The book of Philemon (Tim Stanley)
Updated: May 21
I love how diverse the Bible is. It really does have quite a stunning variety of literature in it, from poetry to historical account to parables to quips of wisdom to instructional letters, personal letters, apocalyptic visions, songs, and even love poetry. And sometimes combinations of different styles.
The amount of diversity makes sense. The dates of its writings span more than a thousand years, and the writers could hardly have been more different than each other. We have a warrior king, simple tradesmen like shepherds and fishermen, a cup bearer to a Persian king, a doctor, a runaway Egyptian prince, a violently religious jew turned evangelist, eccentric prophets, a begrudging prophet, and a brother of the messiah.
God sure likes to break stereotypes.
And that's what this hodgepodge collection of writers all write about. An awe inspiring God who makes all the rules and breaks all the fake rules.
For a few weeks, I'd like to take a look at one specific Biblical author. The violently religious jew turned evangelist. A person with a truly colorful life. To say the bible is boring shows fault with the reader, not the book. And the same could be said of the apostle Paul's life.
It might be a strange place to start, but one of his writings that I found to be quite curious is his shortest.
The book of Philemon
This book is only one chapter. It's simple, short, and intreaging.
The letter is written to a Collosian Christian named Philemon about a slave of his who had run away. The slave's name is Onesimus. Onesimus ran away from his master and went to Rome where he could hide among the crowds. While in Rome he meets Paul and becomes a christian and realizes the christian thing to do would be to make his relationship right with his master. It was a serious offence for a slave to run away in the Roman world. Paul askes Philemon to welcome him back with grace as a "brother" instead of a slave. Very cool.
It's a very personal letter. Some of Paul's letters were to a very large group of believers in a whole country or city, like the letter to the Romans for example. Other letters are to specific people like Titus or Timothy and therefore have a more personal feel. But what possibly makes Philemon feel even more personal is that Paul only addresses one thing in the book. He speaks to one person, Philemon, about one thing, that one thing being something in Philemon's life and no one else's. There's no looking at anyone one else's life. The focus is on you.
How would you feel about getting a personal letter from Paul? Honestly.
Well, honestly, I think I would be a lot more nervous than excited.
Paul was a seriously bold man of God. Paul was a friend that didnt let things slide in his friends lives. He even called out Peter on something. He didn't give excuses.
And yet, after I received the letter in nervousness, wondering what I might have done wrong, if I was humble and not defensive I would actually see, as I read it, that not only was he probably right, but that he really cared and loved me.
Have you ever thought about how much Paul loved people? You might have thought about his intelligence or boldness, but did you see his love? Paul begins his letter to Philemon telling him that he is thankful for him (verse 4) and that Philemon's friendship has given him great joy (verse 7). That's really nice! And when he begins to get into the issue at hand he doesn't do what you might expect. In verses 8 and 9 in the letter he says "Although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, rather I appeal to you on the basis of love". Interesting eh? Paul, who was a "giant" in the faith, so to speak, didn't use his standing to get Philemon to do what he was asking. Instead, he takes a more gentle and humble approach. He respected Philemon's own relationships with God and with Onesimus, and so he leaves the exact details of what Philemon should do up to him. He's not domineering or commanding.
And to top it off he tells Philemon that if Onesimus owes him anything that he (Paul) will pay the debt himself. Wow, very cool.
There's no doubt that Paul truly cared.
Some questions for personal reflection
Paul not only addresses this letter to Philemon but to the church where he lives.
How would you react if God wanted to use your life as an example for teaching and encouraging the church? And what if showed weakness or failure in your life? Would you be humble?
What do you think and feel about the topic of slavery in this letter? Was the slavery in ancient Rome the same as what we picture from our recent history? What is the christian response to slavery?
How much do you love those you gather for church with? Are you willing to reconcile relationships? Are you willing to forgive? Are you willing to go above and beyond and pay other's debts? Do you respect other's relationships with God?