Our congregational scripture reading today comes from the little book of Philemon which in our New Testament is placed between the books of Titus and Hebrews. We call all three of these “books” when in fact they are “epistles” or formal letters that were written either to individuals or churches. This letter is the shortest of those written by Paul and was written to a prominent wealthy Christian named Philemon. Paul was in prison when writing this letter and interestingly it is an appeal for the forgiveness of a runaway slave.
Philemon lived in the city of Colossae located in modern day Turkey which is a considerable distance to traverse either by land or sea to reach Rome where Paul was in prison. This is where Paul came in contact with the runaway slave named Onesimus. Philemon was the slave’s owner who was converted under Paul’s ministry, and by the providence of God, after traversing hundreds of miles, this runaway slave came in contact with the one that led his master to the Lord!
After Onesimus’ conversion, he became a very useful servant of Paul, not as a slave, but as a fellow laborer for the cause of Christ. This did not change the circumstances that Onesimus had wronged his master by running away, and now that he had become a Christian, it was his duty to make amends for his criminal act.
As you can see from this description, the desire of Onesimus in seeking freedom from slavery, and the ownership of another human being by Philemon who was a Christian is terribly problematic for our understanding. Paul did not appeal to Philemon to release Onesimus on moral grounds, but asked for Philemon to receive him back without punishment. He asked for forgiveness based on the new bond that existed between them, that of brothers in the Lord.
There is not enough space here to give details about the social order of the first century which made this solution the right one and the best one for a Christian slave that had run away. Although Paul did not attack the institution of slavery directly and did not demand that Philemon give up his slave, he certainly did establish the principle of a new relationship between Christians in this predicament. Receiving Onesimus back as a brother (v. 16) ensured Philemon’s best treatment of Onesimus and Onesimus’ best service to Philemon. As unlikely as it may seem, both were satisfied and both displayed characteristics of the Saviour!
Pastor V. Mark Smith