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BIBLE BOOK: A Letter with a Difference

Why did Paul write to Philemon?

In today’s rapidly-changing world, the art of letter writing has almost disappeared. Instant communication is the order of the day. A message can be sent almost anywhere in the world by e-mail, and when you speak to someone on the other side of the globe by phone the clear voice you hear makes it seem that they are just along the road! With such effective means of communication available today, who would choose to spend time writing a letter that might take a number of days (or even weeks) to reach its destination?


Although it is so much slower, the personal letter does have one distinct advantage. It is something that can be treasured. The phone call is not usually recorded, and the precise words spoken can be forgotten. The speedy e-mail, transmitted electronically and appearing in printed form, is somewhat impersonal. But in a unique way the hand-written letter represents the individual who produced it. That personal touch is special. If the writer of the letter has a place in your affection, you may decide to keep their letter safe.


Paul wrote at least thirteen of the epistles in the New Testament. Nine of them were addressed to companies of believers, and four were sent to individuals. His letter to Philemon is one of these four and is the shortest of all Paul’s epistles preserved in Scripture. Because it is a personal letter that was apparently written simply to resolve a difficulty existing at that time, some have questioned its place in the canon of Scripture. As we consider it, I trust we will come to see that the letter does not deserve to be excluded on the grounds of being trivial. It is worthy of a place among all the other writings in God’s inspired Word.



By carefully examining the content, we can piece together the story behind the letter. Paul was writing from his prison cell to Philemon, an upper-class and well-to-do citizen of Colosse. It would appear that Philemon had been converted through Paul’s ministry, (v.19). Apphia (his wife) and Archippus (his son) lived with him, and the local church met in his spacious home, (v.2). The letter concerns Onesimus, a slave who belonged to Philemon, (v.16a). His name means profitable, but he certainly had not lived up to it! He had wronged his master – perhaps by stealing from him (v.18) and had then run away to a distant city, (v.15). Whether it was Rome, Ephesus, or some other great city, we are not told. Incredibly though, among the thousands in that city, Onesimus met Paul who knew Philemon well! Through Paul’s witness Onesimus was converted, the direction of his life changed, and he became profitable, (v.10-11). Because Onesimus still belonged to his master, Paul knew that really he should return to him. He therefore sent him back, appealing to Philemon to receive him as one who had been converted, (v.12a, 17).



Paul’s affection for Philemon is evident in this letter. Philemon means affectionate – and he was certainly true to his name. Paul loved this “fellow labourer” (v.1) whose home provided a meeting place for the local church. Obviously his wealth and status had not distanced him from the Lord’s people. The tense Paul uses in verse 5 suggests that he was still hearing evidence of Philemon’s love and faith  Not wanting Philemon’s spiritual life to reach some kind of plateau, Paul prayed “that the communication of thy faith may become effectual,” (v.6, KJV). Literally, Paul was praying that the fellowship of Philemon’s faith might become energetic. For our lives to be effective in this way, we also must first understand the “good” that has been brought to us by Christ Jesus, (v.6).         

Paul certainly valued Philemon as a friend – and told him so. The practical demonstration of Philemon’s love had brought great joy and comfort to Paul’s own heart – as well as to the hearts of others, (v.7). The saints had been “refreshed” by him. Encouragement is something we all need. Just as Paul told Philemon how much he appreciated his fellowship, we can encourage others too (without flattering them) by letting them know how they have helped us.



As an apostle, Paul could have used his authority to command Philemon. He could have written, in no uncertain terms, “Onesimus has been converted. I am an apostle, and I’m telling you that you must accept him.”  Instead, Paul’s appeal was gracious – and this is always a much better way to resolve an issue. Now an elderly man, and imprisoned for his faith in Christ Jesus, Paul made his appeal out of love. In his translation, J.N. Darby follows the word order found in the Greek text: “I exhort thee for my child, whom I have begotten in my bonds, Onesimus.” (v.10). The name of Onesimus is only disclosed at the end. Imagine what must have been passing through Philemon’s mind while he was reading the letter.  “Someone has been converted through Paul’s ministry … while Paul was in prison … and it’s Onesimus! What a surprise!”  In a sense Philemon had been caught off-guard and was completely disarmed. How wise of Paul to approach the matter in this way. 


Onesimus had already proved useful to Paul in gospel ministry, and the apostle really did not want to part with the new convert who had become dear to him. Knowing that Philemon was so willing to support the Lord’s work, Paul could have retained Onesimus for further service. Surely it would have pleased Philemon, far away, to think that one of his slaves was assisting Paul. (Philemon was too far away to help Paul himself.)  Paul, however, did not presume upon Philemon’s generosity. Without his consent Paul would not think of any such thing. Philemon must be motivated by love and must not act out of compulsion, (v.14). It is never a good idea to pressurize other people by making them feel guilty if they do not act in the way that we want.


In this letter we can also trace Paul’s awareness of the God’s Sovereignty. Onesimus had run away “for a while” that he might be received by Philemon “forever” (v.15, NKJV). God had intervened in his running away, had saved him, and had given him a new attitude with which to serve his master. Through the experience, Philemon could learn that “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose,” (Rom.8:28, KJV). Although he and his family had initially suffered loss (v.18a), God had brought good out of the situation. Can we trace God’s Sovereignty in our lives? Even the painful experiences that He allows can be over-ruled for our ultimate good, for the blessing of others, and for God’s own glory.




