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Onesimus was a slave belonging to a member of the Colossian Christian congregation in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) named Philemon. Paul had personally converted Philemon (who had formerly been a Jew) to Christianity during Paul's missionary travels. After Paul had been imprisoned in Rome for his missionary activities, Onesimus had escaped from Philemon, and had made his way to Paul in prison in Rome, where Paul also converted him to Christianity. Paul then persuaded Onesimus to return to Philemon, and wrote the letter (epistle) to Philemon that we find in the Bible for Onesimus to take with him and give to Philemon. In the letter (which one commentator has humorously described as "the friendliest blackmail letter in history") Paul asked Philemon not to punish Onesimus (as would normally happen to a slave who escaped), but to receive him back in Onesimus' new status as a fellow Christian and a brother in Christ. Paul referred to Onesimus as his own child by saying that he had "begotten" him (meaning that Paul had converted him) while Paul had been in prison. (Timothy and Titus were the only other two individuals in the Bible to whom Paul referred in this way as his figurative child.) Paul told Philemon that, although Paul had the right to demand that Philemon not punish Onesimus (since it was thanks to Paul that Philemon had received Christ, meaning (as Paul said in Philemon 19) that Philemon owed Paul his very self for having saved him), Paul preferred to appeal to Philemon as a Christian brother to do as Paul asked. In addition, Philemon 11 contains one of the most prominent (and humorous) examples of wordplay or a pun in Scripture. Onesimus' name means "useful" or "beneficial" in Greek. Paul told Philemon that, although (contrary to his name) Onesimus had formerly been "useless" to Philemon (since Onesimus had escaped), he could now (following his return) be "useful" and "beneficial" (as his name indicated) to Paul and Philemon in Christian service to them both. Paul also offered to reimburse Philemon for any monetary loss that Philemon had incurred as a result of Onesimus' escape (although, as noted previously, Paul reminded Philemon that Philemon owed his salvation to Paul, to which any such monetary loss on Philemon's part would pale in comparison).
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