1-3 Paul addresses and greets Philemon. We take Philemon to be the primary addressee, but this is clearly a public letter. Apphia may be Philemon's wife and Archippus his son (which could explain the use of a martial attribution to him, if he was like many boys in appreciating the imagery of power). Since only the father could make a decision about a slave, the inclusion of the family and the congregation was either a courtesy or, more likely, a tool of Paul's moral persuasion. (Paul may have included Colossae in this effort, depending on the full meaning of Colossians 4:9 and 16-17.)
Although the form of address is entirely typical, Paul's references to his imprisonment and to his past work with Philemon lay the groundwork for his argument on behalf of Onesimus.
4-7 Paul continues these thoughts by mentioning what he has heard more recently about Philemon, emphasizing Philemon's ties to Christ's saints and to Paul himself. Paul also writes, a bit ambiguously, of the need to understand what is good and proper for Christ's people.
8-21 With this ground prepared, Paul is ready to make his plea on Onesimus' behalf. Even now, however, Paul rather delicately backs into the issue.
8-9 Paul begins by denying that he would command Philemon to do right, while simultaneously affirming his authority to do so and defining Philemon's real obligation to choose what Paul could have ordered. This is a powerfully disarming technique, the more so when it is expressed with the balanced verbal parallelism of Paul's Greek (much of which is lost in translation).
10-16 What is this request that Paul makes (in lieu of a command)? It is that Philemon receive Onesimus as a brother in Christ. Yet Paul takes seven full verses to expound this request! First he brings up Onesimus' name – but only in a verse which places every other word first. ("I make a request on behalf of my child, whom I begot in prison, Onesimus.") Then Paul makes a series of points alternating between Onesimus' new usefulness, which is his usefulness to the Gospel, and Onesimus' closeness to Paul's heart (or "self"). Both these connections are protections for the returning slave; in verse 16 Paul suggest that they may also become the basis of a new relationship between Philemon and Onesimus.
17-19 Paul has now made his request and laid out the case to support it. But how can the master forget all the trouble this slave has caused him? Paul deftly deflects this issue by making it an issue between Philemon and Paul rather than between Philemon and Onesimus. The remainder of Philemon's debt to Paul may be less than that of the other addressees, by way of explaining how Paul's account can take such a charge against it.
20-21 Paul ends this message the same way he began it: He asks Philemon to do this favor and makes clear that as a friend and a Christian Philemon really has no choice.
22-24 Paul is sure that Philemon is caught – by Paul's argument, by Philemon's conscience, by the conscience of the church – and so Paul turns to the future. Paul hopes to come visiting soon. (Or is the possibility of a future visit from Paul one last bit of pressure on Philemon?) In the meantime, he passes along the good wishes of those who are with him. The letter ends with a blessing which parallels the opening.

April 1993
August 2002

Pivot Rock Ensign