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What Philemon Taught Me About Citizenship

Paul was a Roman citizen. In fact, based on the account in Acts 22:23–29, Paul benefited from the status of cives Romani — citizens who had full legal protection under Roman law. What’s more, Paul inherited his citizenship through birth, a distinction that gave him a certain prestige among those who might have purchased citizenship.

As they were yelling and flinging aside their robes and throwing dust into the air, the commander ordered him to be brought into the barracks, directing that he be examined with the scourge, so he could discover the reason they were shouting against him like this. As they stretched him out for the lash, Paul said to the centurion standing by, “Is it legal for you to scourge a man who is a Roman citizen and is uncondemned?”

When the centurion heard this, he went and reported to the commander, saying, “What are you going to do? For this man is a Roman citizen.”

The commander came and said to him, “Tell me — are you a Roman citizen?”

“Yes,” he said.

The commander replied, “I bought this citizenship for a large amount of money.”

“But I was born a citizen,” Paul said.

Therefore, those who were about to examine him withdrew from him at once. The commander too was alarmed when he realized Paul was a Roman citizen and he had bound him.

It’s important to understand that being within the boundaries of the Roman Empire did not automatically make you a Roman citizen. For example, most people living in First Century Judea would fall under the legal status of Provinciales – peoples who fell under Roman control but had few rights compared to higher classes. In the book of Philemon, Onesimus didn’t even enjoy that limited legal status, for Onesimus was a slave.

Not Citizens, Not Even People

Slaves lacked legal personhood in the Roman Empire. The question of citizenship was a moot point because they were property, not people. In the First Century, there were few protections for slaves. Masters could use corporal punishment, sexually exploit, torture, and even kill their slaves with little fear of reprisal. After all, they weren’t abusing a person. In their minds, they were doing nothing more than mistreating property, worthy of no more consideration than a piece of furniture. (See Marcel Mauss. 1979. “A Category of the human mind: the notion of the person, the notion of ‘self'”.)

Professor Keith Bradely puts it this way in Resisting Slavery in Ancient Rome:

In Rome and Italy, in the four centuries between 200 BC and 200 AD, perhaps a quarter or even a third of the population was made up of slaves. Over time millions of men, women, and children lived their lives in a state of legal and social non-existence with no rights of any kind. They were non-persons – notice that in Plutarch’s story the slave does not even have a name – and they couldn’t own anything, marry, or have legitimate families.

Their role was to provide labour, or to add to their owners’ social standing as visible symbols of wealth, or both. Some slaves were treated well, but there were few restraints on their owners’ powers, and physical punishment and sexual abuse were common. Owners thought of their slaves as enemies. By definition slavery was a brutal, violent and dehumanising institution, where slaves were seen as akin to animals.

The public distrusted slaves, who were the first to be blamed for any public disturbance or crime. The capture of escaped slaves was a national obsession. An escaped slave was known as a fugitivus — a term loaded with the same derision we might reserve for illegal alien. Harboring an escaped slave was illegal, and captured slaves would often be whipped, tortured, or killed. Any slave returned living to their master would be branded on the forehead with the letter FUG, for fugitivus.

This is the climate under which Onesimus meets Paul sometime prior to the book of Philemon. Onesimus has no legal right to be in Paul’s presence. He has no right to expect any special treatment. He should entirely expect Paul to tun him into the authorities as a fugitive slave with no rights. At worst, this journey could be a death sentence for Onesimus, but something about Paul draws the slave to him.

A Message Greater Than Citizenship

There is no evidence at all that Paul holds Onesimus’s lack of legal citizenship against him in the book of Philemon. This should come as no surprise from the man who wrote 1 Corinthians 9:19–23.

Although I am a free man and not anyone’s slave, I have made myself a slave to everyone, in order to win more people. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win Jews; to those under the law, like one under the law — though I myself am not under the law — to win those under the law. To those who are without that law, like one without the law — not being without God’s law but within Christ’s law — to win those without the law. To the weak I became weak, in order to win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I may by every possible means save some. Now I do all this because of the gospel, so I may become a partner in its benefits.

Or who wrote Romans 1:13–17.

Now I want you to know, brothers, that I often planned to come to you (but was prevented until now) in order that I might have a fruitful ministry among you, just as among the rest of the Gentiles. I am obligated both to Greeks and barbarians, both to the wise and the foolish. So I am eager to preach the good news to you also who are in Rome.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek. For in it God’s righteousness is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith.

Or Galatians 3:27–28.

For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ like a garment. There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise.

