The Book of Philemon
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 the letter at the same time as the Epistle to the Colossians. Paul wrote the letter due a predicament in the life of one of his converts named Onesimus. This person was a slave to a Christian man by the name of Philemon.
Onesimus was unhappy with his condition as a slave. So, he escaped his post and took with him some of his master’s possessions. With time, he went to Rome. And there, he met Paul probably hoping for Christian assistance. Onesimus conscience convinced him to fix his past wrong actions and return to his master.
So, Paul wrote the epistle to Philemon to mediate for Onesimus. And the slave returned to his master with Paul’s messenger, Tychicus. The honorable language of the letter shows Paul’s trust that Philemon would accept Onesimus back as a “brother beloved” (verse 16). And it is certain that Paul’s trust was rewarded.
Why Was Philemon Included in the Canon?
This short epistle of Christian love is part of the canon of Scripture because it is a personal letter dealing with a common problem of that day. This problem depicts the relationship between a Christian master and a repentant slave. It is an appeal to Christian charity. It is a call to forgive others as Christ has forgiven us (Matthew 6:12). The epistle to Philemon is valued once we understand the nature of the slave issue that existed in the Roman Empire at Paul’s time.
Slavery at Paul’s Time
At that time, slaves were a part of the social make up of society. They were regarded as part of their master’s household. Between the years 146 B.C. and A.D. 235, the percentage of slaves to freemen was three to one. Pliny says 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”).
Because most of the inhabitants were slaves, the rulers passed harsh laws to control them from escaping and rebellion. Originally, according to Roman law, the master had total power of life and death over his slaves. Slaves could not own any possessions. And they could not legally marry, but were sometimes permitted to do so to increase their master’s capital. But a slave understood that he might lose his family at any time.
Slaves could not appeal to civil law for justice. A fleeting slave could not go any where. And he could not be a witness. If the law accused a master of a wrongdoing, he could offer his slave to be questioned and tortured in his place. The law punished the escaped slave by crucifixion or by being thrown to hungry fish.
The Roman law allowed for the liberation of slaves. If a slave pleased his master, the latter set him free. In rare times, it was possible for the freedmen to earn high positions of authority. But their property, when they died without inheritors, went back to their previous masters. Felix, the Roman procurator of Judea Province 52–60, was such an example. By about A.D. 200, the expansion of Christianity improved the conditions of slaves greatly.
In His service,