The letter of Paul to Philemon is my favorite bit of scripture. It is a short letter, consisting of only 25 verses within one chapter, which makes a most interesting case study of the interplay between the exercising of authority and the obligation to love one another, and how those two concepts affect a Christian community. Unfortunately, despite lasting three hours each Sunday, LDS worship services rarely touch on this incredible letter. Lesson 40 in the 2016 NT Gospel Doctrine lesson manual touches on Philemon briefly, as part of a discussion that also includes Philippians and Colossians. It is short shrift for what is, in my opinion, a powerful letter.
So, I want to take a bit of time and give this letter a bit of the attention it deserves (I’m wholly inadequate to the task but will try anyway). I’m going to review it verse by verse (though some will be clumped together), providing some commentary on what I have learned and asking some questions for us to consider. I’m going to use the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible as my base text. When I reference Greek text I will be drawing from the 28th edition of Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece (abbreviated as NA28).
To begin, this letter is one of Paul’s undisputed letters. Paul is imprisoned in Rome and has been visited by the slave of a Colossian church member, appealing to him in some way. At some point during the slave’s visit, the slave (named Onesimus) was converted and proved to be a great help to Paul. The letter is directed to the slave’s owner, Philemon, entreating him to accept Onesimus as a brother instead of as a slave. Paul, in effect, requests the manumission of Onesimus, and in doing so provides a fascinating glimpse into Paul’s view of love and Christian duty in the context of greater societal expectations.
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ
It is generally believed that Philemon lived in Colossea since Onesimus (discussed at length later in the letter) and Archippus are both mentioned in the letter to the Colossians as being members of the church there. It is also believed that Paul wrote the letter while imprisoned in Rome.
Introductory greetings in letters of this time were not perfunctory greetings similar to our, “To whom it is concerned” or, “Hi.” Rather, these greetings specify the nature of the relationship between the author and the audience so it is meaningful when Paul speaks intimately to them, referring to Philemon as “dear friend” (Greek word means “dearly loved one”) and co-worker (Paul uses this term in several letters to refer to those who have helped him spread the gospel), to Apphia as a sister, and Archippus as a fellow soldier. Paul is indicating that they are his equals – that he loves them and that they are key contributors to the work of spreading the gospel.
When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus.
Most of the instances of “you” in this letter are singular rather than plural, indicating that Paul is speaking to one person – most likely Philemon.
I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.
In the Greek text Paul uses a word here, κοινωνία, that he uses frequently in his letters. It means a fellowship or close association between people and is here translated as “sharing”. Here Paul is reminding Philemon of the fellowship which springs from mutual faith in Christ, which will play into the general thrust of Paul’s request within the letter. The use of this word has strategic importance because the word, while being difficult to precisely define, generally is referring to a mutual partnership of equals. These communities of equals were a key component of early Christianity and here Paul is reminding Philemon of the good he can do within such a fellowship.
I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.
The love and support Paul has received from Philemon will play an important role later in the letter. Paul is languishing in a Roman prison so no doubt the accounts from others of how Philemon has supported the fellowship of believers are music to his ears. As we will see, the reciprocal nature of love will prove to be a key to Paul’s request of Philemon.
For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus.
Paul’s authority within the community was such that he could have made a simple appeal to authority, commanding Philemon to do his duty (the description of which is yet to come), yet Paul is not going to do so and is instead going to appeal to Philemon’s obligation to love. Paul adds that he is doing so as a prisoner for his beliefs and as an aged man. In the prevailing culture the requests of elderly people carried more weight so Paul is appealing to Philemon’s communal duties.
Some have argued that Paul’s reference to his ability to command Philemon was a veiled threat and attempt to implicitly strong-arm Philemon into acquiescing to Paul’s request for Onesimus’ manumission. I don’t see it that way and instead believe Paul is trying to make a point to Philemon of the importance of love and Christian duty over legalistic authority and reason. Paul’s reference to his authority provides an example for Philemon. Paul could in effect force Philemon to do what he asks, just as Philemon, as Onesimus’ owner, can compel Onesimus to do his will; however, Paul is instead appealing to love and the unity of the Christian community to make his case, just as he hopes Philemon will be moved to free Onesimus and consider Onesimus his brother out of love and communal duty.
I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.
Onesimus, through his conversion, has become the spiritual child of Paul. Paul brings this to Philemon’s attention for a couple of reasons. First, Onesimus’ conversion has brought him into the Christian fellowship, bringing with it an obligation on Philemon’s part to treat him as a brother. Second, and related to the first point, Philemon, having also been a proselyte of Paul, is the spiritual brother of Onesimus, sharing the same spiritual father. Paul is appealing to Philemon’s paternal obligations.
Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me.
Paul is perhaps obliquely referring to reasons for Onesimus’ escape from Philemon. Those reasons are never explicitly mentioned but, reading between the lines here, perhaps revolved around mistreatment of Onesimus. We tend to care for things that are useful to us, so perhaps Paul’s reference to Onesimus’ former uselessness serves as a reference to his mistreatment.
