the Lord as slaves any longer.” And quickly slavery became a dead issue as far as the Christian church was concerned in the New Testament.