Philemon Explained | The Slave Is Our Brother

Day 2 of 3 • This day’s reading


Day 2 | Philemon 1 | The Slave is Our Brother 

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Welcome back friends. We left off at the house of Philemon with no small commotion. His runaway slave, Onesimus, returned. Philemon, great guy. Onesimus, not a great servant. But he returned different. And he’s with a band of church leaders. And they have a letter from the apostle Paul to Philemon. 

And as we open that letter, the phrase that strikes me is in verse 6, “deepening your understanding” (Philemon 6). For me and you, I think that’s what this little book is about. About letting the love of Jesus sink in, and letting all the good things He’s given us affect our lives and change our views on politics, yes, but more importantly, people. 

Back in our story, Philemon is a solid believer, a leader in church, and a pretty great guy. But he owns slaves. He’s probably good to them, but one ran away. Onesimus hit the road for the big city. In Rome, he found Paul, and he found Jesus. He ran from slavery and found freedom in Christ. 

So what’s next? Well, it helps to understand the nature of slavery in the Bible and in Bible times. In the Old Testament, slavery was not what you picture in eighteenth century America. God gave the Jews laws to protect the oppressed and enable servants to find freedom and stand on their own feet. Paul knew all that, but Philemon wasn’t Jewish. Neither was the slave Onesimus. They’re under Roman law, and slaves were not afforded human rights. A runaway slave was a criminal. We’ll dive into the history and politics of slavery tomorrow. But what should Paul do here as a Christian with no political power? Respect the law or fight injustice?

Paul decides to send Onesimus home back to his master who also happens to be Paul’s good friend. Paul led Philemon to Jesus some years earlier. So how will this all go down? Onesimus is back, but what’s in that letter to Philemon? We pick up Paul’s words in verse 8,

“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 (Philemon 8-9).

Paul begins his appeal by reminding Philemon who’s the boss. Spiritually speaking, Paul has the authority here, but he chooses not to wield it. He lays down that right and appeals to love. He values their friendship and respects Philemon. 

In the end, this is about doing the right thing. But there’s a difference between being forced to do right and having the freedom to choose right. 

And do not miss the irony here. Paul sets aside his authority and respects Philemon’s humanity as he addresses the issue of Philemon’s slave. I respect you as a brother, can you do the same for Onesimus? 

And the same goes for us. We’re in God’s Kingdom now and no one should treat anyone like a slave. Jesus told the disciples that leaders in His Kingdom are servants. They do not lord it over those they serve.

And yet Paul goes much further. He not only set aside his rightful authority he became a prisoner. Back in verse 9,

“It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus….” (Philemon 9).

I want you to sense the shock from Philemon’s chair as he reads this. First, Onesimus returned acting like a changed man. Then the news, a letter from Paul. Fantastic. But to hear Paul refer to Onesimus as “my son.” They weren’t related. Onesimus was a slave. Yet Paul talks about him like family. Like a son. Back in verse 10,

“.…who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me” (Philemon 10-11). 

Paul is being punny here. Onesimus’ name means useful. But as a slave, he was not. He ran away! But when he got saved, he got to work! Helped Paul with everything. And working together for the gospel they became family. 

Verse 12,

“I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 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” (Philemon 12-13).

I’m sure that Paul considered it. “Just stay here, Onesimus, we got work to do. I’ll work it out with Philemon later.” But Paul chose right and respect over expedience. Fourteen,

“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” (Philemon 14).

Again, do not miss the irony. Paul refuses to force Philemon refuses to treat him like a slave. 

And now watch this carefully. Verse 15,

“Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— 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” (Philemon 15-16).

That statement is radical. Go back 2000 years. Slavery was part of life. There were no abolitionists, no end it movement. No conceivable means to change the institution. A slave was property. 

And Paul says, perhaps Philemon, your slave was separated from you for a reason that he would return no longer a slave but a brother. Watch his words. Paul aims for the heart. He is dear to me but more so to you, “as a fellow man and a brother.” See him as human and as family. 

What a statement. 2000 years ago. And notice the challenge to Philemon: which is more valuable to you, a slave or a brother? And to you and I, do we value people based on their usefulness to us or simply as a brother or sister?

Verse 17,

“So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.” (Philemon 17)

I think Paul borrows from Jesus here, “However you treat the least of these that’s how you treat me."

Now eighteen,

“If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me” (Philemon 18).

Paul takes responsibility here. He’s not asking for charity with no cost to himself. He steps in to right any wrongs and settle debts. Important lesson for new believers here. When you are forgiven by God, your debt to Him is paid in full. You are made new, and the new you must take responsibility for your old debts to others and to society. 

For Onesimus, paying back old debts may have seemed impossible. So God provided a friend to help him. Paul steps in to say, “I will pay it back….” (Philemon 19). But he throws in for Philemon, 

“….not to mention that you owe me your very self” (Philemon 19).

So what happened? Did Onesimus go free? If any story deserves an epilogue, surely this one does. Well, we don’t know for certain. But we’ll talk about it on our own epilogue. The postscript to this story reaches a long way into its future into the slave trade, abolition, and the reality of slavery today.

But first, read the letter, and consider your life where you might need a deeper understanding of every good thing we share in Christ, and how that should change us. Is there something you’re blind to? The way you treat certain people? The way you wield your authority as a dad, mom, boss, pastor? Or perhaps the way you value your fellow humans. Remember, Philemon was a great guy he just had a blind spot. Maybe so do we. 

Or maybe you’re like Onesimus, and it’s time to man up, face your past, and take responsibility for old debts. But as you do, stand tall, you are a child of the King, a brother, a sister. And walk humble, someone else paid the price for your freedom. 

Join us next time as we continue the journey one chapter at a time. And remember, faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the Word.