In the New Testament, God highlights and empowers a new principle of identification. This identification is called koinonia or fellowship, and by it God intends to transform the world. And we are given a small glimpse in microcosm of how this is to work in the remarkable book of Philemon.
“Wherefore, though I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee that which is convenient, yet for love’s sake I rather beseech thee, being such an one as Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ. I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds” (Phil. 8–10).
Timothy is mentioned in the salutation, but the primary author is Paul. The epistle is to Philemon, a dear friend of Paul’s. He is probably an officer in the church, with a house large enough for the church to meet in. Onesimus was a runaway slave of Philemon’s, whom Paul had met and led to the Lord. Onesimus had apparently stolen something from Philemon, and he was returning home (and probably carrying this letter).
There is an interesting historical detail that may factor into this. Somewhere around 110-115 A.D. the early church father Ignatius wrote to the church at Ephesus, addressing the bishop there, a man whose name was also Onesimus. This letter to Philemon was written from Ephesus around 55 A.D.. It is not impossible that a young runaway slave could have been a respected senior churchman fifty-five years later. That would be a grand ending to this story.
Apphia is likely Philemon’s wife (v. 1), and Archippus is probably their son. And since we know that Epaphras (Paul’s fellow prisoner) was once sent by the Colossians (Col. 4:12), it is likely that Philemon lived at Colossae.
In the Greco/Roman setting of the first century, the condition of slaves was absolutely appalling. While some slaves would have had decent masters through the luck of the draw, the institution of slavery in the Mediterranean world was completely pagan from front to back. The book of Philemon gives us an outstanding example of how the apostle Paul put his own teaching on this important subject into practice. Paul does not come into the situation barking orders, but rather seeks to persuade Philemon with tenderness and identification.
Liberty and Identity:
So consider all the identifications that are made. Paul starts by identifying with Philemon in the strongest possible way. He addresses Philemon as beloved (v. 1). He prays for Philemon (v. 4), and when he does, he thanks God for Philemon (v. 4). He has heard good reports about Philemon (v. 5), and he tells Philemon about it. Paul has received much joy and comfort from the consistent Christian love of Philemon (v. 7). In short, it appears clear from this that Philemon was an exemplary Christian, and a close friend of Paul’s. Paul is not ashamed to be identified with Philemon—the slave-owner. Paul is not ashamed to be identified with Philemon, even though Philemon was now embroiled in a conflict with someone else Paul had come to know and love.
And this is how Paul then makes a point of identifying (equally strongly) with Onesimus. He does this both explicitly and implicitly. Explicitly he says that Onesimus is his son, begotten while Paul was in bonds (v. 10). He hopes that Onesimus will become beloved to Philemon, just as he was beloved by Paul (v. 16). In this we see that Paul is assuming the role of Christ—not as a competitor to Christ, but as a representative of Christ. Philemon was beloved to Paul. Onesimus was beloved to Paul. But the two men were estranged from one another. Now what? Paul presses this two-way identification, and does not back away from either man.
He also identifies with Onesimus in a more subtle way. Implicitly he emphasizes repeatedly the fact that he, Paul, is in prison. Why does he do this? This means that Paul, just like Onesimus, is a slave. He begins the letter by pointing this out—the second word in the letter is prisoner (v. 1). He brings it up again when he appeals to Philemon (v. 9), and when he says that he begat Onesimus, he did so while in his bonds (v. 10). He then mentions that Epaphras is his fellow prisoner (v. 23). He assumes that he will be released shortly, and that Philemon is praying for this to happen (v. 22). The implicit argument is powerful—do for Onesimus what you would do for me (v. 17), and this means that Philemon should wish for Onesimus what he wishes for with Paul. And Philemon has been praying for Paul’s freedom.
Paul then makes the striking point that Philemon, who identifies so completely with Paul, would want to minister to Paul and help him out. This Philemon was able to do (though unbeknownst to him) through his representative Onesimus. Onesimus was Philemon’s representative (he and Philemon were identified in Paul’s mind) even though Onesimus had run away from Philemon, and had apparently taken some of the family silver. In fact, Paul had wanted to keep Onesimus with him so that Onesimus could be Philemon’s representative in giving to Paul (v. 13). At the same time, he did not want to coerce anything from Philemon, and so he returned Onesimus to him, so that the choice (to serve Paul through Onesimus) would be completely and freely Philemon’s.
Since this series of identifications is so complete, it follows that what Onesimus owes to Philemon must be added to Paul’s account (v. 18). And the welcome that Philemon would have been glad to offer Paul must be given to Onesimus (v. 17). By the end of the letter, these three men are completely tangled up in one another’s lives.
Usefulness in Christ:
Paul also uses a double pun in his appeal to Philemon. This may be a real testing point for some in their commitment to the authority of Scripture. The name Onesimus means “useful,” and was a common name for slaves—itself a humorous jab. The slave standing around to help out was named Useful, like a character in an allegory. “Give this to old Useful there.” The name Onesimus comes from the same root that the phrase “have some benefit” does in v. 20. But in v. 11, Paul uses two other words to play off this. The word useless is achrestos and the word for useful is euchrestos. Formerly, Paul is arguing, Useful was useless, but now Useless is really useful. The double pun comes in because the underlying word chrestos would be pronounced in just the same way that the title of Christ would be—Christos. Onesimus is useful to Philemon in a similar way that Christ is.
We have every reason to believe that this situation resolved itself happily. First, we may assume that Paul’s assessment of Philemon’s character was not mistaken—and it is clear he had a great deal of confidence in him. The second reason is less obvious, but it is the fact that we have the letter to Philemon in our New Testament. We have it because Philemon obviously received it, treasured it, and saved it.
Note: Portions of this were taken from an article originally used in the Omnibus series. Used with permission.