Reading Paul’s letter to Philemon might take you less than a minute and a half, but don’t let its brevity lead you to think that the letter is insignificant. Philemon is a case study in the gospel’s power to bring about reconciliation in human relationships.
It is generally understood that Philemon lived in Colossae and was the host of a church that met regularly in his home. Philemon was apparently a wealthy man who owned a bondservant named Onesimus. At some point, Onesimus fled, eventually ending up in Rome and, through God’s sovereignty no doubt, ran into Paul who shared the gospel with Onesimus. Onesimus became a Christian and accompanied Paul in his missionary work. Paul was in prison at the time, and Onesimus (who was ironically something of a fugitive himself) evidently became an integral part of Paul’s ministry. However, Paul knew that Onesimus had wronged Philemon and the conflict between the two could not go unaddressed. Paul wrote this letter to Philemon and his church requesting that Philemon receive Onesimus back as “more than a bondservant”; rather, “as a beloved brother” who has himself been transformed by the gospel of Christ (v. 16).
Interestingly, Paul’s letter to the Colossians (which was delivered by Onesimus – see Col. 4:9) mentions the master-bondservant relationship
Bondservants, obey in everything those are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ . . . Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.Colossians 3:22-4:1.
Paul’s letter to the Colossians would have likely been shared among numerous churches throughout Colossae, while the letter to Philemon’s church is intended to specifically appeal to their specific situation involving Onesimus. They probably would have read Colossians along with the letter addressed to Philemon, so the connection between the two letters shouldn’t be ignored. Philemon was likely shocked that Onesimus would return in the first place, let alone do so while hand-delivering a letter from Paul himself! Perhaps Paul strategically sent Onesimus home to Philemon along with both letters as if to say, “here is a great opportunity to practice what I taught you: love your brother Onesimus with compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience . . . forgiving each other as the Lord has forgiven you!” (Colossians 3:12-13).
A trick you can use while reading letters like this is to make a quick outline. Greek letters often have a structure that looks something like this:
1. Greetings and well-wishes
3. The main point/argument
4. Concluding remarks
5. Final greetings and instructions
In English writing, we tend to emphasize our main point in a thesis statement at the beginning of a paper. Ancient writers emphasized their main point in the middle. Paul’s letter to Philemon follows this structure pretty uniformly, though there are a few slight variations.
1. Greeting (v. 1-3)
Paul identifies himself as the author of the letter, along with Timothy. Though it appears two authors are identified, the letter is written in the first-person singular tense following the greeting. It is certainly Paul who is the main voice of the letter. It is likely that Timothy penned the letter while Paul dictated it to him. I can’t imagine Paul as a person who was fond of sitting still and putting his thoughts to paper; there is evidence that he dictated many of his letters (more on that later). It is amusing to picture Paul, under house arrest and with hands bound in chains, excitedly pacing back and forth, passionately and eloquently attempting to convey his message to Philemon as Timothy hurriedly scribbled his words down onto a piece of parchment.
Archippus, mentioned in verse 2, is mentioned one other time in (surprise!) Colossians 4:17, though his specific role in Paul’s ministry is not clear. Apphia may have been Philemon’s wife, but that’s only speculation.
2. Thanks and Encouragement (v. 4-7)
Paul opens with a glowing endorsement of Philemon and his ministry. It is clear from this section of the letter that Paul greatly approves of Philemon’s work and views him as an important asset to the advance of the gospel in Colossae.
3. Paul’s Appeal to Philemon (v. 8-20)
(8-9) Paul, a man who was without a doubt admired for his boldness, attempts to persuade Philemon to treat Onesimus with kindness rather than commanding him to do so. Paul certainly had the spiritual authority to make the demand, but he opts to appeal instead to Philemon’s and Onesimus’ brotherhood in Christ as the basis for reconciliation between the two. It is by Christ’s authority that Philemon must forgive Onesimus, not Paul’s authority.
(9-14) Paul reveals that Onesimus has become a Christian; Paul calls himself Onesimus’ spiritual father, because it was he who converted Onesimus. Evidently, Onesimus has become a close friend and ministry partner to Paul during his time in Rome. Verse 11 might seem a little out of place upon first reading:
Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to me
The name “Onesimus” means “useful”. Paul is playing on words here. Onesimus abandoned Philemon, becoming useless to his former master, but became useful for something much greater than servanthood under Paul. Perhaps Onesimus is a new name symbolizing his spiritual renewal (just like Saul became Paul, Simon became Peter, or Abram became Abraham). Paul is arguing that Onesimus, for all his wrongdoing, is returning a better man than he was when he fled. In fact, Onesimus has become so useful that Paul is sad to send him home. He only does so out of his love for Philemon and his desire for the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus to be mended.
(15-16) These verses are the crux of Paul’s appeal. Paul suggests that perhaps Onesimus’ rebellion was divinely orchestrated by God so that Onesimus could hear the gospel through Paul in Rome and return to Philemon “no longer as a bondservant, but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother.”
Some scholars have suggested that Paul is asking for Onesimus’ emancipation; that he would no longer be a servant to Philemon, but an equal in society. This is possible. However, elsewhere in the New Testament, Paul doesn’t seem concerned about emancipating servants, and is more concerned about their fair treatment (Colossians 3:22-4:1). As for how exactly Philemon is to interpret his new relationship with Onesimus, Paul seems to be leaving it up to Philemon’s judgment. The request Paul is making is simply that Philemon show Onesimus love and grace, whatever Philemon may interpret that to mean.
(17-22) Onesimus may have stolen money from Philemon in order to pay his way to Rome. Paul instructs Philemon to, essentially, send him the bill and he will repay it. He does not want money or property to get in the way or become a stumbling block between Philemon and Onesimus. Paul offered to pay Onesimus’ debt so that Onesimus could be reconciled and reunited with his master. There’s a pretty great gospel parallel. Paul emphasizes his willingness to repay Onesimus’ debt by grabbing the pen from Timothy, who had been transcribing Paul’s words up to this point, and writing it himself. Paul liked to do this when he was trying to make a strong point (2 Thessalonians 3:17; Galatians 6:11).
Paul concludes his letter with a final appeal to Philemon’s character: “I write to you knowing that you will do even more than I say.” He does request that Philemon prepare a guest room, as Paul was planning on coming to visit at some point. Perhaps Paul added this as a subtle bit of extra motivation for Philemon; if Philemon still wasn’t convinced, maybe the prospect of an earful from Paul would be the push he needed to set his heart right.
Final Greetings (v. 21-25)
Paul ends his letter in typical fashion. He sends well-wishes on behalf of the men accompanying him. Most notably, Luke (the author of Luke’s Gospel as well Acts) has evidently remained by Paul’s side after all these years. There is evidence to suggest Paul’s associate Mark, mentioned in Philemon 24, is the same as the author of Mark’s gospel.
Though Philemon certainly had the lawful right to punish Onesimus, Paul reminded him that, like Onesimus, Philemon was once a spiritual slave who was made a son of God, not by his own wisdom or righteousness, but by the grace of God through Jesus Christ. Therefore, Philemon and Onesimus were no longer slave and master; they were brothers in Christ; of equal status, equal mind, and equal purpose (Galatians 3:23-29).
Just as all Christians have been reconciled to God, we are called to be reconciled to one another. Salvation through faith in Jesus strips away our perceived earthly status and makes us sons and daughters of God, and brothers and sisters in Christ. The basis of Christian brotherhood is grace: the grace of God manifested in grace toward one another.