While Paul was in prison in Rome, he wrote three letters to churches (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians) and one personal letter to a beloved friend – Philemon (Philemon 1:1). There are several commendable things about Philemon:
- The local church met in his home (Philemon 1:2, likely the Colossian church, see above)
- He was known for his love and faith (Philemon 1:5)
- He was focused on sharing his faith (Philemon 1:6)
This short letter was delivered at the same time as the Colossian letter. Paul’s messenger to Colossae had a companion on his journey there—a runaway slave by the name of Onesimus, who was originally from Colossae (Colossians 4:7-9). Paul had met and taught Onesimus in Rome Philemon 1:10) and was sending him back to his master, Philemon (Philemon 1:12). His sending him back is interesting. It is evidence Paul did not consider the law of Moses to be authoritative, since Deuteronomy 23:15-16 said not to return a runaway slave to his master. The law was obsolete (Hebrews 8:13).
In speaking about Onesimus, Paul used a play on words (Philemon 1:11). He wrote:
…who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me.
The name Onesimus literally means useful or profitable. How ironic! He had not lived up to his name, for he who was named “useful” had made himself “useless,” for a runaway slave is of no value to his master. But now, having found Jesus to be his true Master, Paul was confident Onesimus would show himself to be useful, both to the Lord and to Philemon.
In Philemon 1:15-16, Paul considers,
…perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
He mused about the providence of God. God is able to work through our wrongs to bring about good. Onesimus departed from Philemon, which was wrong—but had he not, he may not have met Paul. He could have (and no doubt did) learn about Christ by watching and listening to Philemon, but something held him back. Paul was able to bring him from merely having knowledge to obedience to the truth and commitment to Christ. So now, not only were Philemon and Onesimus master and slave, but they were brothers! What a wonderful circumstance!
Paul urged Philemon to receive Onesimus as he would receive the apostle himself (Philemon 1:17). If Onesimus had wronged his master, if he had stolen anything or owed anything, Paul told his friend to charge it to his account and he would make it right (Philemon 1:18-19). Paul wanted to remove any hindrances to Onesimus’ return to Philemon, and created a scenario where his growth in the faith was the focus, not his departure or anything he had done wrong before. Paul was not concerned with Philemon’s response—he fully expected his friend would do well beyond what he was requesting for Onesimus (Philemon 1:20-21).
One of the unique things about this letter is that Paul seems to have written the entire letter himself (Philemon 1:19). Indications from Paul’s other letters is that he was accustomed to dictating to a scribe, not writing himself. This is likely because Paul had issues with his vision (Galatians 4:15; cf. Acts 14:19-22).
Next time, we’ll look at Hebrews.