The New Testament book of Philemon was written to convince Philemon to forgive his runaway slave, Onesimus, and to accept him as a brother in the faith.
At the time, the Roman, Greek, and Jewish cultures were littered with social, economic, and religious barriers, because society (then, as now) expected people assigned to a class to stay in their place – man and woman, slave and free, rich and poor, Jews and Gentiles, Greeks and barbarians, pious and pagan. However, with the Good News of Jesus Christ, these barriers came down, and Paul could boldly and rightly declare, “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” (Col. 3:11)
The life-changing truth of Jesus Christ was the backdrop for the letter to Philemon. One of three personal letters in the Bible, the letter to Philemon is Paul’s personal plea for a slave. Onesimus was a slave to Philemon, a member of the Colossian church, and a personal friend of Paul. But Onesimus had stolen from his master, and had moreover run away. He ended up in Rome, where he met Paul. There, he responded to the Good News, and came to faith in Jesus Christ (v. 10). Paul wrote to Philemon and re-introduced Onesimus to him, explaining that he was sending him back, not just as a slave, but as a brother in the faith (vv. 11, 12, 16). Tactfully, Pauls asks Philemon to accept and forgive his brother (vv. 10, 14-15, 20), explaining that the barriers of the past and the new barriers created by Onesimus’s desertion and theft should no longer divide the two of them – because they are one in Christ.
Philemon is a masterpiece of grace and tact, a profound demonstration of the power of Christ, and an example of true Christian fellowship in action. God calls all believers to seek unity, and to break down barriers that separate people who should be brothers and sisters in Christ.
The Layout of Philemon
Paul’s Appreciation of Philemon:
This is concentrated in (1-7) … Paul remembers his friend Philemon with great affection, thanking him for his faith in Jesus Christ, and for his love of all believers; Paul speaks of the joy and encouragement that he has received because of what Philemon has done on behalf of those who believe, strengthening their faith.
Paul’s Appeal For Onesimus:
This is concentrated in (8-25) … Paul pleads on behalf of Onesimus, a runaway slave. Paul’s intercession for him illustrates what Christ has done for us. As Paul interceded for a slave, so Christ intercedes for us, slaves to sin. As Onesimus was reconciled to Philemon, so we are reconciled to God through Christ. As Paul offered to pay the debts of a slave, so Christ paid our debt of sin.
Themes: Explanation and Importance
Philemon was Paul’s friend and the legal owner of the slave, Onesimus. Paul asked him not to punish Onesimus, but to forgive and restore him as a new Christian brother.
Christian relationships must be filled with forgiveness and acceptance. We must be able to forgive those who have wronged us.
Slavery was widespread in the Roman empire, but no one is lost to God or beyond His love. Slavery was a barrier between people, but Christian love and fellowship are to overcome such barriers.
In Christ, we are one family. No walls of racial, economic, or political differences should separate us. We must let Christ work through us to remove barriers that we have between ourselves and our Christian brothers and sisters.
Paul was a friend of both Philemon and Onesimus. He had the authority as an apostle to tell Philemon what to do. Yet Paul chose to appeal to his friend in Christian love rather than to order him what to do.
Tactful persuasion accomplishes a great deal more than commands when dealing with people. We must remember to exhibit courtesy and respect in all our relationships.
A Closer Look… Philemon
Paul begins with praise of Philemon, for his strength in the faith; he acknowledges Philemon as a brother:
I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. I pray that you might be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing that we have in Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints. (Phm. 4-7)
Paul demonstrates an appeal made in true Christian love to his brother Philemon, for the sake of a man who has now become a brother to them both. Note the love Paul has for Onesimus and, even though he is pleading with Philemon, the equality between Paul and Philemon that Paul does not back away from:
Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I then, as Paul – an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus – I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. I am sending him – who is my very heart – back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good – no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord. So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. (Phm. 8-17)
Paul makes a solemn pledge to Philemon; in it, as we see that Paul asks Philemon to charge to him what Onesimus did against Philemon, we understand that our sins were charged to Jesus Christ, who paid the penalty of His Father’s just and awful wrath against those sins, which would have meant eternal death for us… this is the lesson of Christian love:
If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back – not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask. (Phm. 18-21)