Like the first and the second letter to Timothy and the letter to Titus this letter is also written to a person and that is to Philemon. Nevertheless this one has a unique position between the letters that are addressed to persons.
Timothy and Titus received instructions regarding their personal behavior in the church. Paul taught them how they should deal with several situations and what to tell the believers. Those letters are of great importance to you as well. You learn by it what your personal behavior as a Christian should be in a Christianity where there is great confusion. You receive instructions on how you should function to the honor of God and to a blessing to the people around you.
The letter to Philemon has a totally different content. You do not find any doctrinal teaching in it. This letter is only about a practical matter. Paul addresses in this letter a believing master, Philemon, about a bondservant, Onesimus, who ran away from him and who is sent back by him, Paul. It is a letter about a slave who is in debt to his master. Paul intends to help that master to receive his slave, who has wronged him, in love. In this letter you see that the Christian faith not only consists of what you believe, but also of how you practice the faith.
It is not only about having a knowledge of God and the Lord Jesus, but also about exhibiting the features of God and the Lord Jesus. As an apostle Paul could have demanded that Philemon should accept Onesimus back and even release him. But Paul does not take his position as apostle here. He wants to show the practical application of the teaching. He shows that it is not only important that you speak about the truth; it is also that and how you apply the truth in practice. It is not only about saying the good thing, but also that you say it well. It is the tone that makes the music.
You may think: ‘What could I learn from an event that lies so far away from my world of life? It would be more helpful if I learn to know my position in Christ and how to show that in my life than knowing how Philemon should receive his slave.’ That would be a logical error. Precisely the letter to Philemon grants us, like no other letter, an example of how you are to show your position in Christ.
Although the letter does not consist of any doctrinal teaching, you will notice that it could only be written by somebody who has absorbed the whole truth in his heart. When you are reading this letter you will taste that the whole life and the whole mind of the writer are permeated with what he is in Christ. He applies in practice what he writes about the truth of the one body (the letter to the Ephesians) and the mind of Christ (the letter to the Philippians) and the new man (the letter to the Ephesians and the letter to the Colossians).
What is described here ought to be the daily practice of the believers in comparable situations. Although we do not have to do with slavery you may have to do with situations where another person owes you something, like Onesimus did to Philemon. It can be the case that you know of other people who find themselves in such situations. You may take a mediating role then, like Paul mediates here between Onesimus and Philemon. We learn from this letter how we should deal with such situations. That is the purpose of this letter and it should be read in that way.
In this letter you will search in vain for instructions on how to deal with slavery or how you should look at it. It is not about that at all. Christendom does not change circumstances, but the hearts of men. But even when the heart has been changed it does not mean that the believer willingly submits himself to the circumstances. I actually find it quite difficult sometimes how to deal with the injustice that is done towards me. That also indeed depends on the nature of the injustice. In this letter it is about stealing possessions and the refusal of bearing responsibilities.
There is another injustice where something is being taken away in a much deeper sense. Then I think of physical abuse or the manipulation of your will. It will be evident that this injustice is of another kind than the injustice that induced this letter. But in case you do have to do with this terrible injustice, then you need to learn how to deal with it also. That will be quite a difficult process, but with help from the Lord and from the people you trust, you can achieve a lot.
Philemon most apparently lived in Colossae, as it can be derived from the letter to the church there (Col 4:9). Therefore there is a strong relation between the letter to Philemon and the letter to the Colossians. There is something else that indicated a strong relation between the letter to Philemon on the one hand and the letter to the Ephesians and the letter to the Colossians on the other hand. In the letter to the Ephesians and the letter to the Colossians the masters of the slaves are actually addressed as such (Eph 6:9; Col 4:1). Philemon is a master like that and he is also directly addressed.
It seems that he came to faith through the service of Paul. That is what you actually could read between the lines in verse 19. Paul had never been in Colossae (Col 2:1) and must have met Philemon somewhere else. That encounter or those encounters ultimately led to his conversion. Afterwards he worked together with Paul and also with Timothy (Phlm 1:1).
Here Philemon is back at Colossae. It is most likely that the woman who is mentioned here, Apphia, is his wife. It has been assumed that Archippus is his son, but that is no more than an assumption. Philemon must have had a fairly large house, for the church gathers together in his house. The fact that he has at least one slave, Onesimus, may imply that he is not impecunious.
Onesimus is the issue in this letter. Onesimus was an unconverted slave who had fled. He certainly did not flee because of a cruel treatment by Philemon. I think the problem was with himself. To all outward appearances he was an unprofitable boy (Phlm 1:11). Before his conversion he did not justify his name, for the name Onesimus means ‘profitable’. It even appears that he became a thief.
Philemon actually did not chain him, but contrarily gave him freedom to a large extent. Philemon had confidence in him. Onesimus seriously misused that confidence. He not only ran away at a certain moment, but he properly equipped himself. He had to make the best of life, right? He might have justified himself by thinking that he did not take more than the outstanding payment with him. A person who is not being guided by the Lord can have the weirdest ideas about ‘mine and thine’ and will also act accordingly.
It is not told whether he aimed to go to Rome or whether he arrived there after a ramble. Anyway the Lord led it in such a way that he met the apostle there. It is possible that he ‘accidentally’ bumped into the apostle. He ended up into conversation with him and the Lord opened his heart so that he came to conversion. It is also not unthinkable that on his own initiative he searched the apostle about whom he must have heard a lot in the house of Philemon. The Lord might have made his conscience restless and reminded him of Paul who had been imprisoned somewhere in Rome.
What is definitely sure is that he came to conversion by Paul in prison and through the service of Paul (Phlm 1:10). Due to that his relation with God turned out well. Now he still had to put things right in his relation with Philemon. He still had a way to go regarding that.
So you see that through conversion not all problems disappear at once. Conversion is the beginning of a new life. From that moment growing in faith and abandoning the past go hand in hand. Everything of which you know or through which you later see that you wronged someone, you need to put right. That’s why after my conversion I went to the owner of a shop where I as a youngster regularly stole candy. I had an amount with me as a payment. That was, as far as I can remember, by no means the value of the stolen candy, but the owner accepted the payment I had with me and forgave me.
Apparently Onesimus did not think with joy about returning to his master. Nevertheless he acknowledged the necessity of it, probably after he was convinced by Paul. Paul also promised him his unconditional support. He took the responsibility to help Onesimus towards Philemon.
The way he does that is not of the kind that we mean when we are talking about ‘making a plea for somebody’. He did not simply send Onesimus back, but he sent him back with a letter of recommendation. In that letter Paul testifies of the genuineness of Onesimus’ conversion and of the many profits that he received from him after his conversion. You can learn from Paul in this. You can examine in which way you could help and encourage somebody who is dealing with such a situation like that of Onesimus.
You can also learn from Onesimus. By nature you are also a runaway Onesimus, who was unprofitable and of no use at all (Rom 3:12). That has been changed by your conversion. By the power of the Holy Spirit you are now able to be profitable to your environment. That you have changed is most striking for your daily environment, like at home, at school or at your work. Precisely where Onesimus was as a slave he now can show that he is profitable.
That is the way how God sends us back to our environment, our family, working place, in order to be a witness there, to be profitable for the Lord (Mk 5:19). You and I are God’s ‘Onesimus’.
Now read the letter thoroughly one more time.
Reflection: Have you made right, as far as you can recall, the injustice you have done towards others?