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A PERSONAL LETTER
Do you look forward to checking your mail each day? I do. Unfortunately, all I usually find in my mailbox are bills and junk mail. In this age of email, Facebook, and Twitter, it’s rare that you ever receive a personal letter.
[Show stack of letters, with one addressed to Philemon from Paul]
Let’s take a look at this week’s mail.
[Sort through letters: “Bill, junk mail, bill, junk mail…a letter from Paul the apostle!”]
Actually, this letter isn’t addressed to me; it’s addressed to someone named Philemon.
No, I didn’t find this letter in my mailbox. It’s a letter that’s been preserved for us in the NT.
[Open envelope & read letter to Philemon]
1Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker, 2to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home:
3Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, 5because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. 6I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. 7Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.
8Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I then, as Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus—10I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. 11Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.
12I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 13I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. 15Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good—16no longer as a slave but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.
17So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19I, Paul, will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. 20I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21Confident of your obedience, I write to you , knowing that you will do even more than I ask.
22And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.
23Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. 24And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.
25The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
Reading Philemon is like starting to watch a movie after it’s already begun and then leaving before it’s over.
Basic facts about the letter to Philemon:
• Written by: PAUL
When? Around A.D. 60
The letter to Philemon is the shortest book in the NT in the original Greek (355 words).
Timothy is mentioned in verse 1. Why? He is not a coauthor. Paul probably mentions Timothy because he is present as Paul is writing the letter. And perhaps Philemon knows Timothy. They may have met in nearby Ephesus (see Acts 19:22).
• Written from: PRISON
Where? Probably ROME
Paul describes himself as a “prisoner of Christ Jesus” (v. 1). As Paul writes this letter, he is a prisoner of Christ in two ways: (1) he is figuratively a prisoner of Christ because his will is captive to Christ’s will; (2) he is literally a prisoner of Christ because has been imprisoned for preaching the gospel. Paul was always a prisoner of Christ, whether he was actually in prison or not.
Technically, Paul is under house arrest, chained to a Roman guard (see Acts 28:30).
Philemon is one of the four “prison epistles.” The others are Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians.
The letter to Philemon and the letter to the Colossians are closely related. Both were written from the same place, both were addressed to the same church, both were carried to Colossae by Tychicus (Colossians 4:7-9), both mention similar circumstances about Paul’s imprisonment (Colossians 4:3; Philemon 1, 13), and both have an almost identical list of personal greetings. Unfortunately, those who decided the order of the NT books didn’t put Colossians and Philemon together.
• Written to: PHILEMON
Who? A prominent Christian in COLOSSAE
The church at Colossae meets in Philemon’s house (v. 2). This indicates that he is probably wealthy since his house is large enough to be used for church meetings. Philemon was saved as a result of Paul’s ministry: “you owe me your very self” (v. 19).
Three other recipients are mentioned in verse 2: (1) “Apphia our sister” (probably Philemon’s wife); (2) “Archippus our fellow soldier” (probably Philemon’s son); (3) the Colossian church.
Philemon is the primary recipient because his name is listed first and “you” is singular in the Greek (except for vv. 3, 22, 25).
• Written about: ONESIMUS
Who? A runaway SLAVE who was saved
Somehow Onesimus met Paul in Rome, and after his conversion became a help to Paul.
It takes Paul a while to get to the point of his letter: “I appeal to you for my son Onesimus…welcome him as you would welcome me” (vv. 10, 17).
Since the church is also addressed, Paul must want the letter to be read publicly. Why? Some would say to put extra pressure on Philemon. Perhaps Paul wants both Philemon and the church to read the letter because the treatment of Onesimus is both a personal matter and a church matter. Onesimus belongs to Philemon’s household, but now he also belongs to the household of faith.
There are eleven individuals mentioned in this letter, Onesimus is the sixth person mentioned (right in the middle). He is the central character. [This week we will focus on Onesimus, next week Philemon.]
SLAVERY IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
In the first century there were two categories of human beings: those who were free and those who were slaves.
Slavery in the first century:
• In urban areas, slaves made up about ONE-THIRD of the population.
