This personal letter to Paul's friend Philemon was written at the same time as Colossians, and taken by Tychicus and Onesimus to Colosse (Col 4.7-9). Paul deals with sublime truths in other epistles, yet is able also to handle delicate matters rising between friends. In this exquisite and unique letter Paul reveals his gracious and generous spirit and exemplifies his own ministry. Paul, a prisoner in Rome, and Philemon his friend in Colosse, were concerned about a slave called Onesimus who had stolen from his master (v.18) and fled to Rome. In the providence of God Onesimus met Paul and was converted; his conduct dramatically changed, and he became a great help to Paul in prison.
What a wonderful change in my life has been wrought,
Since Jesus came into my heart!
I have light in my soul for which long I had sought,
Since Jesus came into my heart.
However, Onesimus had to make amends for past misdeeds by returning to Philemon and restoring the stolen property. He was a runaway slave – one for the "wanted list"; he belonged to his master who could severely punish him. Slaves had been put to death for lesser crimes. Philemon was a rich, highly respected citizen. Onesimus would find it difficult facing his master, and thus Paul intercedes. Legally and morally it was clear that Onesimus must return, so Paul writes this delicately worded letter with sympathy, courtesy, and sensitivity. It is an inspired literary gem.
Introductory greetings (vv.1-3)
There is no reference to Paul's apostleship as doctrine is not involved, but it is an intimate and informal letter. Timothy joined Paul in his greetings and request; how good to have a brother of Timothy's calibre (fellow labourer and fellow soldier) to share one's concerns. Philemon, Apphia his wife, and Archippus their son are warmly and affectionately addressed (Col 4.17). The church, not just the elders, is also mentioned, for all the saints would be aware of the circumstances on Onesimus' return, and could thus demonstrate how the ever-present resources of grace and peace from divine persons can be extended to all the believers. Blessed thought!
Philemon commended (vv.4-7)
Paul is fulsome in his thanksgivings and prayers for Philemon, who was an example of "love and faith toward…the Lord Jesus and to all saints". How good to speak well of a believer in Christ - sadly sometimes it is otherwise with us. Philemon shared in material and spiritual things with the saints (v.6) and it brought joy to Paul knowing that they were being refreshed spiritually through the ministry of Philemon. Paul was not "soft soaping" or flattering - this would be unworthy of the apostle.
Paul's concern (vv.8-12)
Paul appeals on the basis of love not law, devotion not duty. He is not seeking sympathy by referring to his age and imprisonment; these were just something else for Philemon to take into account. He intercedes on behalf of a slave who has become very dear to him, as a child "begotten in my bonds" - this must have touched Philemon's heart! Onesimus, meaning "Profitable", was now true to his name, and he would be a useful, honest and hardworking servant. Thus Paul urges Philemon to welcome Onesimus back, to "receive him" as he would Paul.
Divine providence (vv.13-16)
Paul could have selfishly retained Onesimus to minister to his needs "in the bonds of the gospel", but realised that Philemon had a prior claim. He would do nothing without consulting his brother - an excellent habit. He wanted a free and loving willingness without reserve or pressure. Paul perceived God's purpose, in that Onesimus "departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him forever" in eternal relationship; not as a slave, but as a brother beloved. What a difference conversion makes! Do we appreciate it, and praise the Lord for His grace?
Paul's confidence (vv.17-22)
Paul pleads with Philemon to treat him as he would have treated Paul: "receive him as myself" (cp. Mt 10.40). Paul took nothing for granted and humbly says, "If thou count me therefore a partner…" and graciously adds, "…put that on mine account". This is a gospel parable, in that we have been received and accepted "in Christ", and all our guilt laid to His account. Restitution and restoration is here illustrated, for we are like Onesimus - broken, bankrupt, guilty sinners. Philemon owed Paul a great debt, but the apostle did not press for payment. He had complete confidence in Philemon, knowing that he would do more than was asked.
Paul, finally, had one more favour: "…prepare me also a lodging", for he depended on Philemon's prayers for early release from prison. This is not presumption, but brotherly confidence.
Final greetings (vv.23-25)
Epaphras is specially mentioned (Col 1.7; 4.12) as a fellow prisoner, and Marcus, Aristarchus, Demus, Lucas all send greetings as fellow labourers. Paul was no proud individualist! He ends with his own prayer: "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your (plural) spirit". When this letter was read to the whole church they must have been overwhelmed, overawed, and overjoyed. Everyone would have been glad to accede to Paul's touching request! What lessons for us in relationships, and letter writing, this incredible and inspired document contains!