A few months ago I went through the book Philemon in my history curriculum. I was amazed to find so much depth in about a 430 word book. Now I’m not going to read through the whole book with you, but I decided to pull a portion out to read. I’ll take it and break it down piece by piece (or verse by verse, you might say). Before that, I like to shine some light on the background of this letter: Philemon was a wealthy man living in Colossae who had a big enough house for a church to meet in. If he was like the average wealthy man at that time, his household could of had several hundred people in it. Onesimus was one of his many slaves. Onesimus stole something (we don’t know what exactly) and ran away. Then he sought Paul out. He couldn’t have just met Paul in the street because Paul was a prisoner in Ephesus (we also don’t know why Onesimus went to Paul). So Paul writes a letter to a hurt and angry Philemon (and to the church) and probably has Onesimus take it to him. Now, lets read some of this letter.
“I appeal to you to show kindness to my child, Onesimus. I became his father in the faith while here in prison.”
So this is pretty simple. Onesimus has recently come to faith in Jesus Christ. Paul, while stuck in prison, has become a father/teacher to Onesimus.
“Onesimus hasn’t been of much use to you in the past, but now he is very useful to both of us.”
In this sentence, there is a underlining pun (which many moderns consider the lowest form of humor). You see, the name Onesimus means “Useful”. So really Paul is saying that: “Useful hasn’t been of much use to you in the past, but now Useful is very useful to both of us.” Ha! Funny, isn’t it?
“I am sending him back to you, and with him comes my own heart. I wanted to keep him here with me while I am in these chains for preaching the Good News, and he would have helped me on your behalf. But I didn’t want to do anything without your consent. I wanted you to help because you were willing, not because you were forced.”
Paul is politely asking to keep Onesimus with him while he is in chains. He doesn’t want Philemon to be forced to help, but be willing to help.
“It seems you lost Onesimus for a little while so that you could have him back forever.”
Philemon lost Onesimus for a little while (when he ran away) so that he could have him back forever as a brother in Christ.
“He is no longer like a slave to you. He is more than a slave, for he is a beloved brother, especially to me. Now he will mean much more to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.”
He is much more valuable now because he is a brother in Christ. As I said earlier.
“So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.”
Paul wants Philemon to forgive Onesimus and welcome him back. Another way of saying it is: Paul wants Philemon to do for Onesimus what he would do for Paul. And Philemon has been praying for Paul’s freedom.
“If he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, PAUL, WRITE THIS WITH MY OWN HAND: I WILL REPAY IT. AND I WON’T MENTION THAT YOU OWE ME YOUR VERY SOUL!”
Paul usually had people write out what he said in his letters, but in his own handwriting he writes that he will pay back whatever Onesimus owes to assure Philemon that he will.
“Yes, my brother, please do me this favor for the Lord’s sake. Give me this encouragement in Christ. I am confident as I write this letter that you will do what I ask and even more!”
Philemon is such a good friend to Paul that he trusts that he will do ALL that he has asked and even more! Isn’t it amazing how much trust Paul places in Philemon?
Now some people may ask: is Paul saying that slavery is acceptable or okay because he sent Onesimus back to his master? The answer is no. Paul was giving Philemon subtle hints of key beliefs of the Bible that would lead him to the conclusion that slavery is wrong. Paul did NOT believe in attacking social evils. He wanted Christianity as it was to lead people to the right conclusion.
Can you also see that Paul is acting as Christ to lead Philemon and Onesimus to reconciliation? It is beautiful to see how much care and effort Paul worked to set all to right between them. We should all try to strive to be like Christ, helping our fellow members in Christ to live in harmony as one body (the church).