Paul, prisoner for Christ, and our brother Timothy, to
Philemon our much-loved fellow-worker, Appia our sister,
Archippus our comrade-in-arms, and the church that meets in your
house: grace and peace.
In my prayers I often give thanks to God for you, because I hear about your faith and love towards the Lord Jesus, and all God's people. I pray that our sharing in faith will deepen awareness of all the possibilities for good that come with commitment to Christ. I am greatly pleased and strengthened by your love, brother. You have put new heart into God's people.
Now it would not be out of place for me, in Christ, simply to remind you of your duty in a particular matter. But I would rather appeal to your love. Yes, I, Paul, ambassador, and now prisoner, for Christ Jesus, appeal to you for my child, whom I have begotten, here, in this prison.
I am talking about Onesimus - in spite of his name not much use to you once, but now very useful indeed, to me as well as to you. I am sending him back to you, and in so doing I am sending a part of myself. I would like to have kept him with me, to look after me just as you would if you were here. But I wouldn't do that without your permission. I would'nt just take something which would be better freely given.
Maybe the reason why you lost him for a while was simply this: so that you could have him back for good, not as a slave but as a brother - dear to me, even dearer to you, as a person and as a brother in Christ.
So if what you and I share matters to you, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way or is in debt to you, let me pay. Look, I am writing this with my own hand: I, Paul, will pay it back. I will not dwell on the fact that you owe me your very self. My brother, I am counting on you, in Christ. Make me happy! I know that you will be generous!
One more thing - please get a room ready for me. I am hoping that in answer to your prayers God will let me come to you.
Epaphras, prisoner here with me for the sake of Christ Jesus,
sends his greetings, as do my fellow-workers Mark,
Aristarchus, Demas and Luke. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ
be with your spirit!
We are left to recreate the story behind this letter, as best we can, from the letter itself. It seems likely that Onesimus deliberately sought Paul out, wanting Paul to intercede for him with his master (rather than meeting up with the apostle accidentally). Clearly, Paul cannot accept that brothers in Christ can at the same time be master and slave, and he requires Philemon to act in harmony with that understanding. This outcome was not a foregone conclusion. What you believe in theory may not be so easy to put into practice, especially if the society you live in has different expectations. We can sense how much pressure Paul builds into his letter - up to the final foreshadowing of a personal visit - without simply laying down the law. We don't actually know whether Philemon did give Onesimus his freedom, but the fact that this letter was preserved as a valued document is probably a sign that it had the desired effect.
Ephesians and 1 Timothy, particularly, expect Christians who are slaves to go on being slaves, to the best of their ability. Before Paul's authorship of those letters was challenged, people tried to read this letter, in harmony with them, as no more than a request to a master not to be too tough on his delinquent slave. That certainly doesn't do the letter to Philemon justice. Obviously much more hangs on Paul's words than that.
Largely because of the baneful influence of letters falsely attributed to Paul, we have come to
regard him as socially conservative, much more concerned with helping
people into heaven than with opposing earthly injustice. His letter
to Philemon already contradicts that perception.
paraphrase and note by Evan Lewis