Paul's Postcard to Philemon

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Philemon was a member of the church in Colossae (cf. ). He seems from our text to be somewhat wealthy; he was a slave-owner; it also seems that the church met in his house if those mentioned in verse 2 are members of his household as most assume. Philemon was a faithful servant of God, as we will see shortly.
Paul writes this epistle (postcard more like it!) because of his concern for Onesimus, his new brother in Christ, who is a slave of Philemon. Even though Paul wrote the letter to the Colossians at the same time; a letter that within it he gave instructions to slaves and masters, he still found it necessary to write this letter to Philemon.
Let’s get into the text.
02-07 Paul’s thoughts and prayers for Philemon
02 Philemon is referred to as his beloved and fellow laborer.
04 Paul begins this section of thanksgiving making mention of his prayers for Philemon.
05 Joy and thanksgiving warm his heart as he thinks of the good reports he is hearing about Philemon. He had heard of the example that Philemon was. It was an encouragement to him. He had an active love and faith towards his fellow Christians which was contagious to the other Christians in the congregation ().
06 His specific prayer for Philemon is that his faith would grow even more contagious towards the brethren. Up to this point, the brethren found refreshment from Philemon. Whenever they needed encouragement when weary, he would be there to do so.
07 As Paul had been delighted and encouraged by the accounts he had received of Philemon’s ministry, so he hoped for further delight and encouragement from Philemon’s response to his request that he will make regarding Onesimus.
08 Based on the accounts that he had heard about Philemon, Paul makes a plea for Onesimus; that Philemon would show that same love towards his runaway slave also.
Paul had every right as an Apostle to just command Philemon to accept Onesimus openly as a brother, but Paul didn’t see a need to do that.
02 The authoritative title of apostle is dropped, not because Paul has suddenly ceased to be an apostle, but because he has no intention of appealing to his apostolic authority. Paul instead refers to himself as a prisoner of Jesus Christ.
Nowhere else does Paul open a letter by referring to himself as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. Having to plead the cause of a slave, he begins by putting himself into a similar position as the bondman of Jesus Christ. He as the Lord’s bondsman he will plead for another bondsman whose story is the burden of this letter. No less than 6 times in this brief letter Paul makes reference to his imprisonment (1, 9, 10, 13, 22, and 23). Here is a captive pleading for a slave.
09 Paul rather out of love makes his appeal for Onesimus, trusting in the faith and love of Philemon to do what is right to do.
11 Paul makes a play on Onesimus’ name in this verse. Onesimus’ name means useful or profitable. He states to Philemon the absolute truth. There was a point when Onesimus was not living up to his name as a slave. It is quite possible before Onesimus ran away, which he did not have the right to do, that he actually stole from Philemon also (cf. v18) According to Roman law, Philemon could have had this runaway slave punished severely or even killed.
But now that the gospel had gotten a hold of Onesimus, it made one who was a useless servant into one who was very useful to the Lord, to Paul, and now to Philemon.
12-13 It seems that to this point Onesimus had become very useful/ helpful to Paul in his imprisonment. Paul states that sending him back to Philemon would be like sending his very heart to him. WOW. HE was very useful to Paul! How useful is your heart? So Paul sees what he is doing is making a sacrifice for the well being of the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus.
14 Paul seems to have preferred having Onesimus stay with him to minister to him in his efforts for the gospel, but he did not want to do so without consent from Philemon because as Philemon’s slave, Onesimus was actually his property. He did not want this to look like Philemon had to have Onesimus with Paul. Paul wanted it to seem that Philemon was being generous towards Paul in sending Onesimus to him by choice, but Paul was confident that Philemon would allow Onesimus to stay.
Paul had come to highly prize this runaway slave as a beloved brother, and he wanted Philemon to see this. Onesimus could be just as profitable to Philemon now as he was to Paul.
15-16 Another interesting point that Paul makes here is that by the looks of things, maybe it was God’s amazing wisdom and providence that brought Onesimus to him so he could learn the truth of the gospel and return to Philemon as not only a slave, but a beloved brother.
