Philemon 1–25comment (0)
May 26, 2011
By Cecil Taylor
Related Scripture: Philemon 1–25
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Dean, School of Christian Studies, University of Mobile
Philemon is unique. It is the shortest and only strictly private letter among those by Paul preserved and included in the New Testament. Philemon is closely related to Colossians and to a lesser degree to Ephesians and Philippians.
A slave named Onesimus robbed his master, Philemon, and then fled from Colossae to Rome to lose himself in the huge metropolis. There he came into contact with Paul, who was under house arrest waiting for his hearing before Caesar or the emperor’s appointee. In time, Onesimus became a believer and rendered Paul valuable service. He persuaded Onesimus to return home and straighten things out. This letter asking Philemon to receive Onesimus kindly, “as a brother beloved,” Paul sent with him. In it, Paul even offered to repay any debts Onesimus might owe his wronged master.
Despite its brevity and lack of doctrinal content, this letter holds considerable value. It depicts Christian character, models Christian friendship, portrays Christian home life in the first century and implicitly strikes at the institution of slavery.
Paul named Timothy as his associate, but the letter is clearly Paul’s because it fairly bristles with first person pronouns: “I, me, my.”
He directed the letter to three people. It seems Philemon was one of Paul’s converts (hinted in verse 19), and Apphia may have been his wife, also a believer (“our sister”). Some think Archippus was their son. Paul intended the letter also for the church that met in Philemon’s house.
Prayer for Philemon (4–7)
In this prayer, Paul thanked God for Philemon’s love, faith and compassion, thus setting him up for the request that followed.
Request of Onesimus (8–22)
Paul informed his friend that Onesimus had become a Christian and had proved a huge help in his ministry. He said he wanted to keep Onesimus in Rome but rather sent him back to Colossae because he did not want to impose on Philemon (11–14). Paul asked Philemon to receive Onesimus as a “brother believed,” even as he would welcome Paul himself. He expressed his confidence that Philemon would comply with his request and even do more than he asked (21).
Because Paul believed he would soon be released from Roman captivity as a result of his friend’s prayers, he asked Philemon to prepare lodging for a visit.
Various greetings and a simple benediction end the short letter.
There is no better example of the gospel’s social effects than this letter. Paul never played the role of social reformer. He was an evangelist and church planter. But here, in Philemon, he laid out a principle that, like a bomb with a delayed fuse, would one day blow the institution of slavery to bits. To see a slave as “a brother beloved” would in the end compel a Christian master to free his or her slaves, particularly those who were also believers. “More than I ask” (Phil. 21, NIV) suggests Paul hoped Philemon not only would forgive Onesimus and restore him as a repentant slave but would also release him from slavery and maybe even let him return to Rome to serve the apostle.
Philemon also provides a striking human picture of God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ. Paul, Philemon and Onesimus stand for Jesus, the Father and a repentant sinner, respectively. When Paul asked Philemon to receive Onesimus as the apostle himself (Phil. 12, 15, 17), the truth that God accepts a believing sinner in the Beloved One, Jesus, took flesh. “If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me” is the language of imputation (cf 2 Cor. 5:18–21). The debt of sin was put on Christ’s account. The believer’s record is cleared, and he or she is received into the family and freed.