Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Tiny Books of the Bible #4 - Philemon

We're not talking about the famous ones (Esther, Jonah, James) We’re talking about the TINY ones.  The ones rarely quoted in sermons.  And when they are, it takes you twice as long to find them, because they're only 1 to 15 pages long.  Squashed between longer books, what's in these itty bitty books, and what's so important about them that they're in the Bible?

Now we’re hitting the New Testament, and the books here are just as tiny!  Ya-woooooooo!  First up at bat is Philemon.


Philemon is in between Titus and Hewbrews.  Titus was thisclose to also making this series, but if you can believe it, Titus clocks in at three chapters, which is simply too big compared to the rest of the books featured here.  I KNOW.  :)


Philemon is all of one chapter long, spanning two pages.  It would probably take you longer to read your Facebook feed.


Even though the book is called Philemon, it’s actually TO him.  Paul, the apostle, is the one who wrote it, and he wrote it from a Roman prison somewhere between 60 and 62 A.D., (side observation, there’s never a book just named Paul.  But he wrote almost half the books in the New Testament.  Funny, huh?) 

AND!  When I say “Paul wrote” I mean it in the broadest sense, because Paul usually dictated his letters while someone else did the physical task of writing.  So all the would-be nitpickers can be appeased.  ;)


Paul had been kicked around to different places and different jails because he was a Roman citizen accused by Jewish citizens, and no Roman official of the law wanted to cross those kind of political party lines.  Now he’s here in Rome, and it’s kind of awesome.  He’s under house arrest (instead of a jail cell), where he could receive visitors, and preach, and write a bunch of letters.


Philemon is a wealthy Christian who owned a slave named Onesimus.  Onesimus runs away from Philemon’s household (never clear why), and somewhere else along the line, crosses paths with Paul.  They strike up a friendship, Paul leads Onesimus to Christ, and once Onesimus becomes a Christian, Paul lets him go, nope, sets a slave free, nope, sends him back to his owner, Philemon, along with this letter, asking Philemon to forgive Onesimus for running away and to welcome him back into Philemon’s house as a brother in Christ.

What’s up with that?  Why would Paul tacitly condone slavery? 

Well, number one and most important – Onesimus was not Paul’s slave to free.  Onesimus belonged to Philemon and Philemon only.  Any act of freeing Onesimus would have to come from Philemon.

Number two – Paul is asking Philemon to do something much harder than setting Onesimus free - to forgive Onesimus and to treat him “no longer as a slave, but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.” (Philemon 1:16).  Paul’s telling Philemon how awesome Onesimus was to Paul, and wants Philemon to treat Onesimus just as awesomely.

Paul reminds Philemon that Philemon kinda owes Paul, since Paul was the one who introduced Philemon to Christianity.  And Paul tells Philemon that if there’s any outstanding debts that Onesimus owes, Paul will pay it back.

Ultimately, Paul is not condemning or condoning slavery – he’s much more interested in focusing on the people, as opposed to the institution.  Because you effect the greatest change by changing people, who then go on to change institutions.


It’s in the Bible because Paul wrote it.  And it’s a nifty bite-sized lesson in forgiveness.  And even though a very superficial reading of the text would return a lot of hyper conclusions:  PAUL LOVES SLAVERY!  It’s when you spend a little more time reading the depths that you realize what Paul’s doing.  If Onesimus was to be taken seriously as a follower of Christ, he COULDN’T continue on without addressing and hopefully resolving the small baggage of oh yeah, and I’m a runaway slave, lest Onesimus be seen as a hypocrite.  So Paul is constructing an environment of hopeful reconciliation.  And once again illustrating that there’s always going to be a time when we all have to face whatever our particular music is.

It’s never mentioned what happened to Onesimus after Paul sent him and the letter to Philemon.  So you can look at it as a glass half full, glass half empty kind of thing.  Either Philemon disobeyed Paul's letter and went back to mistreating Onesimus, or he did what Paul asked, and welcomed Onesimus back as a brother in Christ.  I am feeling optimistic today, so I'm landing on the side of Yay, Philemon!

Says me.

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