From the Pen of a Prisoner

This letter is from Paul, a prisoner for preaching the Good News about Christ Jesus, and from our brother Timothy.

I am writing to Philemon, our beloved co-worker, and to our sister Apphia, and to our fellow soldier Archippus, and to the church that meets in your house.

May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace. – Philemon 1:1-3 ESV

Paul’s letter to Philemon provides a fascinating glimpse into the culture of the 1st-Century. It is a somewhat uncomfortable read for 21st-Century Christians because it deals with a topic that most of us find reprehensible and off-putting – that of slavery. Yet, slavery was an everyday and unavoidable reality for those living in that part of the world at the beginning of the new millennium.

Slavery was ubiquitous throughout the Roman Empire. In fact, the inhabitants of the empire were comprised of two basic groups: Those who were free and those who were slaves. And an individual’s status as a slave usually had nothing to do with their race or ethnicity. Yes, many slaves were members of conquered people groups who represented a particular race, but they had not been enslaved for that reason. Their slavery had been the result of war. Roman slaves included prisoners of war as well as those captured and sold by pirates. But it was not uncommon for Roman citizens to end up as slaves due to economic hard times. If someone was unable to pay a debt, indentured servitude was their most likely fate. They would work for their lender until their debt was paid in full.

Sadly, there were also cases where financially strapped families would raise money by selling their own children into slavery. It is estimated that 1 out of every 5 people living in the Roman Empire were slaves, and by the 1st-Century, the primary source of slaves were the children born to slaves. A child born to a female slave was also a slave, regardless of the status of the father.

With all that as background, Paul’s letter to Philemon should come into greater clarity for us. When reading the apostle’s comments concerning Onesimus, a runaway slave belonging to Philemon, it would be easy to question why Paul fails to condemn the practice of slavery outright. Why doesn’t he demand that Philemon set this young man free? What is preventing Paul from attacking the institution of slavery and exposing his friend’s obvious injustice toward his fellow man?

But we have to understand that Paul was not out to revolutionize the culture of his day through the radical overturn of the social fabric. He, like Jesus, was a revolutionary, but with an agenda that focused on change within the human heart, not within the political and civil structures of society. You get a glimpse of Paul’s perspective on all of this in his first letter to the church in Corinth.

Yes, each of you should remain as you were when God called you. Are you a slave? Don’t let that worry you—but if you get a chance to be free, take it. And remember, if you were a slave when the Lord called you, you are now free in the Lord. And if you were free when the Lord called you, you are now a slave of Christ. God paid a high price for you, so don’t be enslaved by the world. Each of you, dear brothers and sisters, should remain as you were when God first called you. – 1 Corinthians 7:20-24 NLT

Paul was not encouraging insurrection on the part of the slaves. He was not fomenting a spirit of revolution or sedition. But he was calling for Christians, regardless of their social status, to have a radically different outlook on their identity. You get a sense of his agenda from reading his letter to the believers in Galatia, another Roman province.

There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. – Galatians 3:28 NLT

Paul encouraged the Colossian believers to focus on their unity in Christ, not on their social status or ethnic identity.

Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him. In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us.

Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. – Colossians 3:10-12 NLT

So, as we begin our study of Paul’s letter to Philemon, it is essential that we consider the social conditions of the day alongside the spiritual concerns that drove the apostle’s heart. Paul had no love affair for the institution of slavery. And the content of his letter contains neither a stinging condemnation or a subtle condoning of it. Slavery will not be the subject of this letter. But freedom in Christ and a love for our brothers and sisters in Christ will be. So, it is best if we read it from a 1st-Century perspective and with our ear tuned to hear Paul’s heart for the life-transformative power of the Gospel.

As Paul opens up his letter, he identifies himself as “a prisoner for Christ Jesus” (Philemon 1:1 ESV). He is desmios, one in bonds. Paul was writing from Rome, where he was being held under house arrest while awaiting his trial before the emperor. It is no coincidence that Paul uses this terminology to introduce himself to his friend, Philemon. The rest of the letter will deal with another “prisoner” or bondslave by the name of Onesimus. Interestingly enough, Paul and Onesimus were experiencing a somewhat ironic change in circumstances. Onesimus, the slave, was enjoying the life of a free man, while Paul, the Roman citizen, was experiencing the life of a captive.

But Paul was a prisoner for Christ Jesus. He had been confined for his ministry on behalf of the gospel. He was not a prisoner of war or a captive as a result of an unpaid debt. No, his imprisonment was on behalf, and because of his faith in Jesus Christ. And Paul was perfectly content with his situation. In fact, he told the church in Philippi that he had learned to live with any circumstance that came his way, knowing that Christ would use it for his good and God’s glory.

I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. – Philippians 4:11-13 NLT

Paul’s letter, while addressed primarily to Philemon, is intended for a much broader audience, including Apphia, Archippus, and the rest of the members of the church that met in Philemon’s house. It is clear that Philemon was a well-respected member of the local congregation in Colosse. And he played a major part in the church by providing his home as a meeting place for their worship services.

Christian congregations were dependent upon the hospitality of wealthy members who could furnish their own houses for this purpose. This note then contains an indication of the social status of Philemon. In a large city there would be several such assemblies. Whether the church at Colossae had more than one place of assembly is not known. Probably they did. – Hiebert, D. Edmond. Titus and Philemon

So, Philemon was a leader in the local fellowship and a person of influence. That’s probably why Paul was addressing his letter directly to him. Paul knew that if he could help enlighten Philemon, it would spread throughout the congregation. While this particular issue involved Philemon and his runaway slave, Paul realized that it had far greater implications that would impact the entire faith community.

Each of their relationships with one another were to be influenced by the Gospel. Their new natures, provided by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, were to alter their conduct and attitudes. In another letter, written to the entire membership of the church in Colosse, Paul reminded them that they had been raised to new life with Christ, and their behavior was to reflect that new life.

Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him. In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us.

Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful. – Colossians 3:10-15 NLT

As members of one body, whether slave or free, they were called to live in peace. And Paul wraps up the salutation of his letter to Philemon with his heartfelt prayer for his friend and the members of the local fellowship in Colosse.

May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace. – Philemon 1:3 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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