Summary: A study on the unique letter from Paul to Philemon "requesting" the forgiveness of his returning runaway slave Oneisimus.
The letter to Philemon is sandwiched in between Titus and Hebrews, it is one of a small group of personal letters that Paul wrote. Surely there were more of these but these are the ones in our Bible. They are grouped together and include 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. All of Paul’s teaching letters were sent to churches in certain cities or provinces, but these four letters are directed to specific individuals. So they may give us a more personal view of Paul in everyday life.
Paul wrote the letter to Philemon in approximately 57-60A.D. probably during his first imprisonment in Rome. This letter was written at about the same time that he wrote his letters to the church at Ephesis (Ephesians) and to the church at Colosse (Colossians).
This is a letter written to Philemon by Paul who is accompanied by Timothy at this time.
The recipient is Philemon an influential member of the Church at Colosse in Asia Minor.
The letter is addressed to Philemon, his wife Apphia, and Archippus who was either a son or another influential member of the local church.
The subject of the letter is a runaway slave named Oneisimus who had ‘apparently’ stolen some money or things of worth from Philemon, his master, and fled to Rome where he could blend in with the large population and not be easily found. Somewhere in his travels he became involved with Paul and the Christian Church in Rome. It is apparent that he became a believer and a much loved co-worker with Paul.
1-3 The Greeting
“Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker, (2) to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home: (3) Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (NIV)
Paul identifies himself and mentions Timothy who may have been Paul’s scribe.
Addresses Philemon as a “dear friend and fellow worker” which shows there was a warm personal relationship already established between Philemon and Paul.
For Archippus he uses the term “fellow soldier” which is the term he used for Epaphroditus in Philippians 2:25. Fellow soldier and fellow worker would be interchangeable. Again showing that this was a man of Christian influence.
Verses 4-7. Prayer and thanks
“I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, (5) because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. (6) I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. (7) Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.” (NIV)
Paul reminds Philemon that he is thankful to God for him because, even in Rome he has heard of Philemon’s faith in Jesus Christ and his love for the believers.
Paul prays that Philemon will be active in sharing the faith. To us this would sound like witnessing or preaching. Being active, “so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.”
Again Paul mentions the joy and encouragement he has received because Philemon has refreshed the hearts of the saints. (Probably both spiritually, financially and physically)
Now, if you were going to write a letter to someone requesting a huge favor wouldn’t you use a beginning format like this? A warm greeting, a prayer of thanksgiving for them which builds them up and encourages them to read the remainder of the letter with warmth and a smile in their heart.
“Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, (9) yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I then, as Paul--an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus—(10) I appeal to you for my son Onesimus,* who became my son while I was in chains. (11) Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.” (NIV)
Paul continues by saying he could use his authority as an Apostle to order Philemon to do what he asks. (Note that he doesn’t, but the fact that it has been written puts the idea in Philemon’s head anyway)
But instead he appeals on the basis of love. “I then as Paul, an old man and now also a prisoner for Christ Jesus----I appeal to you for my son Onesimus.
Who became my son while I was in chains.”
Note how Paul is using psychology by still referring to his own sufferings while bringing up the subject of the run away slave.