10 I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me. 12 I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 13 I wanted to keep him with me so that he might minister to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. 15 Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for the long term, 16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. 17 So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.New revised standard version updated edition
Historical-Cultural Context: Roman Slavery
In v. 16, Paul refers to Onesimus’s status as Philemon’s slave. Slavery was ubiquitous in the Roman Empire and was a key basis for economic production and wealth. Roman slavery took many forms. Some lucky slaves, such as those who served in the Emperor’s household, lived in relative luxury and enjoyed significant freedom and responsibility in their work.
However, for most Roman slaves, life was difficult and often cruel. In the worst cases—e.g., slaves who rowed on galleys, dug in mines, or worked in fields—slavery amounted to a slow death sentence. While slaves in Ancient Rome typically had more freedom and responsibility than (e.g.) slaves in the American South before the Civil War, and while race was not used to justify Roman slavery, the institution remained a condition that every person in the Roman Empire wished to avoid. All Roman slaves were subject to physical violence and arbitrary separation from family members, and no slave had legal standing or social status in Roman culture.
As a result, Roman slaves sometimes tried to escape their enslavement. If caught, these “fugitive slaves” were subject to punishment at the discretion of their masters, including death by crucifixion.
Manumission (freeing) of slaves was a common occurrence. Upon the death of a slaveholder, a faithful slave might be freed as a condition of the slaveholder’s will. Slaves could also be freed at the discretion of a slaveholder through a ceremony before a Roman magistrate (by “vindicta”).
Philemon 10-14 Commentary
In v. 10 we learn of Onesimus, whose situation seems to have prompted the letter. Colossians 4:9 suggests Onesimus was from Colossae. Onesimus is dear to Paul: Paul speaks of him as his “child,” understands himself to be Onesimus’s “father” (v. 10), and calls Onesimus “my own heart” (v. 12).
It seems Paul’s use of father-son language (v. 10), along with his description of Onesimus as a “beloved brother…in the Lord” (v. 16) implies Onesimus became a follower of Jesus through his relationship with Paul.
“Onesimus” means “useful” or “beneficial” in Greek. Thus, in v. 11, Paul is using wordplay that draws on Onesimus’s name. His claim that Onesimus was “formerly…useless” (v. 11) to Philemon may hint at a conflict between Philemon and Onesimus. His claim that now Onesimus is “useful to you [Philemon] and to me” seems to refer to Onesimus’s conversion to Christian faith but may also refer to Onesimus’s care for Paul’s needs while imprisoned (cf. v. 13).
Philemon 15-16 Commentary
Verse 15 tells us Onesimus “was separated” from Philemon for a while, and v. 12 says Paul is “sending him [Onesimus] back to” Philemon. Thus, the passage raises two key questions: (1) what caused the separation between Onesimus and Philemon and (2) why did Paul send Onesimus back?
The traditional answer to question (1) is that Onesimus tried to escape his enslavement. However, not all scholars accept that answer. Some think Onesimus sought Paul to mediate a conflict with Philemon. But, given that Onesimus spent time serving Paul in prison and converted under his influence, it seems unlikely Onesimus went simply seeking mediation: staying away as long as Onesimus did would not have helped his chances at reconciliation with Philemon. Indeed, the duration of the visit might have suggested to Philemon that Onesimus had, in fact, escaped. Other scholars think Philemon himself sent Onesimus to serve Paul in prison (v. 13 might suggest this view).
Interpreters have also given several answers to question (2). Early Church Father John Chrysostom (d. 407 CE) and Americans who supported the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act understood Paul to be sending Onesimus back to restore his role as Philemon’s slave. Other interpreters understand Paul to be seeking reconciliation between Onesimus and Philemon. Some also understand Paul to be asking Philemon to free Onesimus. Lastly, some think Paul is asking Philemon to let Onesimus continue to serve Paul in prison (vv. 13-14). Some of these possibilities are not mutually exclusive, i.e., Paul could have several motives.
In vv. 15-16, Paul implies Philemon should treat Onesimus as a “beloved brother” and “no longer as a slave.” This statement suggests one of Paul’s intentions in sending Onesimus back is that Philemon no longer treat Onesimus as a slave. To restore Onesimus to the hierarchy of master and slave would be contrary to the egalitarian sibling relationship between Christians that Paul emphasizes throughout the letter. Freeing Onesimus would follow Jesus’ mission to “proclaim release to the captives” and to “set free those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18).
Philemon 17 Commentary
Paul’s overt request finally comes in v. 17: “welcome him as you would welcome me.” Given what Paul has said about his relationship with Philemon, the implication is that Philemon should treat Onesimus as a partner (v. 6, 17) and a beloved brother (vv. 7, 16).
This request seems to further support the idea that Philemon should no longer treat Onesimus as a slave: surely Philemon would not treat Paul as a slave. The request is at least part of the “good deed” (v. 14) and “right thing” (v. 8) that Paul desires of Philemon, the action that Paul hopes will flow from Philemon’s faith (v. 6), partnership (v. 6), and love for the members of the church (vv. 5, 7, 9)
Paul’s description of Onesimus as beloved brother to Philemon “in the flesh” (v. 16) may refer to the fact that Onesimus is part of Philemon’s household, or it may suggest that Onesimus was related to Philemon by blood (e.g., as a half-brother). For Paul, “flesh” refers to human beings in their ordinary, natural capacities (e.g., their capacity to feel hunger and thirst).
Looking for more? Try this excellent free Bible study on the book of Philemon. Or, read commentary on Philemon 4-9, Philemon 18-21, or Philemon 22-25.