Seneca (died A.D. 65) wrote that a proposal in the Roman Senate to differentiate slaves from free persons by making them wear distinctive clothing failed when the senators expressed fears that the slaves would quickly see how many they were and decide to revolt (On Mercy 1.24.1).
• Slaves were considered PROPERTY of their masters.
Slaves did not own their own time, labor, or children.
Aristotle classified a slave as a living tool (Aristotle, Politics 1.2.4).
Aristotle also argued that injustice could never be done to a slave because the slave was only property (Nic. Eth. 5:10.8).
Seneca characterized a slave as one who “does not have the right to refuse” (On Benefits 3.19.1).
According to Seneca, the sadistic Vedius Pollio ordered that a slave who had broken a crystal cup be thrown to his lamprey eels. The boy escaped and appealed to the emperor Augustus to be executed in a less savage way. Outraged by such injustice, the emperor ordered that he be set free and that all of Pollio’s crystal cups and his fish pond be destroyed (Garland, Colossians/Philemon, 344-345).
Many slave owners recognized that they would get better and longer service by treating slaves well (like taking care of a car).
• Slavery was not RACIAL.
• FREEDOM for slaves was not always beneficial.
Though slavery of the ancient world was better than the slavery of the New World, it still was not good. Abraham Lincoln said, “Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally” (Address to an Indiana Regiment on March 17, 1865).
Why didn’t Paul condemn slavery? (He never endorsed it.)
• Paul’s strategy was to change HEARTS, not society.
• Paul raised the status of slaves:
(1) By addressing the MISTREATMENT of slaves.
(2) By describing CHRIST as a slave.
Christ took “the very nature of a servant [slave]” (Philippians 2:7).
(3) By presenting slaves as EQUAL brothers and sisters in Christ.
• Paul may have encouraged Philemon to FREE Onesimus.
Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask (v. 21).
Will Philemon do what Paul asks very well (a “qualitative” interpretation), or will he do something beyond what Paul has requested (a “quantitative” interpretation)?
“While we do not find a frontal attack on slavery in the New Testament, we do find the seeds for its final eradication” (Garland, Colossians/Philemon, 357).
A DEAR BROTHER
There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).
We see the truth of this verse illustrated in what Paul writes about Onesimus:
• Onesimus was Paul’s spiritual SON.
I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains (v. 10).
“There is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’” (Romans 10:12-13).
• Onesimus was a USEFUL servant of God.
Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me (v. 11).
“Onesimus” means “useful.” It was a common name, often given to slaves in the hope that they would live up to their name.
Apparently Onesimus had not been a very valuable slave. Now he is useful to both Paul and Philemon.
• Onesimus was LOVED by Paul.
I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you (v. 12).
• Onesimus was Philemon’s EQUAL.
I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel (v. 13).
• Onesimus shared ETERNAL LIFE with Philemon.
Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good [forever] (v. 15).
Human failures often become God’s opportunities!
We usually can only see the traces of God’s hand in our lives in retrospect.
When Paul says that Philemon could have Onesimus back “forever” he could mean physical presence or spiritual fellowship.
• Onesimus was Philemon’s spiritual BROTHER.
No longer as a slave but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord (v. 16).
As “children” of Paul via conversion, both Philemon and Onesimus are “dear brothers” in the same spiritual family.
Onesimus is far more than a piece of property. He is Philemon’s equal before the Lord.
Treating Onesimus as more than a slave will perhaps mean, in the end, not treating him as a slave at all.
• Onesimus was to be welcomed ENTHUSIASTICALLY.
So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me (v. 17).
This is a picture of how God receives sinners who trust Christ as Lord and Savior. How is that? Just as He receives Christ.
THE FAMILY OF GOD
…Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you (Colossians 4:9).
What Paul wrote about Onesimus can be applied to every believer:
We are to WELCOME and LOVE every believer as an EQUAL brother or sister in Christ.
F. F. Bruce, Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (NICNT)
David E. Garland, Colossians/Philemon (NIVAC)
Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, Daniel G. Reid, Dictionary of Paul and His Letters
Hard Sayings of the Bible, “Did Paul Approve of Slavery?” pp. 642-645
Douglas J. Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon (PNTC)
Arthur G. Patzia, Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon (NIBC)