When one reads through the Bible each year, while Exodus lasts a matter of weeks, and Ezekiel seems to never end, Philemon is mist soon forgotten. It is read one day a year and with a few other chapters from another book. But what we are so quick to pass over might have been one of the most shocking letters in the ancient world.
The nature of one’s slavery in the Roman Empire depended on the nature of their lord. A slave’s lot might be such that he is envied by many free men, or, it might be horrid beyond our comprehension. The slave/lord relationship would most often be dominated by fear. Lords fearing their slaves and slaves their masters. Slaves comprised upwards of a third of the Roman Empire. Most were owned by few, and no double many of the non-elite would side with the slaves. Though over a century past, Spartacus’ slave rebellion was an indelible cultural memory. Once that rebellion was quelled, some six thousand captives were crucified lining the Appian Way, the major highway to Rome, for over a hundred miles. Roman men were taught to dominate their households and ensure the submission of their slaves by whatever force necessary.
A runaway slave being returned to their master could expect the harshest of treatment and likely death. But, here is Philemon, returning, not by force, but willingly, with a letter from Paul, asking that his lord receive him as a brother.
This kind of thing can only happen in Christ. Paul doesn’t attack slavery head on. He attacks no social evil in this way. Sinners gotta sin. Outside of Christ, all is Babel. In Christ, there is Pentecost. Outside of Christ, man doesn’t understand man, man is fearful of man, and man is against man. Outside of Christ fear rules the relations of men. Outside of Christ, the powerful enslave the weak in a multitude of ways. Outside of Christ, even brothers kill one another. But in Christ, Pentecost has brought the different together. In Christ, Jew and Gentile, slave and free sup around one table as brothers with their Lord serving them. In Christ, we are speaking and hearing one message—Jesus. Only in Jesus do we see reconciliation and forgiveness of this magnitude and we see it in Jesus because it is dwarfed by that which we have received in Him.