Thursday, September 13, 2012


Philemon.  The Holy Bible.  New King James Version.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982.

Paul’s letter to Philemon appears last in most Bibles because it is his shortest epistle.  It stands out in other ways.  Most of the apostle letters are addressed to churches rather than to individuals.  His pastoral letters are directed to individuals who were aides in his ministry, but they focus on issues of church building.

Philemon is a very personal letter to a friend addressing a touchy subject.  The letter was delivered at the hands of Onesimus, a runaway slave who probably stole some money when he took flight from Philemon’s home.  Onesimus ended up seeking out Paul in Rome.  Under the apostle’s teaching he became a Christian.

So what is the right thing to do?  Paul wrote a lot about the importance of authority and of submitting to civil laws.  He also wrote about the essential equality of all Christians, including free people and slaves, and by extension the equality of all people.  Paul does both.  He respected authority by sending Onesimus home to his master.  He appealed to Philemon’s Christian ethic by sending the letter asking him to forgive the slave, now a brother in Christ, and to free him.

This little letter is rich with lessons in Christian ethics, firm teaching, gentle persuasion, and friendship.  It is hard to write about it without going on longer than the letter itself.

Paul also wrote