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Philemon and Slavery
It is very fitting in itself that Paul’s one private letter left for us (Philemon) should be an earnest plea and fervent expression of love and unity for a slave — a class that was then treated as less than human. Paul calls him his son, his brother, and his own heart.
Slavery in the New Testament
Christianity emerged within the Roman empire, during a time in which the worst forms of slavery were common. Unlike the Hebrews of ancient Israel, early Christians were living in a society over which they had virtually no influence, and in which the legal systems were totally beyond their control. Many people who became converted to Christianity would have already owned slaves, and would have inherited well established Roman cultural attitudes to slaves and slavery, which were anathema to the gospel and the teaching of Christ. How did early Christianity address the issue of slavery in such an environment?
A Characteristic Of Paul’s Letters: Tenderness
The tenderness and delicacy of this epistle have long been admired:
Agreements Between The Epistles to the Colossians and Philemon
The singular correspondency between this epistle and that to the Colossians has been remarked already. An assertion in the Epistle to the Colossians, namely, that “Onesimus was one of them,” is verified, not by any mention of Colosse, any the most distant intimation concerning the place of Philemon’s abode, but singly by stating Onesimus to be Philemon’s servant, and by joining in the salutation Philemon with Archippus; for this Archippus, when we go back to the Epistle to the Colossians, appears to have been an inhabitant of that city, and, as it should seem, to have held an office of authority in that church. The case stands thus. Take the Epistle to the Colossians alone, and no circumstance is discoverable which makes out the assertion, that Onesimus was “one of them.” Take the Epistle to Philemon alone, and nothing at all appears concerning the place to which Philemon or his servant Onesimus belonged. For anything that is said in the epistle, Philemon might have been a Thessalonian, a Philippian, or an Ephesian, as well as a Colossian. Put the two epistles together, and the matter is clear. The reader perceives a junction of circumstances, which ascertains the conclusion at once. Now all that is necessary to be added in this place is, that this correspondency evinces the genuineness of one epistle, as well as of the other. It is like comparing the two parts of a cloven tally. Coincidence proves the authenticity of both.
Circular Letter to the Ephesian Laodiceans?
Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, to the saints which are at Ephesus, and to the faithful in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 1:1)
Onesimus and Philemon Were From Colossae
With Onesimus, a faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. (Colossians 4:9)
Philemon: An Entire Letter By Hand
The salutation by the hand of me Paul. Remember my bonds. Grace be with you. Amen. (Colossians 4:18)
Tychicus: One of the Ephesians?
But that ye also may know my affairs, and how I do, Tychicus, a beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord, shall make known to you all things.” (Ephesians 6:21)
After reading this short epistle it would be well to read the last twelve verses of the Epistle to the Colossians, especially noting the various names that are mentioned by Paul. No less than eight of those mentioned in Philemon 1 are found in Colossians, and several of them in a way that throws light upon their history.
The Epistle to Philemon
The epistle to Philemon is the shortest of all the canonical letters of Paul. Conjoining Timothy with him in the salutation, as he had done to that addressed to all the Colossian saints, he here addresses, in company with Philemon and Apphia his wife, Archippus, a labourer in the Word, and the Church in Philemon’s house, sending the letter, not by Tychicus, but most likely by the one who was most deeply and personally interested in its contents.
An Exposition of the Epistle of Paul to Philemon
This letter, an appendix to the Pastoral Epistles, has a character of its own; so much so that those, whose mania it has been to doubt its genuineness as an inspired communication of the apostle, have without difficulty put together some slight appearances on which to build their destructive argument. Indeed Dr. Ellicott, one sees, does not include the letter to Philemon, but gives those only to Timothy and Titus as the Pastoral Epistles; and in this he does not differ from others. Nevertheless, allowing a marked difference, it is their beautiful complement and follows them so naturally that we may without violence class them together, rather than leave the letter to Philemon absolutely isolated.
Companions of Paul: Onesimus
Paul, while dwelling in his Roman hired house,¹ made the acquaintance of Onesimus, a runaway slave from Colosse. His master, wealthy Philemon, whom he had robbed, was a brother in the Colossian Ecclesia, having been taught the truth by Paul.
Christianity and Slavery
While inculcating principles, which, if accepted and acted upon, would have destroyed the essence of despotism and slavery, transformed every despot, in fact, into a just and beneficent sovereign, every slave-owner into a kind master, like Philemon, and every slave into a freeman in all but the name—nay, into a “brother beloved”—the Apostles refrained from a crusade against despotism and slavery as political institutions. Both had so long and extensively prevailed, and the latter was so universally sanctioned, that they could not be extirpated by any summary process, nor denounced and resisted, except at the risk of transforming the religions revolutions into a political one.
Paul’s Letter to Philemon
This letter (63 A.D.) was written as the result of Paul’s deep interest in Onesimus, a slave who had fled from Colosse to Rome to get free from Philemon his master (Colossians 4:9).
Backgrounds of the Epistles: The Epistle to Philemon
No one can read the short letter that Paul wrote to Philemon without being struck by the fact that an Apostle who could write so wonderfully about God and Christ, and their respective parts in the great plan of human redemption, should concern himself in the domestic affairs of a private individual, and the future of a runaway slave. That he did so, is an indication of the versatility of his character and his interests. That point is further emphasised when some of his sterner writings are recalled and compared with the affectionate friendliness of this letter, which is unique among his writings which we possess. All the other epistles are addressed to churches or those having charge of churches; this is a purely private letter to a friend and his household about a private matter.
