Paul’s letter to Philemon is a personal letter. While Paul acknowledges the church that meets in Philemon’s home, this letter is not to them. Just the greeting is political and relational: Philemon, slave and property owner; Apphia, Philemon’s wife; Archippus, a “coworker” of Paul’s from Colossae, and possibly filling the role of pastor. Archippus could possibly be not addressed, but it’s likely that Paul sought to draw Archippus into the conversation, and it’s not wise to disregard someone that appears to have been significant to the church.
In this letter, Paul asks Philemon to pardon his (Philemon’s) runaway slave Onesimus. Who knows why Onesimus ran away from Philemon and went to Paul. By law, Paul had to send Onesimus back to Philemon. Paul sent an advance letter to Philemon to, it seems, make for a smooth return for Onesimus. Paul knew that legally Philemon could do whatever he wished with Onesimus (include having him crucified). Paul also knew that Apphia would have some sway in this, as she would have had household authority over the slaves. This all plays into Paul’s letter as he seeks to persuade Philemon to be gentle to (maybe even free?) Onesimus.
Paul starts by identifying himself as a prisoner, placing himself socially beneath Philemon. He then puts himself as a coworker to Philemon. In this, he is saying that this letter is not coming from a superior. Paul notes that he could command, but instead chooses to appeal.
What becomes interesting is humor that Paul puts into play. Onesimus means useful and was a common slave name. Paul states that Onesimus used to be useless, but now that he is a fellow Christian he is useful. In other words, only now that Onesimus is a Christian does he actually live up to his name. Its intent is to lighten what is a weighty letter.
1) Have you ever had a person in authority ask a favor that really wasn’t a favor? What was that like?
2) What do you think the relationship was like between Philemon and Paul? Why?
3) If a friend asked for a favor that wasn’t to your immediate advantage, would you do it? Why or why not?