This personal and shortest letter of Paul’s is the third in the series of prison epistles written in 62 A.D. The letter was sent with Tychicus and Onesimus along with letters to the Colossians and the Ephesians. The letter to Philemon, however, served a specific purpose.
Philemon was the owner of the runaway slave Onesimus. He was a wealthy Christian who had, during Paul’s three-year ministry in Ephesus ten years earlier, been saved and opened his home in Colosae to the Christian community for regular meetings. Onesimus, you’ll recall, had fled to Rome, come to be a believer, and was introduced to Paul in a remarkable set of God-ordained circumstances. As Onesimus helped Paul, who was in prison, he also matured in Christ. It is now Paul’s turn to help Onesimus and reflect on the power of the gospel to transform lives and relationships.
I hear of the love and of the faith you have toward the Lord Jesus which pours out to other believers. (v.5)
I pray this faith we hold in common continues to show up in the good things we do and people recognize Christ in all of it. (v.6)
I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of fellow believers have been refreshed through your hospitality. (vv.7)
Maybe it’s for the best you lost him for a while. You’re getting him back now for good, not as a mere slave but a true Christian brother, especially to me, but how much more to you. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) (vv.15-16, 11)
Paul reminds Philemon of the strength and power of his faith, and his continual enrichment of other believers, of which Onesimus is now one. He also suggests it is likely God’s will and perfect timing that Onesimus has now become a follower of Christ in order to help them both be partners in the gospel.
Accordingly, I have a favor to ask of you. As Christ’s ambassador and now a prisoner for him, I wouldn’t hesitate to command this if I thought it necessary, but I’d rather make it a personal request. (vv.8-9)
I have sent him (who is my very heart) back to you. I wanted to keep him with me so that he could serve me in your place during my imprisonment for the sake of the gospel. However, without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your good deed would not be out of compulsion, but from your own willingness. (vv.12-14)
Welcome him back, “no longer as a servant, but more than a servant, as a beloved brother in Christ.” (v.16)
If you accept me as your friend, then accept Onesimus back. Welcome him like you would welcome me. (v.17)
If he has done any wrong to you or owes you anything, charge that to me. I, Paul, am writing this in my own handwriting: I will pay back anything Onesimus owes. And I will say nothing about what you owe me for your own life. (vv.18-19)
So, my brother, as a follower of the Lord, please do this favor for me. It would be such a great encouragement to me as your brother in Christ. I write this letter knowing that you will do what I ask, and even more than I ask. (vv.20-21)
Paul has made clear the way for Philemon to act generously. In v.12, Paul has used not the common term for heart (kardia) but splanchnon, which means “internal organs.” He communicates that Onesimus has become a part of him, as dear as one’s self. Paul also removes any reason for Philemon to keep Onesimus by requesting he forgive any debt Onesimus likely owes.
Paul leaves Philemon with only one response. As a brother in Christ to Paul and now to Onesimus, Philemon must respond with heartfelt generosity, considering his eternal life is “owed” to Paul’s ministry, a debt far greater than anything Onesimus could owe.
Now that the lives of both Philemon and Onesimus are transformed in Christ, Paul expects their relationship to be transformed. Breaking the chains of master and slave allows the two men to form a new relationship of loving brothers equal in the eyes of the Lord.