Of the many private letters of introduction and recommendation which Paul must have written during his long life, only one is left to us, very brief but very weighty. It is addressed to Philemon, a zealous Christian at Colossae, a convert of Paul and apparently a layman, who lent his house for the religious meetings of the brethren. The name recalls the touching mythological legend of the faithful old couple, Philemon and Baucis, who, in the same province of Phrygia, entertained gods unawares and were rewarded for their simple hospitality and conjugal love. The letter was written and transmitted at the same time as that to the Colossians. It may be regarded as a personal postscript to it.
It was a letter of recommendation of Onesimus (i.e., Profitable), a slave of Philemon, who had run away from his master on account of some offence (probably theft, a very common sin of slaves), fell in with Paul at Rome, of whom he may have heard in the weekly meetings at Colossae, or through Epaphras, his fellow-townsman, was converted by him to the Christian faith, and now desired to return, as a penitent, in company with Tychicus, the bearer of the Epistle to the Colossians (Col.4:9).
Paul and Slavery.
The Epistle is purely personal, yet most significant. Paul omits his official title, and substitutes the touching designation, |a prisoner of Christ Jesus,| thereby going directly to the heart of his friend. The letter introduces us into a Christian household, consisting of father (Philemon), mother (Apphia), son (Archippus, who was at the same time a |fellow-soldier,| a Christian minister), and a slave (Onesimus). It shows the effect of Christianity upon society at a crucial point, where heathenism was utterly helpless. It touches on the institution of slavery, which lay like an incubus upon the whole heathen world and was interwoven with the whole structure of domestic and public life.
The effect of Christianity upon this gigantic social evil is that of a peaceful and gradual care from within, by teaching the common origin and equality of men, their common redemption and Christian brotherhood, by, emancipating them from slavery unto spiritual freedom, equality, and brotherhood in Christ, in whom there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free, neither male nor female, but all are one moral person (Gal.3:28). This principle and the corresponding practice wrought first an amelioration, and ultimately the abolition of slavery. The process was very slow and retarded by the counteracting influence of the love of gain and power, and all the sinful passions of men; but it was sure and is now almost complete throughout the Christian world; while paganism and Mohammedanism regard slavery as a normal state of society, and hence do not even make an attempt to remove it. It was the only wise way for the apostles to follow in dealing with the subject. A proclamation of emancipation from them would have been a mere brutum fulmen, or, if effectual, would have resulted in a bloody revolution of society in which Christianity itself would have been buried.
Paul accordingly sent back Onesimus to his rightful master, yet under a new character, no more a contemptible thief and runaway, but a regenerate man and a |beloved brother,| with the touching request that Philemon might receive him as kindly as he would the apostle himself, yea as his own heart (Philem.16, 17). Such advice took the sting out of slavery; the form remained, the thing itself was gone. What a contrast! In the eyes of the heathen philosophers (even Aristotle) Onesimus, like every other slave, was but a live chattel; in the eyes of Paul a redeemed child of God and heir of eternal life, which is far better than freedom.
The New Testament is silent about the effect of the letter. We cannot doubt that Philemon forgave Onesimus and treated him with Christian kindness. In all probability he went beyond the letter of the request and complied with its spirit, which hints at emancipation. Tradition relates that Onesimus received his freedom and became bishop of Beraea in Macedonia; sometimes he is confounded with his namesake, a bishop of Ephesus in the second century, or made a missionary in Spain and a martyr in Rome, or at Puteoli.
Paul and Philemon.
The Epistle is at the same time an invaluable contribution to our knowledge of Paul. It reveals him to us as a perfect Christian gentleman. It is a model of courtesy, delicacy, and tenderness of feeling. Shut up in a prison, the aged apostle had a heart full of love and sympathy for a poor runaway slave, made him a freeman in Christ Jesus, and recommended him as if he were his own self.
Paul and Pliny.
Grotius and other commentators quote the famous letter of Pliny the Consul to his friend Sabinianus in behalf of a runaway slave. It is very creditable to Pliny, who was born in the year when Paul arrived as a prisoner in Rome, and shows that the natural feelings of kindness and generosity could not be extinguished even by that inhuman institution. Pliny was a Roman gentleman of high culture and noble instincts, although he ignorantly despised Christianity and persecuted its innocent professors while Proconsul in Asia. The letters present striking points of resemblance: in both, a fugitive slave, guilty, but reformed, and desirous to return to duty; in both, a polite, delicate, and earnest plea for pardon and restoration, dictated by sentiments of disinterested kindness. But they differ as Christian charity differs from natural philanthropy, as a Christian gentleman differs from a heathen gentleman. The one could appeal only to the amiable temper and pride of his friend, the other to the love of Christ and the sense of duty and gratitude; the one was concerned for the temporal comfort of his client, the other even more for his eternal welfare; the one could at best remand him to his former condition as a slave, the other raised him to the high dignity of a Christian brother, sitting with his master at the same communion table of a common Lord and Saviour. |For polished speech the Roman may bear the palm, but for nobleness of tone and warmth of heart he falls far short of the imprisoned apostle.|
The Epistle was poorly understood in the ancient church when slavery ruled supreme in the Roman empire. A strong prejudice prevailed against it in the fourth century, as if it were wholly unworthy of an apostle. Jerome, Chrysostom, and other commentators, who themselves had no clear idea of its ultimate social bearing, apologized to their readers that Paul, instead of teaching metaphysical dogmas and enforcing ecclesiastical discipline, should take so much interest in a poor runaway slave. But since the Reformation full justice has been done to it. Erasmus says: |Cicero never wrote with greater elegance.| Luther and Calvin speak of it in high terms, especially Luther, who fully appreciated its noble, Christ-like sentiments. Bengel: |mire asteios.| Ewald: |Nowhere can the sensibility and warmth of a tender friendship blend more beautifully with the loftier feeling of a commanding spirit than in this letter, at once so brief, and yet so surpassingly full and significant.| Meyer: |A precious relic of a great character, and, viewed merely as a specimen of Attic elegance and urbanity, it takes rank among the epistolary masterpieces of antiquity.| Baur rejects it with trifling arguments as post-apostolic, but confesses that it |makes an agreeable impression by its attractive form,| and breathes |the noblest Christian spirit.| Holtzmann calls it |a model of tact, refinement, and amiability.| Reuss: |a model of tact and humanity, and an expression of a fine appreciation of Christian duty, and genial, amiable humor.| Renan, with his keen eye on the literary and aesthetic merits or defects, praises it as |a veritable little f-d'oeuvre, of the art of letter-writing.| And Lightfoot, while estimating still higher its moral significance on the question of slavery, remarks of its literary excellency: |As an expression of simple dignity, of refined courtesy, of large sympathy, of warm personal affection, the Epistle to Philemon stands unrivalled. And its pre-eminence is the more remarkable because in style it is exceptionally loose. It owes nothing to the graces of rhetoric; its effect is due solely to the spirit of the writer.|