The Apostle Paul spent much of his later years in prison because of his faith. Most likely, Paul was in Rome when he wrote this letter to Philemon. Rome was hostile to Christianity in the 1st Century and relentlessly persecuted Christians, especially during the reign of Nero (54-68 AD). This letter was probably sent along with his letter to the Colossians since Philemon lived in Colossae and many of the individuals mentioned in Colossians are also mentioned in Philemon (Archippus, Epaphras, Luke, Demas). It is worthwhile to note that while Paul has been imprisoned by the Romans, he refers to himself as “a prisoner of Christ Jesus” (1:1) since it is for Christ that he is in chains. Let us consider this short letter in more detail and learn about Onesimus and Philemon.
Onesimus’s Faith was Visible
While in prison, the Apostle Paul met a man named Onesimus. Paul spoke to him about Jesus and Onesimus became a Christian. Onesimus immediately began to work for Christ and especially committed himself to helping Paul in his imprisonment. During one of their meetings, Onesimus confessed to Paul why he was in Rome. It turned out that Onesimus was a runaway slave from a man named Philemon in Colossae. How Onesimus became a slave is not stated. The two main reasons someone became a slave in the Roman Empire was that they were a war captive or voluntarily sold themselves into slavery in order to pay off a large debt. It is very likely that Onesimus had a large debt with Philemon that he was working to repay. This helps us better understand Paul’s insistence that Onesimus return to Philemon and reconcile for fleeing. Onesimus’s faith was visible in his willingness to serve Christ and others and in his confession of sin.
Onesimus’s Faith was Tested
When Paul heard Onesimus’ history, he knew what needed to happen. Paul knew that Onesimus needed to go back to Philemon to reconcile with him. I can imagine the conversation going something like this: Paul said, “Onesimus, you need to go back and make things right with Philemon.” Onesimus replied: “I can’t go back, he will punish me and could even throw me in prison.” Paul answered, “As a Christian, you are called to live in a manner worthy of the Gospel. You need to go back for Christ’s sake.” Onesimus said, “Ok, I will go back…but could you write a letter for me?” Onesimus’s faith was tested when told he needed to seek peace with those he had wronged. Onesimus is to be commended for being willing to accept the consequences for being obedient to Christ.
Philemon’s Faith was Visible.
Paul did write a letter to Philemon and the letter begins with Paul reminding Philemon that he has heard of his love for Christ and the saints. Philemon’s love and faith gives Paul much joy and comfort “because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you” (Phm 1:7). How was Philemon refreshing to the saints? His love and faith in Jesus was evident in his witness and work for Jesus. Paul testified about the visible and vibrant love and faith of Philemon. Philemon loved Jesus and he loved his fellow Christians. He was a hard worker (1) who regularly shared his faith (6). He was hospitable (22). His faith was visible.
Philemon’s Faith was Tested.
Paul began his letter to Philemon with thankfulness to God for Philemon’s faith and then Paul got to the reason for his letter. Paul had a very difficult request for Philemon concerning his runaway slave. While we cannot know exactly what happened between Philemon and Onesimus, we can deduce that Onesimus defrauded Philemon in some way. Paul wrote that Onesimus “once was unprofitable to you” (1:11). Paul added, “if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account. I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay...” (1:19). Paul asked Philemon to welcome Onesimus back. Paul wrote, “I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart” (1:12), “receive him as you would receive me” (1:17). Those last two verses are powerful because Paul is not only asking Philemon to forgive Onesimus, but to treat him as if he were the Apostle Paul himself. Paul wants Philemon to “refresh my heart in Christ” (1:20) by welcoming back Onesimus “no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother” (1:16).
Your Faith will be Tested
Paul’s letter to Philemon is short, yet very powerful. Paul wrote to Philemon to challenge him to demonstrate his love for Christ in a difficult, yet powerful way and welcome back Onesimus. Paul did not just ask him to welcome back Onesimus as a slave, but as a friend; more than that, as the Apostle Paul himself. This is a picture of the Gospel presented to us for our edification in our faith. Paul is working to reconcile and repair a damaged relationship between Philemon and Onesimus. After having convinced Onesimus that he needed to go back, he pleads with Philemon to welcome his slave back as more than a slave but as a brother in Christ. Philemon was to forgive as he had been forgiven by Christ.
Which now brings us back to today. The story of Philemon and Onesimus is a reminder to us that holiness, righteousness, and faithfulness may go against our natural tendencies. We may not want to forgive someone, but we should. We may not want to repay someone good for evil, but we should. We should remember how God treats us and we should use God’s treatment of us as our model for how we treat others.