“So the last will be first, and the first last.” Matthew 20:16
Though one of the shortest books of the New Testament, coming in at only 335 words, Philemon packs a powerful punch. Within these few words, the apostle Paul sums up Jesus’ entire message of forgiveness.
But exactly who was Philemon? And what was Paul’s letter to him all about? Within the tale of a runaway slave, we have much to learn.
Before we go any further here, I suggest you read this New Testament book first. You’ll find it just before the book of Hebrews. It will take you perhaps three minutes to do, and it will help you understand the references here.
Paul’s letter to Philemon is considered one of the Prison Epistles. He wrote it while he was in a Roman prison (the others are Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians). This letter is his most personal one.
Paul and Philemon had known each other for many years. In fact, it was because of Paul that Philemon had come to believe Jesus was the promised Christ. As a result, Philemon had established a house church in Colossae.
As we read Paul’s letter to his friend, we know Philemon probably had a large house. We find evidence of it in verse two.
“To Philemon our beloved friend and fellow laborer, to the beloved Apphia, Archippus, our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house.”
(Side note: Apphia was Philemon’s wife, and Archippus was their son.)
Because Philemon’s home could accommodate a church full of worshippers, we can conclude the house was quite large, which means he likely had some money. Plus, we read in verse seven, “the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you,” meaning Philemon commonly contributed to the church’s activities.
Philemon greatly influenced the church in Colossae. And, he appears to have been well-liked, especially by Paul (verses 4–7). Yet there was something Philemon had that may surprise you.
He had slaves.
Onesimus in Rome
The entire purpose of Paul’s letter to Philemon is to convince Philemon to forgive one of his slaves and accept him back into the house.
His name was Onesimus.
For one reason or another, Onesimus ran away from his master, most likely because he stole something. We see this evidence in verses 18–19.
“But if he has wronged you owes anything, put that on my account. I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay.”
Though the letter doesn’t specifically mention it, we can conclude Onesimus ran hundreds of miles away to Rome. Rome was far enough away from Colossae that Philemon wouldn’t come looking for him too quickly. And, it would be easy to get lost in the crowd since Rome’s population at the time was at least one-third slaves. He would have blended right in.
Little did Onesimus know that God was watching him.
Christians and Slavery
One fateful day, Onesimus ran into Paul. After some time, he later converted to Christianity and became one of Paul’s student ministers, much like Timothy and Titus had done. Evidently, Paul had a special fondness for Onesimus, which we read in verse ten, where Paul calls him “my son Onesimus.”
It was because of Paul’s love for both Onesimus and his friend, Philemon, that Paul wrote his letter. The entire letter was to encourage Philemon’s forgiveness of his runaway slave.
The idea of a Christian owning a slave brings up a sense of dissonance. But when we look closer at the New Testament, we see that slaves were very common during this time in history. Even Jesus used slaves as characters in his lessons.
“Yet it shall not be so among you, but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant.” Mark 10:43
“So likewise, you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.’” Luke 17:10
“A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master.” Matthew 10:24
Jesus also uses slavery as examples in His parables such as,
- The parable of the wheat and tares (Matthew 13:24–30)
- A king forgiving his servants (Matthew 18:23–35)
- The illustration of the two servants (Matthew 24:45–51)
- The doorkeeper while the master was away (Mark 13:34–36)
- The parable of the expectant steward (Luke 12:37–48)
When Jesus used slavery in His examples, He wasn’t condoning slavery in any way. Though slaves were very common and culturally acceptable at the time, He never endorsed it. Rather, Jesus used the concept of slavery to illustrate the importance of love and forgiveness of others, whether they are the slave or the master.
Paul Appeals to Philemon
Likewise, Paul never endorsed slavery either. Instead, he urged believers to recognize their status in Christ.
