Is Paul using symbolism or hyperbole here? Or does he really mean these things? What is his purpose in saying these things?
Philemon 1:1 - 25
ESV - 1 Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved fellow worker 2 And Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house:
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Philemon was a wealthy (as indicated by his ownership of slaves) member of the Colossian Christian church, whom Paul had personally converted to Christianity as part of his missionary work. After Paul had been imprisoned in Rome for his missionary activities, one of Philemon's slaves (named Onesimus) had escaped from Philemon, made his way to Rome, and come to Paul in prison. As a result of his conversations with Paul, Onesimus was also converted to Christianity. (This is what Paul was referring to when he indicated that he had begotten Onesimus as his child (Philemon 10) while in prison.) Paul then sent Onesimus back as a courier to Philemon, bearing the letter that Paul had written to Philemon that appears in the Bible. In the letter, Paul asked Philemon to receive Onesimus back into his service as a Christian brother, rather than punishing him as an escaped slave. (Paul reminded Philemon that he (Paul) would have been within his rights to demand that Philemon not punish Onesimus, since Philemon was spiritually indebted to Paul because of Paul converting Philemon to Christianity, which had saved Philemon's soul. However, Paul said that he preferred to ask, rather than demand.) Paul also said that he would personally reimburse Philemon for any monetary loss that Philemon had experienced as a result of Onesimus' absence (Philemon 18). (I do not understand the reference in the question to Paul saying that he would be willing to die for Onesimus' sin. I cannot find such a meaning in any of Paul's words.) One Biblical commentator has humorously characterized Paul's epistle to Philemon as "the friendliest blackmail letter in history". One aspect of the letter that I find amusing is the pun on Onesimus' name that Paul mentions in verse 11. Paul says that Onesimus -- whose name means "useful" or "beneficial" in Greek -- had formerly been (contrary to his name) "useless" to Philemon (as a result of running away). However, now that he had become a Christian, and was returning to Philemon as a brother in Christ, he would be able to be "useful" (or "beneficial"), both to Philemon and to Paul.
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