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by Rhoderick D. Ice
INTRODUCTION TO THE LETTER TO PHILEMON
The Letters to Philemon, Colossians and Ephesians all date from Paul’s first imprisonment at Rome, and were probably written in 62 A.D. This is the most personal of Paul’s Letters in the New Testament. Onesimus, Philemon’s slave, ran away. In Rome he met Paul, and became a Christian. Now he is going back to his master, and the fact that he is, shows the strong influence Christianity has! But as a “runaway,” he is a criminal! Yet he comes back to Philemon as a brother in Christ! This makes it a “whole new ball-game!” Paul writes this Letter to Philemon to persuade him to accept Onesimus as a brother in Christ, not as a runaway slave.
This type of thing must have happened many times in the early church. Slavery was the foundation of the economy in the early world. Aristotle, one of the greatest Greek Philosophers, said that most of the human race were made by the Creator to be slaves. Half the world of the First Century were slaves. Roman law made a slave an animal with no rights at all. His master could sell him, give him away, torture him, kill him, drown him in the sea – all legally! Roman law would not interfere in the matter. Even the Jewish Law permitted slavery, but it set rules for it that prevented cruelty. If a Jew mutilated his slave, the slave was automatically set free. The teachers of the Law said a runaway slave must make good the time of his absence. This may be what Paul had in mind in Philemon 1:18-19.
Christianity did not prohibit slavery, but its teaching killed it in time. Christianity says: “So there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, between slaves and free men, between men and women; you are all one in union with Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). These were radical ideas! But this TRUTH of the “brotherhood of man” (Acts 17:26) could not leave the world unchanged!!!
This Letter shows us that Christianity does not change man’s political or social condition and rank. Onesimus the slave did not become a freeman by obeying Christ. In all this we have practical lessons on Christian conduct. We also have examples of love and concern for others. We see Paul, an apostle of Christ, putting in a good word for a slave, to make peace between he and his master.
the Fourth Week after Epiphany