Over the next four days I will be posting a series entitled, A Leader Extends His Influence for the Benefit of His Follower. These blog posts will be based on the book of Philemon from the Bible.
Photo Credit: chimothy27
The book of Philemon was written by the Apostle Paul while he was in prison with Timothy and a runaway slave named Onesimus. Paul is writing to his “brother in Christ,” Philemon, asking Philemon to accept Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave. However, Onesimus is no longer the person he once was. Onesimus is now “a brother in Christ” whom Paul has helped become a Christian while in prison.
It is significant that even though Paul is writing the letter to Philemon and making a request of Philemon, Paul also addresses the letter to:
- Apphia: Philemon’s wife,
- Archippus: Philemon’s son, and
- The Church that regularly met at Philemon’s house:  This body of Christians serves as “accountability partners” for Philemon because they are not influenced by emotions and feelings about the situation between Onesimus and Philemon.
Sending the letter to these “accountability partners” helps to influence Philemon to do the right thing. Even though Paul is the most powerful person mentioned in the letter (more on this later), he strategically uses his influence by enlisting others to make sure Philemon makes the correct decision and does the right thing, which is to send Onesimus back to Paul so Onesimus may be used to spread the gospel with Paul.
People reading this letter might believe that Philemon is the most powerful person mentioned in the letter. However, Paul is the most powerful person here. If we dig into the historical context of the world of Paul, it was considered a great honor to suffer on Christ’s behalf. Having had a personal encounter with Jesus, like many people of the early Roman Christian Church, Paul is willing to face suffering and persecution for the cause of spreading the gospel throughout the Roman Empire.
Paul made three missionary journeys by now and has journeyed to Rome to continue spreading the Good News before being arrested and imprisoned. Yes, Philemon owns a home, has a family, is doing good work, and hosts a church in his own home. But his spoken words are not as powerful as Paul’s, who is considered to be the greatest living Christian at that time and is clearly the unofficial leader of the early Christian Church spreading throughout the Roman Empire.
Onesimus, who is a runaway slave converted to become a Christian, is caught in the middle. Onesimus was once considered to be a low class citizen as a slave. But since then he has lowered his status in society even more by becoming a runaway slave, and on top of that, he might have committed a crime that lands him in jail (which is how he might have come into contact with Paul).
Paul leads Onesimus into a relationship with Jesus Christ, and Paul decides it is time for Onesimus to reconcile with his earthly master, Philemon. We can only guess that Onesimus is surprised by this decision. At that time, being a runaway slave was not a good position to be in. Onesimus probably hoped for as little punishment as possible from his Christian master which could have consisted of “whipping, branding, or execution.”
However, because Onesimus has discovered his spiritual gifts working under Paul, we know that Onesimus would be very fortunate to be allowed to return and work with Paul.  This means Onesimus would be help Paul with the great work of spreading the gospel and strengthening churches, which is very different than being a slave working on a farm or in a home. If Paul is able to successfully extend his influence to Philemon, Onesimus will benefit by being allowed to stay with Paul and continue doing great work to serve and help others.
 D. Edmond Hiebert, The Pauline Epistles, vol. 2 of An Introduction to the New Testament (Waynesboro, GA: Gabriel Publishing, 2003), 244.
 Read more about Paul’s teachings about new believers receiving “spiritual gifts” in 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4, Romans 12:1-8, and 1 Peter 4