Onesimus’ conversion perhaps provided much needed moral support to the imprisoned Paul. Onesimus may also have served as some sort of aid to Paul and, now he, through the situation facing them, can become an aid to Philemon’s spiritual growth.
I should also mention that the name Onesimus means “useful”.
I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.
The word translated as “heart” here, σπλάγχνα, means “inward parts”, such as entrails, but figuratively means “emotion”, similar to how we use the figurative “heart”. Paul’s use here hearkens back to his earlier reference to Philemon refreshing the hearts of the saints, for he uses the same word and also needs his own heart refreshed by the good deed he seeks from Philemon.
The reference here to Onesimus as his own heart is also incredibly tender, and demonstrates Paul’s affection for Onesimus. Onesimus’ return is, in effect, Paul’s return and Paul is hoping Philemon treats Onesimus as he would treat Paul.
There is also an element of service-by-proxy when Paul speaks of Onesimus’ service to Paul in place of Philemon. Just as a slave works on behalf of his master, Philemon’s obligation of service to Paul in his time of need is filled by Onesimus.
We do not know if Philemon was a Roman citizen or if Onesimus was a fugitive slave. Paul’s legal obligations under Roman law are equally unclear, but Paul is again being an example of unity in Christian fellowship by seeking Philemon’s consent and then appealing to Philemon to perform a voluntary good deed. He is also delicately making his request in a way that preserves Philemon’s honor, maintains his relationship with Philemon, and makes the favor he asks of Philemon an act of worship – a gift freely offered to God.
Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, 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.
When Paul mentions the separation of Onesimus and Philemon, he is likely not simply referring to physical separation but also to their spiritual estrangement. Now that Onesimus has converted to Christianity their eternal destinies are intertwined through their spiritual brotherhood. Onesimus is no longer simply a slave but is now a beloved brother to Philemon.
So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.
The word translated here as “partner” – κοινωνόν – has the same root as the word translated as fellowship. Paul and Philemon are partners in the fellowship of the gospel and Onesimus has joined that partnership. He should be welcomed as a partner, just as Philemon would welcome Paul.
If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.
Paul is again referring to the idea that Philemon spiritually owes Paul everything, yet Paul doesn’t lord it over Philemon.
Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ.
Here again we see the concept of Philemon refreshing Paul’s heart. Philemon, by granting Paul’s favor of manumitting Onesimus, will refresh the heart of the imprisoned Paul. By treating Onesimus as a brother, an equal in the community of faith, Philemon will himself grow spiritually. Each member of this triangle benefit and are equally refreshed. Paul no doubt is familiar with Philemon so, by appealing to Philemon’s love of Paul, he is making the argument that granting his favor will lift his spirits.
Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
This statement by Paul makes me smile. Paul is asking a lot of Philemon and no doubt testing the limits of Philemon’s faith in Christ. How much has Philemon been changed by Christ’s grace? How far will he go in extending to his slave (now his brother) the emancipation that Christ has offered him? Paul is certainly pushing Philemon to greater understanding of what it means to be partners with Paul in the gospel of Jesus Christ. He has asked Philemon to embrace his former slave as an equal member of their religious community. The household slave will now be an equal in the household church.
One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.
I tend to view this aside as carrying a bit of an effort to drive the point home. Paul intends to visit the community again as Philemon’s guest. Paul is making this request as an apostle of Jesus Christ, so it seems as though this seemingly offhand comment is meant as a reminder to Philemon of Paul’s place as spiritual father to the community.
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
Here Epaphras, who, according to Colossians 1:7-8 is likely the founder of the Colossian church, is mentioned as being a prisoner for Jesus Christ. Philemon is surely familiar with Epaphras, so perhaps the reminder here is that, like Paul and Epaphras, Philemon is not the only prisoner due to his belief in Jesus Christ. While Philemon’s prison is not physical, his Christian duty, Onesimus’ conversion, and Paul’s request have nevertheless boxed him in, pushing him toward a choice that was sure to test the extent of his conversion to Christ’s gospel.
Paul’s letter to Philemon is a treasure, offering a fascinating glimpse into not only Paul’s rhetorical skills but also the importance to him of unity in the faith. It challenges me to be a better example of the transformative nature of Christ’s grace. Am I able to love to the degree asked of Philemon? Would I be able to worship God in the home of my master, treating him as my brother? Am I willing to make the effort to persuade others through love rather than an appeal to authority? These are challenging questions to me and they push me to greater discipleship.
The call to be a Christian is no small thing. It carries with it an obligation to love that can sometimes seem beyond one’s ability. Paul’s appeal to Philemon is deeply meaningful to me. It demonstrates the extent others were willing to go to love one another in difficult and inconvenient times. This is the type of Christianity I can embrace. It transforms lives and, by living it, we are emancipated by Jesus Christ.