The Epistle of Paul to Philemon, known simply as Philemon, is one of four prison letters. Co-authored by Paul the Apostle and Timothy around 60 – 63 AD in Rome, this letter is unlike Paul’s other letters in that he referred to himself as “a prisoner for Jesus Christ” rather than as an apostle with authority and to Timothy as “our brother”. Addressing Philemon — a leader of the Colossian Church — as a “fellow laborer” and “brother”, Paul wrote this letter on behalf of Onesimus — a runaway slave that Philemon owned and who may have wronged him.
While details are sketchy surrounding the circumstances of their first meeting, some scholars suggest that Onesimus may have been arrested and imprisoned alongside Paul. During their time together, Paul spoke to Onesimus of the love and forgiveness God has for all believers who have a changed heart. Having shared the Gospels with him and had personally witnessed his transformation, Paul referred to Onesimus’ conversion as a “new life blossoming in a once-dead heart” (Philemon 1:19). With Onesimus’ conversion being a significant, life changing event, Paul was compelled to celebrate and nurture this new life anyway he could.
With a growing affection between them, it would have been easy for Paul to keep Onesimus at his side. He thought it best, however, to send Onesimus back to Philemon along with this letter as a means of healing the relationship between them. Beautifully composed, Paul wrote this letter to appeal to Philemon’s reputation as a fellow believer. For the sake of love, Paul asked Philemon to receive Onesimus, not as a runaway slave, but rather as his “brother beloved” and to forgive him in the event he had done anything wrong (Philemon 1:11–14). Approaching the topic delicately and with great care, Paul presented Onesimus to Philemon as a man transformed. Once a slave of sin, Onesimus had surrendered to the love and forgiveness he found in Christ. Now free from sin, Onesimus was now his equal. Aware that his request required sacrifice on Philemon’s part, Paul wrote “I am confident as I write this letter that you will do what I ask and even more” (Philemon 1:21).
This letter serves as not only as a model of Christian courtesy among believers with a tangible example of Christian love, but also as a reminder of the significance of Christian conversion. More specifically, Paul’s message is powerful. First and foremost, it reminds us that God wants an intensely personal relationship with each of us regardless of the struggles we face, the sins we have committed, and the station in life we hold. Further, more than any of Paul’s writings, this letter reveals the sheer depth of God’s love. Through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, believers with a “changed heart” are offered the same extraordinary gift Onesimus received…undeserving grace and forgiveness in which to heal and begin a brand new life. Like Onesimus, we are all enslaved by sin. It’s in our nature… and yet… we are given ample opportunity to surrender our selves and our lives to Christ’s love and forgiveness. In believing and in accepting this precious gift, our sins are forgiven, thereby freeing us to create a new life.
Once given love and forgiveness, what will you do with this gift and with this brand new life? Will you pay it forward as Paul did to Onesimus, or keep it to yourself? Through our daily actions and words, each of us have an opportunity to touch the lives of all the Onesimuses of this world, however big or small. Admittedly something I still need to work on, I have come to know that in extending the same love and forgiveness to others that we have received in Christ demonstrates to the world in very real and tangible ways just how powerful our lives have been transformed for the better.
- Introduction (Verses 1-3). Theses verses indicate that Paul and Timothy wrote this letter during Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. Like other Epistles, this one begins with a prayer asking for great blessings in the form of grace and peace from God and Christ.
- Prayer for Philemon (Verses 4-7). In these verses, Paul demonstrates the reality of his prayer, praying for Philemon in the same way all Christians should pray for each other. Knowing the faithfulness of other Christians have in praying for us serves as motivation to pray. In this instance, having heard that Philemon believed in and loved the Lord and all His saints, Paul prayed that Philemon and other Christians would grow spiritually as they prayed for their brethren. With this prayer, Paul had great consolation in the character of Philemon and in that of other Christians.
- Intercession of Paul on Behalf of Onesimus (Verses 8-22). Paul begins by asking Philemon to accept Onesimus back as an equal and beloved Christian brother in Christ rather than as a runaway slave. More specifically, Paul appealed to Philemon for the sake of love, citing that Onesimus had surrendered his life to Christ and is ready to be of service to him. Paul continued by saying he found consolation and joy in knowing that his request to forgive Onesimus would be honored.
- Salutation (Verses 23-24). Paul closes the letter by addressing fellow prisoners and laborers in Christ, praying for much grace from our Lord Jesus Christ.