Philemon is a book of tender love as well as careful wording around a potentially divisive situation.
Paul finds himself in an awkward, unique position between Philemon and his runaway slave Onesimus. Paul converted Philemon saving his very soul, and in his travels and imprisonment he now sits in chains with Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave whom Paul also converted.
In discussions with Onesimus’ Paul would have told him it would be imperative, the right thing to do, as one who will now proclaim Christ, being a Christian, to return to his master.
Onesimus’ had been accused of stealing, but the letter says nothing about that. Paul stays on the path of urging Philemon to do the right thing; to allow Onesimus’ his freedom so that Onesimus could submit his freedom and become a slave to Christ in serving Paul.
In every word of his letter to Philemon, Paul only assumes the best in Philemon, never upbraiding him, but reminding him of the love of Christ.
In a sense, this letter is a test of Philemon’s love and dedication to his new-found faith. What will Philemon do? How often in his conversations with Paul did Onesimus reply there would be no way he would return to his worldly master? How would the two meet each other? In the letter of Philemon Paul lays out how it should be worked out on both parts. Paul acts as an arbitrator bringing the two together in peace under a hostile situation.
Since Paul is asking both to sacrifice something, Philemon his ownership and Onesimus his dignity, Paul shows he is willing to bridge the gap between them being willing to pay for Onesimus’ freedom as an example of how believers ought to love one another. Paul is acting the part of the redeemer, just as Jesus redeemed men.
For Onesimus, if caught, fugitives could be punished by being whipped, burnt with iron, or killed. Those who lived were branded on the forehead with the letters FUG, for “fugitivus”. Sometimes slaves had a metal collar riveted around the neck in ancient Rome. Men became slaves by capture in war or pirated by slave traders. Augustus imposed a 2 percent tax on the sale of slaves, estimated to generate annual revenues of about 5 million sesterces—a figure that indicates some 250,000 sales of slaves. The tax was increased to 4 percent by 43 AD. Slave markets seem to have existed in every city of the Empire, but outside Rome the major center was Ephesus.
Slaves from outside of Europe were predominantly of Greek descent, while the Jewish ones never fully assimilated into Roman society, remaining an identifiable minority.
New slaves were primarily acquired by wholesale dealers who followed the Roman armies. Many people who bought slaves wanted strong slaves, mostly men. Child slaves cost less than adults although other sources state their price as higher. Julius Caesar once sold the entire population of a conquered region in Gaul, no fewer than 53,000 people, to slave dealers on the spot.
Sometimes slaves stood on revolving stands, and around each slave for sale hung a type of plaque describing their origin, health, character, intelligence, education, and other information pertinent to purchasers. Prices varied with age and quality, with the most valuable slaves fetching high prices. Because the Romans wanted to know exactly what they were buying, slaves were presented naked. The dealer was required to take a slave back within six months if the slave had defects that were not manifest at the sale, or make good the buyer’s loss. Slaves to be sold with no guarantee were made to wear a cap at the auction.
Augustus decreed that no Roman slave could be freed before age 30.
Onesimus is also mentioned in the book of Colossians:
… Onesimus, a faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will make known to you all things which are happening here.
Philemon was probably composed in Rome about 61 AD according to Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Letter-of-Paul-to-Philemon
Words in italic type have been added for clarity. They are not found in the original Hebrew or Aramaic.
Philemon 1:1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our beloved friend and fellow laborer,
Philemon 1:2 to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church (assembly) in your house:
NOTE: Philemon held an assembly of believers in his house including Apphia and Archippus.
Philemon 1:3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Note: Do not lose sight of the fact that these were dangerous days for Christians. The persecutions were severe. Therefore; Philemon was in as much danger as Onesimus making them brothers in danger as well as brothers in Christ.
Philemon’s Love and Faith
Philemon 1:4 I thank my God, making mention of you always in my prayers,
Philemon 1:5 hearing of your love and faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints,
Philemon 1:6 that the sharing of your faith may become effective by the acknowledgment of every good thing which is in you (us) in Christ Jesus.
Philemon 1:7 For we have great (thanksgiving) joy and (comfort) consolation in your love, because the hearts (Lit. inward parts, heart, liver, and lungs) of the saints have been refreshed by you, brother.
The Plea for Onesimus
Philemon 1:8-9 Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting, 9 yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you—being such a one as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ—
Paul humbles himself when he refers to himself as “aged” suggesting a “one down” position to Philemon, giving Philemon every opportunity to humble his own self as well.
Philemon 1:10 I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten (saved/resurrected) while in my chains,
NOTE: Onesimos means “beneficial, profitable” (“useful”). This epistle is Paul’s letter of appeal on Onesimus’ behalf. It is a prison letter, co-authored by Paul the Apostle with Timothy, to Philemon, a leader in the Colossian church.
Onesimus found his way to the site of Paul’s imprisonment (most probably Rome or Caesarea) to escape punishment for a theft of which he was accused. Wikipedia
Philemon 1:11 who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me.
- Paul uses a pun with the meaning of Onesimus’ name which is “beneficial”.
- The meaning of Philemon’s name is “affectionate” a derivative of “kiss”.
Philemon 1:12 I am sending him back to you in person, that is, my own heart. You therefore receive him, that is, my own (inward parts) heart,
Philemon 1:13 whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to (serve) me in my chains for the gospel.
- Onesimus is a slave/servant to his master, even as Jesus was a servant to the Father and in that sense, Onesimus is compared to Jesus.
Philemon 1:14 But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary.
Philemon 1:15 For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever,
Philemon 1:16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
- Galatians 3:28 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.
Paul is mindful to express how they are knit together not by their social or legal standing, but by their faith in Christ.
Philemon’s Obedience Encouraged
Philemon 1:17 If then you count me as a partner, receive him as you would me.
Paul calls Philemon a partner in verse 17 and a brother in verse 7. In verse 10 he calls Onesimus his son and in verse 16 Paul calls him a brother. Paul strives to bring out the spiritual nature of this relationship is of being a family in the Lord. Since Philemon is a brother to Paul, and Onesimus a brother to Paul, then the conclusion is: Philemon is a brother to Onesimus.
By using the puns on both names, Philemon (affectionate kiss) would receive Onesimus with a “kiss”, to the “benefit” of both.
Philemon 1:18 But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account.
Philemon 1:19 I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay—not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides.
How does Philemon owe Paul? Only by speculation that Paul saved Philemon’s soul by sharing the gospel with him and bringing him to a maturity such that he holds assemblies in his house. Did Paul save Philemon’s physical life in some way? Only Paul and Philemon know.
Take note that Paul did not send payment with Onesimus, only that if Philemon wanted to be strict about his slave, Paul would be willing to step in with his payment.
It would be shameful for Philemon to demand payment from his brother Paul since Paul was already in chains.
20 Yes, brother, let me have joy from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in the Lord.
21 Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
22 But, meanwhile, also prepare a guest room for me, for I trust that through your prayers I shall be granted to you.
If Philemon were strict concerning Onesimus, Paul is reminding him, he would have to face Paul again by preparing a room for him to stay there.
Philemon 1:23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you,
Epaphras would have been converted by Paul as well.