Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Philemon 1–3)
I thought we might spend a few days looking at one of the shortest books in the New Testament: Philemon. It’s an unusual New Testament letter - more private correspondence than public teaching - and rather delicately focusses on just one issue.
So what is the background here? Well, Philemon seems to have lived in Colossae and had a slave called Onesimus. It would appear that the Onesimus fled from Philemon’s household, and ended up with Paul (perhaps imprisoned). By the time Paul wrote the letter to the Colossians, he describes Onesimus as “our faithful and beloved brother” so he has clearly been converted. Now he is sending this fellow Christian back to Philemon with this letter.
Now, a quick word about slavery in the Roman Empire. It is estimated that in a city like Colossae almost a third would have been slaves of various kinds. Some would work in hard conditions, others were trusted household servants. Accountants and medics were often slaves, and commonly people would choose slavery (where you were fed, clothed and housed) rather than destitution. Some Roman slaves were people captured in war who were then sold (rather than being killed on the battle field).
We don’t know what was the case with Philemon, but it clear that for Paul - a free Roman citizen - what mattered was that Philemon was a brother in Christ. Paul is clear that there is no slave or free in the Body of Christ (Galatians 3:28), we are now all citizens of the same King, adopted by the same Father. To be a Christian is not something to do on a Sunday morning, but it is to be part of a new reality: the family of God.