Paul wrote this letter most likely while he was imprisoned in Rome to Philemon, a believer in Colossae who seemed to be the leader of a house church. Paul wrote on the behalf of Onesimus, Philemon’s slave, who had either run away from him or overextended his visit to Paul whom Philemon might have sent him to on an errand.
Either way, it seems that Onesimus could have faced a severe punishment upon his return home if Paul didn’t first encourage Philemon to welcome him in the same way Philemon would have welcomed Paul:
So if you consider me your partner, welcome [Onesimus] as you would welcome me.
When this letter was written, slaves, although they had rights under Roman law, were still subject to severe punishment in the case of rebellion and runaways, including torture, branding, and crucifixion. In fact, there seemed to be a constant fear of “servile rebellion,” that it was almost considered a civil duty to severely come down on runaways lest masters become responsible for a mass-servant insurrection.
So it was a big deal when Paul urged Philemon, Onesimus’ master, to welcome him as he would welcome Paul. He even tells Philemon to no longer treat him as a slave in regard:
Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
Paul’s command to Philemon was radical. Not only was Philemon discouraged from punishing Onesimus, but he was to essentially treat him as a free man. This was probably absolutely unheard of in the Greco-Roman society and something that Philemon might have really struggled with.
Paul’s challenge to Philemon is the same challenge God presents to all who want to follow Him. His ways are generally completely counter-cultural, and yet His Spirit empowers us to overcome these fears and strongholds that keep us from following His will so that we can actually start looking different from the rest of the world. That has always been His purpose with the Israelites and is still His purpose for all who believe in Him today: to point toward His glory by walking according to His Spirit.
Here are just a few examples of the influences culture has had on my thinking that God has been renewing my mind in:
- Prioritizing personal comfort and happiness
- Finding value and identity in others versus Christ alone
- Believing that I need more clothes and things to be happy