Philemon: 8 – 18
8 For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 9yet 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.* 10I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. 11Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful* both to you and to me. 12I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 13I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; 14but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. 15Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for ever, 16no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
17 So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.
We come, then, to the purpose of Paul’s short letter. He could command Philemon to do what he is asking, but instead, he appeals to his friendship – he appeals on the basis of love, and, oh, by the way, he (Paul) is now an old man in prison, in case Philemon has forgotten that! Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon – from the letter we gain the impression that Onesimus was a slave owned by Philemon, who had, perhaps, run away — or at the very least, failed to return from an errand, and had sought out Paul where Paul was imprisoned. He had served Paul faithfully, and Paul now felt about him as he did about Timothy; he speaks of considering both young men his sons. Apparently, Onesimus had been a somewhat useless slave, or servant, even though his name meant “useful”. But when he found Paul in prison he had been very useful to him, had served him faithfully. But Paul feels that he is obligated to return Onesimus to his master, even though his heart accompanies him. Indeed, Paul would have kept this recalcitrant slave with him to help him through his imprisonment, but he felt it wrong to do so without Philemon’s consent. Now, he begs Philemon to welcome Onesimus back, not as a slave, but as a beloved brother. Finally, if he considers Paul his partner in the Lord, he should welcome Onesimus, as he would welcome Paul himself. And, if there was anything owed him by the slave, Paul himself would repay him.
Philemon had rights here as a slave-owner; he could even have the run-a-way slave put to death, or sold for hard labor. Paul respects this, by sending Onesimus back, but then he asks Philemon to voluntarily lay aside those rights, and treat this man as a brother instead. There are many times in life when we need to lay aside our “right” – and do what is “right” in another sense altogether!
A couple of notes here: First, is it perhaps because he is sending Onesimus back with this plea to Philemon that Paul writes the words about slaves obeying their masters in the general letter to the Colossians? He is walking a fine line – stepping outside the cultural mores, asking Philemon to do something that is far better, far kinder, than what he would have a right to do as a master of slaves. Perhaps he is balancing that out by encouraging slaves to do better on their part. Second, scholars say that this movement back and forth of the run-a-way slave, from Colossae to wherever Paul was imprisoned, and then back to Colossae, indicates that Paul was most likely imprisoned in Ephesus when these two letters were written, rather than in Rome. It would be difficult for a run-a-way slave to get to Rome.