Summary: No longer a slave.
AN OPEN LETTER
Onesimus was a slave who had escaped from his Christian master, Philemon. Yet in a beautiful irony, having not ‘made it’ alone in the big city, he found himself at last brought under the direct personal influence of “Paul the prisoner” (Philemon 1:1). Many a runaway has found that, when all else fails, the only true freedom is found in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
At first glance the Epistle to Philemon appears to be a personal letter between the Apostle Paul and a believer called Philemon who happens to have a church meeting in his house. However, this personal letter is an open letter written between churches within the public domain. It is from Paul and those with him (Philemon 1:1; Philemon 1:23-24) to “Philemon our beloved and fellow-labourer, to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow-soldier, and to the church in your house” (Philemon 1:1-2).
This is significant, because it demonstrates that the conversation between Paul and Philemon is not only a private matter, but a private matter which must be resolved in the context of the church. Looked at that way it can be a paradigm for the restoration of a straying family member, as with the Prodigal son; or for the receiving of a non-deserving adherent, who is nevertheless now converted, into the wider fellowship of the church; or for the reinstatement of a backslider. Whatever Philemon decides will impact those around him.
The Greeting embraces both Greek and Hebrew blessings. Philemon is reminded of God’s Grace, His undeserved favour in his own life. The Peace is invoked (cf. Luke 10:5). All in the name of “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philemon 1:3).
The Apostle opens his message with thankfulness to God for Philemon, constantly making mention of him in his prayers (Philemon 1:4). Paul celebrates Philemon’s love and faith towards the Lord Jesus and towards all the saints (Philemon 1:5). As in Colossians, love born of faith is the mark of true Christianity (cf. Colossians 1:4; Colossians 1:8).
The effect of this love is “that the sharing of your faith may become effectual in acknowledgement of every good which is in (you) towards Christ Jesus” (Philemon 1:6). Paul and his companions have great joy and consolation, knowing that “the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you, brother” (Philemon 1:7). All this is by way of preamble to Paul’s unusual request.
Rather than insisting upon his apostolic authority (Philemon 1:8), Paul suggests that it is “for love’s sake” that Philemon should hear Paul’s appeal. The Apostle styles himself as “Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ” (Philemon 1:9), reminding Philemon of the limitations of the Apostle’s own freedom. Paul makes his appeal for “my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my chains” (Philemon 1:10).
The meaning of the name Onesimus is ‘Useful’. Paul asks that Philemon would receive back the once useless but now useful Onesimus (Philemon 1:11). Paul is sending him back “as my own heart” (Philemon 1:12), refusing to take advantage of the situation (Philemon 1:13-14).
There is no compulsion, suggests Paul (Philemon 1:14) - but perhaps Onesimus departed for a while just so that you might receive him for ever (Philemon 1:15). The subversive element comes in with Paul’s suggestion that Onesimus be received “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave” (Philemon 1:16).
Yet when we are called to freedom, it is not to do as we might have hitherto wished. Probably the hardest thing that Onesimus would ever do was to ‘turn himself in’ to his master. The Empire had shown itself ruthless against escaped slaves in the past: but Paul encouraged Philemon to receive Onesimus back no longer as a slave, but as a brother (Philemon 1:16).
“If then you count me as a partner,” suggests Paul, then “receive him as you would receive myself” (Philemon 1:17). The significance of this gesture is seen when we consider that WE are received into the presence of GOD as if we were Jesus Himself. The LORD is of holier eyes than to behold evil (cf. Habakkuk 1:13), but the Father looks not upon us, but upon the Christ who indwells us, in whose righteousness we are clothed.
Our Saviour says as Paul here says: “If he has wronged you, or owes you anything, put that on my account” (Philemon 1:18)! Paul adds, “I will repay - not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides” (Philemon 1:19). By receiving him Philemon will refresh the heart of Paul (Philemon 1:20).
Although he has not demanded it, Paul is confident that Philemon will be “obedient” - knowing that Philemon will do even more than Paul says (Philemon 1:21). In the church, at least, there is ‘neither bond nor free’ (Galatians 3:28).