Today we will consider the short but very personal letter from Paul to Philemon, a Colossian believer. This letter was written while Paul was imprisoned in Rome. The letter was likely sent with the envoy that carried the letter to the Colossians and Ephesians, which included Onesimus (see Col 4:8-9, Eph 6:21-22), on whose behalf Paul is writing this letter. That Paul refers to Timothy as “our brother” (1:1) and to Philemon as “our beloved fellow worker,” and that Paul speaks of Philemon’s faith (v. 5), it is clear that Philemon is a believer.
It would appear that Onesimus was Philemon’s servant or slave (v. 16) who stole something from Philemon or owed him money (vv. 18-19), but ran away to Rome where he met Paul and was converted to Christianity (v. 10). Paul is now writing to Philemon to forgive Onesimus. As an Apostle with authority, Paul could command Philemon to forgive (v. 8), but wants Philemon to do it willingly out of love (v. 9, 14). Philemon loves Paul as a brother, and Paul now loves Onesimus as a child in the faith (v. 10). Verse 11 is a play on words, as Onesimus’s name means “useful” or “beneficial.” Onesimus is much more of a benefit to Philemon as a brother in Christ than he was as a slave.
Paul then says he is sending Onesimus back to Philemon (v. 12) because it is right to do so (v. 14), even though Paul would have liked to keep him in Rome to serve him while he was in prison (v. 13). Paul then tells Philemon that perhaps everything that happened was God’s will for he and Onesimus to become brothers in faith (v. 15). Paul asks Philemon to accept him back as a brother in the faith, and not a servant or slave (v. 16). Paul considers Onesimus a brother. So Philemon should receive him as he would Paul or any brother (v. 17).
Paul then tells Philemon that he will himself pay any debt Onesimus might owe him (v. 18). Paul then signs the letter (or perhaps writes the whole thing himself since it is so short) so Philemon knows it is Paul saying this (v. 19). And Philemon owes Paul so much more than money. He owes Paul his life. Paul then clarifies with another play on words (using “benefit”). He wants Philemon to forgive Onesimus and accept him as a brother to pay Paul back (v. 20). Paul says he is confident that Philemon will do the right thing (v. 21). Paul ends by telling Philemon he hopes to come himself to visit him in Colossae (v. 22). He sends greetings from Epaphras, who was also from Colossae (v. 23 – see Col 1:7), and from the rest of his entourage (v. 24).
This letter should shape our view of how we deal with Christians under our authority. They are family in Christ first. It should also teach us about forgiveness. Forgiving financial debt or the causing of material losses should be easy, because they are so unimportant relative to what we are in Christ.