The Apostle Paul quickly grew to love the Onesimus, the runaway slave (vv. 12, 16). He also wanted to keep Onesimus in Rome (v. 13), where he was providing valuable service to Paul in his imprisonment (v. 11).
However, by stealing and running away from Philemon, Onesimus had not only broken Roman law but he also defrauded his master. Paul knew those issues had to be dealt with. Therefore, he decided to send Onesimus back to Colossae. It was too hazardous for Onesimus to make the trip alone (because of the danger of slave-catchers), so Paul sent him back with Tychicus. Tychicus was returning to Colossae with the Epistle to the Colossians (Col. 4:7–9).
Along with Onesimus, Paul also sent Philemon this beautiful personal letter, urging him to forgive Onesimus and welcome him back to service as a brother in Christ (Philem. 15–17).
It is important to ask ourselves four important questions when studying any portion of God’s Word. Those questions are (1) What did the text mean to the original audience; (2) What are the differences between the original audience and ourselves; (3) What are the theme or themes contained in the text; and (4) How may the text be applied in our own lives?
The Epistle of Philemon provides valuable historical insights into the early church’s relationship to the institution of slavery.
One author writes, “Slavery was widespread in the Roman Empire (according to some estimates, slaves constituted one third, perhaps more, of the population) and an accepted part of life. In Paul’s day, slavery had virtually eclipsed free labor. Slaves could be doctors, musicians, teachers, artists, librarians, or accountants; in short, almost all jobs could be and were filled by slaves.”
Slaves were not legally considered persons, but were the tools of their masters. As such, they could be bought, sold, inherited, exchanged, or seized to pay their master’s debt. Their masters had virtually unlimited power to punish them, and sometimes severely did so for the slightest infractions.
By the time of Christ and the apostles, slavery was beginning to change. Realizing that contented slaves were more productive, masters tended to treat them more gently. It was not uncommon for a master to teach a slave his own trade, and some masters and slaves became close friends.
One commentator explains, “While still not recognizing them as persons under the law, the Roman Senate in A.D. 20 granted slaves accused of crimes the right to a trial. It also became more common for slaves to be granted (or to purchase) their freedom. Some slaves enjoyed very favorable and profitable service under their masters and were better off than many freemen because they were assured of care and provision. Many freemen struggled in poverty.”
The New Testament nowhere directly attacks slavery. Had it done so, the resulting first century slave insurrections would have been brutally suppressed and the message of the gospel hopelessly confused with that of social reform. Instead, Christianity undermined the evils of slavery by changing the hearts of slaves and masters. By stressing the spiritual equality of master and slave (v. 16; Gal. 3:28; Eph. 6:9; Col. 4:1; 1 Tim. 6:1–2), the Bible did away with slavery’s abuses.
The predominant theological theme in this letter is forgiveness. Forgiveness is a featured theme throughout NT Scripture (cf. Matt. 6:12–15; 18:21–35; Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13). Paul’s instruction here provides the biblical definition of forgiveness, without ever using the word.
May each of us become more forgiving of others because of our study of the Epistle to Philemon. Have a blessed day in the Lord.
Soli deo Gloria!