Philemon and Onesimus

Since we finished the book of Colossians yesterday, I find I’m not quite ready to move on to a longer study just yet. Writing through Colossians really grabbed my heart in several ways. I know that Philippians is similar in some ways, and I do feel the leading of the Lord to go there next. However, the story of Philemon and Onesimus is short, only 25 verses, and I really want to look at it before doing the next longer study.

Onesimus Returns

Philemon 1:1. “Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother, unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellowlabourer,”

In Paul’s greetings, he often uses the term prisoner of Jesus Christ, or some similar self-description. The actual word he used is bondservant.

Exodus 21:5-6:

And if the servant shall plainly say, I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free:

Then his master shall bring him unto the judges; he shall also bring him to the door, or unto the door post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him for ever.

The relationship between master and slave was not always one of the slave having no say in his situation, or being subject to ill treatment. There was often a very intimate relationship between servant and master. Sometimes, even when a servant had earned his right to go free, he would choose to remain in his master’s employ for the rest of his life. In such cases, the slave was brought before judges who would determine and approve such a step. The servant then had his earlobe pierced and a ring would be inserted through the piercing that would never be removed.

This process was entirely voluntary. It was the servant’s choice to give up his right to leave. He would live with his wife and children, and continue to serve his master for as long as he lived. This happened because the master was fair, just, and merciful.

For Paul to describe himself, then, as a bondservant to Jesus Christ, was to declare his lifelong dedication to the service of his Master, Who was fair, just, and merciful in every respect.

Paul mentions Timothy, a faithful companion who was with Paul when this epistle was written.

Philemon himself held high favor in Paul’s eyes, being a believer and a fellow laborer in the work of the gospel. He is called beloved here, indicating a strong relationship with Paul, and holding high regard in the Christian community. Paul knew he was writing to a godly and reasonable man, not to a Simon Legree who took delight in persecuting his slaves.

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