by Rev. Julian Duckworth
Paul’s epistle to Philemon (pronounced fill-ay-mon) is short, just twenty five verses. It is unusual in that it has a background narrative story to it being written. It is written in the form of a letter to a fellow Christian. Paul, the author, is in his first imprisonment in Rome. The epistle was written around 62 AD, at the same time as those to the Ephesians and the Colossians. Colossians 3.7-9 refers to the background of this story and letter written to Philemon.
Philemon is a wealthy Christian of Colossae, a Greek city in western Asia Minor. He has apparently been robbed by a runaway slave, Onesimus (on-es-im-us) who flees to Rome and is led by the Lord to Paul, possibly in the same prison. He has become a Christian.
Paul writes that he is sending Onesimus back to Philemon and asks him to receive him, and that if he owes anything, to put that to Paul’s account. “Receive him as you would receive me.” (v17)
Paul is extremely tactful and courteous in his words; he realises he is taking the risk that Philemon might refuse to accept Onesimus on Paul’s request, and Paul gently reminds Philemon that he owes Paul even his own self (19), probably his becoming a Christian.
Paul also confesses that he had wished to keep Onesimus with him in prison to minister to him – on Philemon’s behalf – in my chains for the gospel. And he tactfully adds that without Philemon’s consent, he would do nothing. That ‘your good deed might not be as it were by compulsion, but voluntarily.’
It looks to be an unusual inclusion in the Bible, except for the fact that all of Paul’s letters were accepted into the canon of Scripture, including this more personal one. It also has the sentiments of someone, believing in the Lord, sincerely attempting to act fairly and well. And a third point for inclusion is that it lists at the very beginning and also at the very end, the names of other Christians in various communities.
There may be further reasons for inclusion in the Bible. The letter regularly mentions God and Jesus Christ; it urges reconciliation; Paul’s appeal is based in the supreme virtue of Christian love (agape) and not Roman social conventions and legalities; and that behind all of this is the major theme in Paul’s letters that the Law does not save, but our life in the spirit and in relationship with God, carried through into good action, is saving.
Swedenborg does not refer to the epistle to Philemon at all.
Spiritually, this epistle seems to be asking us in various ways to practice and live by the major virtues of Christianity. These seem to include –
Graciousness – Paul is respectful to Philemon in every way
Captive in Christ – while this is set as historical, it suggests a spiritual situation for us
Change – Paul was changed on the road to Damascus. He has seen Onesimus change.
Humility – Paul takes a particularly humble line in asking Philemon
Inclusiveness – Onesimus may have come from the lowest class in society; Paul calls him a ‘son’
Generosity – Paul chooses not to have kept Onesimus for his own welfare
God’s part in it all – Paul says that all that has happened is from the working of God’s Providence (v15)
Specialness – Paul says that while Onesimus is beloved to him, to Philemon he is even more because he will have in back in every way, in the flesh and in the Lord.