… It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. Philemon 1:9-11
This brief letter from prison is a personal appeal from Paul to Philemon on behalf of a runaway slave, Onetime. Paul has met this young man in Rome in prison and led him to Christ. Now he sends him back to his old master, a beloved brother.
Date and Author. Written by Paul while he was in prison in Rome around A.D. 62, 63.
Occasion. Onesimus is a runaway slave, who apparently stole from his Christian master, Philemon. He then fled Colossae where Philemon lived and found his way to Rome. There he met Paul and became a Christian.
Paul is appealing to Philemon to forgive Onesimus and to welcome him back as more than a slave, as a brother.
This letter gives us insights into the way Christianity deals with the social issue of slavery. In the first century world, slavery was an entrenched institution, with the economy resting on slave labor. Historically slave rebellions had been fearsome bloodlettings. Practically, wholesale freedom of slaves would have meant abandoning great segments of the population to starvation, for there were no social mechanisms which could have provided them with employment and a place to live.
Christianity’s response was not to mount a crusade against this admittedly evil institution. Instead Christianity introduced a new dynamic: a relationship in which love and respect for others as brothers in Christ eroded antagonism and showed the impossibility of treating human beings as mere property. It is this dynamic that we see revealed so clearly in Paul’s short but striking letter to Philemon.
Gently Paul encourages Philemon to accept him “both as a man and as brother in the Lord.” It is this dynamic of Christianity, which has power to transform the most warped of relationships, that has throughout history motivated emancipation.
[We are all in chains for the gospel. We are all being treated as mere property to be inventoried and managed. We are all slaves. That is the status of us now but that will change.]
1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker— 2 also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home:
3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Thanksgiving and Prayer
4 I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. 6 I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. 7 Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.
Paul’s Plea for Onesimus
8 Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9 yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— 10 that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.
12 I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 13 I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. 15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.
17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. 20 I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.