Paul knew the gospel is not constrained by social class, by geopolitical boundaries, by national allegiances, or any other worldly division we might create. Christ’s gospel is for all, and if we put artificial boundaries between lost souls and the truth of Christ, even those of citizenship, then we are like the Pharisees of Matthew 23, who “lock up the kingdom of heaven from people.”

Onesimus would have known of Paul by reputation at the very least. He would have known of this prophet who spoke of a faith that eliminates all social status. Before meeting him, Onesimus saw Paul as a safe space, a place where he could learn of the man called Christ without fear and from a person who would treat him as a person, not as property,

An Aside on Applying Authority

We often speak of Biblical authority in terms of direct commands, implications, and apostolic example. I also respect the notion of the silence of the scriptures — the idea that if you cannot find authorization for something, then the silence on that topic is prohibitive; it’s not something God wants from us. The book of Philemon hits all of these in terms of how a disciple of Christ should treat a non-citizen in regards to the gospel.

1. Direct Command

Onesimus has not yet reconciled his legal status when Paul writes this in Philemon 1:15–17:

For perhaps this is why he was separated from you for a brief time, so that you might get him back permanently, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave — as a dearly loved brother. He is especially so to me, but even more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

So if you consider me a partner, accept him as you would me.

If there’s any question how Paul views this statement, see verse 21, where Paul writes, “Since I am confident of your obedience…” These are not the words of one who views this as a request. It is a command. Onesimus is a brother in Christ above all, legal status notwithstanding.

2. Example and Implication

Paul writes, in Philemon 1:9–13:

I appeal to you, instead, on the basis of love. I, Paul, as an elderly man and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus, appeal to you for my son, Onesimus. I fathered him while I was in chains. Once he was useless to you, but now he is useful both to you and to me. I am sending him back to you as a part of myself. I wanted to keep him with me, so that in my imprisonment for the gospel he might serve me in your place.

  • Paul taught Onesimus the gospel and baptized him into Christ.
  • Onesimus was still a fugitive slave when Paul converted him.
  • Therefore, Paul’s actions demonstrate that citizenship in Christ’s kingdom is of greater urgency than earthly citizenship.

Paul sets an example for us that demonstrates how we should conduct ourselves in similar circumstances. If, for example, I have opportunity to teach an undocumented immigrant — an illegal — then my responsibility is to their soul first. Any earthly citizenship is purely a secondary consideration. It will be important to reconcile that problem eventually, but it’s not the first concern.

3. Silence of the Scripture

There’s no record that Paul alerted the authorities about Onesimus. There’s no record he berated or tried to turn away Onesimus as an illegally free slave. There is evidence to the contrary that Paul insisted Onesimus fix his legal status before learning about Christ. The lack of these details means they were not part of Paul’s encounter with Onesimus, nor should they be part of the way we conduct ourselves in similar circumstances.

The Promise of a Better Kingdom

Worldly nations are inherently broken. Rules for citizenship are often discriminatory and overwhelming. And what do they get us? At best, we have a few worldly rights and privileges afforded in a transient geopolitical entity surrounded by imaginary boundaries that have no meaning beyond a tentative agreement with other such entities. Jesus Christ offers us something better.

Philippians 3:20–21

…But our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humble condition into the likeness of His glorious body, by the power that enables Him to subject everything to Himself.

1 Peter 2:9–10

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of the One who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.

Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

The book of Philemon teaches me that heavenly citizenship is better than and more important than earthy citizenship. Being a Christian is more important than being an American (or insert your own country here). In my life, I should put Christ first, not America first. I should seek to share the greatness of Christ, not make my nation great. The only question of citizenship I should ask of anyone is whether or not they are part of Christ’s kingdom.

Paul did not idolize his citizenship, and neither should we. My call is not to make proselytes to American civic religion but to bring lost souls to Christ. My call is not to teach Western culture but to teach the grace and forgiveness of Christ. It is not to make you like me, but for me to prefer you and help you on your spiritual journey. Through Him, we add to the citizens of His kingdom, which knows no class, no race, and no boundaries.

What Philemon Taught Me About Grace

For such a small book, there are many lessons in the book of Philemon that apply directly to our daily Christian lives. For me, the biggest of these is a lesson about grace. Philemon teaches us about God’s grace and forgiveness. In turn, that teaches me about the grace and forgiveness I should show others.

Grace from God

Philemon 1–3:

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother: To Philemon our dear friend and coworker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church that meets in your home.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul opens his letter to Philemon with a statement commending God’s grace and peace to Philemon. This reminder of God’s grace is important because Philemon is going to need to show a great deal of grace himself. For the rest of this letter, Paul doesn’t speak explicitly about the grace of God. Rather, he shows God’s grace working in Philemon.

