We know little about Philemon except what we read in this epistle. We can know about some of the characters mentioned from a reading of the last chapter of Colossians. Philemon was a believer, and a leader of the church in Colossae. The text makes clear that the church in Colossae met in his home. Onesimus had apparently been a slave in the home of Philemon. He had run away and ended up in Rome with Paul. He was now being return to Philemon, traveling with Tychicus who carried two letters. One of them was for the church in Colossae and the other was for Philemon and his household.
This letter, along with Ephesians, Colossians and Philippians is sometimes called a “prison epistle” because it was written during Paul’s stay in prison in Rome around the year 60 A.D. at about the time when the record of the book of acts ends.
The primary purpose of the letter seems to be to encourage Philemon to deal kindly with Onesimus upon his return, as a brother in the Lord.
Greeting and Prayer
The greeting is from Paul and Timothy to Philemon and his household which included a woman named Apphia and a fellow worker, Archippus (who is also mentioned in Colossians 4:17). Philemon is addressed as “our dear friend and fellow worker. As always, Paul wishes them the grace and peace of the Lord Jesus.
Three of the 4 prison epistles begin in the same way. With the exception of the letter to the Ephesians, these letters all begin with a brief greeting and then move to a prayer of Thanksgiving for those to whom the letter is written. In this message Paul thanks God for their faith and their love for the saints, and for the encouragement that good reports about them have brought to him. He tells Philemon that he has “refreshed the hearts of the saints.” -what a wonderful ministry! Paul prays that they will continue to be able to actively minister with understanding.
Having begun with that short prayer and Thanksgiving, Paul moves immediately to the issue at hand. He does not want to order Philemon to deal with Onesimus in a kindly manner, but he makes an appeal to him to respond in love. He makes it clear that this would be the proper Christian response! “I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do.”
Paul tells Philemon that Onesimus has become a believer while he has been with Paul, and that now he is a brother in Christ. He has become a dear friend of Paul’s. “I am sending him–who is my very heart– back to you.” And Paul points out that he has become a valuable asset to the church… “now he has become useful both to you and to me.” He would have liked to keep Onesimus with him, but knew that the right thing to do would be to send him back to Philemon. None of us can run from our past or from our obligations even though our lives have been renewed and changed by the power of Christ Jesus. We cannot leave the “loose ends” of our life dangling but rather we must bring them to closure by meeting our obligations and carrying our tasks to an end. Christ does not excuse us from the unplesentries of our lives; rather he gives each task meaning and infuses each moment with the grace of His companionship.
Paul could not keep Onesimus without Philemon’s consent, and he makes it clear that consent must be freely given, if not for a brother in the lord, then for the sake of his friendship with Paul. He says “If you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.” How could Philemon resist such a plea for kindness? Yet Paul will extend himself even further for this brother.
In his own hand Paul writes one final plea “I will pay it back–not to mention that you owe me your very self.” — Thus his plea to Philemon is three-fold.
- It is right to receive him in the love of the Lord because he is a brother in Christ. .
- As a Christian he has become useful to the Church and to Paul
- As a personal favor to Paul, to whom other Christians owed so much
Paul concludes that he is confident of Philemon’s obedient response “knowing that you will do even more than I ask.” Paul of course speaks with some authority in matters of obedience to the Lord since he has given his entire life over to ministry. He had been beaten many times, imprisoned on several occasions, and even now wrote to Philemon from prison, where he had been placed because he preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
You and I should think twice before we complain of anything that the Lord has called us to do, knowing that those who labored to bring us the Gospel frequently gave their very lives to do so.
In closing he asks that a guest room be prepared for him as an expression of faith that their prayers for his release will be answered.
He sends greetings from Epaphras who is a fellow prisoner and from Aristarchus who is also identified as a fellow prisoner in Colossians 4:10. Mark, Demas and Luke are fellow workers with Paul, who are also mentioned in Colossians. Mark and Luke, of course were writers of the Gospels. Demas however is mentioned in 2 Timothy 4:10 as having deserted Paul, going to Thessalonica to pursue his love of the world. We do not know the details of that situation, and can only trust that the Lord found a way to draw him back and use him for some further purpose.
Paul concludes with his usual blessing. “The Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit”