(1-3) Although Paul’s letter to Philemon appears last in his New Testament letters, it was written earlier, while he was in prison for preaching the good news. He addressed this letter to Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus who were part of a wealthy family who hosted the young church in their home Colossae. He offered them the grace and peace that comes through the Trinity.
(4-7) Paul was encouraged by what he had been hearing about the young church, offering thanksgiving for the good things that were happening. Philemon’s family was a model of hospitality and charity toward the young church.
Beloved, generosity is evidence of how deeply you have been touched by the love of my Son. Your own faith grows stronger as you share in both word and action and as your faith matures, your knowledge about the goodness of my kingdom also grows. Furthermore, as you align your manner of life with the faith that has been growing in you, it encourages and comfort other believers.
(8-10) After mentioning his encouragement, Paul moved on to his central concern about the status of a young slave named Onesimus who had run away from Philemon’s home. Slavery was still common in the Greek and Roman world, and although Philemon was a believer, he was also a slave holder.
Paul differentiated believe between demand and appeal. As a spiritual leader, Paul could have demanded Philemon to free Onesimus, but he employed a higher relational ethic, exchanging power for love, and demand for invitation. By appealing to Philemon’s humanity, he also prompted Philemon to recognize Onesimus’s humanity at a deeper level.
Let love be your driving motivation, remembering your interdependence. Paul used familial language, describing Onesimus as his child, clearly more than a pawn for advancing the kingdom.
(11) Onesimus had been transformed by love and was eager to share the good news of my Son. Paul pointed out that he was helpful to the gospel cause, which benefitted not only Paul, but also Philemon and indeed the whole church.
(12-14) Both Paul and Onesimus took a risk in writing to Philemon. Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon, even though Onesimus had become a welcome companion and eager servant of the gospel, yet Paul hoped that by appealing to Philemon’s transforming heart, Onesimus might be received with joy and welcome rather than in a spirit of anger. Paul wanted Philemon to recognize the dignity of all people rather than feeling pressured to conform because Paul said so.
Love is always a better motivator than control. Too often, those who hold positions of power use manipulation and demand to get their way, but that has no lasting effect. Love that recognizes the dignity in others lasts forever.
(15-16) Paul pointed out that Onesimus’s escape and coming into his service may have been what was necessary for true brotherly love to emerge. He was not in bondage to Paul but stayed with him in freedom and love.
Beloved, sometimes relationships break down in ways that make no sense. When people leave, you will be confused but search your heart. How have you treated others? Are you open to reconciliation in love, rather than continuing to hold grudges?
(17) Knowing that Philemon held him in high regard. Paul asked Philemon to receive Onesimus as if he were receiving him. Onesimus was an escaped slave while Paul was a leader in the early church but in my kingdom, their status was no different.
(18-20) In a true act of charity, Paul offered to settle any debt that Onesimus owed, hoping to remove any residual reason that Philemon might have for hesitating to set him free. He signed the promise of repayment with his own hand and told Philemon that how he received Onesimus could be a fresh encouragement to him.
(21) Paul was confident that love would transform Philemon’s heart. My Son’s lavish grace begets grace that goes well beyond expectation.
(22) Paul also hoped that he might be released and could visit Philemon, worshiping with the young church there, including Philemon, Onesimus, and the entire congregation.
(23) Finally, Paul sent greetings from those of the wider church—Epaphras, who was in prison with Paul, as well as Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, who had all been touched by the grace of my Son.