This letter is Paul’s plea to a friend, on behalf of a slave. The book or really the brief letter of Philemon was written by Paul during his Roman imprisonment, which was described in Acts 28:30–31.
Paul starts Philemon off with his customary greeting of grace and peace, found in each one of his letters. However, this greeting was not directed towards an entire congregation, but to Philemon as a friend and individual. This makes the letter unique among Paul’s writings. Now Paul wrote to Titus and Timothy, but those letters were written to be shared with a congregation. Paul describes himself, as we see in verse 1, as a prisoner of Christ Jesus: As always, Paul did not consider himself a prisoner of Rome, or circumstances, nor of those religious leaders who started his legal troubles (Remember the last part of Acts that we studied about in early June?). Paul considered himself a prisoner of Jesus Christ.
He then continues his greeting in verse 1 with “To Philemon our beloved friend.” This clearly tells us that Paul is writing to a Christian brother living in Colossae. This is the only place in the New Testament where Philemon is mentioned by name, but we do know that he was a beloved friend to Paul, and that the Church was held in his home.
As Paul writes in verse 4, “I thank God, making mention of you always in my prayers.” Paul prayed often for Philemon, and he prayed with thanksgiving to God for what Philemon has done - for he was obviously a big help in the facilitation of the Church in Colossae and had been such a blessing to Paul. Paul was also thankful for Philemon because of his love and faith—first towards Jesus and then towards all the new Christians. Paul wrote in verse 7 “The Lord's people have been refreshed by you, brother”. Paul remembered and recognized how wonderfully Philemon had met the needs of other Christians. He effectively refreshed the hearts of others.
After reminding Philemon of all the good he had done for new believers as well as the the new church and how thankful he is for all he has done, Paul gets down to business. Now the story of Onesimus starts!
In verses 8-11 he appeals for this “useless” slave because Onesimus had done Philemon wrong. Theologians believe that he PROBABLY STOLE A FEW THINGS PLUS HE WAS A RUNAWAY SLAVE! Obviously, Onesimus, after accepting the Lord as his Savior, has become very useful to Paul while in prison. Fun fact! Paul uses a play on words here as Onesimus means profitable or useful. Just like all of us… we are not useful to the body of Christ until we have accepted Jesus as our Lord and Savior!
In verses 12-14, Paul sends Onesimus back with a subtle hint that Philemon will allow him to return again to Paul. After Onesimus accepted Christ, he had become very useful to Paul and in turn, because he was a servant of Philemon, it would be like Philemon helping Paul in his ministry.
Next, in verses 15-16 , Paul shows his masterful writing skill by saying “Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while (instead of ESCAPED!) was that you might have him back forever-no longer a slave, but as a dear brother in Christ!" Did you notice Pauls choice of words here? He makes his point skillfully by saying “he was separated from you for a little while” as opposed to “he was a runaway slave who escaped”. As he writes he also states again how dear Onesimus was to him. What an image of God’s grace, calling us out as who we are in Him and not who we were or what we had done before coming into relationship with Him.
In verses 17-19, Paul walks through a few legal steps as he offered Onesimus’ return, standing beside him by stating, “I know he deserves a punishment yet he had become his friend and would pay for his crime.“ Hmmm. Sound familiar? Isn’t that very much like the way Christ steps in for us and takes on the punishments of our misconduct!? Paul writes in verse 19 “ I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay you back.”
But then he goes a step further and states ----- not to mention that you owe me your very self!
Which brings up a question and made me wonder a little……Think back to when you were brought to and accepted Christ and what that process in your heart was. What have you done for the person or persons that lead you to Christ? Have you been a blessing to them? Have you made them pleased in your walk with Christ? Have you led someone to Christ or like Philemon have you been a blessing or refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people?
Paul concludes in verses 21-22 with confidence in Philemon’s response, that he will do even more than Paul asks, and ends with the confidence he will be released and will get to visit Philemon once again.
Though Onesimus was a criminal in the eyes of the law, he was forgiven in the graceful eyes of the Father. And he found that grace through the ministry of others. The impact you make on the lives of others matters. Like Philemon, how can you be that blessing and refreshing heart to your church and new believers?
Lord, help us every day to intentionally be the hands and feet of God’s grace, understanding, and forgiveness to others around us.