Philemon 9–16:

I appeal to you, instead, on the basis of love. I, Paul, as an elderly man and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus, appeal to you for my son, Onesimus. I fathered him while I was in chains. Once he was useless to you, but now he is useful both to you and to me. I am sending him back to you as a part of myself. I wanted to keep him with me, so that in my imprisonment for the gospel he might serve me in your place. But I didn’t want to do anything without your consent, so that your good deed might not be out of obligation, but of your own free will. For perhaps this is why he was separated from you for a brief time, so that you might get him back permanently, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave — as a dearly loved brother. He is especially so to me, but even more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

In short, Paul tells Philemon that he met the escaped slave Onesimus, taught Onesimus the gospel, and now sends him back to Philemon as a baptized brother in Christ. He appeals to Philemon to treat him as such and to forgive him for his sins against Philemon.

Keep in mind:

  • Onesimus had broken the law by running.
  • Onesimus had sinned against Philemon by running.
  • He could fix neither while with Paul.
  • Paul taught him and baptized him anyway.

Was Philemon a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:16–21) before making things right with his master? Was Philemon truly forgiven of his sins — even the outstanding ones? I’d say yes. Paul calls Philemon “my son” and “part of myself.” He calls Philemon a “dearly beloved brother…both in the flesh and in the Lord.” This is not language to describe someone still lost in their sins. This is language describing someone who has experienced sanctification and whose sins have been blotted out.

We don’t have to have everything figured out and resolved before coming to Christ. We have a High Priest who is sympathetic to our struggles (Hebrews 4:14–16). He knows what it is to be human. Therefore, He extends grace in our time of need. That includes when we need forgiveness. Onesimus receives forgiveness. He still needs to put things right with Philemon, and he intends to do so, but he does so forgiven of his sins.

We too may have long-running challenges or things we still have to put right when we understand our need for God’s grace, but we shouldn’t let those stop us. Repenting of our sins doesn’t mean we come to God in a perfect, spotless state. That would undermine our need for God’s grace. Rather, we come to God with a contrite and humble heart, acknowledging our past sins, and resolving to be better in His name. That is the magnitude of God’s grace.

The Grace We Show Others

We need to show this kind of grace to others as well. That’s what Paul asks Philemon to do in Philemon 17–21:

So if you consider me a partner, accept him as you would me. And if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it — not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self. Yes, brother, may I have joy from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Since I am confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

There are three big points I take out of this:

1. Grace Comes Before Judgment

We can split hairs here as much as we want, but the principle is this: if someone expresses interest in Christ, we should not turn them away because of the sins in their life. We should not deny baptism in Christ because of unresolved wrongs. Yes, we should always work with each other to overcome sin and hold ourselves to a higher standard of conduct, morality, and attitude. But we don’t have to start perfect.

Sometimes we want God to forgive our wrongs and punish those of others. We want God to be patient with us while swift to wrath with others. This is how we often treat sin we see in others — especially sins that make us personally uncomfortable or that we somehow rank as worse than our own. Instead we should see sin the way God does: as a separation from Him, yes, but also an opportunity for grace.

2. Grace Compels Us to Growth

To clarify, this does not contradict Romans 6:1–14. Those of us who have been baptized have died to sin. We therefore work to reject sin in our lives and serve God in purity of heart and conduct. But this is a work in progress. Even Paul never felt he attained perfection. See what Paul says in Philippians 3:12–14:

Not that I have already reached the goal or am already fully mature, but I make every effort to take hold of it because I also have been taken hold of by Christ Jesus. Brothers, I do not consider myself to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and reaching forward to what is ahead, I pursue as my goal the prize promised by God’s heavenly call in Christ Jesus.

We are all works in progress. I still struggle with certain temptations and even sins, and I have to accept the fact that you do too. Your struggles may not be my struggles. Your struggles may be more visible or more currently controversial than mine. But my obligation to show you grace is no less. Onesimus does not return to Philemon a perfect person, but Paul expects Philemon to show him grace the same way God shows grace to all of us.

3. Grace Is Generous

Philemon 17–18:

So if you consider me a partner, accept him as you would me. And if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.

It’s not enough for Paul that Onesimus intends to put things right with Philemon. He offers to set things right on Onesimus’s behalf. It’s not enough to acknowledge someone has to set things right in their lives. We should be the first to offer, “I can help.” In Paul’s case, he writes that he’s willing to pay off any money Onesimus might owe his master. Paul’s statements about wishing to keep Onesimus with him suggests he is even willing to buy Onesimus’s freedom himself.

