The Emancipation Proclamation of the Bible
I hope my readers will forgive me if I take the books of the New Testament out of order on this one occasion. Paul’s letter to Philemon is so closely related to his letter to the church at Colossae that it naturally follows in a study. It is generally assumed that Philemon is last among Paul’s letters because it is shortest consisting of only one chapter. But we shall take it after Colossians since Paul refers to “Onesimus, our faithful and beloved brother,” in Colossians 4:9, who is the runaway slave of Philemon (Philemon 10). And as Onesimus is described as “one of you” in Colossians, it is to be assumed that Philemon is one of the members of the Colossian church as well. Thus, as we are still dealing with that church, it seems natural to take Philemon after Colossians.
I have said before that Paul’s letter to Philemon is the Bible’s “Emancipation Proclamation.” Indeed, given the gospel’s natural tendency to tear down barriers and create fellowship among believers, as well as its focus on eternal matters over that of the world and the flesh, it is simply in the DNA of the gospel that slavery as an institution be destroyed. And what is truly significant in America and Europe is not that slavery existed just a short time ago (as it has all over the world from time immemorial), but that it was abolished, and that because of the tireless efforts of Christian people. Granted, Paul told slaves to obey their masters, but he also told masters to be kind to their slaves. In doing so, the Apostle truly set the stage for the hideous institution’s ultimate demise.
One thing that makes Paul’s letter to Philemon different from all his others is that it is a personal letter. He does address the church in verse two, but it is obvious that he is speaking to this one man throughout the rest of the letter. Indeed, Paul provides us with a model of deference, discretion, and diplomacy as he charts his way to Philemon’s heart. Onesimus had run away from Philemon’s service in Colossae and through God’s providence found his way to Paul in prison at Rome or Ephesus or Caesarea (we’re not sure). He came to saving faith and was now serving Paul in the ministry. However, knowing Philemon as a dear brother in Christ, Paul did not think it right that Onesimus should stay with him without Philemon’s blessing, which would have indeed been an act of deceit. Apparently Onesimus agreed as he returned to Philemon perhaps carrying this letter. Paul delicately urges Philemon to release Onesimus as a slave and to receive him as he really is, a brother in Christ Jesus, and to return him to Paul’s service. We may assume that Philemon did so for in a later writing from about A.D. 110, a man named Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch in Syria, was being taken to Rome for execution for his faith. On his way, he wrote several letters to churches in the empire, including one to the Bishop of Ephesus—Onesimus. Was this the Onesimus in the New Testament? It is impossible to say with complete assurance, but the conjecture is not improbable. If so, what a wonderful story—an emancipated slave turned bishop long after the Apostle’s death upon his urging to a slave-owner. The gospel truly changes hearts and makes miracles happen.