Feb 27 2020

92. The Epistle of St. Paul to Philemon part 1

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The Epistle of St. Paul to Philemon

(Part 1)

INTRODUCTION

Despite the apparent personal touch of this epistle(1), and the fact that it addresses a specific case, it reveals much about St. Paul’s service; he wrote it during his first imprisonment period in Rome, as mentioned in the latter parts of the Book of Acts: “Then Paul dwelt two whole years in his own rented house, and received all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him.” (Acts 28:30, 31)

Put differently, imprisonment never impeded St. Paul’s service: he neither lamented his plight, nor was he depressed, bitter or withdrawn.  Rather, he remained committed to the gospel’s service: “For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for necessity is laid upon me; yes, woe is me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16)  He thus continued to receive his disciples and other believers2, writing letters overflowing with hope and joy: “… preaching … and teaching … with all confidence …” (Acts 28:31)

This letter is one of four which St. Paul, aged about 62, had sent from his prison (the four are his letters to Philemon, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians.)

This letter also gives us a glimpse of how Christianity dealt with social issues.  It did not intervene decisively, thus avoiding potential negative consequences.  Rather, it resorted to a slow change in the souls of those who had converted to Christianity, combined with the natural societal evolution, the product of spreading constructive ideas.

Concerning slaves, who numbered in the millions in the vast Roman Empire, the Church never incited them to rebel against their masters.  Rather, the Church called on all believers to live harmoniously as brothers.  Hence, a master should neither oppress, despise, nor rob his slaves of their rights, knowing that someday he will be held accountable for his deeds by his master in heaven.

On the other hand, a slave should not serve as one trying to please his master, rather, as one serving Christ.  Slaves should thus perform their duties more honestly, since they and their masters had become members of God’s family.  Slaves should not rebel against their masters (Eph. 6:5-9, Col. 3:22, 4:1, 1 Tim. 6:1,2 and 2 Tim. 2:9,10.)  Gradually (albeit over several centuries), inequalities were dissolved, and human rights were applied to all.  Revolutions may lead to rapid changes, but they are characterized by much bloodshed, revenge and hatred, all of which leave a trail of mostly-innocent victims.

The stars of this epistle are three: St. Paul, his friend Philemon, and the slave Onesimus.  Philemon (whose name means “affectionate,”) is from Colossae (or Laodicae), since St. Paul mentions that Onesimus carried his letter to the Colossians (Col. 4:9).  Furthermore, Archippus (mentioned in the letter to Philemon, likely his son,) is also mentioned by St. Paul in his letter to the Colossians (Col. 4:17 – all those whom St. Paul greets in his letter to Philemon are mentioned in his letter to the Colossians.)  Philemon was a Gentile, who converted at the hands of St. Paul: “… you owe me even your own self besides.” (Phil. 19)  It has been said also that he was Gaza’s bishop before Colossae.

Onesimus (whose name means “profitable” – a meaning typically characterizing the person) started by behaving contrary to the meaning of his name: “… who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me.” (Phil. 11)  He had erred against his master (he stole or embezzled), then he fled (which carried the death penalty.)  But eventually, he became a useful servant.

The epistle does not contain any particular teaching.  Rather, it presents the Divine truth in a practical way, through the relationship between the three stars of this short letter.

Although the Church positioned the epistle to Philemon at the end of the letters that St. Paul had sent to specific persons (Timothy, Titus and Philemon), it is clear that the epistle to Philemon was written prior to the apostle’s letter to the Colossians. The epistle to Philemon refers to the conversion of Onesimus, and his return to his master Philemon “… no longer as a slave but more than a slave–a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”  (Phil. 16)  St. Paul states that although Onesimus was useful to St. Paul’s service, he did not want to detain him against Philemon’s wish.  We deduce from the epistle to the Colossians that Philemon did in fact accept his friend Paul’s request.  He liberated Onesimus and returned him to serve with Paul who subsequently tasked him with carrying his message to the Colossians.

It is said that Onesimus eventually became bishop over one of the Macedonian cities, where he was martyred.  On the other hand, about four decades after the writing of this letter, the martyr St. Ignatius Theophorus wrote from Smyrna his letter to the Church of Ephesus praising its bishop “Onesimus.”  He also referred to the congruence of his service with the meaning of his name (“profitable”), as St. Paul had done in his epistle.  It is thus likely that St. Ignatius was talking about the same person who was once Philemon’s slave.

It is also said that the first attempt at collecting St. Paul’s letters was done in Ephesus, towards the end of the first century.  Onesimus could have been the one supporting the idea of including this short letter (about one papyrus page), so that everyone could see what the grace of God could do, and how the bishop of Ephesus was once a thief and an escaped slave.  Despite the personal shame that this story conveys, it glorifies our omnipotent God for Whom nothing is impossible.

              (To be contd.)

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Footnotes:

  1. This was St. Paul’s only remaining personal letter which, it is believed, he had written to others during his service over three decades.
  2. Among them was Onesimus, the slave who had fled from his master, Philemon, St. Pauls’ friend, the recipient of this letter.

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