Read Scripture: Philemon
Watch the book of Philemon come to life in this animated sketch of its literary design. Paul mediates between Philemon and his escaped former slave Onesimus. He shows how the Gospel has made them brothers in the Messiah, and demands that their relationship be healed and transformed. We diagram the book based off of its literary design and we draw attention to the main themes.
Useful, a slave who, after robbing his master Philemon (q.v.) at Colosse, fled to Rome, where he was converted by the apostle Paul, who sent him back to his master with the epistle which bears his name. In it he beseeches Philemon to receive his slave as a “faithful and beloved brother.” Paul offers to pay to Philemon anything his slave had taken, and to bear the wrong he had done him. He was accompanied on his return by Tychicus, the bearer of the Epistle to the Colossians (Philemon 1:16, 18).
ṓ-nes ́i-mus (Ὀνήσιμος, Onḗsimos, literally, “profitable,” “helpful” (Colossians 4:9; Philemon 1:10)):
Ones’imus, (Ο᾿μἡσιμος, profitable) is the name of the servant or slave in whose behalf Paul wrote the Epistle to Philemon (Philippians 10; Colossians 4:9). A.D. 58. He was a native, or certainly an inhabitant, of Colosss, since Paul, in writing to the Church there, speaks of him (Colossians 4:9) as ὅς ἐστιν ἐξ ὑμῶν,“one of you.” This expression confirms the presumption which his Greek name affords that he was a Gentile, and not a Jew, as some have argued from μάλιστα ἐμοί in Philippians 16. Slaves were numerous in Phrygia, and the name itself of Phrygian was almost synonymous with that of slave. Hence it happened that in writing to the Colossians (3:22-4:1) Paul had occasion to instruct them concerning the duties of masters and servants to each other. Onesimus was one of this unfortunate class of persons, as is evident both from the manifest implication in οὐκέτι ὠς δοῦλον in Philippians 16, and from the general tenor of the epistle. There appears to have been no difference of opinion on this point among the ancient commentators, and there is none of any critical weight among the modern. The man escaped from his master and fled to Rome, where in the midst of its vast population he could hope to be concealed, and to baffle the efforts which were so often made in such cases for retaking the fugitive (Walter, Die Geschichte des Romans Rechts, 2:63 sq.). It must have been to Rome that he directed his way, and not to Caesarea, as some contend; for the latter view stands connected with an indefensible opinion respecting the place whence the letter was written (see Neander, Pflanzung, 2:506). Whether Onesimus had any other motive for the flight than the natural love of liberty, we have not the means of deciding. It has been very generally supposed that he had committed some offense, as theft or embezzlement, and feared the punishment of his guilt. This is grounded upon ἠδίκησε, in Philippians 18, in connection with the context; the meaning, however, is somewhat uncertain (see Notes in Ep. to Philippians by the Amer. Bible Union, p. 60). Commentators at all events go entirely beyond the evidence when they assert (as Conybeare, Life and Epistles of Paul, 2:467) that he belonged to the dregs of society that he robbed his master, and confessed the sin to Paul. Though it may be doubted whether Onesimus heard the Gospel for the first time at Rome, it is beyond question that he was led to embrace the Gospel there through the apostle’s instrumentality. The language in ver. 10 of the letter (ὃν ἐγέννησα ἐν τοῖς δεσμοῖς μου) is explicit on this point. As there were believers in Phrygia when the apostle passed through that region on his third missionary tour (Acts 18:23), and as Onesimus belonged to a Christian household (Philippians 2), it is not improbable that he knew something of the Christian doctrine before he went to Rome. How long a time elapsed between his escape and conversion we cannot decide; for πρὸς éραν in the 15th verse, to which appeal has been made, is purely a relative expression, and will not justify any inference as to the interval in question’. After his conversion the most happy and friendly relations sprung up between the teacher and the disciple. The situation of the apostle as a captive and an indefatigable laborer for the promotion of the Gospel (Acts 28:30-31) must have made him keenly alive to the sympathies of Christian friendship, and dependent upon others for various services of a personal nature, important to his efficiency as a minister of the Word. Onesimus appears to have supplied this twofold want in an eminent degree. We see from the letter that he won entirely the apostle’s heart, and made himself so useful to him in various private ways, or evinced such a capacity to be so (for he may have gone back to Colossae soon after his conversion), that Paul wished to have him remain constantly with him. Whether he desired his presence as a personal attendant or as a minister of the Gospel is not certain from Ι῞να διακονῇ in ver. 13 of the epistle. Be this as it may, Paul’s attachment to him as a disciple, as a personal friend, and as a helper to him in his bonds, was such that he yielded him up only in obedience to that spirit of self-denial, and that sensitive regard for the feelings or the rights of others, of which his conduct on this occasion displayed so noble an example. Onesimus, accompanied by Tychicus, left Rome with not only this epistle, but with that to the Colossians (Colossians 4:9). It is believed that Onesimus, anxious to justify the confidence which Paul reposed in him, by appearing speedily before his master, left Tychicus to take the Epistle to the Ephesians, and hastened to Colossae, where he doubtless received the forgiveness which Paul had so touchingly implored for him as “a brother beloved” (Canon. Apost. 73).
Saint Onesimus (Greek: Ὀνήσιμος Onēsimos, meaning “useful”; died c. 68 AD, according to Orthodox tradition), also called Onesimus of Byzantium and The Holy Apostle Onesimus in some Eastern Orthodox churches, was a slave to Philemon of Colossae, a man of Christian faith. He may also be the same Onesimus named by Ignatius of Antioch as Bishop in Ephesus which would put his death closer to 95A.D. . Regardless, Onesimus went from slave to brother to Bishop.