Philemon is the third-shortest book in the Bible with just 335 words, just behind III John and II John. It is worth noting that Philemon is the only personal letter written by the Apostle Paul that we have today. William Barclay suggests in his 2003 commentary that, despite its brevity, Philemon contains much worth considering.
The story revolves around a thorny issue — a slave who worked for Philemon had escaped after stealing some of Philemon’s property. The slave, named Onesimus, makes it to Rome, where Paul is under house arrest.
Philemon becomes a “follower of the way” (another term for Christian) who has been helping Paul throughout his ministry and travels. Paul calls him “brother.” Paul has plans for Onesimus, but he learns of the slave’s runaway status from another close friend and “brother.” Paul realizes he has a great predicament.
His solution: Send Onesimus back to Philemon with a personal letter and offer restitution for whatever Onesimus stole. Paul, acting as a close friend and brother, asks Philemon to acknowledge Onesimus as his own brother.
This is what Christianity introduced — a new relationship with each other that abolishes all external differences. Christians are one body. “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female. In Christ there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free.” (1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11)
Onesimus escaped as a slave. He returns as a slave but also as “a brother in the faith” and Paul’s spiritual son. The gospel message is clear: Social status and classes are irrelevant.
At the end of Paul’s letter to Philemon, Paul includes Epaphrus, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke in his closing benediction. They each represent a wide variety of heritages and racial backgrounds who are all “brothers in Christ.”
Years later, before his execution, early Christian writer and bishop of Antioch Ignatius addressed a letter to Onesimus, who is the bishop of Ephesus. It may well be that the runaway slave many years before had become a bishop.
That’s a lot to consider from such a short book.
Paul was aware that the love of God changed the dynamics because it restores all of creation and God’s people to a relationship with him and each other. God used Paul to help reconcile a cherished brother in the faith with a slave who had found Jesus. Both are committed to doing Jesus’ work on earth.
Today, social disconnects and misconnects are evident through so much of our personal and group experiences. Using Paul’s example, we can each search our souls and offer ourselves as followers who have great purpose. This is the life that Jesus reveals and proposes for us today.