Paul’s Letter to a Slave Owner

Kelly Brace

Read: Philemon 1-25

So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. (v. 17)

Onesimus was Philemon’s runaway slave. He met Paul in prison and became a Christian. Paul came to trust and value him. Philemon was a trusted Christian who Paul believed would have an open mind to the idea of freeing Onesimus. But just in case Philemon needed a little extra nudge in that direction, Paul reminded him that he owed him one (v. 19). He all but twisted Philemon’s arm to receive Onesimus as he would receive Paul himself (v. 17).

If we assume Paul was in favor of slavery, we must remember the cultural context of life in the Roman Empire during the first century. Roman slavery was cruel yet legal and regulated. Even though Philemon had every right to have Onesimus thrown in prison or executed, Paul was boldly asking Philemon not only to set Onesimus free, but also to welcome him back, no longer as a slave but as a brother in Christ—as a family member and partner in the gospel (vv. 8-16).

Although Philemon and other believers who owned slaves or were slaves may have found the implications of Paul’s letter difficult to accept, for Christians the gospel had forever changed the master-slave relationship. Just like Philemon, we need to be reminded of the gospel’s moral trajectory, that all Christians, no matter their background, are equal in Christ. —Kelly Brace

As you pray, remember who you are in Christ because of his sacrifice for you.