Philemon—Evidence of Christianity in Practice
PRACTICE what you preach! How forcefully Jesus makes this point in denouncing the religious leaders of his day! (Matthew, chapter 23) But what about teachers in the early Christian congregation? Did they practice what they preached? That they did is clearly shown in the Bible book of Philemon.
The letter to Philemon is addressed, not to a congregation, but to a specific person, and it deals with a private matter. Adding to its personal nature is the fact that Paul wrote it with his own hand, rather than using a secretary.
What was the reason for this personal letter from Paul to Philemon? It was this: Paul was sending back to Philemon his slave Onesimus. Onesimus had run away, perhaps even stealing money from Philemon to finance his journey to Rome. Somehow Onesimus had come in contact with Paul in Rome, had listened to his preaching and had become a Christian. As such he was most useful in ministering to Paul, and the apostle had become quite attached to him. But Paul did not want to keep Onesimus there without Philemon’s consent. So, with Onesimus’ approval, Paul was sending him back to Philemon—no longer as just a slave but now as a beloved brother in the Lord.
That Onesimus was now a valued and trusted brother is shown by his also being entrusted, along with his companion Tychicus, with Paul’s letters to the congregations in Ephesus and Colossae. (Ephesians 6:21, 22; Colossians 4:7-9) In both of these letters Paul gives advice for slaves to be obedient to their masters. (Ephesians 6:5-7; Colossians 3:22, 23) So Paul was acting in harmony with his counsel in sending Onesimus back. He respected the property of others and lived by his advice to be in subjection to the existing governmental arrangement.—Romans 13:1-7; 1 Corinthians 7:20-24.
Paul also exemplified his own counsel to show humility, love and concern for others. (Ephesians 4:1-3; Philippians 2:3, 4; Colossians 3:12-14) Rather than compelling Philemon by weight of apostolic authority to forgive Onesimus and receive him as a brother, Paul humbly appealed to him on the basis of Christian love and their personal friendship. (Philemon 8, 9, 17) What a fine example for Christian overseers today!
Philemon was indebted to Paul, for it was through Paul that he had learned the good news and had been set free from bondage to paganism. Still, legally, he could mistreat and deal harshly with Onesimus. And surely he had reason to be angry with him. Not only did Paul encourage Philemon to show kindness, forgiveness and mercy but the apostle too was willing to do so. “If [Onesimus] did you any wrong or owes you anything,” wrote Paul, “keep this charged to my account. . . . I will pay it back.”—Philemon 18, 19.
Certainly, as shown by the book of Philemon, the early writers and teachers of Christianity themselves lived by Christian principles. They practiced what they preached.