A Personal Guaranty

So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.

And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.

Philemon 17-22

As he ends the main body of his letter, Paul takes the extraordinary step of offering to stand as surety for any financial loss Philemon cares to name in sending Onesimus to Paul. In doing this, Paul has taken the pen in his own hand to write out this guaranty, an action that would have had significance legally, for of course Philemon would be suffering loss financially since a slave was an economic asset in that place and time. How much of a risk was this really for a man awaiting trial and execution?

Let’s not forget that no one yet knew how that trial would come out, and Paul had been delivered several times before.

Even so, Paul did manage to slip in the fact that Philemon owed Paul a great deal for bringing him to Christ and eternal life: Paul has covered all the bases.

Persuasion again: I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask. (vv. 20-21) That is an interesting turn of phrase: “refresh my heart”. Clearly, Paul means “do what I ask”, and we see that because he speaks of his confidence that Philemon will do even more than he has asked and uses the word “obedient” for the first and only time in the letter.

There’s no way Philemon can gracefully refuse at this point!

Oh yes, one more thing old buddy, get that guest room ready, for I’m planning a visit soon.

Game, set, match. Paul concludes his letter in verses 24-25 in the customary way, sending greetings from his companions who are with him, but interestingly, they were also witnesses of the letter and would serve as witnesses to both Paul’s guaranty if necessary, and to Philemon’s refusal, should that be case; just a tad more subtle pressure.

As I mentioned before, the institution of slavery was not an issue in the first century. However, having a brother in Christ imposing slavery on another brother in Christ brought about a delicate dilemma, for how can we love one another in Christ, while holding them in chains?

Back in the mid nineteenth century in America, most preachers spoke out against slavery, but there were some in Southern states who cited this letter as proof that God was all for it. Maybe I’m crazy, maybe it’s the times I live in, but it seems to me that a person would have to work very hard in their effort to miss what is being said in all of this, very hard indeed.

We can’t know for certain what happened next in this story, for there is no record remaining. Honestly, a better question would be to ask why this letter was preserved in canon at all. Once again, we don’t have anything to establish absolutely how this came about. As I reflect on that, one little bit of historical minutia keeps coming to mind. I recall reading an old letter somehow preserved from the early second century written by a man named Ignatius of Antioch to the church in Ephesus. In the letter Ignatius mentions the name of a man who had served as bishop of Ephesus. His name?

Onesimus. Was this our former slave?

No one knows. But what were the chances that it would have survived otherwise?

About Don Merritt

A long time teacher and writer, Don hopes to share his varied life's experiences in a different way with a Christian perspective.
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6 Responses to A Personal Guaranty

  1. Wally Fry says:

    Fascinating bit about that letter mentioning Onesimus at Ephesus. Gotta wonder huh?

  2. I think the reason this was put in the canon was just because of the slavery issue. As you said, slavery was part of the economy back then, for the most part you were either in politics, the military, owned a business, was a day worker (no guaranteed employment), or a slave (indentured or otherwise). A hired employee, as we have today, didn’t exist. I’m sure the issue came up many times, especially when entire households were converted (family and slaves)…how was the issue of their slaves to be handled. As you said, was it right to keep a brother in slavery, this letter dealt with that touchy subject. If they freed the slave then what was to become of them? And, what would the family do? In that society they certainly wouldn’t be expected to do a slaves work themselves.

    • Don Merritt says:

      That is right, no doubt about it. We tend to forget that the concept of Liberty that our Nation was founded upon was revolutionary in the 18th century… and it still is today, and I’m not sure we’ve gotten it completely right even now.

      • Liberty is a changing issue. What was deemed important (and unimportant) in 1776 does not, necessarily, hold true today. Which is why they were bright enough to enable the Constitution to change as society does.

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