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The apostle Paul, while imprisoned at Rome, wrote a personal letter to a believer by the name Philemon living in Colossae. Tychicus, Paul’s friend, posted this epistle at the same time as the epistle to the Colossians.
The story of Onesimus
Paul wrote this epistle due to a predicament in the life of Onesimus, one of his converts. This person was a servant of the Christian Philemon of Colossae. Onesimus was displeased with his condition working for his master. So he ran away, carrying with him some of his master’s stolen money or possessions. With time, he went to Rome and there met Paul probably hoping for Christian assistance.
Onesimus’ conscience convinced him to atone for his past wrong actions by returning to his previous master. Therefore, Paul wrote the epistle to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus. Later, Onesimus returned with Paul’s messenger, Tychicus to his master.
The theme of the epistle to Philemon
This short epistle of Christian love and thoughtfulness is part of the canon of Scripture because it is a virtuously personal letter dealing with a domestic problem of that day. This was the relationship between a Christian master and a fugitive and repentant servant.
The honorable language of the letter shows Paul’s trust that Philemon would accept back Onesimus as a “brother beloved” (v. 16). It is certain that Paul’s trust was rewarded. The epistle to Philemon is valued once we understand the nature of the issue of servants that existed in the Roman Empire at Paul’s time.
Servants in Rome
At that time, People considered servants as a part of the social make up of society and were regarded as members of their master’s household. Between the years 146 B.C. and A.D. 235, the percentage of servants to freemen is said to have been three to one. Pliny, the Romans author and philosopher said that in the time of Augustus a freedman by the name of Caecilius held 4,116 slaves (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1966 ed., vol. 20, pp. 776, 777, art. “Slavery”).
Rights of servants
With such a huge part of the inhabitants being servants, the rulers passed harsh laws to avoid escape or rebellion. Originally, according to Roman law the master had total power of life and death over his servants. The servant could not own possessions. Everything he owned went to his master, though at times he was permitted to collect chance wages. Servants were not able to legally marry, but were however permitted to do so because their children increased the master’s capital. But the servant understood that he might be disconnected from his family at the will of his master at any time.
Further, a servant was not able to offer petitions to civil law for justice, and he could not find a place to flee to. He could not be a witness, except under torture. He also could not charge his master of any misdeed except high treason, adultery, incest, or the breaking of holy vows. If a master was accused of a wrongdoing, he could offer his servant to be questioned and tortured in his place. The punishment for running away was often death, sometimes by crucifixion or by being thrown to hungry lampreys.
Thus, Paul’s admonition to accept back his servant as a brother. This resembles the love of Jesus for His wayward people. “For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever; Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord? If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself” (Philemon 1:15-17).
In His service,