No one knows for sure precisely why Philemon appears where it does in the New Testament, tucked between Titus and Hebrews. There is little rhyme or reason to the order of books in the New Testament. Colossians was written after the two letters to the Thessalonians, but it comes before them. Luke and Acts ought to belong together as the two volumes of a single work, but they are separated by the Gospel of John, and so on. Philemon ought to follow Colossians as it was written and sent at the same time as Colossians, was addressed to a member of the Colossian church, and brought to him by the same Tychicus who delivered Paul’s letter to the congregation. In Col. 4:7-9 we read:
“Tychicus will tell you all about my activities… [He is coming with] Onesimus, our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you.”
The return of Onesimus, as we first read in v. 10, is the subject of this short letter to Philemon.
v.1 Paul usually, though not always, identifies himself as an apostle in the opening of his letters. Here he seems to be taking a more personal tack. He is writing friend to friend; Christian brother to Christian brother. Paul is going to make a request of Philemon that involves some sacrifice on the man’s part. He will ask him, in effect, to part company with a significant piece of his property, the slave Onesimus. It will not hurt gently to remind Philemon that Paul has made many sacrifices for the gospel’s sake; indeed he is now a prisoner in Rome! Paul will, in effect, ask Philemon to do for the gospel’s sake what Paul himself had done many times over.
Here again is Archippus, who was told to fulfill his ministry in Col. 4:17. The most likely interpretation of Paul’s words, according to the conventions of the time, is that the church Paul refers to here met in the home of Philemon, not the home of Archippus. The Colossian church was sufficiently large by this time that it met in various places in the town. One congregation met at the home of Nympha, as we read in Colossians 4, another in the home of Philemon. It has long been supposed that Apphia was Philemon’s wife and Archippus his son, and while we don’t know that for sure, it seems likely. Also likely is that we have here the picture of a family united the great enterprise of the gospel. Referring to Archippus as his fellow soldier certainly indicates that Archippus was involved in the work, as we already learned in Colossians 4:17.
v.4 As we saw in Colossians chapter 1, Paul typically follows his opening address with a thanksgiving as he does here. By the way, though Apphia and Archippus were named as fellow addressees of the letter, the pronoun “you” and the possessive pronoun “yours” in all of their appearances in of vv. 4-21 are all singular. The letter was for Philemon. Nevertheless they are plural in vv. 22-25, so Paul intended the letter to be seen by others. [Lucas, 184]
v.6 Paul’s mind often raced ahead of his pen. If you wonder just what the words of v. 6 mean, join the crowd. We gather that he is praying for the sanctification of these people, their growth in holiness of life and usefulness to the Lord, but precisely what he means is another question! Most paraphrases of this sentence that you find in the commentaries are as opaque as Paul’s original sentence. Here’s one:
“…that the faith you hold in common with us all may work out in a clear intuition of every good thing that brings us into union with Christ.” [C.H. Dodd in Moule, 142]
Well, that clears it up.
v.7 Unfortunately, we don’t know the history of Paul’s previous relationship with Philemon or in what way or when Philemon may have given encouragement and assistance to Paul. When we get to v. 19 we will read something that suggests that Paul may have been instrumental in Philemon’s conversion. In all likelihood, this would have occurred during Paul’s three year ministry in Ephesus. As we noted when reading Colossians 2:1, it appears that Paul had never visited Colossae but had seen to its establishment by sending Epaphras, one of his assistants, to the town which was, after all, not far from Ephesus. We read in Acts 19:10 that during Paul’s stay in Ephesus the gospel spread outward from the great city to the towns of the province of Asia, Colossae being one of them. Was Philemon in Ephesus on a business trip when he heard the gospel from Paul? Did he come to Ephesus after hearing about Paul from Epaphras and wanting to get this new message from the horse’s mouth? We cannot say.
v.9 We don’t know how old Paul was at this point. If he was, as might be most likely, approximately sixty years of age, which you young people need to realize is really not very old at all, it remains the case that many things determine how old one is. Sixty was older in the first century than it is in the twenty-first, and Paul had packed a lot of living into the last thirty years of his life. But an old man and a prisoner is now to ask a favor of a friend. It is harder to refuse an old man and a prisoner, especially one who loves you!
v.10 The language of father and child suggests that Paul was instrumental in Onesimus’ coming to faith in Christ. How that happened we do not know but that it happened in Rome Paul says plainly: “in my imprisonment.”
