“Big things come in small packages” is an American idiom that implies that the value of something is not always determined by its size. Such is true of books in the Bible.
For a book to be noteworthy it doesn’t need to be large like Psalms with its 150 divisions. Or filled with intriguing prophecies like Isaiah. It doesn’t demand apocalyptic images jumping off the page like Revelation. Nor does it require riveting historical narratives like Genesis.
Philemon is a little book with only one chapter. But it is unique, noteworthy, and extraordinary.
Philemon is not doctrinal, but personal. It’s a private letter of Paul to his friend asking for a favor. William Barclay opines that no man asked for fewer favors than Paul did.
Philemon contains the great qualities of love, kindness, empathy, graciousness, and Christian courtesy. It’s about forgiveness. Acceptance. And mercy.
The storyline would make an intriguing movie. Paul was a prisoner in Rome and his friend Philemon lived 1300 miles away in Colossae. While the details are unclear, it appears that Onesimus, a slave of Philemon, had stolen something from his master, escaped, and eventually ended up in Rome.
While Onesimus probably hoped to be swallowed up in a bustling city of over one million people, God, in His providence, brought Paul and the thieving slave together. As a result, Paul taught him the gospel, and Onesimus was converted to Christ.
Should Paul cooperate with the slave’s escape to freedom? Use him as a poster child for society’s sins and inequities, quit preaching Christ, and begin promoting social justice? Or as Paul suggests in the letter, ask Philemon to allow Onesimus to stay in Rome, attending to his needs?
Contrary to the thinking of some today, slavery did not originate in America. It was an accepted practice in the Greco-Roman world, as well as in previous ancient cultures. It’s estimated there were 60 million slaves in the Roman world who were treated like pieces of property to be bought and sold.
The right thing to do was for Onesimus to return to Philemon and make restitution. But their relationship had not changed. It was no longer a master-slave relationship, but one of brothers in Christ.
Under Roman law, a master could execute a rebellious slave. But if Philemon forgave Onesimus what would other masters as well as slaves think? However, if he punished him, how would it affect his Christian influence and testimony?
In this epistle that Mark Copeland describes as “ a model of Christian courtesy”, a “manifestation of Christian love,” and a “monument of Christian conversion,” Paul offers the divine answer in verses 10 and 11.
I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me.
While Paul could have “pulled rank” on Philemon and asserted his apostolic authority, he chose to appeal to his intrinsic integrity and Christian character. After commending Philemon for his deep faith, well-known example and love manifest in his ministry to all the saints, Paul appeals for his acceptance of Onesimus.
Among the six appeals found in verses 8-16, three stand out.
(1) Onesimus is no longer just a slave, but Paul’s son in the faith. Philemon’s brother in Christ. While his conversion did not change his social and legal standing, it did change his standing before God, as well as his relationship with his master.
In earlier letters, Paul taught whether bond or free, slave or master, we are one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28). Furthermore, don’t obsess about your social condition. Accept it. Whether it changes or not, you can still serve the Lord, glorify God, and faithfully discharge your Christian duties (1 Cor. 7:17-24). Societal inequities do not override or negate our spiritual responsibilities.
(2) Onesimus’ name literally means profitable, but he became unprofitable. Philemon means “affectionate.” Now both have an opportunity to live up to their name. Onesimus can become useful in a way he never was previously, and Philemon can demonstrate brotherly kindness and affection. What about us? Are we living up to our name, Christian?
(3) Paul implies the possibility that God’s providence was at work in this whole scenario (v. 15-16). He wasn’t dogmatic, but said, “perhaps.” Paul Earnhart once observed that you can only understand providence retrospectively. We see God’s providence at work in the nation of Israel. In the lives of the Patriarchs. In Joseph’s rise to power in Egypt. And in Esther’s role in saving her people in Persia. Who knows how God may work today, even in difficult and trying times, to work His will and affect a greater good in our lives?
–Ken Weliever, The Preacherman