In our second example, Paul uses a humorous play on words hoping to solicit a merciful response from a Christian slave owner dealing with a runaway slave.
The wisdom of fools
Our first example of Paul's humor spans both of his writings to the wealthy Corinthian church he founded (1Corinthians 3:6). He uses clever irony in an attempt to chip away at the church's entrenched attitude, based on the notion that they possessed exceptional wisdom, that they were superior to others including their teachers (4:7 - 9).
The apostle first reveals to the church that their spiritual immaturity and foolish behavior caused him to teach them only rudimentary principles of Christianity (1Corinthians 3:1 - 3). Paul then states, "We (those who preach the gospel) are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are WISE in Christ . . ." (1Corinthians 4:10, HBFV).
Irony is the use of words to convey a meaning that is usually completely opposite to its literal meaning. The Apostle Paul, no doubt with a twinge of humor, labels himself a fool (which he clearly was not) and the church as wise (their carnal actions showing they were not) to point out they needed to reassess their standing before God.
Paul, roughly eight months after writing the Corinthians, feels compelled to address, yet again, the church's persistent difficulties and foolish superior attitude. He ironically writes, "You think you are so wise - yet you listen gladly to those fools (false teachers); you don't mind at all when they make you their slaves and take everything you have, and take advantage of you, and put on airs, and slap you in the face" (2Corinthians 11:19 - 20, TLB).
The false wisdom of the Corinthians led them to overlook, and even knowingly allow, a variety of sinful behaviors. False apostles (2Corinthians 11:13 - 15), whom the church failed to challenge, not only spread lies but also deceitfully defrauded the brethren of their money (not unlike the Pharisees with their use of Corban). The church also allowed the kind of sexual perversion among its members that even the pagans rejected (1Corinthians 5).
Paul ends his correction by humorously and ironically stating he was too "weak and timid" to allow such destructive behavior!
A play on words
We now come to a little humorous play on words in one of the shortest sections of the Bible. The book of Philemon contains only one chapter with just twenty-five verses. The main subjects of the book are Onesimus, a slave, and Philemon, his master and owner who is a Christian and friend of Apostle Paul.
Onesimus steals something from his master (Philemon 18 - 19) and flees to Rome. While in the city, he somehow finds Paul, who is in prison. After he hears the gospel message Onesimus becomes a Christian (verse 10). He reveals, during his visits with the apostle, that he stole from Philemon.
Paul decides it would be best for Onesimus to return to his master. He sends with him a letter in the hope that his friend Philemon will forgive the theft and accept the slave as a fellow Christian. He writes regarding Onesimus, "Who was once of no service to you, but now he is profitable both to you and to me . . ." (Philemon 1:11).
First century readers would have found humor in what Paul wrote. Onesimus' name is translated from the Greek Onesimos, which means someone or something that is profitable or useful (Thayer's Greek Definitions). In this verse, the Apostle is stating that although the slave was "useless" at one time, after he became a Christian he proved to be useful to both Paul and Philemon. Onesimus, as a believer, now lives up to the fullness of what his name means!