It’s sometimes easy to be drawn towards certain books when reading through the New Testament. For example, there’s the Gospel of John where Jesus’ words and actions at the Last Supper are presented in such detail that you almost feel as if you’re there with His original disciples while reading it.
Then there is the book of Romans, a book with teachings that are so important that people have been writing and commenting and talking about it for centuries. There is the book of Hebrews where the superiority of Jesus Christ is carefully and thoroughly presented. And then there is the book of Revelation with it’s ominous images that highlight the final battle between good and evil.
There’s no question that each of these Biblical books are important and they certainly deserve all the attention that they receive. But hidden away among these Biblical heavyweights is another book. It is a book that has just one chapter. This little book will probably never inspire anyone to write a big, multi-volume study guide to help people understand it. This book is not likely to inspire a blockbuster movie or a million-selling book series. Unlike the other Biblical books mentioned above, this little book will probably never serve as the subject of a seminar or conference. In fact, it’s far more likely that this book will be passed over in favor of other Biblical books that are supposedly “more important.”
But not today.
You see, the Biblical book that we’re talking about is the book of Philemon (pronounced “phy-lee-mon”). Unlike some other books in the Bible, the book of Philemon is a book that contains no inspiring poetry. There are no profound theological explanations. There are no historical records, astounding miracles, or great military battles recorded within it’s pages. Instead, the book of Philemon reads like a letter that someone might send to a friend because that’s exactly what it is.
Philemon is the 18th book of the New Testament and its sandwiched right between the book of Titus and the book of Hebrews. This one-chapter letter was written by Paul the Apostle sometime around AD 61-62. It’s believed that Paul wrote this letter while he was in prison in Rome, and that it was written around the time that Paul also wrote his letter to the Colossians. In fact, it’s thought that this letter to Philemon was originally delivered right along with the Biblical book that we know as Colossians today.
Paul wrote this letter to a man named Philemon and that’s where we get the name of this book. It’s believed that Philemon lived in the town of Colossae and became a Christian after hearing Paul’s teaching some time earlier. Although it doesn’t come right out and say it within the book, it appears that Philemon had some kind of leadership position within the church at Colossae. It also seems that Philemon was fairly wealthy. In fact, the first verse of the book gives the impression that the local church in that area actually met at Philemon’s house.
The subject of this letter is a person named Onesimus (pronounced “o-ness-sim-us”). As we read though this letter, we’ll discover that Onesimus was a slave who had once been owned by Philemon. However, it seems that Onesimus had somehow escaped his slavery and found his way to the city of Rome. As we’ll see from some of the language that’s used in this letter, it’s also possible that Onesimus had stolen from Philemon before he escaped.
Onesimus evidently met with Paul while he was in Rome and became a Christian in much the same way that Philemon had earlier. At some point, it was decided that Onesimus had to go back to Philemon and make things right between them. So Onesimus went back to Philemon and apparently took this letter from Paul with him.
This entire letter consists of Paul talking to Philemon “man to man” and making an emotional appeal to him on behalf of Onesimus. However, we shouldn’t get the impression that this epistle is a sort of “letter of recommendation” from Paul on behalf of Onesimus. As an escaped slave, Onesimus was in very serious trouble. But we’ll talk more about the problems that faced Onesimus a little later. For now, let’s set the stage for this short letter and talk about Onesimus’ position as a slave in the New Testament era and the cultural background of that time.
At the time that Paul wrote this letter to Philemon, there were approximately 60 million slaves in the Roman Empire. It’s believed that this number may have represented up to half the total population of the entire Roman Empire at that time. Each time the Romans conquered some new area of land, they would often sell people as slaves from the areas that they had conquered. Sometimes slaves were taken away as prisoners of war and other times people who had fallen into debt were forced to sell themselves as slaves.
Slaves held all kinds of different positions in the Roman Empire. Some had very high ranking positions with lots of status but for the most part, slaves were considered to be very lower-class people and generally had no rights. Slaves in the Roman Empire were actually considered to be “property” and were really viewed no differently than we might view a television or a radio or a piece of furniture today.
This is illustrated by the fact that under Roman law, a master actually had the right to kill his slave if that slave became sick or could not work. This attitude towards slavery was best summed up by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle who once said that a “…master and slave have nothing in common; a slave is a living tool, just as a tool is an inanimate slave.” (1) So a human being who served as a slave in those days was really viewed no differently than a hammer or a wrench in someone’s hand.
(1) Nicomachean Ethics