Monday, February 20, 2023

Introduction (Philemon)

It may seem strange that I would bother writing about Philemon, considering its brevity, as well as its apparent lack of meaning. I have read through Philemon many times, I have listened to great teachers explain its message, and I have been surprised at just how much people miss when they study through the book. When I mention the “apparent lack of meaning”, I am describing the way that people will so quickly dismiss this letter, and dismiss with it one of the greatest examples of how to conduct ourselves as Christians.

For several months, I was frustrated by Philemon. Why is this book even in the Bible? Nobody can tell me what it means, yet it is still in my New Testament! Surely, if Philemon has been included in the Bible, it must have some importance, right? After studying Philemon for several months, I have come to understand how it not only belongs in the Bible, it is incredibly important for us to understand as Christians. There are many different ideas about what Philemon means, but there are a few interpretations that I find to be more plausible than the others. Of the people to teach about Philemon, none can compare to the explanation of N.T. Wright. I have listened to one of his sermons about Philemon (several times, as it is a rather good sermon), and I have made his commentary of Colossians and Philemon one of the books that I go to whenever I have a question about Philemon. Just in case anybody is interested in the specific commentary that I used for a lot of this series, the commentary in question is part of the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries.

Let us begin our verse-by-verse study through the book of Philemon.

In order to truly understand what Paul meant in his letter to Philemon, we must understand the circumstances surrounding said letter. The letter was written by Paul, and, as far as I am aware, Paul’s authorship of this letter is virtually undisputed. I have made remarks about the way people will debate whether or not Daniel actually wrote the book of Daniel, whether Paul actually wrote Romans, and so on, but such a debate does not exist around the author of Philemon. As for why the vast majority of people agree that Paul wrote Philemon, the most compelling argument in favor of Paul being the author is the way in which the letter was written. Paul writes with the boldness that comes from the Holy Spirit, yet he does so in a way that is gracious, loving, and witty, while showing his full cognizance of the issues that he writes about in his letter. Paul appeals to Philemon, not as a teacher appeals to a student, or as a parent appeals to a child, but as a brother appeals to a brother. Paul is one of the many members of the Church, which is the same Church that both Philemon and Onesimus are a part of.

Despite the letter to Philemon being the shortest of Paul’s letters (at least, those that we have in our New Testament), it is interesting to note how this letter is longer than most secular letters of the time.

Now, to whom was the letter written? The letter begins with Paul identifying himself as the author, mentioning Timothy, and addressing the letter to “Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house”. Timothy is mentioned as being with Paul, but it is worth noting that Paul never says that Timothy is a fellow prisoner. Timothy is referred to as “our brother”, as in a brother in Christ to Paul, Philemon, and the other members of the Church.

There are different theories regarding the addressee(s) of Philemon, but I firmly believe that Philemon is the person to whom this letter was addressed. I will explain more about my reasoning in the next essay. For the time being, let us agree that the letter of Philemon was written by Paul, to Philemon.

Who is this letter about? There are several additional names that Paul mentions in his letter to Philemon, but only three individuals are of enough importance to warrant discussing them for an extended amount of time. The first of these individuals is Paul, formerly known as Saul. This Paul is the same Paul who wrote the majority of the books that we have in our New Testament, and has done the Church a tremendous service in explaining the more complex portions of Christian theology. Paul presents logical arguments, deconstructs counterarguments, and does it all in love. Paul is the author of the letter to Philemon, and Paul’s writing shows us how it should look when a Christian speaks to another Christian. I love Paul, and the majority of the Scripture that the Holy Spirit has quickened to my heart was written by Paul, so I have a tremendous amount of admiration for the man. Paul is one of the most important figures in the history of the Church, and for good reason. This essay is about the context surrounding the letter to Philemon, not about the life of Paul, so I will move on to the next person we are going to be focusing on.

The second notable individual in this letter is a man named Philemon. As one might guess, Philemon was named after Philemon. Who is Philemon? Based on the text of the letter (which we will examine more closely later in this study), Philemon is a brother in Christ, he is a Christian in Colosse, and is likely somebody who converted to Christianity as a direct result of Paul’s ministry. The letter to Philemon is written in a way that suggests that Philemon knew Paul on a personal level, which makes the entire letter even more important than it would have been had Paul never known Philemon. This letter is not only about a delicate subject, it is a letter to a friend, about a friend, from a friend.

