Summary: Philemon is a very short epistle (a postcard). But as short as it is, there are many great lessons we can learn from it.
Philemon was a member of the church in Colossae (cf. Col 4.9). He seems from our text to be somewhat wealthy; he was a slave-owner; it also seems that the church met in his house if those mentioned in verse 2 are members of his household as most assume. Philemon was a faithful servant of God, as we will see shortly.
Paul writes this epistle (postcard more like it!) because of his concern for Onesimus, his new brother in Christ, who is a slave of Philemon. Even though Paul wrote the letter to the Colossians at the same time; a letter that within it he gave instructions to slaves and masters, he still found it necessary to write this letter to Philemon.
Let’s get into the text.
02-07 Paul’s thoughts and prayers for Philemon
02 Philemon is referred to as his beloved and fellow laborer.
04 Paul begins this section of thanksgiving making mention of his prayers for Philemon.
05 Joy and thanksgiving warm his heart as he thinks of the good reports he is hearing about Philemon. He had heard of the example that Philemon was. It was an encouragement to him. He had an active love and faith towards his fellow Christians which was contagious to the other Christians in the congregation (Col 1.4).
06 His specific prayer for Philemon is that his faith would grow even more contagious towards the brethren. Up to this point, the brethren found refreshment from Philemon. Whenever they needed encouragement when weary, he would be there to do so.
07 As Paul had been delighted and encouraged by the accounts he had received of Philemon’s ministry, so he hoped for further delight and encouragement from Philemon’s response to his request that he will make regarding Onesimus.
08 Based on the accounts that he had heard about Philemon, Paul makes a plea for Onesimus; that Philemon would show that same love towards his runaway slave also.
Paul had every right as an Apostle to just command Philemon to accept Onesimus openly as a brother, but Paul didn’t see a need to do that.
02 The authoritative title of apostle is dropped, not because Paul has suddenly ceased to be an apostle, but because he has no intention of appealing to his apostolic authority. Paul instead refers to himself as a prisoner of Jesus Christ.
Nowhere else does Paul open a letter by referring to himself as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. Having to plead the cause of a slave, he begins by putting himself into a similar position as the bondman of Jesus Christ. He as the Lord’s bondsman he will plead for another bondsman whose story is the burden of this letter. No less than 6 times in this brief letter Paul makes reference to his imprisonment (1, 9, 10, 13, 22, and 23). Here is a captive pleading for a slave.
09 Paul rather out of love makes his appeal for Onesimus, trusting in the faith and love of Philemon to do what is right to do.
11 Paul makes a play on Onesimus’ name in this verse. Onesimus’ name means useful or profitable. He states to Philemon the absolute truth. There was a point when Onesimus was not living up to his name as a slave. It is quite possible before Onesimus ran away, which he did not have the right to do, that he actually stole from Philemon also (cf. v18) According to Roman law, Philemon could have had this runaway slave punished severely or even killed.
But now that the gospel had gotten a hold of Onesimus, it made one who was a useless servant into one who was very useful to the Lord, to Paul, and now to Philemon.
12-13 It seems that to this point Onesimus had become very useful/ helpful to Paul in his imprisonment. Paul states that sending him back to Philemon would be like sending his very heart to him. WOW. HE was very useful to Paul! How useful is your heart? So Paul sees what he is doing is making a sacrifice for the well being of the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus.
14 Paul seems to have preferred having Onesimus stay with him to minister to him in his efforts for the gospel, but he did not want to do so without consent from Philemon because as Philemon’s slave, Onesimus was actually his property. He did not want this to look like Philemon had to have Onesimus with Paul. Paul wanted it to seem that Philemon was being generous towards Paul in sending Onesimus to him by choice, but Paul was confident that Philemon would allow Onesimus to stay.
Paul had come to highly prize this runaway slave as a beloved brother, and he wanted Philemon to see this. Onesimus could be just as profitable to Philemon now as he was to Paul.