Paul wrote the book/letter of Philemon during his first Roman imprisonment. He wrote it to a leading brother at the Church in Colossae and his name was Philemon. Philemon was a man of means, but was completely sold out to Jesus Christ and used much of his wealth to support the preaching of the Gospel. Paul’s authoritative stance could suggest that Philemon was one of his converts, but it definitely reflected Paul’s status as Apostle of the Church at Colossae.
In some ways. Consistent with his affluence, Philemon was a slave owner, and one of his slaves Onesimus ran away. It is reasonable to conjecture that Onesimus, like most slaves, did not like being a slave, and therefore ran away at the first chance he got. I would be reluctant to conclude that he ran away because Philemon was cruel to him. However, what is certain is that Onesimus, at the risk of death if caught, ran away and found himself with Paul in Rome.
Paul, like the expert communicator he is, begins with a glowing factual tribute to Philemon and used the opportunity to massage his ego, something that works with all of us… and if you doubt me… ask your children. “I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus” (Philemon 1:4-5). Paul continues in Philemon 1:6-7 to let Philemon know that He is aware of the excellent work he has been doing among God’s people. He then took the opportunity to bestow on Philemon an Apostolic prayer for the deepening of his understanding of every good thing they shared for the sake of Christ.
Given the brevity of the letter, and the amount of space and importance that is devoted to Onesimus, it is reasonable to conclude that this was the main purpose of the letter. Paul having laid the foundation, now gets down to the serious work.
In Philemon 1:8 Paul says two things in one sentence. First, he says that given his authority in the context of their relationship, he could order him to do what he ought to do. Secondly, Paul says that he will not order Philemon to do what he could order him to do. This is a masterful psychological manouvre because, Philemon is now weighted with the knowledge that Paul is not doing something that he could do… and for that alone, Philemon is now indebted to Paul… and in a manner of speaking, owes him a favor.
Paul increase the pressure in Philemon 1:9 by appealing to Philemon on the basis of love. But that’s not a coincidence. In Philemon 1:5 Paul had already complimented Philemon on his love for all God’s holy people. Paul was not going to lose this sale, so before trying to close it, he ensured that he covered all the bases. Now he casts himself as Paul, the old man, and also as a prisoner of Christ. I can sense Philemon sweating under the mounting pressure. No young man feels comfortable turning down a request from an old man who he respects and reveres… and as a free Christian, how could Philemon do anything else but comply with the request of a an old Christian man who was now in chains, as part of the price that was being paid for his freedom.
Finally, Paul identifies Onesimus as his son, and not just one born at a time that was convenient to Onesimus, but at a time when the imprisoned Apostle needed him most (Philemon 1:10). The lives of slaves were expendable. A runaway slave that was caught would either be killed or beaten so severely, that either way, his life would be worthless. Accrediting him with the status of son and not esteemed servant, literally placed Onesimus out of the reach of the consequences for slaves. But now says Paul, this once useless slave, is now very useful both to Paul and Philemon his master.
In Philemon 1:13, Paul repeats his initial strategy. The evidence of Paul’s sending Onesimus back to Philemon is in front of Philemon, more than likely with head bowed, and perhaps even kneeling. Paul says, I did not want to send him back to you, but I have, because it is the right thing to do for two reasons. The first is that he is your property and you are entitled to make all decisions regarding your property. The second is a tad more insidious. Paul tells Philemon, that Onesimus was actually delegating for his master as he served Paul in prison. Philemon is now forced to see what Onesimus did for Paul as bringing a benefit to himself, for through his servant Onesimus, it was he, Philemon that was ministering to Paul, the man to whom he owed so much. But because this act of Onesimus did not initially have the blessing of Philemon, Paul is now giving him the chance to endorse Onesimus’ ministry to Paul so that he Philemon could properly take credit for and genuinely feel a part of it (Philemon 1:14). Now speak the truth… At this point, does Philemon stand even the ghost of a chance against the mastery of Paul?
Just in case the letter caught Philemon on a bad day, Paul was making sure that there was no chance of failure. The Apostle – the leading man in the entire church and the man who frequently hears from God and was caught up into the third heavens and saw things not worthy to be spoken – now surmises as to the possible reason for Onesimus having run away from his master, a crime punishable by death. “Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (Philemon 1:15-16) Who was Philemon to have argued?
Finally, finally, Paul makes an air-borne flip. Up till now, he has been persuading Philemon that Onesimus was dear and valuable to him. Now in Philemon 1:16 Paul says to Philemon, “He is very dear to me but even dearer to you…” The deal is closed. Philemon has no choice. Onesimus is free.
But there is a caveat. We all would want to communicate as effectively as Paul, even though some may call it behavior manipulation. But the basis for Paul’s effectiveness was the foundation of respect and value that he had already laid. We will never have the same value and respect that Paul had earned, but we must work on our own. It is called sowing, before you reap. It’s called “casting your bread upon the waters”… It is called working day and night to lend a helping hand to make our brothers load lighter and our sister’s day brighter. That’s a major part of the formula for laying up treasures and accumulating rewards both on earth and in heaven.
Remember to visit RBC’s Our Daily Bread Devotional today at www.ODB.org