Finally, the third notable figure in the letter to Philemon is a man named Onesimus. Onesimus was not just a man that Philemon was acquainted with, Philemon was Onesimus’ owner. Onesimus was a slave, and he had been owned by the man to whom Paul addresses his letter. Why is Onesimus not with Philemon? What is the issue? Why does Paul have the opportunity to write to Philemon at all?

This brings us to the main point of the letter to Philemon: we must all unite around the Gospel. In order to fully understand the situation that Paul is writing about here, we must understand that slavery, while incredibly evil, was not the same then as it was in the United States. As an American, my initial response to the word “slavery” is to think of the slavery that took place in the early days of the United States. The slavery of Philemon’s time was evil, but it was far from the slavery that took place in America. As N.T. Wright explains, regarding Paul’s hesitancy to instruct Philemon to give up his slaves, such an instruction would be like telling people to give up their cars. We all know that burning fuel is not good for our environment, and we all know the danger that comes with being in a moving vehicle. Many people have discussed ways that humans can stop using cars, or switch to something safer and less harmful to the environment, but we all understand that to require everybody in the world to give up cars right now would be virtually impossible. Another example that Wright makes is that Paul protesting slavery would have been like a person today protesting the mortgage system. Slavery is evil, but it would have served no good for Paul to have addressed it in his letter to Philemon. In fact, if Paul had attacked slavery, he would have caused serious issues between the authorities and the Church. That being said, Paul is telling Philemon to release Onesimus, to forgive him, and to treat him as a brother in Christ. Nowhere in this letter, nor anywhere else in the Bible, is there any support for slavery.

How did Onesimus end up around Paul? Based on what Paul writes in his letter to Philemon, we know that Onesimus was a slave, and that he had run away from Philemon, who was Onesimus’ master. Paul, being Jewish, knew what the Bible says about treating runaway slaves:

“You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you.” [Deuteronomy 23:15, ESV]

Paul could not send Onesimus back. Even if the Bible did not teach us that we are not to return a runaway slave to his or her master, Paul would not have wanted to send Onesimus back to Philemon, given how the punishment for a runaway slave was often death. Paul, being full of the Holy Spirit, recognized an opportunity to intervene in the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus. Paul is in prison, but even during his imprisonment, he preaches the Gospel, which led Onesimus to accept Christ as his Lord and Savior. Rather than Paul telling Philemon to forgive Onesimus and act as if nothing had ever happened, Paul tells Philemon to forgive Onesimus, and to treat Onesimus not as a slave, but as a brother in Christ. Such a request would have been crazy, had it not been motivated by the Holy Spirit. Verse 19 appears to confirm that Philemon was brought to Christ as a result of Paul’s ministry, so Paul had a much greater amount of power in what he wrote. Paul led both Onesimus and Philemon to Christ, and now he wants to have the two reconcile, unite in their shared love for Christ, and live according to the love that Christ showed each of us.

I would like to conclude this introduction by quoting a portion of N. T. Wright’s commentary, which does an excellent job of explaining why Philemon is such an important part of the Bible:

“The letter to Philemon appears to pose in a peculiarly acute form the problem of hermeneutics - of how we, today, can appropriate this part of Scripture for ourselves. This letter was written to a private individual in a unique situation in the life of his household. But no part of the New Testament more clearly demonstrates integrated Christian thinking and living. It offers a blend, utterly characteristic of Paul, of love, wisdom, humour, gentleness, tact and above all Christian and human maturity. The epistle’s chief value is not that it is a tract about slavery, for it is not that. It is a letter which, at one level ‘about’ koinȯnia, Christian fellowship and mutual participation, is at a far deeper level an outworking, in practice, of that principle. That which it expounds, it also exemplifies. It is a living fragment of the life of Christ, working itself out in the lives of human beings so different from  us and yet so similar. Perhaps the only hermeneutical principle we need here is the crisp command, issued in another context where custom and faith were in collision: go, and do thou likewise.”


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Introduction (Philemon)

It may seem strange that I would bother writing about Philemon, considering its brevity, as well as its apparent lack of meaning. I have r...