I read through the book of Philemon today and thought that would be a good place to start. For those of you unfamiliar with the book, it is a small letter written to a man named Philemon by Paul. Paul wrote regarding a man named Onesimus, a slave of Philemon who had run away. It is important to remember that slavery in the time of Rome was not as we picture it from early American history. True there were captured enemies and others that were forcefully put into labor, but many of the slaves of time where those who were in debt and therefore were working off what they owed. It was not racially targeted or done for the supremacy of any one ethnicity, but instead to clear the debt they owed. In this time, slaves could purchase their own freedom from their masters and were even let go by some of their master. However, slavery in this form was still undesirable. God made all mankind in his image and they were not meant to be seen as mere tools. Masters were called to care for their slaves in the Old Testament and to set them free (Leviticus 25:39-46) at the year of Jubilee. The Bible has always taken the stance of treating slaves as humans with value. The Bible never endorses slavery, but only addresses it as a social fact, which at the time it was. When reading through the whole Bible the value put on all human life is seen everywhere.
Anyway, with that done let’s dive into the text. Paul gives his standard greeting and includes Timothy who was likely with his when he wrote the letter. He indicates that he is currently a prisoner, so this letter was written from Rome during Paul’s imprisonment. He addresses the letter mainly to Philemon, but also to 2 other believers and the church that meets in his house. This is a personal letter to Philemon, but Paul expected it to be read before the church. Finally, in verse 3 Paul wishes grace and peace on them from God. After the greeting, he starts by commending Philemon for the love he holds for the saints and Jesus. This stuck out to me. Many times we try to correct things in the church, but in doing so forget to acknowledge the good they are doing. Remember, even if they are failing in one area it does not mean they are failing in all areas. A second thing to do is to pray for the person as well. Paul tells Philemon he is praying for his growth in Christ. Paul even lets him know that his example is an encouragement to him.
After commending Philemon for his strengths Paul dives into the issue at hand, starting in verse 8. Because of the love Philemon has for the saints and for Jesus, Paul is appealing to that love on behalf of the runaway slave Onesimus. Paul indicates that he presented the gospel to Onesimus while a prisoner in Rome. In verse 11 he talks about how Onesimus was useless as a runaway slave, but now he would be useful to both of them as he is now a Christian brother. How often people become useless to everyone, even themselves, when they run from God and responsibility. Paul continues by indicating he will send Onesimus back to Philemon, because he does not want this good deed to be forced. He urges Philemon to accept his new brother in Christ, saying that his salvation may have been the reason they were separated for a while. Paul then appeals in verse17 for Philemon to accept Onesimus as if he were Paul himself. More than that, Paul indicates that if anything is owed that he will pay it for Onesimus. He also reminds Philemon that their faith was thanks to his preaching and teaching, and that the knowledge of their faithfulness refreshes him. In all of this Paul shows confidence in Philemon and makes a point of spelling in out in verse 21. He is confident that Philemon will do the right thing. Beyond that Paul indicates that he is expecting to be freed soon and wants him to prepare a place for him. Paul then closes out the letter, giving greetings from several of the other co-workers with him.
So, what do we learn from this letter? First off, we see the focus of treating all people, especially believers, well. Paul is concerned about Onesimus, but at the same time he shows the care and consideration for Philemon as well. Using grace and pointing out Philemon’s strengths, Paul urges Philemon to continue in doing the right thing while informing him of what has taken place in Onesimus. Paul treated Philemon as a brother and did not try to brow beat him into the right thing. We need to do likewise as we deal with those in the wrong, or handling a delicate situation.
Second, we learn about rejoicing for all believers. By running away Onesimus had wronged Philemon. Still Paul urges him to forgive and forget and to rejoice over another brother in Christ. When people come to Christ we must not let prior events taint our joy for them. Always rejoice over the saved.
Lastly, we see Paul’s generosity. Not only does he go through the effort of restoring this relationship, but he also offers to cover any expenses Onesimus incurred. We often struggle with money today, but remember Paul’s generosity. Paul did not know Onesimus that well, but after seeing him come to Christ he spared no effort to help him. When we walk people to Christ we need to follow through by helping their needs as we can. Paul knew the importance of people and he handled problems well. We need to learn from his example and do likewise.