The Epistle to Philemon is one book that makes you think, “What in the world was the early church thinking when they put this in the Bible?”
Philemon is very short -25 verses, 445 words, one chapter- and very, very light on theology. And by light, I mean there is none at all. Philemon is simply a letter from Paul to his acquaintance Philemon, asking for the slave Onesimus to be welcomed back with love and care, after an apparent falling out between the slave and his master.
And that’s it. It’s basically a note.
So what can we pull from it?
Well, it;s another good example of the personal Paul we’ve been encountering over the last couple of days. If you want to know Paul, if you want to get a feel for who he was and what he like and how he communicated to friends and loved ones on a personal level, then this is a great book for that.
In Philemon, we see Paul as we very rarely see him: humble, deferential, brown-nosing a bit, trying to praise and flatter Philemon as much as possible, so he will do what Paul is asking.
Martin Luther very accurately called this letter “holy flattery.”
We don’t know why Onesimus left Philemon-or if perhaps he was cast out. We don’t know where they were from. We can infer from verse 2 that Philemon was highly regarded enough to host a church in home. We don’t know the outcome of this letter, whether Philemon accepted Onesimus, whether he freed him or not, whether he punished him and sold him or what. All we know is what we read here, which is not much.
We can infer a bit of Paul’s theology tangentially here, since we have a good idea of his ideas overall. Paul was always interested in reconciliation. Here, he writes specifically to implore Philemon to practice reconciliation, and forgiveness, to live the Christian example in relation to Onesimus.
We also know Paul had an eschatology of immanence, so he likely believed it wouldn’t be long before the return of Christ and the breaking down of social barriers, meaning soon Onesimus and Philemon would truly be brothers and equals, thus Philemon should practice that Kingdom outlook here.
We know Paul was a product of his times, and something like slavery was so commonplace that if never occurred to Paul to advocate for abolition or manumission of slaves. It was just the natural order of things. As one commentary notes, for Paul to be an “abolitionist would have been at the same time an insurrectionist, and the political effects of such a movement would have been unthinkable.”
Paul’s eschatology prevented him from being one to rock the boat much, as he believed all this world was passing away soon anyways. He wasn’t out for political and social revolution; he was working to reconcile people and to make followers of Christ. Those who once used Philemon as justification for the continuance of slavery were not only morally and ethically compromised, but also dismissive of historical context for Scripture.
There isn’t much to work with in Philemon, but that doesn’t meaning there’s nothing. Getting to know Paul, getting a glimpse into his world and live and relationships-what a great opportunity from such a short work.
Next: Philippians 4:10-20