Onesimus - From Slavery to Bishop
This letter that Paul writes in his own handwriting was sent by Onesimus to a fellow brother in the ministry name Philemon. Paul is in prison with his co-laborers in the ministry. Onesimus was apparently a prisoner there and became a fellow believer and had been released. He was on his way back home to Philemon where he was a former slave. Philemon receives this letter by Paul which was given to him by his slave Onesimus. Philemon is a leader in a house church where there are several people who know Paul deeply. This letter was written by Paul during the time after the birth of the church in Acts where he and his companions have been imprisoned for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. This letter’s mood is upbeat in tone. It appears that Paul is extremely confident in being able to persuade Philemon in his request to receive Onesimus as a brother rather than his slave.
The text infers that Onesimus was a slave because he was indebted to Philemon and ended up in prison because he ran away and was caught. Onesimus ends up in jail alongside Paul and the other people. Paul disciples Onesimus and became somewhat of a father figure to him. Paul’s heart melted for Onesimus and now he is asking for Philemon to grant him immunity or forgiveness of whatever debt he had owed.
Paul is a champion on behalf of Onesimus. He wants to ensure that Philemon would receive him back as a fellow worker in the ministry versus a slave. Philemon is perceived as potentially being in opposition to Paul’s request. Philemon has all rights to keep Onesimus as a slave based on current cultural laws of that time.
Opening of the Letter (vs. 1-3)
Paul opens this letter with the typical greeting as with other letters. He addresses the recipients and wishes them blessings and peace. Paul is writing this letter with his protégé Timothy beside him as well. The addressees are not just Philemon as I first thought when I read but it is to a group of people who are with Philemon such as Apphia, Archippus, and the others who meet at the house church.
Paul’s Prayer and Encouragement (vs. 4-7)
Paul shifts the focus of his letter from the opening by addressing the whole group to addressing Philemon. “When I remember you in my prayer.” The “you” is a singular in Greek which is (sou) verses the you all (estes). In this letter to Philemon he lets him know that he is constantly thinking of him and thanking God for his love that he has for all the saints he’s in contact with. Paul hears about these good reports that are coming from the ministry of Philemon. Although the text does not state it explicitly it can be inferred that these reports may be coming from Philemon himself as he is writing to Paul in prison. Paul is setting the stage in the beginning of this letter as he prepares to make his plea on behalf of Onesimus. This is a classic persuasive writing technique that Paul employs here in this letter.
The Request (vs. 8-23)
Paul’s first step into his request is done from the perspective of love. Paul states that he could make the request just because of the authority he has, but instead makes his appeal based on love. He says in the verse 8 “For this reason” referencing the previous statement he made about the love he had for Philemon because of the joy and encouragement that he is getting by those good reports of the saints who are coming to Christ.
Paul then makes it personal by calling Onesimus his child (NSRV translation) by stating the relationship he has developed with him as a father in the ministry. This description appeals to Philemon’s understanding of the relationships that change under the cross of Christ. The fact that two people from two different worlds and experience can become members of God’s household and enter God’s family who would otherwise have no dealings or anything in common with one another.
Paul then addresses the use of Onesimus who has a former slave wasn’t very useful at all. Now that he is a follower and co-laborer of the gospel both Paul and Philemon find much use for him. When Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon, Paul stresses that he is sending him back as if he himself were coming (vs. 12). This point in the letter Paul raises the bar on the expectations that he would have of Philemon. Paul continues to build his argument for why Onesimus is to be received as an equal and not a subordinate.
The next chunk of text (vs. 13-16) Paul begins to step up his argument once more. As Philemon is likely to be in opposition to this request Paul ensures that he covers all aspects of an argument for why Philemon would want to keep Onesimus in the category as a slave. It is not stated explicitly in the text but one could infer that there is potential conflict that Paul is seeking to avoid. There is also conflict that could potentially brew between Onesimus and Philemon as well. If Philemon was the owner of Onesimus at some point why would he want to receive him back as something different? It does not state in this letter directly but it appears that Onesimus must have been imprisoned for running away from Philemon. Paul says, “It seems you lost him for a while” (vs. 15). Here is a direct indication to the possibility that Philemon could have issue with Onesimus returning when he shouldn’t have left from the start. Now Paul is stressing to Philemon to forget what happened in the past but receive him now as an equal as a fellow worker in Christ.
The last part of this letter Paul uses the strongest language thus far. He reminds Philemon of their partnership in the gospel and how much he owes him. Paul then reminds Philemon about the fact that he himself is writing the letter in his own handwriting. This is important as with many of the letters were done by scribes as the person dictated. This is important to note about Paul writing this himself as it shows how much he wished to appeal to Philemon in love. So much so that he would take the time to address this letter himself.
The text does not give us any resulting actions based on this initial request. The text does demonstrate what happens to our relationships as they change under the power of relationship with Christ. It was meant to persuade the reader (Philemon) to give up his rights as a slave owner and to begin treating a former slave as an equal member in the family of God. It teaches us as followers of Christ that we may have the right to do something based on the law or culture of our time, but as believers we often are asked to give up our rights for the sake of the gospel.
This letter has significant points and arguments for the urban congregations. Many of the people who we serve are from marginalized communities. These communities often are homeless or incarceration. Just recently we have been working with a few men and women who are returning citizens to our community. These were young men and women who grew up in the neighborhood and for one reason or another were arrested and locked in prison. Upon returning to the community some have been transformed by the message of the gospel and now want to serve the Lord.
This letter serves as a reminder of our posture as a community to receive them as members of God’s family. We are to view them considering the message of forgiveness and grace. Their debt to society has been paid as well as their debt to sin and death. It is our responsibility to see them as empowered individuals who are “useful” for ministry in whatever way God is calling them. It also serves as a reminder that the gospel rearranges relationships and people. In this letter, we find a slave and slave owner now co-laborers together. This message of transformation says to the congregation that people from very different sides of the tracks can fellowship together as one family. Former drug dealer, prostitute, prisoner, can be in the same place worshipping with the banker, elder, teacher or businessperson all for the glory of God. Jesus says, “This will they know you are my disciples by the way you show love for one another” (John 13:35).
What We Can Learn
In reading one of the commentaries about this letter we learn that St. Ignatius is said to have noted that Onesimus became the bishop of Ephesus. “An early church leader called Ignatius wrote many letters. In one letter, he refers to someone called Onesimus. He describes this Onesimus as the Bishop of Ephesus” (Neville and Adams 2017).
Philemon 1 Interlinear Bible. (n.d.). Retrieved February 09, 2017, from http://biblehub.com/interlinear/philemon/1.htm
Coogan, Michael D. Ed. The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version. Oxford University Press. New York, New York: 2011.
About this letter. (n.d.). Retrieved February 09, 2017, from http://www.easyenglish.info/bible-commentary/phm-lbw.htm