Historians estimate that as much as one third of urban populations in the ancient Roman Empire were slaves. Slaves were looked on with condescension; their only purpose was to obey the instructions of their master, and they could be coerced by beatings.
Understanding these ancient attitudes toward slaves is important background for our next small book, the letter to Philemon. While in prison, Paul wrote to the Christian man Philemon about his runaway slave, Onesimus. The wisdom of Paul’s letter lies in its theology of the Christian community, emphasizing our new relationships in Christ.
Paul began by commending Philemon for his “love for all [God’s] holy people” and his “faith in the Lord Jesus” (v. 5). He highlighted Philemon’s “partnership with us in the faith [and] . . . every good thing we share for the sake of Christ” (v. 6). He again praised Philemon’s love which had “given me great joy and encouragement,” reminding him that he was a “brother” in Christ (v. 7). Here was a man of faith and love.
Paul was now sending the slave Onesimus back to Philemon, but something had changed. Under Paul’s teaching, Onesimus had become a Christian, and for that reason Philemon should no longer see him as a slave, but “better than a slave, as a dear brother” (v. 16). While staying with Paul, Onesimus had become very dear to him, and Paul now urged Philemon to view his former slave differently. Because of the slave’s new faith, Onesimus should be seen “as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord” (v. 16).
In the second half of the letter, Paul makes a radical appeal to Philemon, urging him to see Onesimus’ new identity: he is a full member of Christ and a brother in the Lord.