I have heard that Philemon is different than other books written by Paul (Romans, Corinthians, etc.) which are instructive in nature, focusing on what we call theology. Sometimes theology is presented in the midst of problems.
But Philemon represents theology “in motion.” It’s a real situation. It builds on theology which has already been taught, presented, written about in other books and letters. It focuses not so much what we believe, but what we should do in light of what we believe.
It is also a book where Paul is not instructing Philemon what to do or believe, as much as appealing to him to put his faith into action. I think of how Paul wrote to the Corinthians about their immaturity, then instructing them what to do. But Paul writes this book to someone of maturity, who knows truth, and leaves the definition of obedience, faithfulness, mercy to Philemon.
But I get ahead of myself…
Let’s look at the characters in this real situation:
Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus….
Opposite of how we write letters with signatures at the end, they begin with the author. I guess return addresses would be our equivalence to this? When was the last time you opened an envelope without checking the return address first?
It’s from Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus. Some have argued it’s metaphorical, that Jesus has captured his heart, but most agree he is literally sitting in jail. Some think the jail is in Ephesus, not far from Philemon’s residence, and others think he’s in Rome.
Bottom line: Paul knows what it means to not have freedom. He knows what it means to not be able to see his friends, go to the marketplace, earn a living, speak to whoever he pleases. He knows what it means to be controlled by others, maybe not even having simple please of choosing what he eats or drinks.
While Philemon lives in freedom, Paul is in prison.
Paul is in prison because of Jesus Christ. I’m sure he would not wish that on anyone else, but while Philemon is free to share his faith, do ministry, spread the gospel, earn a living, hug his friends, Paul has had his life work, the passion of his heart, stripped away along with his basic freedoms. He is a prisoner because he preached the gospel.
I can’t help but think…sometimes I just don’t get it.
My experience is not the experience of others. I have freedoms and opportunities others don’t have, and I have not had freedoms and opportunities others have had. Instead of assuming others are like me, I need to enter into where they are in order to understand. Paul wasn’t looking for pity for being in prison. He was stating a fact. Others may be stating the facts surrounding their lives.
What is important? Is it about them understanding, leaning into me and my circumstances? Or is it about me understanding, leaning into them?