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While the text does not explicitly say that Onesimus was a slave who had departed from his master Philemon, it can be inferred (10-11, 15-16, 18). We may reconstruct the story as follows. Paul writes from Prison (1, 9, 10, 13) to his fellow brother and co-worker in the Lord, Philemon (1, 3, 7, 17, 20), who is an honorable man and the host of his church (2, 5, 7). The two clearly have a past relationship. In fact, Paul may have even been instrumental in Philemon’s conversion, which is presumably why he can assert that Philemon owes him his very self (19b). Paul now comes to his brother with a request involving Onesimus, Philemon’s slave. Instead of pulling rank and commanding Philemon to carry out his request, Paul prefers to appeal to him based on love (8), that which Philemon has already done so well at demonstrating to the rest of the saints (5-7).
While we’re not given the details, somewhere along the way Philemon and Onesimsus’ relationship was strained. Onesimus likely committed some sort of wrong against his master, whether it was theft or some other offense (18). And rather than sticking around to endure the punishment, he seeks out the well-known friend of his master, Paul, to appeal on his behalf. While visiting Paul, Onesimus comes to faith in Christ (10) and becomes “useful” to both Paul and Philemon (11). This leads Paul to pen this very letter. Paul wants Philemon to welcome Onesimus back as a brother and as if he was Paul himself (16-17). In order to clear Onesimus’s slate, Paul says, “Charge it to me” (18) and reminds Philemon that he owes him considerably; besides, whatever wrong Onesimus committed compares little to the value that Paul gave Philemon in bringing him to know the living God (19). The tension peaks as Paul asks Philemon to refresh his heart, i.e. Onesimus (20, see also 12) and states his confidence in his obedience to do this and much more (21).
This is the climax of the book. The ball’s now in Philemon’s court. He has the opportunity to demonstrate the very honor, faith, and love that Paul praised him for in the beginning of the letter (5-7). Although Paul could simply have ordered his request to be done, he wanted Philemon to determine the outcome himself (8, 14, 20-21), because he knew that only the power of love and faith in action would produce the redeeming effects that God would want. And in case Philemon has thoughts of not responding appropriately, Paul informs him of his hopes to visit soon and check on his response (22).