By far, the Epistle to Philemon qualifies as the shortest of all of the Apostle Paul’s epistles, and it may also be his most personal. His main purpose for writing it was to ask a favor of his friend, Philemon. One of Philemon’s slaves, Onesimus, had run away to be with the Apostle without first having gained Philemon’s permission. To avert certain disaster, Paul wrote to Philemon asking him to release Onesimus and to do him no harm, and he sent the letter by the hand of Onesimus. Imagine! A runaway slave returns to his Roman master with a letter from a Jew who asks the Roman to free his slave and not to punish him! As far-fetched as it may sound, this is indeed what happened. That it did happen is a testimony to the power of the gospel of Christ to change lives and to alter people’s perceptions of one another.
The first few verses clearly indicate that Paul and Philemon were friends. From verse 19, we can easily infer that Philemon had likely been converted to Christianity under the preaching of Paul, and not only him but his wife, Apphia, and a man named Archippus, who many believe to be his son. Most likely, Onesimus heard Paul preach, believed, and was baptized at the same time. A church was formed and met in Philemon’s house indicating more than just the three person’s named belonged to it. Who all these other people may have been, Paul says nothing except to mention Epaphras whom he called, “my fellowprisoner in Christ Jesus.” Paul wrote of this man at the close of his epistle to the Colossians (Col. 4:12), which makes it likely that Epaphras and Philemon lived in or near Colossae.
Onesimus must have come to Paul when he was under house arrest in Rome. There for some unspecified time he labored with Onesimus and during this time of labor, he became quite attached to the lad. Moreover, he found Onesimus to be useful to him and others as a minister, but this brought up a grave concern. Onesimus might find it difficult or even dangerous to serve as a minister with this dark cloud hanging over him. In addition, Philemon was Paul’s friend and partner in the Lord. Paul’s conscience compelled him to do the right thing by his friend, and he must have Onesimus make things right with Philemon. If Onesimus is to go about as a minister of the Lord, he must be able to do so free-and-clear of his obligations to Philemon.
Paul was a true Apostle of our Lord and, as such, occupied a position of authority that deserved the respect of all who belonged to the church. Philemon was doubly indebted to Paul because it was under Paul’s preaching that Philemon believed. If Paul had wanted, he could have exerted his authority as an Apostle and leveraged the goodwill he had gained from Philemon and demanded that Philemon simply let Onesimus go. Paul could have even decided not to ask for Philemon’s permission because, after all, he was the great Apostle Paul. But Paul chose to make things right by his friend, so he went the route of writing him a letter as a brother to his brother. He did not make any demands but kindly and humbly asked Philemon for his permission to release Onesimus without pain of punishment and to treat him as “a brother beloved.”
We have every reason to believe that Philemon acted in accord to Paul’s expectations and released Onesimus from his obligations; maybe even granting him his freedom. Such is the power of the gospel to free men’s minds from society’s prejudices and in its ability to show us all to be equals in the kingdom of God. Though this epistle is his smallest, it nevertheless portrays the kingdom of God in a way unmatched in any of his other epistles by giving us an up-close-and-personal view of its inner-workings as it really was and how it really ought to be.
We must remark further on the procedure the Apostle Paul used to handle the return of Onesimus. Paul chose to write a letter to Philemon asking him essentially to grant the release of Onesimus into his care. By doing this, Paul showed a healthy respect for both Philemon and the friendship they shared. He demonstrated a desire to retain fellowship with his brother in Christ. Such thoughtfulness provides a fine pattern for us today when handling the transfer of a brother’s or sister’s membership from one church to another. All local churches are autonomous and answerable ultimately to the Lord, but autonomy does not preclude or obviate the fact that churches of the same faith and order are tied together by the bonds of fellowship. We ought to want to maintain good relations with our sister churches, just like the Apostle Paul wanted to keep Philemon his friend and brother. It is a blessing to have a healthy peace and unity among churches and we ought to cherish it and work diligently to keep it in place. It is as the Psalmist wrote in Psalms 133:1, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!”
To have friends, one first show himself friendly (Proverbs 18:24), and, to keep fellowship, we must show respect to our sister churches. One way we do this is to ask them for permission before we accept into our membership one of their members. As Paul with Philemon, we must be mindful not to presume on the good will that may exist between us and a sister church. We must see each other as partners in the Lord like Paul saw Philemon, and, for a partnership to flourish, there must be a strong sense of trust and respect for one another. Let us all endeavor as the Apostle Paul did with Philemon to maintain peaceful relations with our sister churches. In this world where the Cause of Christ is often trampled underfoot, we need each other more than ever. May we remember the wise, kind-hearted, and noble gesture of Paul, and endeavor to emulate it in any and all our relations with our sister churches, to the glory of our Lord, to the edification of all, for the preservation of peace and unity, and for the sake of the Cause of Christ.
- Michael L. Montgomery
- Midlothian, Texas
- September 21, 2014