v.12 Paul loved Philemon, but he loved Onesimus as well.
v.16 Now it all becomes clear: while an unbeliever Onesimus was Philemon’s slave, but now he is Philemon’s Christian brother. Verse 11 seems to suggest that while Philemon’s slave he had been unsatisfactory, perhaps an unwilling worker. Verse 18 may suggest that when he fled Philemon’s home he may have robbed his master as well. The fact is Onesimus was guilty of very serious offenses according to the law of that time and place. In other circumstances returning to his master in this way could very well lead to his death. You can certainly imagine some anxiety on Onesimus’ part as he neared Colossae with Tychicus. I can certainly imagine Onesimus saying to Tychicus more than once, “Now, he is going to read the letter before he sees me, right?”
v.20 It has been suggested and seems plausible that Paul hopes and expects that, when Paul arrives in Colossae, as he expected to do being released from his imprisonment, Philemon will give Onesimus his freedom, if he has not already done so, to accompany him on future missionary journeys.
Next Lord’s Day evening, Lord willing, I want to address the burden of this letter so far as our own lives are concerned. This evening I want to consider an important question raised by this little letter and by a number of other passages in the New Testament, viz. “Why do we not find an explicit condemnation of slavery in the Bible or in the New Testament?” The reason this is important is because so many people have cast aspersion on the Word of God because it does not contain that explicit denunciation of the institution of slavery and I want to clear the Bible from that accusation in your hearing this evening. This has often, as I said, been taken to be a defect of the Bible, an instance in which the apostles, in effect, were found to be men of their time, sharing the prejudices of their culture, unable to see that all men are created equal and that human slavery is an affront to human dignity. Some nowadays further accuse the New Testament teaching, and so Christianity, as complicit in the institution of slavery as it was practiced in the American south. Paul failed us, they say, by not saying straight away that a Christian could not own other human beings and that the Christian faith and slavery were simply incompatible. After all, didn’t slavery’s defenders in the south, such as the Presbyterian Robert Dabney appeal to the fact that slavery was regulated in the New Testament but never abolished or even condemned? Dabney argued, and I quote, that
“…the Bible teaches that the relation of master and slave is perfectly lawful and right, provided only its duties are lawfully fulfilled.” [Cited in S. Lucas, Dabney, 120]
Dabney even argued, however desperately, that God himself was a slave-holder, hardly an argument he could have made had there been an explicit condemnation of slavery in the Bible!
So it is that some, including some evangelical people whose teaching you may read or hear at one point or another, have argued that, while the Bible is the Word of God, its authors are not above failing to grasp the truth that we can see so clearly. The Bible, in other words, should have condemned slavery per se, and the fact that it did not does not reflect well on the Bible. It should have condemned slavery root and branch as it should have taught the full equality of women in the community of faith as meaning that the headship of the man in marriage must come to an end as must the reservation of the church’s offices, elder and minister and deacon, to men. The two matters are regularly brought together in the evangelical polemics of gender and slavery is used as an argument as to why we need to correct the Bible with respect to gender as we must correct it with respect to slavery. Others, in defense of the Bible, have argued that modern people mistake the nature of the social and economic situation of the ancient world, that there was no simple way to end slavery without consigning former slaves to lives of want and destitution. Others have argued that the teaching of the New Testament virtually does require the abolition of slavery, where it was possible, but in a way that did not attach to the fledgling Christian church the reputation as a dangerous, subversive, revolutionary movement to be ruthlessly crushed.
In seeking to answer this question ourselves and in seeking to gain a true understanding of the biblical viewpoint, a few preliminary observations may prove helpful.
- Slavery was a universal feature of life in the ancient world. Vast numbers of virtually any society were owned by, were the property of a relatively few others. In the Old Testament we read a great deal about slaves and slavery. The Law of Moses included elaborate provisions for the treatment of slaves: laws governing the acquiring of slaves, laws governing the length of their service, laws requiring their release under certain circumstances, and so on. But biblical slavery as we shall see was so different an institution as virtually to require a different name and there is nothing in the ancient world remotely like the teaching about slaves and masters that we find not only in the New Testament, but indeed in the Bible as whole. This is something you must remember when you are in your next conversation about this.