It’s quite likely Onesimus did take money, at the very least for passage to Rome. On foot, the journey from Colossae to Rome would have taken three or more weeks. If you instead travel across the Aegean and Adriatic seas, it only takes about eight days. Additionally, I think the fact that Paul even writes this demonstrates that he already knows Onesimus owes Philemon recompense. It would have come out in their studies together if Onesimus was as repentant as Paul claims. It’s likely Paul writes this to give Philemon a chance to show additional grace and forgive that debt. True grace makes us generous.

How would you or I respond in a similar situation? A modern equivalent would be to study with and baptize an undocumented immigrant. We know they can’t perpetually live in that state and remain pleasing to God. What then are you willing to do on that person’s behalf? Your answer speaks to the extent you allow grace to drive you.

Grace Covers All

1 Corinthians 15:9–11:

For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by God’s grace I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not ineffective. However, I worked more than any of them, yet not I, but God’s grace that was with me. Therefore, whether it is I or they, so we proclaim and so you have believed.

Think about where Paul came from. There was no way Paul could ever undo all the pain he had caused when he persecuted Christians. He could not release all those he imprisoned. He could not bring Stephen back to life. He could not undo the consequences of his past sins. Paul understand the greatness of God’s grace perhaps better than any other New Testament writer because he experienced its extent firsthand.

You can repent from your sins without fixing everything. You may still continue to struggle with sins that you struggled with before baptism. There may be consequences that continue to affect others after baptism. You can even have unresolved problems with a government and still find God’s grace. He can wash us of all these things.

Then the question becomes what you or I do with these unresolved sins. Paul had to find peace with what he could not fix and press forward in His resolve to serve God. Onesimus resolved to put things right — both personally and legally. He would go back to Onesimus, and we never hear the end of that story. It’s not important if we know whether or not Philemon released him. The important thing is Onesimus’s repentance and follow-through.

Would you teach Christ to:

  • Someone in an unscriptural intimate relationship?
  • Someone who has had an abortion?
  • An undocumented immigrant?
  • A long-time drug addict?

Additionally, would you personally help them right what they can? If we are going to show grace in our lives, then the answer to all of these has to be yesWe have to be willing to cover a multitude of sins with our grace and forgiveness just as God has covered ours. God’s grace is great, and the letter to Philemon exemplifies the depth and the extent of that grace. It shows us what it means to live that grace. Sin is terrible, yes, but God’s grace is greater.

Sin is an opportunity for grace. When God forgives us, we have a chance to reflect on grace’s power in our lives. Let’s then use the opportunities we have to extend that grace as well. The world needs grace, and they should experience that grace through grateful recipients of it. They should see grace in us.

An Overview of Philemon

Philemon is one of my favorite books, and it’s a surprisingly relevant one — both to our spiritual lives as well as to some current cultural trends. Yet it’s also a remarkably short book, one of the five shortest in the Bible. Paul’s letter to Philemon is focused yet deep, and we would do well to fully appreciate the implications therein.

The book is also unique in that it’s one of a very few letters written to individuals instead of to congregations. The letters to Titus and Timothy are other examples, and 2 John and 3 John may also be for individuals. This letter gives us an insight into how Paul interacted with his fellow Christians on a personal level and teaches us how to do the same.

I’m working from the Christian Standard Bible.

Cultural Backdrop

Paul is writing this letter in regards to his time with an escaped slave named Onesimus who rightly belongs to Philemon. There’s a complication, however. Onesimus became a Christian during his time with Paul, and this fundamentally changes the relationship between Philemon and his slave. At the same time, Onesimus has broken the law, as has Paul by harboring him.

In ancient Rome, slaves were not looked upon as citizens in any way. As with the practice of slavery in the Untied States fewer than 200 years ago, slaves in Rome were property. They were soulless objects to be bought and sold as one would clothing or produce. Many Romans viewed slaves with a certain amount of fear and distrust. According to Naerebout and Singor in “De Oudheid,” there was a common saying in Rome: “As many enemies as slaves.”

According to Professor Keith Bradley, slaves were often criticized for:

  • Laziness and Loitering – People would complain about them mulling about in public entertainment areas.
  • Being a Threat – Many officials seemed to see unsupervised slaves as a threat to national security. (“They’ll revolt!”)
  • Being Murderers – Some slaves escaped captivity by killing their masters. They were often prime suspects in any murder regardless of evidence.
  • Theft – If food disappeared from a vendor’s stall, nearby slaves would face blame.
  • Vandalism – Slaves were frequently accused of defacing buildings and monuments.

