Prepare a Guest Room

Of the seven letters Paul wrote, the shortest is one he wrote to a slave owner by the name of Philemon. The letter was probably written sometime in the early 60s CE while Paul is imprisoned and sometime shortly before or after he wrote the letter to the Christians in Philippi. Whereas the other six letters were addressed to specific gatherings of believers in Corinth, the region of Galatia, Rome, Thessalonica, and the aforementioned Philippi, the letter from Paul to Philemon is very personal and has a different tone than his other letters. In it, Paul asks Philemon to receive his runaway slave Onesimus back not as a slave but as a brother.

Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. (1:8-16, ESV)

Paul uses familial language when describing his relationship to Onesimus. He is “my child” and Paul had become his “father.” (1:10) [1] And by sending Onesimus back to Philemon, Paul was “sending my very heart [τοῦτ’ ἔστιν τὰ ἐμὰ σπλάγχνα].” (1:12) Paul is hopeful but does not demand that Philemon will receive Onesimus “no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother.” (1:16) Paul knows he has no legal right to free Onesimus but for Paul the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon is one of brothers in Christ and transcends any human law. As Paul had said in another letter, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) 

At the end of his letter to Philemon, Paul tells Philemon to “prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.” (1:22) This is an interesting little note and we often forget that Paul was a real person, not just some legendary figure. Though he was imprisoned, he was hoping to be released and see Philemon. And he knew that he would need a bed to lie on so he asked Philemon to prepare a room for him in the event he was “gracious given” to him. Paul had hopes and was planning for a future that for him never happened.

Sometimes I think we read biblical texts either as Christians who see little more than the supernatural elements infused within it or as skeptics who are looking for all the inconsistencies and problems within it. How often we forget that these texts originated with human beings and, in the case of epistles, were composed for specific reasons and in specific circumstances. If we read carefully, we can detect the feelings and aspirations of its authors and maybe feel a little bit of emotion as we study these ancient tomes.

ENDNOTES

[1] The Greek text literally reads, ὃν ἐγέννησα, “the one whom I begot.”

Featured image by user:AngMoKio – Own work (Original text: selfmade photo), CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1196825

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