Is the Bible relevant in the 21st century? Paul’s epistle to Philemon has human relations principles that could help solve today’s problems.

The Bible is a best seller every year, and hundreds of millions of people read the Bible on a regular basis. But how many realize how relevant its contents are for solving the conflicts that divide nations and people today?

People read the Bible for inspiration, for encouragement and for finding meaning for their lives. These are all valid reasons for reading the Bible, but have we overlooked something? Is there information in the Bible on how to solve some of the really big, fractious issues of the 21st century? Can we find answers for how to bring people together to solve the religious, social, moral and economic disagreements that alienate individuals, groups, political parties and nations from one another?

The Bible has a message for all of us today on how to begin bringing people together. There is a book in the New Testament that seems as if it were written for us today. It deals with a huge social and moral issue that existed in the first century, but it can serve as a primer for us today on how to solve our conflicts.

Philemon and slavery

The message is contained in the apostle Paul’s letter to Philemon and the issue of that day was slavery. Philemon was a Christian, and he owned a slave. Slavery was a part of the fabric of nearly every culture and nation when Paul penned these words. Runaway slaves were considered criminals and were subject to harsh treatment or even death.

Slavery to us today is almost universally denounced as a crime against humanity, but it was not so for much of recorded history. We cannot look at this book without placing it in its historical context. The Egyptians, Persians, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans all practiced slavery. So common was slavery that when Joseph’s brothers wanted to sell him as a slave, all they had to do was stop the first caravan that went by.

So let’s look at this remarkable letter to Philemon, a slave owner, and see how Paul dealt with this challenging subject. The letter to Philemon is a message from God to people of all times and ages on how to eliminate all issues that divide men’s hearts.

Summary of Philemon

Here is a summary of Paul’s letter to Philemon: Onesimus was a slave who had robbed and run away from his owner, Philemon, and had fled to Rome, where he came in contact with the teachings of the apostle Paul. He accepted the Christian faith as taught by Paul and had actually become a convert. Paul then sends Onesimus back to his former master with this letter and the hope that they can reconcile their differences and begin a new and better relationship.

Highlights of Philemon

Here are the highlights of how Paul approached this very difficult task in this letter:

  1. Paul reminds Philemon that he is imprisoned in Rome for preaching the faith that both of them believe (verse 1).
  2. He thanks Philemon for his great love and service to God’s work (verses 4-7).
  3. Paul calls him a brother in the faith (verse 7).
  4. He asks Philemon to welcome Onesimus back as a special favor to him and refers to Onesimus as a totally changed man and as Paul’s son in the faith (verses 8-10).
  5. Paul writes that Onesimus is now a valuable asset to him in the ministry and is very dear to his heart, but he wants Philemon to see this also (verses 11-14).
  6. Paul implies that all this is actually God’s purpose being worked out and that Onesimus should be treated more as a brother in the faith rather than as a slave. Paul writes that whatever Philemon does for Onesimus, it is as if he is doing it for Paul (verses 15-17).
  7. Whatever Onesimus took from Philemon, Paul says he will repay (verses 18-19).
  8. Paul continues by saying that he is confident that Philemon will do what is right and receive his former servant as a brother in the faith (verses 20-21).

Philemon: A masterpiece of psychology

This short letter is a masterpiece of tact and psychology. In it, Paul urges Philemon to practice the faith that he claims to follow and demonstrate that faith by building a new relationship with his former servant.

Slavery was practiced in the nations and empires of the first century, but Paul is making it clear that some of society’s ways of handling matters have no place in God’s Church. In fact, it was in the Christian faith that all the discriminatory practices of the world in general were removed:

  • “God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34).
  • “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

The problem of slavery between Philemon and Onesimus should be resolved because each one embraced the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Bible. This letter is a model for resolving conflict that can be duplicated in all areas of human discord, but it will take all sides being willing to live by the instructions found written in the pages of the Bible.

The way to peace

The causes of human conflict come from human nature apart from God, each person doing what seems right in his or her own eyes. As long as people do what they think is right to them, there will always be friction, anger, discrimination, violence and war.

Philemon helps show us that the way to peace for every conflict is for all sides to unite in practicing the way of life expounded in the pages of this very remarkable book, the Bible.

Read more about Paul and his letters in the section “Epistles of Paul.”

For a quick link to all the other books of the Bible, see “Books of the Bible” on the Learning Center.

About the Author

Roy Demarest

Roy Demarest

Roy and Pauline Demarest have been married for more than 50 years and have three sons and six grandchildren. Roy served as pastor of the Orlando, Florida, congregation of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, until his retirement in 2020.

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