Onesimus was a runaway slave. It was necessary to make all things right, but that could lead to injury or death. Paul leveraged all the influence in his command to assist Onesimus with his owner Philemon.
Paul’s letter to Philemon is the eighteenth book in modern editions of the New Testament. Paul and Timothy are listed as its authors (Philemon 1:1), but throughout Paul’s voice is manifestly pre-eminent. The presence of Philemon 1:19ff may indicate the rest of the letter was dictated to an amanuensis. Pauline authorship of Philemon is not seriously questioned even among scholars. Paul speaks of himself and Epaphras as “prisoners” of the Lord Jesus (Philemon 1:1, 9, 23); for this reason Philemon is reckoned as one of Paul’s prison letters along with Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians. Paul sent greetings from Epaphras and wrote not only to Philemon but also to Apphia, Archippus, and the church in their house (Philemon 1:1): Paul had a special message for Archippus in Colossians 4:17, said Epaphras was “one of them” in Colossians 4:12, and assured the Colossians that Onesimus would make know to them his affairs in Colossians 4:9. Philemon therefore is most likely a Christian in Colossae, of some means, able to host the church there in his house; perhaps Apphia and Archippus were his relatives (wife and son?), and were at least part of the household. We therefore believe that Paul wrote Philemon at the same time he wrote Colossians, most likely from prison in Caesarea, and delivered both letters by the hand of Onesimus the subject of the letter of Philemon (ca. 59-60; cf. Acts 23:23-26:32). Paul wrote to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave who converted to the Lord Jesus, to show mercy and clemency.
Paul began his letter with a standard epistolary introduction to Philemon, called “beloved” and a “fellow worker,” along with Apphia and Archippus and the church in their house, also suggesting the letter, and the pressure and influence suggested therein, was to be read before the whole congregation (Philemon 1:1-3). According to his custom Paul then gave thanks for Philemon in his prayers, having heard of and been comforted by Philemon’s love for his and encouragement and refreshment of his fellow Christians (Philemon 1:4-7).
Paul then made his plea for Onesimus (Philemon 1:8-22). Paul could have commanded Philemon in this matter, but preferred for the sake of love to exhort him (Philemon 1:8-9). Paul besought Philemon on behalf of Onesimus, considered as a child begotten in prison, previously of lesser value but now of greater value to both Paul and Philemon; Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon in order to make things right but could have continued to benefit from his ministration while in prison, so that Onesimus’ service would be as a freewill offering of Philemon to Paul, and not under compulsion (Philemon 1:10-14). Paul suggested Onesimus’ temporary separation from Philemon was fortuitous, to have him no longer merely a slave but now as a beloved brother in Christ (Philemon 1:15-16). Thus, if Philemon considers Paul a partner (in the faith), Philemon should receive Onesimus back as if he were Paul (Philemon 1:17). If Philemon has been wronged or suffered monetary loss on account of Philemon, he should charge it to Paul’s account; Paul wrote in his own hand how he would repay it and not so subtly reminded Philemon that he owed Paul his own life besides (Philemon 1:18-19). Paul most likely continued in his own hand to implore Philemon to provide him joy and refresh his heart in Christ, yet remained confident that Philemon would not only obey what Paul wrote, but would go beyond what Paul said (Philemon 1:20-21). Paul asked Philemon to prepare a place for him, for he intended to visit Philemon in the near future (Philemon 1:22). Having provided greetings from Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, Paul concluded his letter to Philemon with a standard epistolary conclusion (Philemon 1:23-25).
Paul’s letter to Philemon displays a masterful rhetorical hand addressing a challenging and fraught topic. Philemon has the legal right to do whatever he desires with Onesimus as a runaway slave. Paul appeals to Philemon according to the higher calling of God in Christ Jesus, encouraging him to welcome Onesimus as a brother in Christ, and giving the congregation in Colossae plenty of reasons to encourage Philemon to do the same. By professing confidence in Philemon to do the right thing Paul gave him the benefit of the doubt and provided Philemon every reason in the world to be generous and merciful and receive the commendation of God, Onesimus, and his fellow Christians for doing so.
Paul’s letter to Philemon delicately handled the extremely challenging topic of slavery in Christianity and Greco-Roman society. Paul neither justified the practice of slavery nor did he explicitly agitate for its abolition. Instead Paul addressed this individual slave owner and appealed to him in the name of God, love, his own salvation, and the higher bond of brotherhood in Christ to encourage him to take back his runaway slave and treat him well. Neither Jesus nor the Apostles made it their main purpose to overthrow existing societal structures. Nevertheless, over the subsequent centuries, it proved all the more difficult to maintain the institution of slavery when both master and slave would share equally in the faith and at the communion table of the Lord Jesus (1 Corinthians 11:17-34, Galatians 3:28). By the medieval period serfdom proved more culturally predominant than slavery; throughout the past two millennia efforts toward reduction or abolition of serfdom or slavery have most often been led by those influenced by Jesus and the teachings about equality of all people in the New Testament.
We have no insight as to the conclusion of the matter; Colossae would be struck by a major earthquake in 60-61 and the town would never fully recover. We would like to think that Philemon welcomed Onesimus back warmly; we have no idea whether they survived the earthquake and its aftereffects, although it is highly unlikely that Paul was ever able to visit with Philemon. Nevertheless somehow both Colossians and Philemon were preserved. May we all obey the Lord Jesus, serve one another, and glorify God!
Ethan R. Longhenry