- God’s people knew what it was like to be slaves from their time in Egypt and they were reminded of that experience repeatedly in the Word of God. Redemption from Egypt for them had meant deliverance from the bondage of human slavery. They were to treat their slaves with kindness, respect, and dignity precisely because they knew how hard life was for a slave. There is no suggestion anywhere in the Bible, OT or NT, that people should be happy to be slaves, or that it was as good a way of life as any other. “Let my people go!” God said to Pharaoh, and the unspoken assumption of those words was that slavery is a condition of life that no good man would wish on someone else. Later in the Old Testament Israel was enslaved again and the prophets made it perfectly clear that their slavery was punishment for their sin and unbelief. If slavery is cruel punishment, then obviously according to the Bible it is a curse, not some alternative lifestyle. In Deut. 23:15, for example, there is a law that can be found in no other legal code of the ancient world, forbidding Israelites to return runaway slaves to foreign masters and requiring them to allow the runaways to settle among them. The Bible makes no bones about the fact that slavery is a curse. That is why we read Paul in 1 Cor. 7:20-21 saying that if the opportunity should arise for a slave to gain his freedom he should by all means do so. So it is clear enough that there is no sympathy for slavery in the Bible, no ignorance of its indignity, no failure to reckon with the hard lot of the slave. The accusation that the Bible takes a superficial view of slavery is demonstrably false. The Bible loves freedom and that is what his people find in Christ. Whether or not they could find social, economic, and political freedom immediately, it would eventually be theirs and meantime they were granted the greatest and the most precious freedom of all: that of membership if in the family of God!
The Bible is an intensely realistic book. It knew and did not hide the fact that one of the worst features of slavery was the opportunity it provided for a wide range of injustices. That is why the Law of Moses was so careful to curb precisely those abuses of the institution that make it so immeasurably worse than it already it. Dabney himself admitted this openly in the years before the Civil War. Slavery, he said, was a system
“where the black is punished with death for an offence for which a white man is only imprisoned for a year or two; where the black may not resist wanton aggression and injury; where he is liable to have his domestic relations violated in an instant; where the female is not mistress of her own chastity; where the slave is liable to starvation, oppression, and cruel punishments from an unprincipled master.” [Lucas, 125]
Even years later Dabney argued that if southern slavery were not reformed, if its injustices were not made unlawful and punished as unlawful, they would no longer be able to claim the Bible in support of slavery or defeat the arguments of the abolitionists. All of this, alas, he forgot when the war began. In the Bible the slave had to be treated with dignity and with justice. If the master struck his slave, for example, and knocked a tooth out, he had to set the slave free. [Exod. 21:27] If a man married a slave he had to treat her as his wife and no longer as a slave. There could be no kidnapping of people in order to enslave them or to sell them into slavery. Indeed, according to the Law of Moses, anyone who did what the slave traders did who staffed the plantations of the American south was to be put to death! [Exod. 21:27] All of that was utterly destructive of slavery as an institution in the ancient world and in more recent times, as destructive as we will see was Paul’s exhortation to Philemon here. Again, no one can read the Bible with an unprejudiced mind and believe that it is friendly to slavery. Do people remember that the Apostle Paul, in 1Tim. 1:9-10 included “slave traders” in a list of sinners that also included “murderers, the sexually immoral, liars, and so on? The accusation that Paul was weak on slavery is in effect only an accusation that he didn’t put things the way we would put things today, which is, in fact, an entirely different thing. The fact is, and this we also need to remember in our conversation with others, we think and speak about slavery today only because of the way Paul spoke about it long ago!
- On the other hand, slavery in the ancient world was a universal condition. It was not confined to a single race or even class of people. It was spread over the entire demographics of the Greco-Roman population. One of the truly odious features of British and American slavery was its being confined to a single race of people and so its identification with that race and its service as an instrument of racial hatred and racial arrogance. As you remember, it was not originally so. A number of white people came to the new world as indentured servants, that is, they had sold themselves into slavery to acquire the means to begin again in another part of the world. But, of course, they were able to work themselves out of slavery into freedom again. Hardly anyone complains about that kind of slavery nowadays, but that was almost all of the slavery actually allowed in the Bible and by the Law of Moses: a temporary condition meant to redress economic hardship and restore opportunity. In a world without banks, without bankruptcy laws, without a welfare system, one wonders precisely how someone would have otherwise escaped the ruin of financial misfortune.
