In one of the earliest posts on this blog (Whose View?), we discussed the importance of knowing the original languages of the Bible, as the language makes the vision possible. What you and I “see” in Scripture is what the authors place there.
This importance of knowing languages can be seen in one of the shortest, and frankly, largely ignored Pauline letters, Philemon. Bracketing the writings of Paul in the New Testament, Philemon closes out the series of canonical writings to the Gentiles that begins with Romans. If Romans is the call of the apostle Paul to the Roman society, especially to the patricians, for them to accept and submit to the Gospel, then Philemon is the test case of whether and how this happens.
In other words, Philemon is a magnifying glass looking at Paul’s call in one specific Roman household, which functions as any Roman household.
The thrust of the letter is simple enough: Paul is returning to the Roman (now a believer) patrician Philemon his (i.e., Philemon’s) runaway slave Onesimus. Appealing to Philemon’s love and respect for Paul (verses 10 – 20), the apostle calls on the patrician to welcome back Onesimus, whom Paul met in prison and who cared for Paul, and to receive him with open arms and generosity.
Oh, and to call him a brother (verse 16).
Let’s stop here and look at this. You are a Roman patrician, with power over someone’s life, especially that of slaves in your household. The whole neighborhood knows you lost a slave who ran away. Now, he shows up at your door with a letter from someone named Paul that will need to be read out loud in an assembly for everyone gathered to hear. On top of this, when you would have at least severely punished Onesimus, you cannot, because of what this letter is asking of you. And on top of all this, you have to refer to this slave. . . as your brother. You — a Roman patrician!
What will the other patricians think?
Here we do not “know” how Philemon chose. It is not for us to know but to learn. Were Philemon to welcome back Onesimus and call him a brother, then the Roman power ethic would have been conquered in his home. While his social status and Onesimus’ would have remained the same, his power over Onesimus would not.
This is why Paul refers to our recipient as Philemon, borne out of the Greek words “friend” and “our.” Philemon is literally, “Our friend.” Anyone who lives by the Gospel is a friend of the Lord, who alone tests the heart.