Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Flyover Country: Philemon

As someone who does a fair bit of writing, one of the features of the Bible that most persuades me of its authenticity is the staunch refusal of its writers to satisfy our curiosity about details.

An authentic historical account written for people familiar with the relevant culture and events naturally leaves out all sorts of facts its original audience would be expected to already know and understand. It cuts directly to the chase. This is what we find in scripture’s books of history. Likewise, an authentic letter does not read like a narrative or polemic conveniently disguised in another literary form. It is not an info dump. It is marked as much by what it doesn’t include as by what it does.

In short, each genre of scripture reads just as we might expect it to. Philemon is a fine example of this.

One Sentence Summary: A personal letter to one of the apostle Paul’s converts asking him to forgive an escaped and converted slave.

Filling in the Blanks

In Paul’s one-chapter missive to his friend Philemon, the modern reader is compelled to fill in numerous blanks for himself. Why? Well, the letter’s recipients were entirely familiar with the person and circumstances Paul was writing about. Stopping to explain the background would have been contrived and, more importantly, unnecessary. Paul may or may not have given thought to whether his letter would later form part of the canon of scripture, but either way, he wrote directly and pithily. The intended recipients got everything they needed and nothing they didn’t.

In the letter to Philemon we are told nothing at all about how Onesimus became Philemon’s slave in the first place, nothing about his escape from Philemon’s household, nothing about how he came to Rome and met Paul in prison there, and nothing about the circumstances of his conversion to Christ. All of that must be inferred by the reader. It is there between the lines, but only between the lines.


One of Paul’s four so-called “prison epistles” written from Rome between AD60 and AD62 during the period of incarceration chronicled by Luke in Acts 28:16-30, Philemon is addressed to a Colossian slave owner, his wife Apphia and son Archippus, as well as to the church that met in their home. (Already we are reading between the lines here: that the family lived in Colosse is not 100% certain, Apphia is not specifically referred to as Philemon’s wife and Archippus is not specifically called their son. Nevertheless, that seems the most natural way to read the address, since the phrase “church in your house” follows Paul’s greetings to all three.) Archippus is also addressed in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, connecting the two epistles.

Philemon was a mature believer (Paul calls him a “beloved fellow worker”) and is treated as such throughout. It may seem baffling to find that a mature Christian man and apparent church leader in the first century also owned slaves, but this is largely because modern readers have very limited understanding of the ancient conventions of the institution of slavery, and base all our assumptions about its evils on what we know of American slavery. For those unfamiliar with the differences between the two, Matt Dabbs provides a little insight here. The writers of the New Testament neither approved of nor called for an end to the sort of slavery practiced in the first century; they simply gave instructions to both Christian slave owners and Christian slaves about how to conduct themselves in their respective roles (Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 3:22-24; 1 Cor. 7:21-23).

Organization and Content

  1. Introduction (v1-7)
  2. Request (v8-22)
  3. Greetings (v23-24)
  4. Doxology (v25)

As you can see, the organization of Philemon is not wildly dissimilar to that of a modern letter, and follows all the normal conventions of a letter of its day, including length. The bulk of the missive is taken up with Paul’s request on behalf of Onesimus. Consistent with a principle he articulates elsewhere (“Pay to all what is owed to them”), Paul is sending the slave back to his owner. Onesimus is literally Philemon’s property, and even in the service of God, Paul would not want to make use of another man’s property without his free and enthusiastic consent. At the same time, he knows Philemon is a faithful Christian and a friend, so he fully expects Onesimus to be well treated (“as a beloved brother”), whether or not Philemon consents to send him back to Rome to assist the apostle during his imprisonment. Like Archippus, Onesimus is also mentioned in Colossians, where Paul was sending him along with Tychicus to update the believers in Colosse about Paul’s situation in Rome. For this reason, many assume the two epistles were written concurrently and may even have been sent simultaneously.

Value to Modern Readers

The epistle is valuable for its lessons about repentance, forgiveness and justice; for the insights it provides into first century Gentile culture and church life; and especially for the lesson that Christian relationships and obligations supersede earthly ones (though earthly obligations are still to be respected and earthly debts made good on).

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