This letter is a personal note to Paul’s friend Philemon and an open letter for the church, sent with Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave. Paul’s position as an aged elder gave him authority to demand that Onesimus be restored without penalty (v. 9), but he appeals to the love Christians should have for each other. Twice Paul uses the verb “appeal,” meaning to beseech, on behalf of his “son” Onesimus (vv. 9–10).
The appeal and tone of the letter go hand-in-hand. Paul hopes love will lead his dear friend Philemon to do the right thing. Onesimus’ life had been changed; Paul led him to faith in Christ (v. 10), which resulted in a new character. Paul says once Onesimus was “useless,” and now, he is “useful” (v. 11). Perhaps Paul is using a play on words since Onesimus’ means “profitable.”
Regardless, Paul wants Philemon to know that the new Onesimus is valuable. Paul was sending back far more than a slave — he sent back a new brother in Christ whom he deeply loved (v. 12). I never cease to be amazed at the miraculous power of the gospel! Think about it, a runaway slave and thief comes face-to-face with the Good News of Christ and becomes a believer. This new believer becomes Paul’s “very heart.”
Remember the gospel has the power to change anyone, so don’t give up. Furthermore, the gospel has power to bring restoration between believers. Perhaps God is sending you to be part of His restorative power today.
As a brother (13–16)
Paul loved Onesimus and didn’t want to part with him (v. 13), but the furthering of the gospel message would have been negatively impacted. The church that met at Philemon’s house needed to see Christianity at work, so Onesimus needed to return to make restitution. In doing so he showed repentance and a willingness to pay the consequences.
At the same time, Paul turned the focus on the redemptive element of the gospel. What a powerful lesson for the early church! Onesimus’ return provided an opportunity for the church to see Christianity displayed in the life of Philemon as well — God shows a beautiful picture of equality in Christ. In a period when a large percentage of the population was enslaved, the church could see Philemon’s choice to elevate Onesimus and embrace him as a brother (v. 16). Paul was confident he would respond in a Christ-like fashion.
Today, Christians must view each other as members of the same family. You have more in common with a Christ-follower from another country than a biological family member who doesn’t know Him. Ask God to open your eyes so you might see all Christians as they are — sisters and brothers.
So welcome him (17-21)
The idea of substitution runs throughout these verses. First, Philemon is to welcome Onesimus as if he were Paul (v. 17). Moreover, Paul remarks that “if he has wronged you … or owes you anything” it should be charged to Paul’s account (v. 18). Philemon is being asked to forgive Onesimus as if he were forgiving Paul.
Paul adds that Philemon owes Paul his own life (v. 19). He is “stacking the deck” — not forcing Philemon to welcome Onesimus, but being extremely persuasive.
In verse 7, Paul praises Philemon for “refreshing the hearts of the saints” (v. 20). As Philemon responded to this challenging situation under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, Paul would be refreshed. Though ultimately the decision lay between Philemon and the Lord, Paul expects that he will do even more than he is asked (v. 21).
By the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, God intended you to study this today. Perhaps someone has wronged you and needs to be welcomed back. How will you respond? Or perhaps one of you is like Onesimus — you have wronged someone and have not yet gone back and repented. You, too, have a choice to make. Will you respond and do even more than is expected?