The Book of Philemon
The Book of Philemon
The book of Philemon in the Bible is a letter written to Philemon by Paul and Timothy. Apart from Philemon, Paul also addresses it to Philemon’s church and two others: Aphia and Archipuss. At the time of writing the letter, Paul was in prison. He was being persecuted for following Christ. Paul expresses his compassion and love towards Philemon through his prayer for him. He wishes Philemon favor with the Lord. Paul also commends Philemon, for the love he has showed his fellow believers. Paul then goes further to plead with Philemon to treat Onesimus with mercy and love. He wanted Philemon to welcome back Onesimus to his house. Onesimus was not to go back to Philemon as a slave but rather a fellow believer. From his encounter with Paul, Onesimus had given his life to Christ. A bond of love had greatly developed between Paul and Onesimus. Paul implored Philemon in his letter to forgive Onesimus of any wrong he had done against him. He further asks Philemon to charge Onesimus’ debts to his personal account. At this point, Paul reminds Philemon he owes him his very life. Paul’s ministry of spreading the gospel provided an opportunity for Philemon to become a believer.
The historical world focuses on ‘the world behind the text’ (Hauer & Young, 2008). The book of Philemon alludes to slavery in the Greco-Roman setup. Knowledge of slavery that was commonly practiced during the time surrounding the writing of this letter will significantly help us in understanding the context of the book. This will create a social-economic picture of the times of Philemon. Slaves were perceived to be a composition of their master’s material possessions. Slaves would emerge from different backgrounds. For some of them, their position as a slave was purely voluntary. Slaves came from different occupations. Some were doctors, while others were even philosophers. Those who became slaves voluntarily would most of the time want to acquire Roman citizenship. After becoming slaves and manumission, they would gain Roman citizenship. The Roman citizenship was one highly esteemed. Slavery was not only a business that benefited the masters. Slaves were able to sell themselves into slavery and purchase for themselves slaves. They could also buy their way out of freedom. Slavery could act as a means of elevating ones status in the society.
Onesimus was a slave of Philemon. This status was not necessarily oppressive, as it is known to be in the present times. This allows us to see why Paul did not exactly reprimand Philemon for having Onesimus as a slave. He instead sought to restore the relationship of the master and slave. He asks Philemon to view Onesimus as more than a slave. He tells him to look at him as a fellow brother in Christ. This becomes an excellent example of where grace over rides the law. The law gave Philemon the right to treat Onesimus with contempt. Grace, on the other hand, allowed him to look at Onesimus as an equal. The master-servant relationship is transformed to one of love and compassion. When talking about paying the debts that Onesimus owed Philemon, it is possible that Paul was referring to a willingness to pay work that was not done while Onesimus was away.
Paul wrote this letter while a prisoner in Rome. He had gone there in response to Jesus’ great commission. His mission was to help in spreading the gospel to every part if the world. Paul brought God’s word to the Jewish capital of Jerusalem. He went there, not as one who was liberated, but rather as one who was bound. His activities were restricted when he was held under house arrest. His arrest and guard commenced in Caesarea in the earlier years. This was before his journey to Troas and Miletus in Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, he became tangled in the judicial system. However limited his activities were while in prison, he was able to conduct ministry. Onesimus was one of those who benefited from Paul’s ministry while under house arrest.
Onesimus visited Paul while he was under house arrest. He was a run away slave. He had left his master who was Philemon. He performed important errands for Paul who was bound. He is one of the people who were ministered to by Paul while he was imprisoned.
The literary world is the environment created by the words of a writer (Hauer & Young, 2008). The bible creates a tangible world that calls its readers to get into. The book of Philemon displays the literary inclination in its chaste form. The fact that the letter is a narrative represents concerns in a tangible form. The narration creates an apt mental picture of how the run away slave was converted then sent back to his master with an epistle bearing encouragement. It resembles most slave stories where slaves escape against their masters’ wishes. At this point, the masters are usually filled with fury. They anticipate the return of their slaves so that they can administer punishment.
Paul’s letter comes out as an expression of persuasion. He tries to urge Philemon to receive his slave with compassion and love. In normal circumstances, most masters would be agitated after a slave escape. Their reception will not be one of bliss. Paul tries to reverse this. He appeals to Philemon to approach Onesimus with brotherly love. A rhetoric practice comes out from this story. The practice is one that was upheld by some Greek and Romans. Paul follows this practice. It is evident when he begins by applauding Philemon for treating his fellow believers well, and then goes to persuade him to forgive Onesimus.
The letter takes an uncluttered layout. It can be compared to letters that we are ordinarily used to writing. The ordinary letters will most of the times take the format of salutation, main message then final greetings. The book of Philemon takes a simpler approach of style as compared to the other epistles. It follows the format of greetings, main message of compassion and forgiveness then the final greetings and benediction. The letter format is an indirect means of communicating an interesting account. The psychological implication of this format is that it appeals to the emotions of the one who is being addressed. By appreciating Philemon for his love towards his fellow Christians, Paul creates an obligation for Philemon to treat Onesimus, a fellow believer, with affection.
The epistle of Philemon conveys a number of theological themes. One of these themes is forgiveness. Paul encourages Philemon to show mercy towards Onesimus who does not deserve it. This letter also shows an element of Christian community. It brings out a situation where by believers live their lives while considering those of others. Philemon’s actions would directly affect Onesimus. For this reason, Paul reminds Philemon of his Christian obligation towards Onesimus. Another theme is equality of members of the body of Christ. Though believers may acquire and hold different status in society, there exists a spiritual equality. Philemon was to acknowledge Onesimus as his brother in Christ to break the master-slave barrier.
Our understanding of the Bible is largely influenced by our environment today. Although we cannot read the Bible independent of the modern world, another approach is looking at the Bible as being relevant to our times (Hauer & Young, 2008). This implies that it speaks of and influences our worldview. The book of Philemon takes a realistic approach of some of the thematic issues in our society today. For this reason, the bible is real and relevant. This is because the concerns of the Apostle Paul in the book of Philemon can still be traced as concerns in today’s contemporary world. In the same way, his solutions would still apply to the contemporary society.
Inequality is a significant problem in our society today. An individual’s worth is most of the times pegged on the amount of property they own. Your status in society will determine the respect that will be accorded to you, in many instances. This problem is not unheard of in the body of Christ. Some believers tend to treat each other differently depending on one’s position in society. In some of our churches today, you will find some seats reserved for the ‘big earners’. There is still some sort of demarcation among believers. This division is largely influenced by social status. One of the issues discussed by Paul is that of equality of believers. He brings an ideal reaction to a real situation. The reason I call it ideal is that it goes beyond today’s norms. He calls for us to treat each other as one in Christ regardless of the positions we bear in society. Though it may sound unattainable, it is highly possible to accomplish. The possibility of this stems from the understanding that God looks at us as individuals without titles. Believers should also treat one another in the same way.
The book of Philemon also addresses the master servant relationship. Paul pleads for understanding from Philemon, but there is no mention of atrocities or evils from the side of the master. From this, it can be inferred that Philemon treated Onesimus with some sort of dignity and respect. The master-servant relationships existing today are not necessarily those of respect. A slave is treated as one, and his position is in no way an opportunity to raise his status. Slavery in the Roman times allowed for slaves to not only buy their freedom, but purchase slaves. Our society should be able to see the relevance of this. Employers should allow an opportunity for their employees to develop themselves as individuals.
Coogan, M. C. (2000). The new Oxford annotated Bible: New revised standard version. Oxford University Press.
Hauer, C. E., & Young, W. A. (2008). An introduction to the Bible: A journey into three worlds. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall.