A Note Before You Begin this Book
Before we tell you about the book of Philemon, we need to save you from a potential misunderstanding. All of us have limited experience in this world, shaped by our upbringing, society, and education. Naturally, we understand what we read by drawing from our experience or knowledge.
In the book of Philemon, you’re going to read about a slave named Onesimus, and his master, Philemon. Immediately, you’re likely to start drawing from your knowledge of the recent and atrocious slave trade by British colonials to try and understand this relationship. That’s the danger we want to guard you from.
Slavery in Roman society, as described in Philemon, was vastly different than what we understand slavery to mean today. In the world of Philemon, slave referred to a contracted employee. The “slave’s” work was voluntary, not forced. He had signed up for his work, just like you might accept a job offer. The slave and master would make a contract, that they both signed. The slave would offer some service to his “master,” being fully compensated for his work.
Now when we read in the Bible that Onesimus, the slave, ran away from Philemon, his “master,” what this meant in Philemon’s day wasn’t that an oppressed man found his rightful freedom. Rather, Onesimus violated a fair contract. He defrauded his employer, and would have justly been brought to court for a civil dispute. It’s like if you paid $50,000 for your plumber to re-pipe your whole house, and halfway through the job, he ditched town with your money, and couldn’t be found. You’d take him to court. We hope this helps you understand the letter of Philemon.
Remember that the Bible was written first to a specific audience, and we must enter its world, letting it inform our experience, rather than imposing our experiences on the Bible.
What Is the Book of Philemon About?
The book of Philemon stands out in the collection of New Testament letters for several reasons. While most of the letters were written to churches, Paul wrote this letter to his friend, Philemon, a leader of a house church in Colossae. Paul praises Philemon’s faithful service and expresses gratitude and affection (Philemon 7). Paul’s letter is not written to scold or to lecture Philemon. Instead, he appeals to him on the basis of love—from one friend to another.
The letter deals with a prickly issue. Onesimus, Philemon’s slave, had run away, and Paul is writing on Onesimus’ behalf to Philemon. Paul asks Philemon to receive Onesimus back as a brother, not a criminal. Onesimus had fled from Philemon and probably stolen from him as well. He made his way to Rome where he met Paul and became like a son to him (Philemon 10). Onesimus trusted Jesus and began to serve Paul while Paul was in prison. Although Paul was glad to have this help, he knew that the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon needed to be set right.
Paul already praised Onesimus for willingly serving him. In becoming a believer in Jesus, the “useless” worker had become truly “useful” (Philemon 11). So, Paul asks Philemon to receive Onesimus not merely as a servant or returned employee, but “as a beloved brother” (Philemon 16). Philemon is even to treat Onesimus as a full “partner” in ministry (Philemon 17). In this new relationship, the master becomes a co-worker and the slave a brother!
A relationship with Jesus completely changes our human relationships.
The book of Philemon is a case study in the transformation that happens when someone believes in the good news of Jesus. It shows us an example of how a relationship with Jesus completely changes our human relationships. Although our cultural relationships may look different than in Philemon’s day, we still experience relationships that have been broken by injustice, wrongdoing, or misunderstanding.
At the same time that Paul was writing to Philemon, he also wrote a letter to the church in Colossae and sent it with Onesimus. In that letter, he describes how God made us alive with Jesus “by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:13-15, ESV). Paul continues, “as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:13, ESV).
The letter to Philemon is also a test of how deeply the good news about Jesus has transformed this man. Will Philemon remember the forgiveness he has received from Jesus and extend that same mercy to Onesimus? Will he be able to forgive Onesimus’ debt as his own debt was forgiven?
We don’t get to read Philemon’s response to Paul or hear how he received Onesimus. Instead, we’re left with the clear call of the gospel to forgive as we have been forgiven and to relate to one another as brothers and sisters serving one master—Jesus Christ. We may not know how Philemon responded, but we can answer the question ourselves. Will we forgive those who have injured us and live in new, relationships, transformed by the gospel?