Author: Ron Graham
Paul’s Letter to Philemon
—Philemon, Paul, Onesimus
¶“1Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved fellow worker, 2Apphia our sister, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the congregation in your house. 3Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philemon 1-3).
¶“4I thank my God, and I always mention you at my prayers. 5I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the holy ones. 6May you share your faith effectively. May it become well known with every good thing that is in you, leading people to Christ Jesus. 7So brother, we have derived much joy and comfort from your love, because you have refreshed the hearts of the holy ones” (Philemon 4-7).
¶“8Accordingly, I am fearless enough in Christ to order you to do what is required. 9However, for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you as Paul, an old man, and now indeed a prisoner for Christ Jesus. 10I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whose father I became in my bonds. 11He was once useless to you, but now he is of good use, both to you and to me. 12I am sending him back to you. Receive him, won't you, for with him I send my heart” (Philemon 8-12).
¶“13I wished to keep him with me, so that he could serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the good message. 14But I preferred to do nothing without your consent because I wanted your goodness to be of your own willingness rather than by compulsion” (Philemon 13-14).
¶“15Perhaps this is why he was parted from you for a time, that you might have him back for eternity, 16no longer as a slave but more than a slave —as a beloved brother. That's what he is to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. 17So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me” (Philemon 15-17).
¶“18If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it. And when I do, I won't mention that you owe me your very own self. 20Yes, brother, I want some help from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in the Lord” (Philemon 18-20).
¶“21Confident that you will do as I say, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more; 22at which time prepare me a lodging. I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you. 23Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you. 24So do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers” (Philemon 21-24).
¶“25The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit” (Philemon 25).
While in prison, Paul converted a man called Onesimus, whom Paul called "My son whom I have begotten in my chains" (Philemon 1:10). Paul loved Onesimus as a father loves his son.
However, there was a problem. Paul also knew a Christian called Philemon. He lived in Colosse, and the Christians there held their meetings in his house (Philemon 1:2). Philemon owned slaves and Onesimus was one of them (Philemon 1:16).
The Hidden Story of Onesimus
We do not know how Onesimus met Paul in prison. Some say that Onesimus was visiting Paul to help him on Philemon’s behalf. But Paul describes Onesimus as "once unprofitable" to Philemon (Philemon 1:10-11,18). This suggests that Onesimus might have broken the law and was doing time in jail.
In any case, the time came for Onesimus to go back to Philemon. Paul writes this letter for Onesimus to take back with him to Philemon. It encourages Philemon to welcome Onesimus back into his household.
The Letter to Philemon
The letter to Philemon is nearly 2000 years old. It is not unique in this, because we can read a great many letters of that time which have come down to us by some means either by preservation or by copies (as with Philemon).
But this letter to Philemon is special because it so beautifully portrays mature Christian attitudes and relationships. It also exemplifies the peace and reconciliation between people that the gospel of Christ brings about.
Paul Commends Onesimus
Paul commends Onesimus, not only in this letter, but also in his other letter to the Colossians where Paul exhorts the slave masters to grant justice to their slaves, knowing there is a greater Master in heaven (Colossians 4:1-18). This exhortation would not be lost on Philemon.
There are three special ideas which the letter to Philemon exemplifies.
1 Voluntary goodness
Paul could order Philemon to welcome back Onesimus unreservedly, and release him back into Paul’s service. Nevertheless Paul leaves it to Philemon’s own free will (Philemon 1:8-9,14,21).
¶“8Accordingly, I am fearless enough in Christ to order you to do what is required. 9However, for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you as Paul, an old man, and now indeed a prisoner for Christ Jesus... 14But I preferred to do nothing without your consent because I wanted your goodness to be of your own willingness rather than by compulsion... 21Confident that you will do as I say, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more; (Philemon 8-9,14,21).
One person may do something out of obligation, another for reward, another in order to graciously give. We would all recognize the latter as the most noble. Paul wanted Philemon to be so moved.
2 Accepting providence
Paul saw God working things out for Onesimus (Philemon 1:15) and through prayers even for himself (Philemon 1:22).
¶“15Perhaps this is why he was parted from you for a time, that you might have him back for eternity... 22Prepare me a lodging. I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you” (Philemon 15,22).
The spirit of self-advancement is common among people of the world. However, it is not the spirit of the mature Christian to advance oneself without considering others. The mature Christian looks for God’s providence, and accepts whatever answers God grants.
3 Helping the helpless
Today people fight for their rights, while all around them people are downtrodden and helpless. Paul owed nothing to Onesimus, but he was willing to write a promissory note for an unspecified amount, taking upon himself the debt that Onesimus could not pay (Philemon 1:18-19).
¶“18If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it. And when I do, I won't mention that you owe me your very own self (Philemon 18-20).
As Paul wrote that, and when Philemon read it, they each must have been conscious that when they were helpless, Christ had died for them "For when we were still helpless, Christ died for the ungodly... God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us " (Romans 5:6,8).