- Many Christian slaves were owned by unbelieving masters; indeed most Christian slaves were owned by unbelieving masters. The question of slavery or its abolition was an entirely theoretical one for them. The question for them was not whether slavery was good or bad, they knew that, or whether it was an institution that should be reformed or abolished; that was not a possibility. The question was: as a Christian and a slave, what am I to do now? This is the question they asked and this is the question Paul answered. It was the only question and answer that mattered for most of them.
- But for the owners of slaves, the honest and heartfelt application of Paul’s gospel principles, the recognition that a believing slave was a brother in Christ, the acceptance of the fact that the slave owner was now himself a slave of the Lord Jesus Christ, all inevitably meant that the relationship between master and slave was transformed root and branch and became something more, even something much more than what we think of today as the relationship between employer and employee. Paul obviously accepts these implications as a matter of course and Philemon16 and the phrase “no longer as a slave” makes that perfectly clear. Perhaps some of the difficulty that modern western Christians have today in appreciating the way in which this issue is addressed in the Bible is due to the fact that they do not, as the early Christians so manifestly did, revel in the fact that they are the slaves of the Lord Jesus Christ. Few of them would ever think to say, as did the mid-20th century perceptive French Jewess turned Christian, Simone Weil, “Christianity is pre-eminently the religion of slaves; slaves cannot help belonging to it, and I among them.” The fact is slavery did cease to exist as an oppressive condition of life in Christian society. People were no longer identified by Christians as slaves even if they continued to be the property of someone else. As I mentioned in one of the Colossian sermons, Roman cemeteries always identify a slave as such, but you do not find people buried in the Christian catacombs identified as having been slaves.
- The inevitability of this is confirmed by the fact that Christian slave owners did in fact grant freedom to their slaves in large numbers and it was Christianity that brought an end of the formal institution in due time. People forget that it is precisely the ethics of the New Testament and no other that have led so many in the world to the conclusion that slavery cannot be tolerated. It was a Christian crusade that brought slavery to an end in the United States and, before that, that brought it to an end in the British Empire. If, alas, there were many Christians who defended the institution and participated in it and took financial gain from it, it was also Christians who finally prevailed in destroying the institution both in practice and as an idea. People forget that slavery in various forms still exists in our world today, that immense numbers of human beings are slaves by any other name and great numbers are slaves in name as well as in fact. Those people live in countries whose culture has not been transformed by the leaven of the gospel, though there are certainly slaves in the United States especially in the sex industry, but they are not enslaved, they are not owned, they are not ruled and controlled by evangelical Christians but invariably by people who are utterly devoid of Christian sentiment.
Take all of this together and it serves as a wonderful and very important recommendation of both the gospel as a liberating power in human life and the ethics of the New Testament, practical and useful in any and every life situation — even if you happen to be a slave — but altogether radical in their social and political implications. We can face, and must face the terrible disgrace that has been visited upon our holy faith by vicious forms of slavery practiced through the ages by people who called themselves Christians, we can face that and must face that, precisely because no one can read the Bible, OT or NT, and think such treatment of other human beings acceptable behavior for a Christian!
The golden rule, which the Lord Jesus cast in more radical form than you find it in other religious traditions, by itself should have eliminated the enslavement of the Indian populations of the Caribbean, the traffic in African slaves or the practice of apartheid in South Africa.
Why doesn’t Paul simply tell Philemon that Onesimus can’t any longer be his slave because Christians can’t have slaves? Why don’t we read in Philemon or in Ephesians 6 or Colossians 3 and 4 that all Christian slave owners must release their slaves at once as an act of obedience to Christ and the gospel? Well the answer to that is two-fold. First, in effect that is precisely what Paul said and second, he said it in a way that would best protect the interests of the slaves themselves, of whom there were a great many in these Christian congregations, of the slave holders, and of the gospel of Jesus Christ just then making its way out into a slave-holding world that could not imagine life without the institution of slavery.
We are aware, aren’t we; any decently educated person ought to be aware of how the argument against slavery proceeded precisely on the principles laid down in the Word of God and on no other. Whether the missionaries in Africa in the 19th century raising the hue and cry against the mistreatment of other human beings by the slavers and those who purchased their product, or those in India demanding that the British government put an end to suttee, the practice of cremating the wife upon the death of her husband as if she were nothing more than a piece of his property, or the crusade led by William Wilberforce in Britain, or the abolitionists in the United States, the argument was always a biblical one. It proceeded on principles laid down in the Word of God that can’t be found in the philosophies and the religions of the world. Frankly the anti-slavery movements throughout human history have been exclusively motivated by Christian concern and it is almost impossible to imagine those movements without the influence of the Bible!
