The short letter to Philemon consisting altogether only out of 25 verses is not trying to go very deep in theological doctrines or correct a particular kind of teaching, but was written into a very specific situation in which basic Christian ways such as forgiveness, servant hood or love were displayed. Still, behind we can easily find integrity with other parts of the Bible, for concepts of salvation (10, 16), substitution (17), accusation (18) and redemption (19) are fully present. In following lines we will examine the historical setting of this letter as well as introducing those particular circumstances which were surrounding it. Secondly, a light of modern studies concerning proper argumentation will illuminate some of the persuasive techniques used by Paul, while the final part will be solely aiming at practical application for any Christian living in westernized world of the present-day.
Over all, this epistle is known for the “appeal to consent” or “compelling appeal” that is very carefully nested in the letter by Paul. I believe that on this one page he sets an example of how we should speak to each other in the church when we face possible diversion or difference.
Let us first look closer at what was most likely going on in this story. We are dealing with 3 people – Paul, Philemon and Onesimus.
According to the refferences in verses 1,9 and 19 we can identify Paul as the author of the letter. Moreover also the vocabulary, phrases and style appears to be his when taken into comparrisson with other Pauline letters. At that time Paul was a prisoner in Rome yet he was still spreading the gospel with strong influence even from the imprisonment.
Secondly, Philemon was the owner of the slave „Onesimus“. And as we read in verse 19 he was apparently converted through Paul. From what we know about him he was a respected man in Colossea.
Thirdly, while there are also some other interpretations, most bible scholars would agree that Onesimus seems to be a slave who ran away from his master, and even though it is not clearly stated, he most likely stole something valuable. For at that time it was a common practice to send slaves on long journeys with great ammount of money to manage business of their masters, which naturaly had to be a great temptation. Moreover Onesimus was fairly a common name for slave – it meant “useful” or “profitable”.
States of slaves
Slaves had practically no value in those times, still there was a big difference between a slave serving in a Jewish household and all the other slaves.
Paul Copan, an expert on historicity of Jesus Christ wrote in “God is Great, God is Good” that all surrounding nations including Romans treated their slaves as property. That means that they were marked as horses or cows or they were given tattoos that showed they belonged to this or that master, they were often cruelly punished by extreme measures and even could be easily killed only if it was will of their master without anyone examining some kind of element of righteousness.
Now Israelites also had slaves, but Mosaic Law secured them a completely different position. All the cruelty and exploitation (misusing) was clearly forbidden which is also shown in Exodus 21:26-27:
“26An owner who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye. 27 And an owner who knocks out the tooth of a male or female slave must let the slave go free to compensate for the tooth.”
Moreover slave owners were instructed to treat their slaves well.
“If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves.”
(Leviticus 25:39, NIV)
The phrase “do not make them work as slaves” refers probably to working slaves of all the contemporary surrounding nations such as Hammurabi, Summery, Acadians, Hittites, Assyrians or Egyptians etc. in which a position of bond servant was as suggested above truly a terrible fate to undergo.
The story of persuasion
At this point Onesimus was a slave who was useless, unprofitable (11) and fully deserving punishment for his single action. But somehow on his escape he met Paul in Rome who shared with him the gospel. He responded to that call, accepted Jesus Christ and changed his life completely; as he was transformed, Paul now calls him profitable (11) and useful. Yet in Paul’s eyes he appears to be not only a slave anymore, but a dear brother in Lord Jesus Christ (16). At this point Paul sends Onesimus to city of Colossae together with Tychicus (Col. 4:7-9). He comes back to Philemon most likely carrying this letter in which Paul intercedes for him in a very special way, which we are about to look at now:
- He starts lifting up love that Philemon has for the Lord and for people (4-7), but then he appeals to him for Onesimus on basis of that same love (9).
- He tells him he could order him to accept Onesimus (8) but he will not do it, because he hopes he will act by love (9).
- Then Paul speaks how important is Onesimus to him (12), which surely makes it harder for Philemon to decide to punish him.
- In verse 17 he demands that if Philemon considers Paul as his partner he will welcome him as he would welcome Paul.
- And at last he says that if Onesimus owes him some money Paul will pay it back for Onesimus (18) but he should remember that he owes him his salvation (19), which is more valuable than anything else.
There are two elements that appear to come forward throughout the entire letter – a concept of love and free choice. Yet, having in mind the previous five points, Paul clearly reminds Philemon about all the attached circumstances, which seems that this accentuated freedom, is only apparent. Thus many of us could have an impression that such a way of speaking is plainly manipulative.
…Read the solution in the second part of this article – Unreasonable Philemon (2/2).