“Were you called while a slave? Do not be concerned about it, but if you can be made free, rather use it. For he who is called in the Lord while a slave is the Lord’s freedman. Likewise, he who is called while free is Christ’s slave. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men.” 1 Corinthians 7:21–23
Many have misinterpreted this portion of Scripture to mean it’s okay to own slaves. This is an unfortunate lie. Paul isn’t telling us it’s okay either to have slaves or to be a slave. Rather, he is making the distinction between being a slave to sin and a slave to (a believer of) God and His commands based on Jesus’ atoning death on the cross.
It is this principle of freedom that Paul writes to Philemon, but Paul isn’t just talking about physical freedom. First, we know Paul is requesting Onesimus’ physical freedom because he offers to pay Philemon back whatever Onesimus owes him.
In verse 17, Paul appeals to his friendship with Philemon and asks him to “receive [Onesimus] as you would me.” Philemon doesn’t have to comply with Paul’s request. Onesimus has clearly broken both Roman and Biblical law, and so Philemon has a right to justice. But Paul reaches out to his friend and asks him to go a different way — the way of grace.
“For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave — a brother.” (v15–16)
Since Onesimus has become a fellow laborer in Christ with Paul to the point that Paul calls him a son, Paul is asking Philemon to accept the slave as a brother in Christ. If a master recognized a slave as a brother in Christ, the label of “slave” would become meaningless.
As a result, the covenant of grace through Jesus gives them both an opportunity to fellowship on an equal playing field in the body of Christ.
We Have All Fallen Short
Paul makes his appeal based on the forgiveness Philemon also received when he received Christ as his savior because of Paul’s preaching.
“…Not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides.” (v19)
Paul is asking Philemon to remember we have all fallen short of God’s glory. We are all sinners. And though Onesimus has sinned against his master, Paul is asking Philemon to extend the same forgiveness he received when Christ entered his heart. We see Paul’s confidence that Philemon will forgive Onesimus in verse 20.
“Yes, brother, let me have joy from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in the Lord.”
Paul doesn’t stop there. Though his letter centers on persuading Philemon to forgive Onesimus, Paul also asks Philemon to send the slave back to him in Rome.
“I am sending him back. You, therefore, receive him, that is, my own heart, whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel.” (v12)
And Paul is confident Philemon will agree.
“Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you knowing that you will do even more than I say.” (v21)
Philemon’s Spiritual Reconciliation
It is essential to recognize that Paul didn’t write this letter for selfish purposes. Paul fully acknowledges Onesimus’ sin. More importantly, Paul knows that all must be made right between master and servant, both transactionally and spiritually.
Whether he wanted to go back or not, Onesimus needed to ask for Philemon’s forgiveness before he could enter any formal ministry. And Paul knew the required basis for forgiveness was the covenant of God’s grace through Jesus. Not through compulsion, but grace.
“But without your consent, I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary.” (v14)
Jesus, Himself, taught that we need to ask for forgiveness from both God and those we have sinned against (Matthew 18:21; Mark 11:25). Paul bases his actions on this crucial principle of Christian love.
Paul continued to promote the principle of spiritual equality between masters and slaves throughout his ministry (Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 4:1; 1 Timothy 6:1–2). He consistently directed his teachings toward eliminating the abuse some exercised against their slaves and replacing it with a brotherly fellowship in Christ.
The Definition of Forgiveness
In a matter of only twenty-five verses, Paul provides for us the exact Biblical definition of forgiveness as Jesus taught. No longer is anyone to think of anyone else as their slave, but as equals in Christ where the “first shall be last, and the last shall be first (Matthew 20:16).”
Paul’s letter teaches us all the necessity of forgiving others just as God forgives us and then to release the offender from spiritual bondage. It may not always be easy, but because of God’s sacrificial death on the cross, grace compels us to forgive anyway. To do otherwise would open the way for bitterness to take root in our hearts and compromise our Christian witness.
It is, therefore, an essential component to the Christian faith to forgive others and allow them the freedom to be spiritually equal with us.
Who do you need to forgive today? Or maybe you need to ask someone to forgive you. Allow the grace of Christ to rule over your heart so you both can be reconciled back to God, alive in His love, as fellow laborers in the faith.