Friday, June 19th, 2020
Why is the Book of Philemon even in the Bible?
To call Philemon a book is extremely generous, and somewhat inaccurate, as it runs less than a page. In the original language (Koiné Greek), the “book” has only 334 words, excluding the title. If you were to take time to read it (which won’t take you long at all, I promise) you’ll realize it’s actually personal correspondence, not a book. That should come as no surprise, though, since the final third of New Testament is actually a collection of first-century correspondence. In other words, a big section of the New Testament is just a bunch of old letters. In technical seminary-speak, these ancient letters are called epistles. But here’s an insider’s whispered pro-tip for you: They’re one and the same. Letters are epistles are letters. Same thing, same difference.
But among the letters of the New Testament, Philemon is a peculiar letter. It is unusually personal. Why is this particularly personal letter in the Bible?
Most of the epistles in the New Testament are not actually personal. They are not personal, private correspondence. What I mean is that they’re not strictly from one individual person to another. They’re not intended as private letters. They’re meant to be read publicly to an audience, to a church. The writer even sometimes says so. It is his stated intent.
However, there are some exceptions. A selection of the New Testament epistles are indeed private correspondence. And the fact that they’re private but somehow became public is interesting. How did that happen? Why did it happen?
Philemon is a private letter that managed to go public. It is included in the most widely distributed book in human history, the Bible. It is there for all of literate humanity to read over and over through the ages. Someone, somewhere thought it should be leaked.
But what does the letter say? What is so valuable about this particular private letter that it was made public, and for the rest of history?
In the Epistle to Philemon Paul writes to a Christian who hosts a church at his house. Paul basically says, “Hey Brother Philemon, I’m really very appreciative for everything you’ve done for Christ and his Church. But I think you need to know that I have a close working relationship with a runaway slave of yours. Just to play it all straight, I have decided to send him back to you. I could just command you to set him free (since you kind of owe it to me, after all); but I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m appealing to your conscience: Don’t you think it would be best just to free him? He can do more for God as a free man than as a slave; wouldn’t you agree? And you will be a better off, too.”
That’s the gist of the letter. And somehow it managed to wind up in the Bible.
Why do you think that is? I’ll suggest why I think it is.
Perhaps God arranged for it. Perhaps God wanted us to have it and hear it. Perhaps God wants to appeal to our individual consciences through it. Because God is a liberator who delights in liberty. Because God desires freedom for those who have been held as slaves. I cannot think of a better or more convincing reason for why it was included in the Bible.