Online Bible Commentary
Slavery is Not Christian
Philemon 1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved friend and fellow laborer, 2 to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4 I thank my God, making mention of you always in my prayers, 5 hearing of your love and faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints, 6 that the sharing of your faith may become effective by the acknowledgment of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus. 7 For we have great joy and consolation in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you, brother. (NKJV)
The Book of Philemon is the shortest letter written by the Apostle Paul in the Bible. The letter was written about A.D. 61 during Paul’s house arrest in Rome.
Paul’s letters are listed in the New Testament according to the length of the letter. Therefore, this letter was listed last, and was placed just before the Book of Hebrews.
The early church fathers attributed the Book of Hebrews to Paul, but this was later disputed. Therefore, in the Bible Hebrews is not listed as a letter of Paul’s.
The letter of Philemon was written to a citizen of Colossae by the name of Philemon. Colossae was a small city located in southwestern Asia Minor, present day Turkey.
Colossae was located near Ephesus, Hierapolis and Laodicea. During Paul’s second missionary journey he rented a hall in Ephesus for three and a half years and trained ministers. These ministers were then sent out to start churches nearby, which included the above-mentioned cities.
Philemon was converted to Christianity by Paul in Ephesus during Paul’s time there. Philemon then returned to his home in Colossae and started a house church.
The early church met in private homes, called house churches. It was not until the third century that church buildings were erected.
The occasion of Paul’s letter to Philemon had to do with a slave named Onesimus. Onesimus was a slave of Philemon, thought to be one of many.
Philemon was thought to be of some wealth, since his home was large enough to host a house church and he also had many slaves.
Onesimus had defected from Philemon. He either ran away from Philemon’s home or he escaped while on an errand for Philemon.
Either way, he was a fugitive. Verse 18 of this letter also suggests that he may have escaped with some of Philemon’s money.
Onesimus apparently tried to hide in a large city and went to Rome. While in Rome, he ran into Paul and Paul converted him to Christianity.
Onesimus’ name means “useful”, and, fittingly, he became very useful to Paul’s ministry. However, upon discovering that he was a runaway slave, Paul knew that he would have to turn in Onesimus to his owner. So, Paul was sending Onesimus back to Philemon, with this letter.
While slavery is not consistent with Christian beliefs, it was the law of the land. So, Paul decided to write this letter on Onesimus’ behalf. His hope was that Philemon would grant Onesimus his freedom.
In this passage, Paul begins by writing “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother” (v. 1a). Paul, as a Christian, was a bondservant, a slave, of Jesus Christ.
In that way, he was “a prisoner of Christ Jesus”, as are all of us Christians. In a literal sense, Paul was also a prisoner, being under house arrest in Rome. Since all that happens to us passes through God’s sovereign will, Paul was literally a “prisoner of Christ Jesus”.
So, Paul begins the letter by sending greetings from himself, and his “brother’ in Christ, Timothy. Timothy was a faithful helper of Paul’s in the ministry and Paul considered him to be the son he never had.
Paul continues “To Philemon our beloved friend and fellow laborer, to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house” (v. 1b-2). The greeting was written to Philemon, whom Paul describes as a “beloved friend and fellow laborer”, and others.
The others to whom the greeting is addressed include Apphia, thought to be the wife of Philemon, who is referred to as “the beloved”. Also included is Archippus, thought to be their son, who is referred to as a “fellow soldier”, a fellow Christian worker.
Finally, the greeting is addressed to the “church in your house”. This is a reference to the members of the house church that meets in Philemon’s home.
Next, Paul renders his customary Christian greeting “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (v. 3). Notice that the greeting references the equality of the Godhead, with the Father and Jesus being equal.
After his greeting to Philemon, his family and house church, Paul launches into the body of his letter. His letter is a very personal appeal to Philemon, himself, from his spiritual father, Paul.
Paul writes “I thank my God, making mention of you always in my prayers” (v. 4). Paul constantly keeps Philemon in his prayers.
Next Paul writes “hearing of your love and faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints” (v. 5). His prayers stem from what he hears from the works of Philemon, specifically the love and faith that he has towards Jesus and the Saints, his fellow Christians.
Another rendering is that the “love” is only directed to the saints and the “faith” is only directed to Jesus. The reasoning is that fellow Christians cannot share faith to one another. But the next verse, verse 6, seems to eliminate that rendering.
In verse 4 Paul began by writing “I thank my God”. He, then completes that statement by writing that for which he is thankful. He writes “that the sharing of your faith may become effective by the acknowledgment of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.” (v. 6).
Here, Paul indicates that the faith can, indeed, be shared among Christians and non-Christians, as well as Jesus. Paul is thankful to God for the faith of Philemon which is “effective” because of Philemon’s relationship with Christ. Philemon has been greatly used by God.
Paul completes this passage by writing “For we have great joy and consolation in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you, brother.” (v. 7). Philemon’s ministry has created “great joy and consolation in your love” in the hearts of Paul and his fellow workers in Rome.
The reason for this feeling is that the “hearts of the saints have been refreshed” by Philemon’s ministry. Those whom Philemon has ministered to have been “refreshed”, encouraged, in the faith.
His ministry, indeed, has been very beneficial to the Christians in Colossae. He has shown his love towards them.
Philemon, whose name is a derivative of phileo and means love, has demonstrated his love to God and his fellow Christians by his service. Paul is sincere in his compliments to Philemon.
Perhaps, he is also preparing Philemon to show his Christian love to Onesimus by releasing him as his slave. No matter the law, slavery is not consistent with the Christian faith.