Audience: Philemon, as well as Apphia, Archippus, and church
Subject: Release Onesimus from slavery
Paul's letter to Philemon has a lot of discussion of slavery and prison, because Paul writes this letter to ask for the freedom of Philemon's slave, named Onesimus.
In Paul's other letters, he makes statements indicating that Christ transcends all methods of segregation, such as when he says, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28)
However, Paul also gives recommendations in his letters for how slaves ought to behave towards their masters. The reason behind these recommendations can be found when Paul discusses why we should obey governing authorities (Romans 13; Peter also discusses this in 1 Peter 2), which is so that we are not viewed as evildoers.
Nevertheless, this short letter to Philemon for the release of the slave Onesimus makes it clear where Paul truly stands on the issue of slavery.
Paul introduces himself, noting that he
is "a prisoner of Christ Jesus." (Philemon 1:1) Paul
explains his gratitude for the church in Philemon's house, and speaks
of his prayers regarding the church. He then moves to his point,
saying he has a request, again reminding them that he is "an old
man" and "a prisoner of Christ Jesus." (Philemon
He calls Onesimus his spiritual child (as he has called many of the believers who have come to know Christ through him; example: 1 Corinthians 4:14-15), and he says that he wanted to keep Onesimus with him in Philemon's place.
However, he wanted to get Philemon's
permission beforehand "in order that your good deed might be
voluntary and not something forced." (Philemon 1:14) Paul now
pleads with Philemon to consider Onesimus "no longer as a slave
but...a beloved brother..." (Philemon 1:16)
Paul even says to charge any dept Onesimus owes to himself, but then he says, "I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self." (Philemon 1:19) He then gives his farewell, instructing Philemon to be prepared for a visit from him.
When Paul writes to Philemon, asking for Onesimus to be set free of slavery, Paul first appears to flatter Philemon and then appears to use a little sarcasm and self-fulling prophecy (by saying that he expects that Philemon will be obedient to his request).
Paul almost seems a little threatening when he asks for them to prepare for him to visit; at the very least, he is authoritative about his request to release Onesimus from slavery.
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