Paul’s letter to Philemon deals with a very sensitive issue in the first century, the problem of slavery. The occasion of the letter was the return of Onesimus, a runaway slave, to his master Philemon, a Christian who lived in Colossae (Colossians 4:9). No reason is given in the letter for his escape, but the reference to Onesimus being “useless” (v.11) may refer to the fact that he did not want to work for his master.
Paul’s letter is very sensitive to the master-servant relationship that existed in the first century and to the social requirements that demanded that a runaway slave be severely punished. Though Paul never asked directly for Onesimus’ release, he set in motion a principle that would eliminate the issue of slavery among fellow believers.
Paul’s Greetings to Philemon (Philemon 1-3)
Paul called himself a prisoner for Christ because at the time he wrote the letter he was under house arrest in Rome. However, he did use the word purposefully five times throughout the letter in order to strengthen his argument as he pled the cause of a runaway slave. It was in prison, where Paul was incarcerated for the sake of Christ and his gospel, that Onesimus had met him and had become a Christian.
Paul called Philemon a fellow worker, an indication that he was an active Christian in the proclamation of the Gospel. The mention of Apphia and Archippus together in this private letter may indicate that they were related to Philemon, maybe wife and son respectively. Paul greeted the church which met in Philemon’s house and before addressing himself to the issue at hand, he expressed his thanksgiving to God for Philemon’s faith and love.
Paul’s Plea for a Slave (Philemon 8-14)
Tactfully, Paul sought to intercede on behalf of Onesimus whom he tenderly and affectionately called his son. He did so by presenting several reasons why the slave should be treated as a brother. Paul reminded Philemon that in Christ he could have commanded him to exercise his Christian duty to accept Onesimus. Instead, as an old man who had labored much for his Lord and as a prisoner for the sake of the Gospel, Paul appealed to the love that united him to Philemon.
Paul said that in the past Onesimus was useless to Philemon, maybe because of his unwillingness to work for his master, but now, because of his newfound faith, he would be useful to him. Paul was using a play on word s with the slave’s name. The name Onesimus means “useful”; as a slave he was useless but now that he was a Christian, he would become worthy of the name Onesimus.
Thus, Paul requested that Philemon receive Onesimus as he would receive him. Paul declared that he almost kept him so that Onesimus could minister to his needs during his imprisonment in Rome; however, he had decided to send Onesimus back to Philemon because he did not want to do anything without his friend’s consent.
Paul’s Request to a Friend (Philemon 15-20)
Paul’s plea sought to awaken noble feelings in Philemon for Onesimus. The apostle did not say that Onesimus ran away from his master’s house, but that he departed for a season. Paul intimated that Onesimus’ departure had a purpose, that he might not leave the house of his master again. By divine providence Onesimus left a slave to return a brother in Christ, never to depart again.
Paul sent Onesimus back to his master still a slave, but Paul expected his friend to treat Onesimus as a brother in Christ and not as a slave. A new relationship now existed between the master and the slave.
Paul did not declare Onesimus free; he was a person who should be treated as a brother. Because Philemon and Paul were partners in the work of Christ, Paul requested that his friend receive Onesimus as he would receive Paul himself.
Paul also recognized that Onesimus might have wronged Philemon, a discreet way of saying that he was aware that Onesimus robbed his master before he ran away. Paul was willing to make amends for any wrong done, but he reminded Philemon that he owed Paul a debt of gratitude for having led him to Christ. The apostle used every available argument to help Philemon recognize the bonds of brotherhood in Christ that united master to servant.
Paul gave a guarantee with his own hand that he would repay whatever debt Onesimus had, even though Philemon owed a greater debt to Paul. Paul appealed to Philemon as a brother in Christ to love and accept Onesimus as a brother also. Paul was confident that Philemon would acquiesce to his request and do much more than he had asked (v.21) and that he would set Onesimus free.
Christians today need to learn the lesson Paul sought to teach Philemon. In his letter to the Corinthians Paul said: “By one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13).
Through faith in Christ Jesus all believers are united in fellowship and love.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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