Did you know that most of the books that comprise the New Testament are actually letters? These letters (also known as “epistles”) contain both general Christian teaching and specific instructions for the congregation to which they were addressed. As part of our Letters to the Church series, we’re taking a brief look at each epistle in the New Testament. This week, we look at Paul’s shortest and most challenging letters.
Paul’s Letter to Philemon
Start reading it here: Philemon 1
When was it written? Around A.D. 60, during one of Paul’s stretches of imprisonment in Rome.
To whom was it written? Philemon and Apphia (possibly husband and wife), members of the Colossian Christian church.
Why was it written? Like many people who lived in the Roman empire, Philemon was a slave owner. One of his slaves, Onesimus, had escaped and converted to Christianity—and Paul wrote an impassioned plea to Philemon to welcome Onesimus back as a brother in Christ, and to release him from slavery.
What does it say? This very short letter (just a few hundred words in length) packs quite a punch, dealing as it does with an incredibly sensitive topic: slavery. Paul had befriended the escaped slave Onesimus, but was now sending him back to his owner… with a strong request that Onesimus be freed.
This letter evokes many different reactions in modern readers and raises difficult questions about how Christians should respond to social evils like slavery. Paul does not challenge Philemon’s legal right to own slaves, or to punish them for escaping—but he also challenges Philemon to rise above his legal rights and treat Onesimus as a free man and fellow Christian. Some readers may be disappointed that Paul does not more directly challenge the injustice of the institution of slavery (which was a widespread practice at the time). Other readers are struck by Paul’s insistence that the gospel of grace takes precedence over human laws and privileges.
We don’t know how Philemon and Apphia responded to this unusual letter, but the tone of Paul’s letter (and his confidence in sending Onesimus back to his master) suggest that Paul expected his request to be granted.
- Philemon 1:8: Paul knows he could simply order Philemon to free Onesimus, but instead he chooses to challenge Philemon to do the right thing of his own volition.
- Philemon 1:15-16: Philemon might have considered Onesimus’ escape to be a great injustice, but Paul offers a different perspective.
- Philemon 1:17-21: Offering to pay any of Onesimus’ debts, Paul removes any last excuse Philemon might have used to reject Paul’s request.
What can we learn from Philemon? Philemon is a picture of the gospel of Jesus Christ at work in a corrupt and unjust world: the brutal and often inhumane Roman empire. Paul’s letter might not be exactly what we expect, but in the context of Paul’s world, it’s a message of revolutionary grace. In Christ’s kingdom, all stand equal as human beings loved by God. What unjust rights or privileges do we enjoy today, that God calls us to renounce with acts of grace?
Consider these questions as you read Philemon today:
- Why do you think Paul didn’t simply use his authority as an apostle to order Philemon to do the right thing?
- Why do you think Paul restricted his request to the case of Onesimus, rather than more generally challenging the morality of slave ownership?
- How does this letter inform our reaction to legally-endorsed social evils?