The short book of Philemon is one of the greatest anti-slavery passages in the Bible.
The slave Onesimus had run away from Philemon. At some point while Paul was under arrest, he encountered Onesimus, who then became a Christian.
Paul appeals to Philemon to accept Onesimus back “no longer as a bondservant, but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother” (v. 16) and to “receive him as you would me” (v. 17). These are clear anti-slavery statements. If Paul wants Philemon to accept Onesimus as he would receive him, clearly that is not as a slave. As Paul has said elsewhere, “do not become slaves of men” (1 Corinthians 7:23).
But there is one difficulty here: Why did Paul send Onesimus back at all? Why not say “slavery is wrong, you are free, don’t go back”?
The first part of the answer is in verses 8-9, where Paul says to Philemon: “Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you.” And verse 14: “I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your good ness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord.”
In other words, Paul wants Philemon to do the right thing willingly, by choice, and so he gives him that choice by sending him back.
The second part of the answer, and the main part, is even more amazing, and is I think this: this letter is ultimately about reconciliation. Paul is not sending Onesimus back with the intent that he would be Philemon’s slave again. As we saw, he says to receive him “no longer as a bondservant” and “as you would me.” Rather, Paul is sending him back so that the relationship may be reconciled. Not the master-slave relationship, but the personal relationship.
Onesimus is now a Christian. It is right for the rift between him and Philemon to be reconciled and restored. Not the slavery, but the relationship. And so Paul sends him back, as a statement to the importance of reconciliation and to create the opportunity for it to happen.
That’s what Paul is doing here. I find that amazing. And it ultimately reflects something more than the heart of Paul (one of the greatest Christians to ever live, in my view) but of Jesus Christ, whom Paul followed. “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).
Thus, the book of Philemon stands as not only a massive anti-slavery text, but also as a striking testimony to the value and importance of Christian reconciliation. And, even more than that, the reconciling heart of Jesus Christ.