Perry L. Stepp & Rebecca Van Noord
“And I won’t mention that you owe me your very soul,” Paul says in his letter to Philemon (Phlm 19).
At first glance, Paul’s comment seems like a threat—a rhetorical hand grenade he tosses to pressure Philemon, a church leader in Colossae, to do what he wants. But is that what’s going on?
Philemon is a wealthy Christian who was converted during Paul’s mission work in Colossae. His slave Onesimus runs away, causing Philemon financial loss. During his travels, Onesimus finds Paul and becomes a Christian through his witness. Now, Paul is sending him back to Philemon, along with the letter bearing his master’s name.
Beyond that, the details are hazy. We don’t know exactly what Onesimus did or even what Paul specifically wants Philemon to do for Onesimus. But we do know that he wants Philemon to relate to Onesimus in a completely different manner.
Bondservant or Brother?
It’s not Onesimus’ theft, flight or conversion that Paul initially addresses—it’s Philemon’s faith and reputation. Paul begins by praising Philemon for his “faith in the Lord Jesus” and “love for all of God’s people” (Phlm 5). From there, he segues to the premise for his upcoming request: “And I am praying that you will put into action the generosity that comes from your faith as you understand and experience all the good things we have in Christ” (Phlm 6).
Paul sets up Philemon to respond obediently. Although he could have commanded Philemon to receive Onesimus, he wants and expects Philemon to respond out of love because of the love that was shown him: “He is no longer like a slave to you. He is more than a slave, for he is a beloved brother, especially to me. Now he will mean much more to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord” (Phlm 16).
Paul removes barriers that might have existed between the two men—class, rank and working relationship. They are both indebted to Christ and both heirs of His promise of salvation and thus brothers. They’ve been adopted (Rom 8:15–16).
They are also brothers in another sense because Paul is their spiritual father. This is Paul’s reason for telling Philemon that he owes him his “very soul” (Phlm 19). This statement comes after Paul’s offer to pay Onesimus’ debt. Paul shows Philemon that, just like Onesimus, Philemon owes Paul a debt—one that precedes and outweighs Onesimus’.
A Community Response
Paul’s requests don’t affect only Philemon and Onesimus. If we read the first verse of the letter, we see that Paul addresses the entire community that met at Philemon’s house. The letter would have been read aloud while the community was present, and the entire church would have overheard Paul make these requests of Philemon, placing pressure on him to follow through. Paul isn’t letting Philemon make his own private decision. He is holding him accountable before the entire community in Colossae. He is essentially saying, “What does Jesus really mean to you? How transformed by the gospel are you?”
Paul knew that Philemon’s response to this matter would affect the entire community. He wants to remind all of them that they are knit together not by their social or legal standing, but by their faith in Christ.
Pick up resources for studying the pastoral letters at Logos.com/PastoralLetters
Biblical references are from the New Living Translation (NLT).