Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus…
The letter to Philemon is set against the backdrop of slavery in Colossae. Philemon was a man who owned at least one slave who had run away. After escaping from his master, the slave Onesimus met Paul and was taught the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Having become a redeemed saint, Paul urged him to return to his former master as a brother in Christ and rejoin the household of Philemon. There is much to be seen in these 25 simple verses. Much that can be examined and delighted in. Leadership lessons, conflict resolution, and how to handle societal injustices are all present in this letter. Much more than can be convicting and troubling to our modern sensibilities. One truth rings throughout these simple verses – the gospel of Jesus Christ changes everything.
To enslave a man or woman is to deny the soul. Slavery is a vicious attack on humanity. God created man and woman in His image that they would live in harmony and rule together over the earth, not each other. Slavery denies this harmony and insists on perverting the very design and image of God. The gospel, on the other hand, sets people free. Mankind has sinned against God, insisting that we can be righteous on our own and chose to reject Him as God. In doing so, we have become enslaved to sin. We are incapable of being righteous on our own and are in need of rescue. God rescues us by sending His own Son, Jesus, to take our punishment and die in our place. Jesus came to earth, lived a perfect life, and died so that anyone who trusts in Him will be saved from the wrath of God. In Him is life and you can have that life today as a free gift from God! He will set you free from the bondage of sin and death and change you from slave to son. You have only to confess that you have sinned against God, trust that Jesus Christ’s righteousness covers you, and follow Him.
Paul identifies himself to Philemon as “a prisoner for Christ Jesus.” This is unique among Paul’s titles. This is the only letter in which Paul emphasizes his relationship to the world’s system. In every other letter, he emphasizes his connection and relationship to God. In Ephesians and Colossians, he refers to himself as an “apostle.” In Philippians, he calls himself a “slave.” Outside of the prison epistles, his favorite titles for himself are “apostle” or “slave.” Yet, here in Philemon, he sets the tone of his letter by referring to himself as “a prisoner.”
Two things are evident in his self-ascribed title. First, Paul needs no pretentious title or an authoritative position in order to reach out to Philemon. He has the authority because he has earned it by suffering for the name of Christ. Second, He does not need to remind Philemon of His devotion to the Lord. Instead, he purposefully identifies himself by his circumstantial position. Paul is in prison. He is a victim of an unjust system that imprisons and enslaves people.
By pointing out that he is in prison, Paul establishes himself as a victim of circumstance. He is free in Christ Jesus and is no longer a citizen of this world, but he is still in submission to the laws that govern the land. So he is in prison, though he should not be. His imprisonment in unjust, yet he remains in such an unfortunate circumstance. Philemon must note that Paul is a victim of worldly evil and the circumstance that wickedness has wrought.
Slavery is a greater evil even than religious tyranny that imprisons a man. Indeed, the world enslaves people but the gospel sets them free! Like Paul, Onesimus was a victim of circumstance wrought by societal wickedness. He is returning with this letter in hand to submit to the circumstance he finds himself in. But, the gospel changes everything! Onesimus was once a slave, now he must be counted by all believers as a brother! Philemon must not engage in the wicked practices of this life and must, instead, live out the gospel by setting the captives free” (Isa. 61:6). As a follower of Jesus Christ, Philemon is an agent of the gospel and must live that gospel out in this life, defying the circumstance that he finds himself in. Paul lives above his imprisonment, so Philemon must deny his slave ownership in favor of brotherly love and gospel freedom and Onesimus must live above his enslavement.