Theepistle of Philemon was the shortest of all the letters that Paulwrote. The reason he wrote this letter was to beg Philemon not topunish Onesimus (Erasmus,2016).It was an appeal for reconciliation between a master and his slave,which is an illustration of a relationship between brothers insalvation. Onesimus who was a slave to Philemon had escaped withouthis master’s approval and met Paul in jail where he was convertedto Christianity. Paul felt that because Onesimus had become a brotherin Christ, he deserved to be treated as such by Philemon. Thus,according to Paul, there should be respect between the master andslave who should do everything wholeheartedly.
Relationshipbetween Paul and Philemon
Paul and Philemon were brothers in Christ. From the letter that Paulwrote, it shows that both knew each other before this incident. Pauladdresses Philemon as “our beloved and co-worker and acknowledgeshow he remembers Philemon in his prayers,” (Phil 1:1). Theirfriendship made Paul even ask for the preparation of a guest room sothat he can visit Philemon. Moreover, Paul request Philemon towelcome Onesimus as he would have welcomed him if he regarded him hispartner (Phil 1:17). Both were men of God and preached the gospel andis on this basis that Paul based his request. Paul as a seniorbrother in faith tries to be very partial as he pleads for Onesimusto avoid influencing the decisions of Philemon if he (Philemon)decides to forgive his slave (Tolmie, 2016). Paul explains toPhilemon how useful Onesimus is to them and the church. He goesfurther and confesses to Philemon that he would have wished to keepOnesimus to himself, but that would not be right as Onesimus was his(Philemon’s) slave and it would be better if Philemon gave Onesimusto him (Paul) voluntary. Thus, this shows that there is respect forthese two gentlemen. Moreover, Paul knew Onesimus belonged to anotherperson, and as such, it was necessary to send him back to his owner.The relationship between these two men of God was so cordial to theextent that Paul volunteered to pay anything that Onesimus owed toPhilemon. In doing so, Paul goes a step further and cements hisrelationship with Philemon (Erasmus,2016).
DifferenceMade Between Master and Slave by Onesimus’ Conversion
When Onesimus was escaping from his master Philemon, he was a slave.Their masters had exclusive rights and could punish them for anywrong doing that they wished. In extreme times, slaves would beexecuted by their masters. After conversion to Christianity, Paulexpected to see a change in the relationship between a master andslave. For instance, Paul encouraged Philemon to take back Onesimus,not as a slave anymore, but as a fellow brother in Christ. Paul saysthat Onesimus was useless before he knew Christ, a thing that changedafter he was converted (Erasmus,2016).Both men would be serving God by spreading the gospel and bringingmore souls to God.
In his letter, Paul indicates some things he wants Philemon to do.Though not clearly outlined, his statements and sentiments in theletter led to a better understanding of a new relationship between aslave and master. He sends requests asking Philemon to acceptOnesimus in a similar manner he would take him (Paul) in his house.
Paul says that he will send Onesimus similarly to how he would sendhis own heart (Phil 1:12). He even refers Onesimus as a brother inChrist making an appeal to Philemon. He hopes that Philemon wouldchange his heart and look at the matter at hand in Christianperspective, rather than in a master-servant relationship. Thisrelationship can be extended or elaborated by Philemon extendingGod’s blessing to Onesimus.
Secondly,Paul requests Philemon to charge him anything that Onesimus owes orany injustice (Phil 1:18). Paul indicates that he wrote the letterwith his hands (Phil 19:1). To add onto that, Paul says that Philemonowes his salvation to him (Phil 19:1). Paul also required Philemon torefresh his heart to Christ. The benefit that he wants from Philemonis forgiveness. He passionately requests Philemon to forgive Onesimusas he wishes that Onesimus returns to his master without any problem.
Paul’sStand on Slavery
Paul clearly respects the relationship that has been establishedbetween a slave and master. It is for that reason he did not takeOnesimus to himself, but did send him to his master Philemon. Paulmakes it clear that Philemon has authority over Onesimus, andPhilemon is the one who can willing give Onesimus to Paul. However,he wishes that the relationship be modified, where Philemon wouldview Onesimus as a brother in Christ for he had been converted.During those ancient days, slavery was crucial in the lives of thepeople. Slavery practiced in those days was not racial. However, heattempts to convince Philemon not to treat Onesimus in a cruelmanner.
Paul appeals for forgiveness. In this letter, Paul doesn’t condemnslavery nor does he uphold it. In his other letter to theCorinthians, Paul states that he, who is called to salvation as aslave, becomes free (1Cor 7:20-24). Paul seems to speak aboutspiritual freedom as he says that “you (slaves) were bought at aprice, thus do not become slaves of human beings,”(Roetzel, 2015).He adds that “every individual is answerable to God and shouldremain in the situation they were called in,” (Roetzel,2015).This shows that Paul respects the structure of slave and masterrelationship. This can be supported by Col 3:22 where servants arecalled to respect their master and serve them with the fear of theLord.
Similarly,in Eph 6: 5-9, slaves are taught to serve their masterswholeheartedly, while their masters are cautioned against mistreatingthem for their God who is just is watching. In 1Tim 6:1-2, theslaves who have masters that are believers are encouraged not todisrespect them as their masters are dear to them as they are devotedto their slave’s welfare. In Titus 2: 9-10, preachers of gospelsare encouraged to teach slaves on how to be respectful andresponsible in their duties so that they may make the gospelattractive to their master. These scriptures show that Paul has greatrespect for the social structures that have been established by God.
Paulletter to Philemon is a classical example of how a slave whoconverted to Christianity was treated in those days (Erasmus,2016).The letter also shows how much Paul considered salvation to beimportant, even to a slave. Paul also gave a subjective test thatChristians should prove themselves on salvation. He appeals toPhilemon to subject the blessing that God has granted him toOnesimus, through forgiveness. To Paul, Onesimus was very importantthat he decided even to pay for any debt that he had to his mastershowing that everyone was invited to Christianity.
Tolmie,D. F. (2016). Paul`s exercise of authority in the :A perspective from the 4th and 5th centuries CE. Indie Skriflig, 50(2),1-7.
Erasmus,D. (2016). NewTestament Scholarship: Paraphrases on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus and Philemon, the Epistles of Peter and Jude, the Epistle of James,the Epistles of John, and the Epistle to the Hebrews.University of Toronto Press.
Roetzel,C. J. (2015). TheLetters of Paul: Conversations in Context.Presbyterian Publishing Corp.