The apostle Paul writes a letter from a prison cell. Handing the letter to his new friend through the bars, Paul tells him to take it home to his master. This friend is a runaway slave. Going home means severe punishment, maybe death. Why would Paul ask this of him?
The slave trusts Paul though. Paul has brought to eternal salvation. Perhaps Paul can now save him from his master’s wrath. Besides, as a slave he will not survive long apart from his master in the harsh Roman society.
He returns and hands the note to his angered master. While he anxiously awaits the verdict, he envisions two possible scenarios. His master may accept Paul’s message, welcoming him home, or reject it, tearing the letter up. Hoping for mercy but expecting punishment the slave waits.
Two thousand years later, this letter survives, canonized in the New Testament as Paul’s Epistle to Philemon. Though it is less than a page in length, this letter accomplished more for the slave than he could have imagined. It seems that even in prison Paul had his successes.
In writing the letter, Paul hopes to attain mercy for his friend, Onesimus. More than this though, he aims to transform the master’s entire mindset. He attempts this by offering this master, Philemon, to ascertain the significance the crucified Lord might have upon his relationship with Onesimus. See, Philemon is also a Christian, a friend of Paul. He yet has something to learn from Paul about being a Christian.
For Paul, to become a Christian is to be adopted(Galatians 3:29). While a Roman man would adopt an orphan in order to acquire a male heir to ensure his family’s survival, Paul speaks of a God who has become the father of many adopted children at his own expense. In Jesus, the Gentiles have been adopted into the family of God. Acting as a surrogate for God, Paul speaks of Onesimus as his own son to make this clear to Philemon. Paul is adamant that Onesimus no longer belongs to Philemon. This slave is now Paul’s son.
I am appealing to you for my child, whose father I have become during my imprisonment(1:10).
Onesimus has been removed from one family and been grafted into Paul’s. As such, Philemon can no longer view Onesimus as his property. To do so would be to do violence to Paul. Philemon does not yet understand, but he and Onesimus are siblings, both graciously adopted by God. From now on, Onesimus and Philemon are not slave and master, but beloved brothers.
Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord(1:16).
Paul has made a claim on the life of Onesimus and brought him into his own family, the family of God, where “there is neither slave nor freedman”(Galatians 3:28). In doing so, he has pressured Philemon to act in light of this new reality. Paul asks only that he treat Onesimus as he would treat Paul. As his son, Onesimus is Paul’s very heart(1:12), and should be welcomed as if he were the Apostle himself(1:17). To do any less would be to reject the very one who brought Philemon his salvation. “I say nothing about your owing me even your own self”(1:19). Philemon owes everything to Paul, and thus everything to God, who adopted him out of grace. How can he offer anything to Onesimus but mercy?
Next, Paul asks Philemon to consider if he can treat Onesimus as a slave at all. He states that he desires his son, Onesimus, to remain with him from now on(1:13). Philemon is to complete a certain “good deed”(1:14). In light of Paul’s desire, this good deed should unequivocally be taken as the release of Onesimus from his bonds.
Paul could demand this explicitly but he “preferred to do nothing without your consent”(1:14). Here he teaches Philemon to think as a Christian, to be transformed by Jesus. The truth is Paul has sent Onesimus back so that they might not remain estranged but be reconciled as brothers.
Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, describes how brothers in Christ are to treat each other. In declaring the two brother, Paul is encouraging Philemon to ask what it means to “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross”(Philippians 2:5-8). What does it mean for Philemon to worship the Lord who took on the form of a slave?
The adoption enacted by God and made evident by Paul has radically altered the master and slave relationship, effectively replacing it with a fraternal one. One should ask, can slavery exist in any meaningful way between people who “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves”(Philippians 2:3)?
Paul has accomplished what he set out to do. He has entirely disarmed Philemon. Philemon may be able to demand retribution from a slave, but can he from a beloved brother in the family of a gracious God? How can he make demands of Paul’s child, when he himself owes Paul his entire life?
Having finished the letter, Philemon is running out of time to act. Paul writes he will be visiting him once he is freed from his own bonds(1:22).
Philemon takes a deep breath. His eyes slowly lift from the paper and onto Onesimus who is fidgeting, staring at the ground. Hearing those words never before spoken between master and slave, Onesimus lifts his face. “Welcome home, brother.”
Taking him into his arms, Philemon continues, “Our friend Paul needs you to be with him from now on. Let me give you money for your trip.”