Letters are a dying art. But there’s something powerful in writing down our communication and intentionally sending it across the miles to another person. There’s a sense of significance and timelessness about these words, many of which have been preserved for future generations. And such is the case with the personal letter written by Paul to Philemon which has become the book of Philemon in the New Testament.
Who Is Philemon and Why Did Paul Write Him a Letter?
Philemon was a believer who lived in the city of Colossae (in modern-day Turkey). We know he was well-to-do because his home was big enough that the Colossian church gathered there to worship God. Paul wrote him a letter from prison (likely in the year A.D. 62) that was supposed to be read to the whole church when they met together. Paul is grateful for Philemon and praises him, referencing his “love for all the saints and the faith that you have in the Lord Jesus” and telling him that “the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother” (v. 8).
Paul has something weighty he wants to discuss with Philemon, but he does not want to be heavy-handed. “Although I have great boldness in Christ to command you to do what is right,” he says, “I appeal to you, instead, on the basis of love.” Philemon is growing in Christ, but Paul wants even more for him: “I pray that your participation in the faith may become effective through knowing every good thing that is in us for the glory of Christ” (v. 7).
We learn in the course of the letter that one of Philemon’s slaves named Onesimus had run away from Philemon’s house--perhaps stealing from him in the process--and that Onesimus had somehow connected with Paul in Rome. Through their interactions, Onesimus had become a believer and had helped Paul greatly in ministry. Paul clearly says that though he wanted Onesimus to continue in ministry with him in Rome, he decided that he would encourage Onesimus to first reconcile with Philemon, bearing a letter that calls Onesimus “my son” (v. 10) and “my very own heart” (v. 12).
With these heartfelt appeals, Paul exhorts Philemon to accept Onesimus, but “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave--as a dearly loved brother” since “he is especially so to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (v. 16). We also get the sense that Paul hopes Onesimus will be sent back to him to continue to work in ministry after that reconciliation, since he says: “I wanted to keep him with me...but I didn’t want to do anything without your consent, so that your good deed might not be out of obligation, but of your own free will” (v. 14).
Paul's Appeal to Philemon
We see in this short letter Paul’s persuasiveness and the strength of his personal relationships which are characterized by love. We also see how he loves people where they are, but loves them too much to let them stay complacently there. He writes about “the power of the gospel to transform individual lives (v. 11) and human relationships (v. 16),” through the love of God that leads to the love of others.
If Philemon hesitates to accept Onesimus as a brother, Paul essentially links arms with Onesimus and says, “We’re a package deal.” At the end of his letter, he says: “So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would me” (v. 17). And Paul gently asserts his authority over but also faith in Philemon’s freedom to choose “what is right,” concluding that: “Since I am confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say” (v. 21).
3 Lessons We Can Learn from Philemon
1. Growth is a gradual process.
As we see in his letter, Paul has much to praise about Philemon. He was in many ways a generous, faithful believer who opened his home to the church and who encouraged the believers in Christ. But this is the very basis upon which Paul calls him to live out his faith in even deeper ways, though his appeal toward deeper discipleship is sandwiched between two genuine expressions of gratitude and thanks, perhaps so as not to discourage Philemon.
Because of the transformation God has worked in his life, Paul prays and believes forward in Philemon’s life, knowing that “he who began a good work in [Philemon] will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). Toward this end, he prays “that your participation in the faith may become effective through knowing every good thing that is in us for the glory of Christ” (v. 6).
2. Love creates family ties between people.
Paul opens his letter by calling Philemon not only a “dear friend” and “coworker” (p. 1) but also a “brother” (v. 7) in the Lord. As the letter progresses, Paul calls Onesimus his “son” and refers to himself as Onesimus’ “father” (v. 10) and also implies that he thinks of Onesimus as a “dearly loved brother” (v. 16) and that Philemon should think of Onesimus in this way as well. In these expressions we see the result of the transformative power of God’s fatherly love which is echoed by John in another letter: “How great is the love the Father has lavished upon us, that we should be called children of God...Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:1, 18).
3. Persuasion can be powerful yet kind.
Paul is a master of persuasion, using several rhetorical strategies within this short letter to great effect: “begin by building rapport and goodwill with an audience (vv. 4–10), then lay out the facts in a way that will convince the mind or intellect (vv. 11–19), and finally appeal to the emotions of the audience (vv. 20–21).” But though he mentions that he could steamroll Philemon on the basis of his authority and what he had done for Philemon in the past, he would not use that authority harshly. Instead, he allows him “free will” (v. 14). Even this is a method of persuasion, modeling the very stance Paul is asking Philemon to take toward Onesimus: not using his legal authority to coerce Onesimus, but rather giving him the freedom of brotherhood.
Paul maintains rapport with Philemon while pulling out all the stops in convincing him to make the right choice that will benefit all of them. He speaks gratefully of the fact that “the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through” Philemon, he ends with: “I, Paul, write this with my own hand: [If Onesimus owes you any money] I will repay it--not to mention to you that you owe me even your very self. Yes, bother, may I benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ” (v. 20). Through Paul’s example, we see that persuasion toward the right action can be powerful and effective without damaging relationships in the process.
Though letter writing is becoming a lost art, loving and effective communication will never go out of style. We can learn much from Paul’s short letter to Philemon about gradual growth in Christ, about the reality of the fact that we are (and would behave as if we are) in family relationships with other believers, and about how to persuade others without breaking fellowship with them. The book of Philemon can be read in less than five minutes, but its impact is powerful and timeless.
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Jessica Udall holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Bible and a Master of Arts degree in Intercultural Studies. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Intercultural Studies and writes on the Christian life and intercultural communication at lovingthestrangerblog.com.