Philemon is one of the shortest books in the Bible, and often overlooked (at least by me). It is easy to miss the significance of this letter, but there is a lot going on in these 25 verses! One commentary I read suggested that this little letter is a “brilliant affirmation of Christian ethics” and “altered humanity’s attitude toward the institution of slavery” more than any other document. Wow, and all that in 25 verses!
The context of this letter is Paul writing to a beloved co-worker Philemon on behalf of a runaway slave Onesimus. Philemon was an early convert of Paul and likely a man of means as a church in Colossae met in his home and he owned slaves. Onesimus was his slave who ran away and perhaps even stole money from Philemon. Through God’s providence, Onesimus meets Paul in Rome and becomes a Christian. Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon to set things right, and makes a bold request for his freedom.
A couple takeaways from this letter for me:
1. Paul models leadership rooted in love and friendship instead of power and authority. Although he could have demanded Philemon do the right thing, he preferred to simply ask because of their love. In pursuing the right thing, Paul makes sure he doesn’t hurt Philemon in the process. He is bold in his request for sure, but Paul demonstrates that how we do things as Christians is very important.
2. Onesimus models courage and obedience. Perhaps through Paul’s guidance, he knew he had to set things right with Philemon. However, as a slave, he could have been treated very harshly upon his return. Despite the unknown consequences in front of him, Onesimus sets out to return to Philemon to make things right. That is what Christians do.
In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul tells us that we are ambassadors for Christ, given a wonderful ministry of reconciliation. I feel like Philemon is a window into what this ministry of reconciliation looks like in real life. In this letter, Paul is faithfully practicing what he preaches. Onesimus has been reconciled to God through Christ, and now he is being reconciled with his former owner Philemon. And all of this is being done in and through love.
Although we don’t know how Philemon responded, I feel confident that he responded by doing the right thing. The name Philemon means “affectionate” or “kiss” in Greek. He loved the people of God and was likely a generous man. Someday we will find out how he actually responded, and I look forward with anticipation to hearing how Philemon completed the ministry of reconciliation by forgiving Onesimus and welcoming him back as a brother in Christ.