Paul’s letter to Philemon is another personal letter of Paul that has been preserved through time. It is an unusual letter in the fact that it is not a theological treatise, instructing an evangelist or congregation about proper worship and service to God. Rather, this is a personal letter about a particular problem. So let us read the letter to see why the letter was written.
Paul identifies himself differently in this letter to Philemon than all the other letters Paul wrote. In all of the other letters Paul calls himself either an apostle or a servant. In this letter Paul calls himself a prisoner of Jesus Christ. But this is not the only letter that Paul wrote from prison. I think Paul refers to himself as a prisoner to remind Philemon of his condition and to begin to lay the groundwork in this letter as to why he needs Onesimus. Notice also that Paul is not the only author, but Timothy is with Paul and this letter also comes from him.
The recipients of this letter are Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and the church that meets in Philemon’s house. Many of the scholars believe that Apphia is Philemon’s wife and that Archippus is Philemon’s son. These assumptions are possible. But it is just as possible that these are important people in the church that meets at Philemon’s house. Let us not pass over the statement that the church was meeting in a person’s home. We read about Archippus in Colossians 4:17: “Tell Archippus, ‘Pay attention to the ministry you have received in the Lord, so that you can accomplish it.'” If this is the same person, then we believe the church in Colosse met in Philemon’s home. It is possible that Archippus was the evangelist for the Colossian church. I think we are right to make this connection because we also read about Onesimus in Colossians 4:8.
The opening salutation is the common introduction that Paul gives in his letters. “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Verses 4-7 continue the traditional format of a first century letter with a section of thanksgiving. Paul offers thanks to God because of the faith and love he has toward Jesus and toward all the saints. Paul says that he has personally experienced the refreshing that Philemon offers through his love.
Appeal For Onesimus
After going through the typical structure of a first century letter, we now come to the body of Paul’s letter. Here, we find the purpose for Paul’s writing. Paul declares in verse 8 that he could command Philemon to do this very act with the authority he carries, he will appeal to Philemon on the basis of love. Paul’s appeal is for Onesimus who became a spiritual son to Paul while Paul is imprisoned. In a very eloquent way, Paul is telling Philemon that Onesimus submitted to Jesus Christ and is now a Christian. Verse 11 contains a word play that is lost in English. The name “Onesimus” means “useful.” Therefore, in a word play, Paul tells Philemon that Onesimus (“useful”) had become useless to you, but has been found useful to him. Notice carefully that Paul does not say that he is simply useful to Paul but is useful to Paul and to Philemon. The cause of Onesimus’ change to usefulness was his decision to become a disciple of Jesus.
But Paul says that he is sending Onesimus back to Philemon, even though Onesimus has become so useful that he is Paul’s very heart. Paul wants to keep Onesimus but Paul will send him back. Paul wants to keep him because he could help and serve in the place of Philemon. But Paul wanted to have Philemon’s permission before keeping him for the work of the kingdom where Paul is imprisoned. It is at this point in the letter that we find out that Onesimus is a slave that Philemon owned. Paul says that this hiatus of time may have taken place so that Philemon could have Onesimus back for good, as a brother and a mere slave. Thus, Paul says that Onesimus is dear to him and useful to him, but should be all the more useful and dear to Philemon. It is important to note that Paul does not ask Philemon to send Onesimus back to him. We read that into the text. Rather, Paul tells Philemon that he was going to keep him because he was so useful, but thought the better of it. Paul’s appeal is for Philemon to take Onesimus back not as a slave but to take him back as a brother. Onesimus is too useful in the kingdom of God to be kept as a physical slave. Onesimus is a slave to Christ and is profitable to the Lord.
Therefore, in verse 17 we come to the appeal that Paul is making to Philemon. Remember that slavery was not simply people were born into. Many people became slaves because they were poor. Many people became slaves because they were in deep debt. They need a place to live and so becoming a slave was a way to have food and shelter for you and your family when you could not afford to take care of yourself.
As we read verse 17, it seems likely to me that this is the reason that Onesimus is a slave. Many infer from verses 17-19 that Onesimus had stolen from Philemon. But I do not think it is a necessary assumption. Nor can I see Paul saying that Onesimus did not have to repay Philemon for what was stolen. Rather, Onesimus had a debt to Philemon. Onesimus was a slave to Philemon because of the debt and Philemon had Onesimus working off his debt. Paul is asking Philemon to release Onesimus from the slavery. In essence, to release the debt that Onesimus has accrued against Philemon. With this in mind, I believe Paul’s words in verses 17-19 make the most sense:
“If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me. But if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account; I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand, I will repay it (not to mention to you that you owe to me even your own self as well).”
Anything that Onesimus had done that Paul is not aware of, Paul says that he will be responsible rather than Onesimus. Paul will repay the debt. Simply put it to his account, not Onesimus. Paul even takes the pen at this point in the letter and signs this as if it were a promissory note.
Paul concludes the body of the letter knowing that Philemon will do even more than Paul asks. Finally, Paul asks one more thing of Philemon: prepare a room because Paul hopes to come to be with them.
Verses 23-25 contain the final greetings as the letter closes. Epaphras sends his greetings, along with Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke.
So do you think that Philemon did what Paul requested? Imagine the scene as Onesimus returns back to Colosse and enters the house of Philemon. Onesimus hands Philemon the letter and Philemon reads it. What does Philemon do next? I believe Philemon hugs Onesimus and makes the preparations to send Onesimus back to Paul. In fact, this seems to be what happened as we read Colossians 4:7-14.
“As to all my affairs, Tychicus, our beloved brother and faithful servant and fellow bond-servant in the Lord, will bring you information. For I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts; and with him Onesimus, our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of your number. They will inform you about the whole situation here. Aristarchus, my fellow prisoner, sends you his greetings; and also Barnabas’s cousin Mark (about whom you received instructions; if he comes to you, welcome him); and also Jesus who is called Justus; these are the only fellow workers for the kingdom of God who are from the circumcision, and they have proved to be an encouragement to me. Epaphras, who is one of your number, a bondslave of Jesus Christ, sends you his greetings, always laboring earnestly for you in his prayers, that you may stand perfect and fully assured in all the will of God. For I testify for him that he has a deep concern for you and for those who are in Laodicea and Hierapolis. Luke, the beloved physician, sends you his greetings, and also Demas.” (Colossians 4:7-14)
According to the Colossian letter, Onesimus is sent back as they all work together while Paul is imprisoned.
We see the fellowship in Christ is placed above all else.
Ultimately we see the example of Christ in this letter. Christ has taken our debts to his account, offering us forgiveness from our debts. “When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Colossians 2:13-14).