Of all the letters written by Paul that were placed in the canon of Scripture there is only one that is really personal. The letters to Timothy and Titus were written to individuals, but the content was to be made known, by means of public teaching and exhortation, to the believers in the city of Ephesus and on the island of Crete.
The letter to Philemon, however, was different. This was addressed to Philemon personally regarding Onesimus who had been a servant in his home and who had left, apparently having "wronged" (v.19) his master in some way. At Rome he had come into Pauls company, had heard the gospel and had been saved. Now Onesimus had to return to Philemon bearing this letter.
The first lesson to be learned is the consistency of Pauls conduct. As he asked Philemon to receive Onesimus Paul was not aware that this correspondence would ever be in the public domain. He wrote in the same manner as he did in his letters for public use. The remarkable feature is that Paul did not have a "public face" and a "private face". His manner, language and demeanour were the same in his correspondence, whether dealing with individuals privately or with local churches. Parents must be careful that the mother and father known to children in the home are the same mother and father whom they see and, in the case of the father, hear in the assembly. Unbelievers must see in their work or business colleagues, who claim to be Christians, the same persons who move amongst the saints.
But as we read further we learn of the commendation of Philemon. Paul was continually hearing of this. It was not just something which he had heard in the past. The reports kept coming to him of Philemons love and faith. So often stories of the failings of saints are passed amongst the believers, and to a great extent these are false or exaggerated. The talebearer is a dangerous character. How pleasing it is, however, to find what is being told abroad about worthy Philemon. Paul had heard that "the bowels of the saints" (v.7) were refreshed by him. He was an encouragement to the saints. It is pleasing to note that the love of Philemon was "towards all saints" (v.5). There was no partiality, no party spirit.
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. Others are bearing the burdens that come with shepherding the flock. Those who once gave their all in serving the Lord may have grown weary and tired. But no matter how they were spiritually, Philemon, in his godliness of life, encouraged the saints to continue. "Brother" is how Paul emphatically concludes his sentence. Let us all so live that we are an encouragement to the saints by word and deed.
But the question to be answered is, "How can he be such an encouragement to others?". The answer is given in v.6 where his faith was marked as being "effectual". He was effective in the use of his faith. The adjective was used to indicate what was active, powerful in action, engaged in work, capable of doing. It is by the "communication of (his) faith" (v.6), that is, by the contribution that his faith made, that he was effective. Paul knew that the decision that Philemon had to make regarding Onesimus would be another challenge to this godly man. We do not know what transpired, but as we read the letter now and consider what he wrote we can be certain that Paul would not be disappointed. His response would be an example to others.
Of Philemon it can be said with certainty that he was exemplary. Those who appreciated him would be attracted to live in a godly manner. Following the previous question, we must now ask another: "Do I encourage others by the contribution that I make in the assembly?". Do others see in me faith at work? Would Paul find in us today the great joy and consolation that he found in Philemon? There is only one way to bring this about and to continue making it effective and that is to be a reader of the Scriptures and to put them into practice daily. Let us seek to be encouraging, effective and exemplary so that others can see in us what Paul saw in Philemon.