It is believed that Paul was in prison in Rome when he wrote this letter. This is the shortest and most personal letter Paul wrote and it shows how relationships are transformed in Christ. Philemon was a believer in Colossae but the letter is also addressed to Apphia, presumably Philemon’s wife, and the members in the church there. The letter was written in behalf of Onesimus, a run away slave as he returned to Philemon his master. Paul encouraged Philemon to go beyond the traditional master slave relationship by welcoming Onesimus back as a beloved brother in Christ. With these reconciling words Paul reminds us that all relationships among Christians, regardless of a person’s social standing, are transformed by the love of Christ. Here are two themes to look for as you read this short letter. First, forgiveness. Paul asked Philemon to accept his formerly troublesome slave as he would accept Paul himself, extending the same love to Onesimus that he himself had received from God. Their reconciliation was so important that it took precedence over Paul’s desire to have Onesimus remain with himself. This letter speaks of failure, intercession, repentance, forgiveness, and restoration. Second, equality in Christ. Paul did not overtly challenge the slavery system but neither did he sanctify it as part of God’s design. Instead, he focused on how conversion fundamentally transforms personal relationships with others and with God. He laid down universal principles that, when taken seriously, ultimately topple the foundations of injustice in any form.
Many scholars believe Paul was writing this from prison in Rome but some think Paul may have been writing much earlier and from Ephesus, which was also much closer to Colossae. It is clear that Philemon was also a worker for the Lord, along with his wife and Archippus. Being a soldier meant they were involved in a battle, probably against false teachers. They were called to be able to stand firm in the face of opposition. It is possible that Archippus was Philemon’s son. The family was very involved in the church in Colossae because there was a house church that met in their house. When Paul brought grace to them it was to you, plural, meaning the family and most likely their house church as well. Paul reminds them that it is by faith in Christ that we are saved and it is by love for fellow Christians that we live out salvation. Paul hints, not too subtly, that Philemon should be gracious to Onesimus in lightly of God’s goodness to Philemon. Paul is asking this as a favor because of Philemon’s reputation as a gracious and loving person. Paul could demand this because of his authority as Christ’s apostle, but love leads Paul to make a request rather than a demand. He also appeals to the respect that is to be shown to older people, and Paul considers himself old. He also uses the fact that he is in prison for the gospel as a means to ask for respect.
In the Roman world run away slaves could be treated harshly with whipping, branding, or even execution, all at the owners discretion. However, Onesimus is Paul’s spiritual child having come to faith because of Paul’s ministry. The name Onesimus means “useful” but Paul acknowledged that he hadn’t really lived up to his name in the past. But now that he has come to faith he is useful to both of them. Onesimus was now serving others and proclaiming the Good News. At least he had become what his name meant. Paul hinted that he would like to keep Onesimus with him if Philemon would set him free. He had become a good helper. But Paul also hinted that Onesimus had run away as part of God’s plan to bring him to salvation. In any case, Paul asked that Philemon take Onesimus back and treat him as a brother in the faith. Onesimus was still legally a slave however. Now that they were both believers their brotherhood in Christ must transform their whole relationship in both the natural and spiritual realms. It seems that Onesimus may have stolen some things from Philemon’s home or, he had a debt to pay off when he ran away. Paul offered to pay the damages and guaranteed his promise with his own handwriting. But he also made a dig at Philemon in that he reminded Philemon that he owed Paul for his soul because it was due to Paul’s ministry that Philemon now believed. In fact, Philemon owed Paul much more than anything Onesimus might have owed. Again Paul asked for a favor from Philemon saying it would give him encouragement in Christ. The “even more” Paul is asking for is probably Onesimus’ release as a slave. Or, he could simply be expressing confidence in Philemon’s kindness. Paul requested a guest room be readied for him because he planned to visit as soon as he could. Then he would see for himself how Onesimus was being treated.
Usually Paul closed his letters with greetings for others but here he simply sends greetings from those who were with him. Epaphras was from Colossae and most likely first brought the Good News to Philemon and his family. The men in verse 24 are the same ones mentioned at the end of the Book of Colossians. They were Paul’s coworkers in the mission field. Mark here is John Mark who deserted Paul on the first missionary journey. Aristarchus was a faithful companion of Paul for many years. We know Luke, the good doctor and Demas was a coworker who later abandoned Paul. Paul ended the letter wishing for God’s grace to be with their spirits.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W