Does any of this sound remotely familiar? Historian Moses Finley recounts that the tracking and capture of fugitive slaves was almost a national obsession. There were professional slave catchers one could hire to track an illegally freed slave. Those who harbored fugitive slaves faced punishment if caught. Recaptured slaves were branded on their forehead (F, for fugitivus). Slaves would even have collars to wear, proclaiming promises of reward should the slave be returned to their rightful owner. This was the climate under which Paul encountered Onesimus.

A Quick Outline

The letter to Philemon can be broken down into three basic sections:

  1. Paul’s greeting to Philemon (vss. 1 – 7)
  2. Paul’s appeal for Onesimus (Vss. 8 – 20)
  3. Paul’s confidence in Philemon (vss. 21 – 25)

Pauls’ Greeting and Thanksgiving

I always thank my God when I mention you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and faith toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints. I pray that your participation in the faith may become effective through knowing every good thing that is in us for the glory of Christ. For I have great joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother.

Before Paul gets to the reason for his letter, he reaffirms the esteem in which he holds Philemon. He reiterates their common faith and relationship in Jesus Christ. When facing a challenging conversation, we should do the same. We should recall our commonalities in Christ and put our Christian love at the center of the conversation.

Can you imagine if Paul had jumped right to the part about Philemon’s escaped slave without this opening? Too often, that’s how we approach each other. “Do you know what your problem is?” “I have something I need to say to you.” We create walls where there should be bridges. In this case, Philemon has done nothing wrong, but Paul knows his request is going to be challenging. Therefore, he starts with their common ground.

Paul’s Appeal for Onesimus

So if you consider me a partner, accept him as you would me. And if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it — not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self.

When Paul reveals that Onesimus is with him, the very first thing he covers in vss. 10 – 11 is that this slave is now a Christian. This sets the tone for the rest of the letter and is the foundation upon which Paul bases his request. It’s hard to know how long Onesimus had been gone, but it’s safe to assume he was with Paul for some time. After all, Paul had time to teach Onesimus the gospel, and he calls Onesismus “my very heart.” On top of that, we know Philemon was part of the Colossian congregation (putting together Colossians 4:9 and Philemon 1 – 2), and the trip to Rome from Colossae would have been long.

Time can often make wounds deeper, and I wonder what Philemon felt when he saw Onesimus’s name in Paul’s handwriting. However, Paul doesn’t want Philemon to dwell on the past. He wants Philemon to accept this new reality that his escaped slave is now a brother in Christ, equal heir to salvation.

Look at the ways Paul seeks to help Philemon accept this:

  1. Paul admits that he wants to keep Onesimus with him, but he says he doesn’t want to force his friend’s hand (vs. 14).
  2. Paul makes the case that it might even be God’s will that Onesimus escaped and found Paul (vss. 15 – 16).
  3. Paul offers to repay any debts Onesimus might have to Philemon (vss. 18 – 19).

Would that we would advocate for one another so deeply! Paul wants Philemon to truly understand that Onesimus is now his equal brother in Christ, that their relationship has forever changed. This requires Philemon to set aside generations of tradition and possibly even prejudice. This requires Philemon to set aside the way things are “supposed to be” to accept a new reality in Christ. We can quote that there is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, no male and female in Christ Jesus, but how would you or I react in a situation like this? That’s the real test of Christian love.

Paul’s Confidence in Philemon

Yes, brother, may I have joy from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Since I am confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

Paul assumes the best of Philemon, and we should assume the best of each other. Remember when Paul wrote that love “hopes all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7)? This is what that hope looks like. Paul is confident that Philemon will set tradition and hard feelings aside to accept Onesimus in Christ.

Other Notes

  • Paul is under guard while all of this transpires. It’s another example of Paul’s selflessness. He’s more concerned about Onesimus’s spiritual freedom than his own physical captivity, and he undertakes the risk that harboring this slave could make matters worse for himself. This is self-sacrifice in action.
  • This is the same Paul who wrote Romans 13, stating that Christians should submit to and live peaceably with their government. Yet he’s breaking the law by keeping Onesimus around. Let that sink in.
  • Onesimus was baptized by Paul before returning to Philemon. He was able to make things right with God before fixing everything in his life. We don’t have to be perfect to respond to the gospel call.
  • The end of the letter contains some hope that Paul will be released. Unfortunately, this will not happen.
  • Based on Colossians 4:9, I like to think Onesimus delivered Paul’s letter to the Colossian church upon his return, further cementing his new relationship with them in Christ and the esteem Paul had for him.

In the coming days, I’m going to share a few more posts about Philemon, specifically about what Philemon teaches us about Romans 13, about earthly citizenship versus spiritual citizenship, and about God’s grace.