7 Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints. 8 Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9 yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I then, as Paul--an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus-- 10 I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. 12 I am sending him--who is my very heart--back to you. 13 I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. 15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good-- 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord. 17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back--not to mention that you owe me your very self. 20 I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ.
Philemon was a Christian living in Collosse. His slave, Onesimus had run away to Rome. Paul, imprisoned in Rome had led him to trust in Jesus.
Under more usual circumstances, a free man could have assumed custody of a runaway slave after he had given guarantees of his return to the public officials, and he could have suggested that the slave be formally assigned to him for a time. But Paul was in prison and writes this letter to Philemon asking for clemency.
Onesimus's status was the lowest that one could reach in the ancient world. Because he was a runaway slave, he was protected by no laws and he was subject to all manner of abuse. Captured slaves were frequently beaten unmercifully, executed, or put to tasks in which their life expectancy was very short.
Paul addresses Philemon as a trusted friend and brother in Christ, appealing to his better nature. Although there is some pressure brought to bear, Paul does not force Philemon to do what he thinks is right.
Paul never, as far as we are aware called for an end to slavery. In Ephesians 6:5 he writes that slaves should obey their earthly masters as if they were obeying Christ. He then tells the masters that they are to treat their slaves like Christ and not mistreat them. In doing this he suggests and equality that features in this letter.
While he does not ask for freedom, even his request for clemency for Onesimus and hint of his assignment to Paul defied Roman tradition. By this plea Paul is also giving new dignity to the slave class. He asks a slave owner to treat him like a free man.
Paul's mission was not to abolish slavery, but to transform people by introducing them to Jesus. Instead of changing the system that would influence people, Paul changed people who would influence the system. This, of course, happened many years later, as we celebrated earlier this year.
Today, many people are still enslaved. Some cannot exercise their freedom because of their colour, race, sex, or background.
Philemon shows that we everyone should be free to be the person God created them to be.
This is very relevant to the U.K. today. Illegal immigrants are trying to get into our country, perhaps fleeing from religious persecution. Legal immigrants, many for Eastern Europe, are coming to the U.K. bringing economic benefits but also social and cultural difficulties.
What should our attitude be as Christians?
We should show the grace, or undeserved favour that God has shown us when he welcomed us into His kingdom