We are more familiar with those movements. But they are hardly the only ones. One of the greatest books ever written was by the Spanish priest Bartolomé de las Casas, entitled The Only Way to Draw all People to a Living Faith. It was written in 1534 at a time when an ostensibly Christian nation, Spain, was at one and the same time protesting its concern to win the population of the West Indies to Christ while all the while the Indian women were being taken for the use of Spanish soldiers, their men worked to death in the mines, children left to starve, whole populations reduced to slavery, and, when the Indians had the temerity to protest this treatment, whole villages murdered at once. In de las Casas’ great book he argued that the only way to win the Indians to Christ was for the Spanish to treat them with love and respect, to preserve their dignity as divine image bearers, to treat them as Christians believe Christ has treated them, and to embody the good news in all their dealings with them as they preached the message of divine love to them. The argument of that great book is relentlessly biblical. We sometimes accuse Roman Catholics of being too far removed from the teaching of the Bible but you could never accuse de las Casas of that. The argument of that book is one biblical text on top of another. de las Casas had no difficulty forming his argument against the enslavement and mistreatment of the Indians from the Bible. The Spanish did not want to hear that argument and hated de las Casas for his interference in their mad dash to wealth. He was referred to as the most hated man in the Indies. But that proves not that the Bible doesn’t contain an argument against the enslavement of other human beings, it proved only that these people were not Christians at all!
What Paul urges, commands, and expects of Philemon is that he treat Onesimus in accordance with his Christian faith. And according to that faith, as Paul put it in Gal. 3:28, there is neither slave nor freeman. And, what is more, the gospel is a message about forgiveness and Jesus himself said that if we don’t forgive those who have sinned against us, then he will not forgive us our sins. Accordingly, there is a spectacular sequel to this letter to Philemon. It cannot be proved beyond any doubt, but there seems to be no reason to doubt the account of early Christian documents that report it.
Years later, in the early years of the second century, Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, while being escorted to Rome as a prisoner to face martyrdom, wrote a letter to the church in Ephesus. In the opening few lines of that letter he writes this (1:3):
“In God’s name…I received your large congregation in the person of Onesimus, your bishop in this world, a man whose love is beyond words. My prayer is that you should love him in the spirit of Jesus Christ and all be like him. Blessed is He who let you have such a bishop. You deserved it.”
So did Onesimus continue as Philemon’s slave? Apparently not. A man who had become a close associate of the Apostle Paul was a natural choice for a leader of the Ephesian church, a church not so far distant from Colossae where Onesimus, not yet a Christian, had once lived and served as a slave. Is that not what you think would have happened, Philemon being a Christian man and the argument Paul made being as irresistible as it was?
The Christian faith has always been and must always be a cultural force, a principle of transformation, a power that lifts people up, betters their lives, purifies their relationships, and makes them a friend of others. There isn’t a thing about your faith that isn’t good, not only for you, but for every single human being on the face of the earth, and not only good, but far better than that offered by any other religion or philosophy of life. I want you to have the confidence of your convictions. I want you to be proud of your Christian faith. I want you to realize what tremendous good it has visited upon the life of mankind and how immeasurably poorer the world would be without the Christian faith. The fact is Christianity did put an end to slavery as an acceptable institution of human life. No other religion did; certainly no secular ideology ever did. That is one, only one, of Christianity’s impressive accomplishments in human history.
But the need for that cultural and social transformation,even in this respect, has not disappeared. We have no chattel slaves to grant freedom, but we will find, as the early Christians did, that living by the principles of the gospel our lives will be both the repudiation of our present culture and the recommendation of another life, another society, and another future. We must never allow the radical theology and ethics of the New Testament to be domesticated in our minds. They are as fully revolutionary as ever they were in ancient days and, in a culture like ours, with people enslaved to so many things, money, pornography, drugs, alcohol, broken relationships, it is our faith that remains the only sure and certainpath to true freedomfor them or anyone else. It is ours to announce and to practice that freedom before the world, that true freedom that comes to everyone through absolute submission to Jesus Christ.