A Shakespearean drama couldn’t have better highlighted the tension of slavery, or proffered a more noble solution to it. The main characters in the Divine “play” are Paul (the apostle), Philemon (the slaveowner) and Onesimus (the slave).
Act I. (Unkempt and weary from a long journey, the slave Onesimus is now standing again at the door of his owner, Philemon’s house. He holds a letter in his hand). Having fled from Philemon some time earlier, Onesimus had serendipitously crossed paths with Paul. He was taught the truth of Christ, and became a disciple. Presently, he hands the letter to Philemon. It is from Paul, an apostle—and a beloved friend of Philemon (v.1).
Act II. (A few months earlier) Though useful to him, Paul had decided it better to send Onesimus back to his Master (v. 11). Ah, but how? In this letter—breathed out by the Spirit of God—is a personal appeal to Philemon, to receive Onesimus back on two grounds: (1) that Onesimus was now a “brother in Christ,” and should be so received and treated (v. 16); and (2) that Philemon “owed Paul his life besides,” having escaped slavery to sin through Paul’s efforts (v. 19).
Act III. (We return back to Philemon’s doorstep, where Onesimus stands, Philemon holding the Divine letter in his hand). What did Philemon do? Surely he acquiesced to Paul’s requests! We can only assume that he, and many other slave owners who became Christians, began thinking differently about the value of the individual.
We don’t know what happened between these two. We can only hope that Philemon and Onesimus overcame their internal and social struggles—at least to some degree—and were noble, fellow-slaves of Christ.
No doubt the book of Philemon did as much to comfort the Christian slaves of the Roman Empire, and to tender the hearts of slaveholders, as any particular word of Jesus recorded in the Gospels. Philemon is the Golden Rule; and under such, slavery is truly abolished.
We are reminded that all men are God’s property—and that all of us, slaves of sin, may only escape our enslavement, not by running away, but by submission to the Faithful Master, Christ Jesus.
—Rick Kelley, “Prestonsburg (KY) Informer“