How commendably Paul acted! Just in case Philemon was reluctant to receive Onesimus in view of the losses he had incurred, Paul accepted personal responsibility for the debt. Taking the pen from the fingers of the scribe who was writing the dictated letter, Paul wrote with his own hand: “I will repay,” (v.19). We notice again Paul’s tact, for he does not specify the nature of Onesimus’ failings. Whether it was direct theft or careless handling of funds – Philemon would know. All too often we find pleasure in needlessly broadcasting the faults of others. When someone is truly repentant, how much better it is to keep quiet about their past faults.


Paul knew Philemon well (v.5) and had every confidence that he would be obedient to the Lord and do even more than Paul expected, (v.21). Was there, in Paul’s mind, the thought that Philemon might decide to release Onesimus so that he could serve with Paul in the work of the gospel as he had done already (v.13)? We can only speculate here. Whatever Paul had in mind, he was praying about the whole situation, (v.4).


In our work for the Lord, in our decisions, and as we await the outcome of some matter, we must never forget to pray. Philemon himself had been converted through Paul’s ministry and therefore, in a sense, owed his spiritual life to him, (v.19b). The man who had refreshed others (v.7) could now refresh the heart of Paul as well, (v.20b). If Onesimus was received by Philemon in the way that Paul would be received, the apostle would have “profit” (v.20 JND) as a result. Notice, however, that Paul only makes this confident appeal after declaring his own willingness to pay any outstanding debt. 




Although Paul’s primary purpose in writing to Philemon was to appeal for Onesimus (v.10), the epistle also furnishes us with a lovely illustration of our own salvation. In this respect Philemon, who owned the slave, represents God the Father; Paul is a picture of the Lord Jesus Christ; and in Onesimus we see a reflection of ourselves. The Lord is our Maker (Ps.95:6), and we belong to Him. Just as Onesimus refused his master’s authority and ran away, Eve listened to the voice of the serpent in the Garden of Eden and, with her husband, ran away and hid from the presence of the Lord God, (Gen.3:6,8). Mankind is still running away from God. Like Pharaoh, we challenge His claims upon us and daringly ask: “Who is the Lord, that I should obey His voice?” (Ex.5:2).


Paul loved his friend Philemon – a partner with him in the work of God, (v.1, 17a). The Lord Jesus also declared, “I love the Father,” (Jn.14:31). Between the Father and the Son a very close bond of fellowship existed, (Jn.14:9-10). Paul loved that runaway slave. The Lord Jesus loved lost mankind and saw humanity as sheep without a shepherd, (Mk.6:34). We have seen how Paul declared his willingness to pay Onesimus’ debt. Knowing that we had broken the law of God and deserved His punishment, the Lord Jesus willingly came and bore the curse of the broken law in our place, (Gal.3:10.13). Upon the cross He was “made sin for us” (2 Cor.5:21) and the triumphant cry uttered when He died declared that the work of redemption was complete. (See John 19:30.)  Paul wrote, “I will repay,” but the believing sinner knows that his debt has already been paid. Paul’s own handwriting declared his willingness to be held accountable, but the nail-pierced hands of our Saviour prove what He has already done.



If Paul gently had to persuade his friend Philemon to receive Onesimus, God the Father needs no such persuasion. When Paul asked Philemon to “receive” Onesimus as if it was Paul himself, the word he used meant to welcome him. God our Father gladly welcomes all who accept the work of Christ, the Mediator. Indeed, the Bible declares that believers are “accepted in the Beloved,” (Eph.1:6). Having wandered in the paths of sin for a while, we are received by the Father and saved for ever, (cf v.15). Eternal redemption is ours through the work of our Lord Jesus Christ atCalvary.



YET MORE      

Before leaving this epistle, yet more applications can be made. There are invaluable lessons in the lives of all these characters to help us in our own Christian service. Like Onesimus, the Lord wants us to be “useful” to Him. Perhaps, like Philemon, you have a home that can be used by the people of God. Paul was an opportunist. He redeemed the time and used his imprisonment to lead Onesimus to the Lord. In spite of his circumstances, he could still give thanks, (v.4a). If we knew the Lord in the personal way that Paul did, perhaps our lives would be more effective.


Let us not miss the other names. Epaphras, a “fellow prisoner”, was a faithful prayer-warrior, (Col.4:12), and Archippus a “fellow soldier” in the battle, (v.2). Mark and Luke, the two gospel writers, are mentioned in the same verse and evidently knew one another, (v.24). There is no thought of rivalry between them. Aristarchus and Demas both appear elsewhere in Scripture, and we can learn from them too. The Lord takes note of each one and wants us in our day to be “fellow labourers” in His harvest field.


So much more could be said about this little epistle, but what we have already considered should convince us (if we need convincing!) that this is no trivial letter. We can be thankful that these words written by Paul have been preserved for us. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, mentioned at its close, is still available too – to sustain us in all the varied experiences of our individual lives today.