This short epistle is unique in the writings of Paul. It is the only example that we have of his private and personal correspondence. We note immediately that this letter, which was not written with a view to public reading, is, nevertheless, still marked by the Christian grace of the writer. There was no fear in exposing to a wider readership what he wrote privately. The lesson to be learned is that our private lives should be capable of scrutiny by others and not contain that which we would be unwilling to reveal.
Onesimus had been a slave in the house of Philemon in the city of Colosse. At some time in the past he had probably been guilty of taking from his master that which was not his due (v.18). He had left Colosse and found his way to Rome where he had come into contact with Paul. From him he had heard the gospel (v.10) and had been saved. Since that time he had been a "brother beloved" (v.16) to the apostle and had lived to prove the reality of the profession which he had made. It surely cannot be dismissed as a coincidence that Onesimus, whose master was constantly in the prayers of Paul, had met Paul in Rome. The ways of God are indeed past finding out, even in the lives of individuals.
But another important lesson can be learned from these events. Profession of salvation alone is not sufficient. It must be backed up by a change in behaviour. Often it is said of some who have professed to be saved, and over a number of years have shown no desire for spiritual things, that "they still are saved". The teaching of the Word of God is quite clear on this important matter. Just as the rate of natural growth is different in individuals so is the rate of spiritual growth, but there must be evidences of growth. It is not possible to be saved and for there to be no difference. The reason for this is that it is not the people who professes who changes themselves, it is God who changes them and the individual builds on that change. Let us ensure that our gospel preaching makes this quite clear
The occasion of sending this letter was that Paul was writing to the assembly in Colosse and sending it by the hand of Tychicus (Col 4.7). This was an opportunity to send Onesimus back to Colosse (Col 4.9) with the purpose of matters being put right between him and Philemon. Salvation does not absolve us from the responsibility of having to rectify any wrongs that we may have committed. Onesimus, to his credit, is willing to go.
There is no record of any visit that was made by Paul to Colosse, but he may have travelled there during the time he laboured in Ephesus (Acts 19). That he had a deep affection for the family can be seen in his language. No doubt Apphia was the wife of Philemon and possibly Archippus was their son. The mention of him in Colossians 4.17 would seem to indicate that he needed encouragement to continue being of value in the Lords work.
HIS APPRECIATION (vv.4-7)
Paul commences by expressing to Philemon his joy and appreciation at the reports that he had been receiving. Note that although still under arrest Paul maintained his interest in the well-being of the saints. The love and faith of Philemon was expressed in his care and love for other believers. Here was an example of a man who displayed his faith in the Lord Jesus in a very practical manner. There was no lack of evidence as to the reality of his profession of faith. Observe that this was displayed to all the saints - there were no exceptions. This attitude led to the sharing of the "every good thing" (v.6) that was in Philemon.
The result of this was that the "bowels of the saints" (v.7) were refreshed by this. He encouraged the saints. How we need such encouragers amongst the saints today. There are many who are feeling the weight of lifes problems and for whom encouragement would be very welcome. But no matter how they were spiritually, Philemon in his godliness of life encouraged the saints to continue. "Brother" is how Paul ends this section. When we read ahead in the epistle we will see that he is laying the foundation for the appeal he is about to make.
THE APPEAL (vv.8-19)
We now come to the point where the purpose of this letter is revealed. It gives Pauls teaching on how relationships between believers ought to be maintained. In addition to the outline which is given in the chart, the basis of the appeal should be noted.
First, Paul states his right to make such an appeal. He is the aged servant of God and also a prisoner of Jesus Christ. His own testimony gives weight to what he is about to ask, and to refuse him would be a serious matter indeed. The lesson for us is that any appeal we have to make or any request to others must be backed up by a testimony that gives our words weight with those we address. Second, Onesimus had been saved through the gospel work of the apostle in Rome. Third, although he had not been a profitable servant to Philemon, the gospel had changed the man and he had become a profitable fellow labourer with Paul. The fact that he was prepared to return to Colosse displayed the fact that he had changed.
Following this, Paul alters the direction of the appeal. He would have kept Onesimus in Rome but he would not do anything without the agreement of Philemon. He is acting righteously in sending Onesimus back. If Paul had simply written to Philemon, telling him of the salvation of his runaway slave, it would have forced Philemon to agree with the apostle. The good deed, therefore, of forgiving him, and even of releasing him from his obligations as a slave so that he could continue his labours in the gospel, would have not been due to the willingness of Philemon. That would not have reflected well on him.
The appeal reaches its climax with the apostle asking Philemon to receive the bearer of the letter as if he was receiving Paul. What a welcome would have been given to the aged servant of the Lord. Yet, that is the welcome which he wishes Onesimus to have. It would be a real test. He, who left as a slave with a black mark against him, would now be received with all the honour due to a worthy guest.
But there is one other issue which must be resolved. Any wrong committed by Onesimus in the past had doubtless left a debt to be repaid. Paul could simply have asked Philemon to write off this debt, but he did not do so. If Philemon felt that Onesimus still owed money, Paul would pay the account. The born-again slave would not have the resources to do this, but the apostle would resolve the issue. The question is, "Would Philemon insist on this bill being paid?". Paul reminds him that he owes the apostle much more than Onesimus owes him. Given such an appeal it seems that the debt would be written off. What other response could be made to such a request? Note how cleverly, and with what spiritual perception, Paul dealt with the matter.
THE ANTICIPATION vv.20.22
Paul anticipates that his entreaty will not fall on deaf ears. The joy that he had in Philemon will be increased. So much so that he expects Philemon to do even more than he had asked. But a final note is added. Paul is coming to Colosse. He awaits release from his house arrest in Rome and plans to visit Colosse and enjoy the hospitality of the home to which he is writing. What will he find when he arrives? Philemon will face Paul!
This gem of an epistle has much to teach us. Forgiveness must mark our dealings with each other and the past life of a newly saved individual must not be held against them. Demanding restitution for ills done is righteous, but there are circumstances where a higher standard can be practised and restitution is not pursued. Harshness of behaviour is not Christ-like. Godliness gives individuals the spiritual weight to ask that others act in a spiritual manner. Our debt as saved sinners has been dealt with at the cross and is far greater than anything owed to us. Just as Philemon had the prospect of meeting Paul, so we have the prospect of meeting the Lord. What will He find on that day and what will we feel as we stand before Him?