Summary: The book of Philemon is about love, specifically about grace and forgiveness founded in love. God’s love can overcome the past.
A look at Onesimus
Paul is in prison
This is the first time that Paul was imprisoned at Rome (Acts 27 & 28). We believe that he was released from this prison sentence and worked for another four years or so before he was imprisoned in Rome again and executed.
The letter is written to a church leader in Colosse named Philemon (v.2). You can learn a lot more about this church by reading Colossians to see what kind of issues Paul addresses. We learn more about Philemon’s companions by comparing the names mentioned in Colossians which was delivered to that church at the same time.
Philemon is a man of demonstrated love, kindness, hospitality and generosity. We can tell this by reading verses 5, 7 and 20 - 22.
I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, 11who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me.
12I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart, 13whom I wished to keep with me, so that on your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel; 14but without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will.
15For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, 16no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
17If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me. 18But if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account; 19I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand, I will repay it (not to mention to you that you owe to me even your own self as well). 20Yes, brother, let me benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, since I know that you will do even more than what I say. (NASB)
The book of Philemon is about love, specifically about grace and forgiveness founded in love. Let’s look at the love theme by doing a fly-by of the book look closely at the following verses:
Verse Love Theme
1 Brother, Beloved, Fellow laborer
2 Beloved, Fellow Soldier
7 love, hearts
10 Child, begotten
16 brother, beloved
17 partner, accept
20 benefit, heart
23 fellow prisoner
24 fellow workers
All this surrounds a man named Onesimus. We learn from this book that Onesimus came to Paul in prison, he was converted and sent back by Paul.
Onesimus as we know him
• Onesimus is in need of mediation
• He is a new Christian
• He has a questionable past (18)
• He is a changed man
• He is entering a tense situation
16 & 17
• He is a slave
God can overcome the past
12 & 13
• He is close to Paul
• He has demonstrated a genuine change
• He is in the power of another (16)
• God’s hand is on his destiny
• He needs reconciliation with Philemon
16 & 17
• His relationship to his owner has undergone a radical transformation that Philemon has not yet recognized.
• His relationship to Philemon affects more than just the two of them.
• The issue was important enough to Onesimus’ welfare for Paul to intervene.
• There is nothing unique about his situation. He needed Christ just like others. (Philemon owed Paul his “own self?” Does this suggest that Philemon too became a Christian under Paul’s ministry?)
This is where the importance of comparing Philemon and Colossians becomes clearer. The degree of trust Paul has placed in Onesimus is more evident in Colossians 4:9 - Paul talks about other people on the “delivery team,” but personally described Onesimus as “faithful and beloved”
Finally we can look beyond the NT
The Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians
We may have evidence of even further development in Onesimus:
I received, therefore, your whole multitude in the name of God, through Onesimus, a man of inexpressible love, and your bishop in the flesh, whom I pray you by Jesus Christ to love, and that you would all seek to be like him. And blessed be He who has granted unto you, being worthy, to obtain such an excellent bishop. (Ignatius 1)
This first century letter describes a bishop of Ephesus who visited Ignatius in Rome while he was awaiting martyrdom. He may have been the same man.