Midweek – Philemon

Letters From Prison

Question: Have you ever had to convince someone to do something that you knew that they wouldn’t like?  Maybe you had to really think of how you were going to craft your argument in order to lead that person to the conclusion that you want them to reach.  If you haven’t had to do this how would you? Today we are going to look at Paul’s letter to Philemon and see how Paul uses this letter as a tool for convincing.  

Overview/Background 

Paul’s letter to Philemon is typically dated anywhere from around 56-62 AD.  Paul writes this letter to a man named Philemon with regards to a slave of his named Onesimus who Paul has come to know.  Philemon is believed to have lived in Colosse, the same city that Paul wrote the letter of Colossians for. Even though this is Paul’s shortest letter, it still can be divided into three main parts; the exordium or opening (1-7), the proof or body (8-16), and the peroration or the closing (17-25).   

Rhetorical techniques

You could easily read through Paul’s letter to Philemon and miss some of the truly impressive techniques that he uses to persuade Philemon to accept Onesimus.  From the very beginning Paul is working to lead Philemon to the conclusion that he wants for him to reach. Starting with verse 4 Paul attempts to appease Philemon with flattery.  In verse 5 Paul says that he has heard of Philemon’s “love for all his holy people”. To this point, we as the reader do not know about Onesimus at all. Paul is simply trying to gain the good will of Philemon before he makes his request.  Paul goes on in verse 7 to say that Philemon has, “refreshed the hearts of the lord’s people”. This may seem like a “throw away” verse like we have talked about at “The Table” but in reality this is an amazing technique that Paul is using.  If you flash forward to verse 12 Paul uses the same language when he says that Onesimus is “my very heart”. What Paul is trying to do is show Philemon that Onesimus is another member of the Lord’s people who requires Philemon’s love. He then requests that Philemon would “refresh (his) heart” (vs 20).  In order for Philemon to uphold the image of someone who refreshes the hearts of the Lord’s people, he must now include Onesimus.  

Paul also tries to create equality between Philemon, a slaveowner, and Onesimus, a slave. This is an integral part of this letter.  In verse 7 Paul calls Philemon his “brother”. Later in verse 16 Paul calls Onesimus “brother” as well. This is not a coincidence. Obviously Paul does not mean that Onesimus and Philemon are related.  Instead, he is trying to show how they are brothers in Christ, a term that we are familiar with in 2020, but a concept that was revolutionary in this time.  

To slave or not to slave?

Admittedly, many people find great issues with Paul’s letter to Philemon.  It is as if Paul gets his toes to the edge of the waters or addressing the issue of slavery without actually getting in.  He says things such as how Onesimus is be viewed “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave” (vs 16) and “welcome him as you would welcome me” (vs 17) but he never says anything about how slavery as an institution goes against the will of God.  This is extremely odd considering in Galatians 3:28 Paul says that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ”. So that begs the question, why would he not tell Philemon that slavery is wrong?  He does say in verse 21 that he believes Philemon will “do even more than (he) asks”. Maybe the “more” that Paul believes Philemon will do is to actually free Philemon from being a slave. However, that is merely an assumption or even potentially wishful thinking. Or maybe what Paul was doing was more revolutionary than we may think.  There is nothing that suggests that Onesimus was a slave because of any ethnic difference from Philemon. It is highly likely that Onesimus was a slave because of a debt that he owed Philemon or was born into it. This would be consistent with how a majority of slaves came to be slaves during this period. Because of this, everything was based on power.  It was not uncommon for slave owners to abuse their slaves in a number of different ways. Not only was this common but it was completely socially acceptable. Though Paul may not specifically say that Philemon should free Onesimus, it can be understood that Paul is asking Philemon to free Onesimus from his standing as powerless. Maybe this isn’t satisfying for us in 2020, but it is important to realize that though Paul may seem a bit confusing with certain social issues, ultimately his teachings would have been considered radical and helped usher in social change.  

Final thoughts

What does this mean for us?  Firstly, we can see the ways in which Paul navigated difficult situations.  It is not uncommon while in college to come across people who may not be doing what we know God wants them to do.  In many cases it is fellow believers that we consider friends. How have you worked through these times? In Paul’s letter to Philemon he has the tall task of convincing a slave master to accept his slave as a brother.   Secondly, we can see in this letter how blood is not what unites us. In this letter we can see the masterful ways Paul attempts to have Philemon come to that realization that Onesimus is created in the image of God the same way he is.  Let this serve as a good reminder for us that Christ died for each and every one of us. Status, race, gender, none of that matters in the eyes of the Lord. Let us take care of one another and love one another knowing that we are a family.

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