17 Paul makes his appeal to Philemon, “since I am sending you my very heart, receive him as you would receive me, as a beloved brother and a partner.” Paul says “If then you count me as a partner” do this, being confident in Philemon’s love for himself.
18-19 Paul is even willing to make a sacrifice himself to making sure that Onesimus is received by Philemon. He says that if he wronged him or had taken anything from him that he would take care of the cost; he would pay the debt of Onesimus.
Paul makes the final point that even he had owed such a great debt because of the work of Paul. In some way, the work of Paul had led possibly to the conversion of Philemon, either by Philemon being in Ephesus when Paul was there for 3 years, or by hearing the gospel from someone that Paul converted.
Either way, Philemon was indebted to Paul far more than Onesimus was indebted to Philemon.
20 All that Paul expected from Philemon to pay the debt that he owed was to refresh Paul’s heart as he has done in times past with his brethren in Colossae.
“Yes, brother, let me benefit (oninêmi-same root as Onesimus’ name) from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. (NASB)”
21 Based upon Philemon’s past obedience to the Lord, Paul is confident that he will comply with Paul’s appeal for Onesimus. Not only this, Paul believed that Philemon would go beyond even what Paul was asking him to do in accepting Onesimus back.
22 Paul also asks Philemon to prepare him a place to stay. Just as in , Paul seems fairly confident that he would be released from prison so he could be of greater service to the brethren. He would plan after his release to visit the brethren in Colossae.
Philemon- Called to love one who wronged him
What could have Philemon done to Onesimus? According to Roman law, Philemon could have had Onesimus put to death for 2 reasons; for running away as a slave and for stealing from him if that happened. Philemon could have been a strong believer in keeping the laws of the land and could have demanded justice for what was done to him by Onesimus.
Instead of what he could have done to Onesimus, Paul is compelling Philemon to do the opposite: to forgive Onesimus. This may not have been the easiest thing to do! The natural reaction is to want justice; to see the one who has sinned against us to be punished.
Paul is calling upon Philemon (and us) to display the attitude of Christ in being compassionate and ready to forgive those who have wronged us. We need to be willing to forgive if we want to be forgiven by the Lord!
Onesimus- Repentance
How about Onesimus in this whole situation? I think we see clear repentance in Onesimus’ actions. He was willing to go back to his master after what he had done to him; knowing that it could have led to his being put to death. But he was willing to do so because it seems that he wanted their relationship restored just as much as Paul did. What are we willing to do if we need to make something right between us and someone else? We don’t like to do anything that is uncomfortable, let alone lead to our deaths. We just don’t want to look bad by going to someone to apologize for anything. But the truth is we already look bad if we sinned against someone. We need to be willing to do whatever is necessary to make things right with those who we sin against. Our relationship with the Lord is at stake!
Paul’s desire for unity
Paul was concerned about unity between brethren; even between a master and a slave. He wanted so badly to see their relationship to be restored that he wrote this epistle to Philemon. Paul didn’t want to see anything in the past get in the way of Philemon and Onesimus’ relationship as brethren now. Paul was even willing to make any payments of restitution if Onesimus had taken anything from Philemon. In the grand scheme of things, what was owed to Philemon was little compared to the relationship between them and their relationships with the Lord.
This is not the only time that Paul wrote in a letter about unity. In 1 Corinthians Paul dealt with the issue many times. In chapter 6 he actually told the brethren that were taking other brethren to court that they should have rather took a loss than to treat their brother and Christ with contempt.
In , Paul wrote to 2 sisters, Euodia and Syntyche, pleading to them to be united, and asked his true companions to help to make sure that their relationship with one another was restored.
Are we a refreshment to others as Philemon?
IN verse7, we remember that Paul was thankful for the refreshment that Philemon gave to the saints. If there was a need for encouragement in times of distress Philemon was one who took initiative to see that whatever the need was it was taken care of. Can we say the same of ourselves?
Can your brethren count on you to be like Philemon. If they need encouragement in any way, are you the one who brings the much needed refreshment?
Are we living up to the name of Onesimus?
Are we being useful or profitable to the cause of Christ? Are we being the people that the Lord calls us to be? Only each one of us know the answer to this question.
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