Let us pause for a moment and reflect that Philemon is a letter. In fact, Philemon is one of twenty-two1 letters in the New Testament. Apart from the four Gospels and one book of history, all of the other New Testament writings are Letters!
We accept as a matter of course that Philemon is a letter addressed by the Apostle Paul, to a brother in Christ, Philemon, and is the shortest of the thirteen letters from Paul that are preserved in the New Testament. But are we equally aware that the literature guiding our lives in Christ is made up primarily of Letters? We might have anticipated that this holy treatise of Christianity, the New Testament, would have included books of spiritual instruction as in the Pentateuch, or books of spiritual illumination as in the Prophecies, or books of wisdom and poetry, such as we find in the Old Testament.
Since most of the New Testament is made up of correspondence, the Holy Spirit has turned communities of Christ down through the ages into observers; students of the written communication between inspired teachers and the individuals or churches who first gave ear to their message. In an ancient forerunner of the modern “case study,” first century believers under the tutelage of inspired apostles sought the perfection of the kingdom of heaven on earth. The emerging pattern of excellence has inspired believers down through the ages.
Almost exclusively, the New Testament is the commentary on the faith and practice of believers in the first century by six inspired writers: Paul, Peter, John, James, Jude, and Jesus. Christian recipients were spread from Rome, Corinth, Ephesus and Philippi, to Colossae, Thessalonica, the Seven Churches of Asia and included letters to individuals like Timothy, Titus, Philemon, and Gaius.
Those of us who come in our time to these inspired exchanges of the New Testament can relate to the experiences of those first century Christians, and can well understand the instructions first received by our early brothers and sisters at the feet of these teachers whose authority was from heaven.
That the religious literature of Christianity relates to the experiences of the first believers and the instructions they received at the hands of their inspired tutors, is a matter of great blessing to all subsequent generations of believers!
For all its brevity, the letter Philemon is packed with information and insight.
Paul probably wrote to Philemon from prison in Rome. He conducted his ministry as the member of a team. Fellow workers mentioned in this brief Letter are Timothy, Philemon, Archippus, Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke.
Networking among evangelists was important in the early Christian community, cf. Philemon likely lived in Colossae (Col. 4:9, 10, 17), while Paul’s later contact with Onesimus was likely in Rome.
The early church had to live under the dominant socio-economic system of the time, which featured the curse of slavery. Rather than confronting this evil head on, Christianity dealt instead with its root causes. As an apostle, Paul had the authority to command obedience, but chose instead to appeal to brotherhood, kindness, a forgiving spirit, and the primary quality of love. The dynamics of fellowship in Christ are exquisitely displayed in Paul’s appeal to Philemon for his application of love and forgiveness in his dealing with Onesimus.
Christian fellowship is real, responsive and accountable. Sub-groups of Christians e.g. “the church in your house” (v. 2), bear the same privileges and responsibilities as full congregations. Christian responsibility—the theme of this letter—is eloquently expressed by Paul to Philemon:
“…I hear of your love and of the faith you have toward the Lord Jesus Christ and for all the saints…” (v. 5). And “…I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ” (v. 6).
Forgiveness with followup through faith and love is Paul’s message to Philemon, and by extension, to us who are privileged to read this letter again, two thousand years after Paul penned it!
Letters live because they related to living realities in their first exchange!
1*I include Hebrews and Revelation in the twenty-two letters. Hebrews is a sermon, but the concluding verses, e.g. 13:7-25, are characteristic of a letter. Revelation is Jesus’ letter to the Seven Churches of Asia, with John the amanuensis who experienced the contents of the letter, indeed a grand letter from heaven by which fifteen hundred years of wisdom shared by God with man are concluded!