Paul’s Epistle to Philemon

This short letter to Philemon was written at the same time as Paul’s letter to the church at Colosse and delivered by the same hands, Onesimus and Tychicus. Onesimus was a slave to Philemon, but had stolen from him and run away, a crime punishable by death under Roman law. He had met Paul while Paul was under house arrest and became a Christian. Now willing to return to his master, Paul writes this personal appeal for Philemon to accept Onesimus as a Christian brother. Following his opening greeting in verses 1 to 3, Paul makes a tactful appeal for Onesimus, constructed in a way prescribed by ancient Greek and Roman teachers: to build a rapport, persuade the mind, then move the emotions.

Verses 4 to 10

Paul builds a rapport by offering thanksgiving and prayer, specifically for Philemon, before introducing his appeal as one Christian to another, based on Christian love.

Verses 11 to 19

Writing to persuade the mind, Paul suggests that Onesimus’ conversion to a Christian now makes him more profitable to both of them, saying that he would even like to keep Onesimus to help him in his ministry. He then suggests that the whole episode may have been through divine providence so that he might have Onesimus back, not as a slave, but as a dear brother in the Lord. Paul makes it very personal by saying that if Philemon considers Paul a partner in faith, he should also consider Onesimus in the same way. An offer is made to pay any money owed by Onesimus, reminding Philemon he owes Paul his (spiritual) life.

Verses 20 and 21

Writing to move the emotions, Paul is effectively saying that what is being requested is the least Philemon should do if God’s grace towards him is not to be in vain. Paul finishes his letter requesting preparation be made in the hope that he might come to visit, and then with greetings from the same persons mentioned in his letter to the Colossians.
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