Let’s Begin – Philemon

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?


So, what’s next?

We made it through the book of Job – I still can’t say it’s one of my favorites. I don’t know if I will ever say that “suffering” is one of my favorites. But it is part of being human, what we all experience, and God wants to speak to our just or unjust suffering. There are parts of the book I have grown to love, and parts that I still don’t understand, much less embrace.

So, why don’t we look at a smaller book, a book we can dig deeper into, maybe verse by verse, or phrase by phrase? Something to meditate on, feel our way through, ask ourselves questions?

Recently I heard a devotional on Philemon that sparked curiosity, made me want to dig deeper. I knew the basics of the book, but it had the opposite problem of Job – it’s so short, I’ve read it quickly and not deeply.

And it feels like an obscure book to me. It’s even hard to find, tucked between the Timothys and Hebrews. It’s one page easily stuck to the next and you have to peal it back to get to it. It hardly fills the page which, to a “let’s get her done” person like me, almost translates into “skip over it.” 

And it is also about a topic that doesn’t relate much to me – slavery. I don’t own a slave; I don’t live in a context where slavery is allowed. I am adamantly against slavery, or even the idea that a person is “owned” or controlled by others. 

And it’s about two people, Philemon and Onesimus, and their situation. It harder for me to relate it to me and my situation…

But maybe it’s because I haven’t taken the time?

Maybe I haven’t taken the time to really read what is written? Maybe I haven’t taken the time to feel what is written? Maybe I haven’t taken the time to hear what God wants me to hear?

So, here I go – the deep, slow, dive.

Are you in with me?