Today’s reading: 1 Timothy 1-6; 2 Timothy 1-4; Titus 1-3; Philemon; Psalm 141-142
It is one of the shortest books in the Bible. It measures a grand total of one page–25 verses. Yet, in Paul’s letter to Philemon, we get a real treasure in Scripture today. A remarkably personal epistle, it gives us a snapshot of Paul’s willingness to challenge individuals to grow in their faithfulness.
It is clear from the opening lines that Paul has a deep affection for his friend Philemon. He begins by lavishing compliments and praise on him–some might say “buttering him up.” It is true that Paul has a specific motive in writing his letter, but he skillfully sets up the appeal by first affirming Philemon for the way in which he has already lived out the gospel. Only then will he urge him to embrace a radical action, framing it as an opportunity to demonstrate yet another example of his Christian witness.
Onesimus is a runaway slave. He had escaped from Philemon, at some point ending up with Paul. Paul had apparently taken him in for a time, but now is sending him back to Philemon. In fact, he is having Onesimus deliver the letter himself! It is an extraordinary move, inviting two men who previously had one relationship to each other to risk embracing a new kind of relationship as a result of their commitment to Christ. Just two days ago, we read that in Christ “there is no longer slave or free.” Now, we see Paul encouraging these two men to bear witness to the new reality.
In Christ, our lives are woven together in such a way that there is meant to be mutual support, encouragement, and accountability. Tomorrow, we will read in Hebrews that we are called to “provoke one another to love and good deeds.” In his letter to Philemon, Paul gives us a beautiful example of how to do it.