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This is one of the most remarkable epistles in the Scripture. It is only one chapter; so you may have trouble finding it. If you can find Titus, just keep on going; if you find Hebrews, you have gone too far.
The Epistles (letters) in the New Testament were a new form of revelation. Before them, God had used law, history, poetry, prophecy, and the gospel records. When God used the Epistles, He adopted a more personal and direct method. And there are different kinds of epistles. Some were directed to churches; some were directed to individuals and are rather intimate.
Frankly, I believe that Paul had no idea his letter to Philemon would be included in the canon of Scripture, and I think he would be a little embarrassed. Reading this epistle is like looking over the shoulder of Philemon and reading his personal mail. Paul wrote this letter to him personally. That does not detract from the inspiration and value of this epistle. The Holy Spirit has included it in the Scriptures for a very definite reason.
Behind this epistle there is a story, of course. Philemon lived in a place called Colossae. It was way up in the Phrygian country in the Anatolian section of what is Turkey today. No city is there today—just ruins. But it was a great city in Paul’s day. One of Paul’s epistles was written to the Colossian believers. There is no record that Paul ever visited Colossae, but since there are many things we do not know, I suspect that Paul did visit that city.
The story of this epistle was enacted on the black background of slavery. There were approximately sixty million slaves in the Roman Empire where the total population did not exceed one hundred twenty million. A slave was a chattel. He was treated worse than an enemy. He was subject to the whim of his master.
In Colossae was this very rich man who had come to a saving faith in Christ. He apparently had come down to Ephesus, as Paul was there for two years speaking in the school of Tyrannus every day, and people were coming in from all over that area to hear him. There were millions of people in Asia Minor, and Philemon was just one of the men who came to know the Lord Jesus.
Now Philemon owned slaves, and he had a slave named Onesimus. Onesimus took a chance one day, as any slave would have done, and made a run for it. He did what most runaway slaves apparently did—he moved into a great metropolis. This slave made it all the way to Rome. In that great population, he could be buried, as it were, and never be recognized.
One day, this man Onesimus, who had been a slave, found out that there was a slavery in freedom and there was a freedom in slavery. When he was a slave, he didn’t worry about where he was going to sleep or what he was going to eat. His master had to take care of that. Now he has a real problem in Rome. I can imagine him going down the street one day and seeing a group of people gathered around listening to a man. Onesimus wormed his way into the crowd, got up front, and saw that the man was in chains. Onesimus had run away from chains, and he thought he was free, but when he listened to that man—by the way, his name was Paul—he thought, That man’s free, and I’m still a slave—a slave to appetite, a slave to the economy. I’m still a slave, but that man, although he is chained, is free.
Onesimus waited until the others had drifted away and then went up to Paul. He wanted to know more about what Paul was preaching, and Paul led him to Christ; that is, he presented the gospel to him, told him how Jesus had died for him and how He had been buried but rose again on the third day. He asked Onesimus to put his trust in Christ, and he did. Onesimus became a new creation in Christ Jesus.
Then Onesimus did what any man does who has been converted; he thought back on his past life and the things which were wrong that he wanted to make right. He said to Paul, “Paul, there is something I must confess to you. I’m a runaway slave.” Paul asked him where he had come from, and Onesimus told Paul it was from Asia Minor, from the city of Colossae. Paul said, “There’s a church over there. Who was your master?”
“My master was Philemon.”
“You mean Philemon who lives on Main Street?”
“Why, he is one of my converts also. He owes me a great deal.”
“Well, Paul, do you think I should go back to him?”
“Yes, you should. Onesimus, you must go back, but you are going to go back to a different situation. I will send a letter with you.”
And we have his letter before us—the Epistle of Paul to Philemon.
In the human heart there has always been a great desire to be free. But right now there are millions of Americans who are slaves to alcohol. They are not free. They are alcoholics. Then there are those who are slaves to drugs. There are those who are slaves to the economy. There are slaves to the almighty dollar. We are living in a day when people pride themselves on being free. They think they are free, but the Lord Jesus said, “If the Son makes you free, then are you free indeed” (see John 8:36). You will not get arguments for or against slavery from this epistle. What you do learn is the freedom that is above all the slavery of this world. It is the freedom that every one of us wants to have.
(McGee, J. Vernon. Thru the Bible Commentary, Vol. 50: 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus & Philemon. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991.)