Who is Philemon? by Mary Anne Vigil

Who is Philemon?        

I read this text imaginatively, putting myself in their shoes. I researched the cultural, political and religious scenes of the time. I came across more than I expected. Philemon is not just a simple letter to a friend asking forgiveness for a slave, it goes much deeper than that. It took a tremendous amount of courage for these 3 men to survive in an age of persecution for loving the Lord Jesus.

The three main people in the letter:

Paul: In 60AD Paul is in Rome under house arrest. It appears that he can have visitors. Rome had reached the extremes of moral corruption and spiritual tranny. It had over 1 million people and no less than 420 temples dedicated to their superstitious idolatry. Nero was the emperor at this time. Nero led one of the most barbaric pogroms of history. He was a sinister man who was given credit for the beheading of Paul.

Onesimus: A slave. Only the citizen class was considered human. Slaves were merely property, taken for granted. They were not allowed personhood or a legal personality. Over one third of the population in Rome were slaves. Usually punished harshly but not put to death as they were bought and paid for, valuable. Some were even branded with hot irons if they tried to run away. Anyone harboring a runaway slave would have faced horrible penalties. Death. Onesimus was converted by Paul.

Philemon: A close friend of Paul’s. The letter he received was written by Paul himself, an unusual thing for him to do, as he had friends who would write down his words for him. It was written with grace, tact and affection. Straight forward, informal and personal, it suggests a close friendship between the two men. It’s a wonderful example of Christian love as Paul pleads Onesimus’ case, as if Paul has done wrong.

In the Christian community there was a growing sentiment to common humanity.  Cruelty was condemned. Slavery was becoming meaningless. Paul did not pressure owners to free their slaves as slavery was already becoming a thing of the past.

While Paul was in Rome, Philemon and Onesimus were in Turkey. Onesimus, who was just a boy/teenager, apparently steals from Philemon and is on the run, ending up in Rome. As a slave he had nothing, no donkey to ride, no food or money. Most likely he was on foot; he may have stowed away on a boat to get across the Mediterranean Sea. Alone, broke and a runaway, he probably would have changed his name.  Onesimus was a common slave name. When he reached Rome, he sought out Paul looking for help, a runaway slave in the home of a Roman prisoner, under constant guard. Both men could have been executed right then. God’s hand was evident.

Philemon was presumably a fair man. He was very well to do, a nobleman. He was a convert of Paul’s. His home became a church for other Christians. He traveled to other areas starting new home churches. The bible gives no hint that Philemon forgave Onesimus or sent Onesimus back to Paul.  Now let us hear the letter Paul wrote Philemon:

Philemon

New International Version (NIV)

 

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,

To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker— also to Apphia our sister and Archippus, our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus  Christ.  I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus.   I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ.  Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.

Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do,  yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus—  10 that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains.   11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.

12 I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 13 I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary.  15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.

17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.

19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. 20 I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.

22 And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.

23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. 24 And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.

25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. 20 I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.

22 And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.

23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. 24 And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.

25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

Summary: The forgiveness of brothers in Christ, regardless of their station in life.                         (followed by a very interesting discussion among Friends present)

 

Message delivered by Mary Anne Vigil at Spokane Friends on 8 October 2017

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