1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
Paul is believed to have written this letter whilst a prisoner in Rome and so his use of the term “prisoner of Christ” is not to be understood as a forced attachment to Christ but that he is a prisoner because of his relationship to and servant to Jesus himself. He attaches the name of Timothy as one who is a brother and is in agreement with this message. It is worthy of note that Paul does not refer to himself as “an apostle” which due to the nature of the letter is interesting. Paul could have asserted his position of authority in the church but instead he communicates as a friend and fellow worker. Those with any form of authority should note Paul’s method and realise that our requests of a brother or sister can be better made through the bond of friendship rather than authority.
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:
The letter is sent to Philemon “the name meaning affectionate or beloved” Colossians 4:9 indicates that Onesimus was from Colosse and we can therefore assume that Philemon was a resident of this city and was a man of considerable wealth and influence in the church in that region with a congregation meeting in his home. Archippus is also referred to in Colossians 4:17. Paul extends his letter to the church as a whole which acknowledges that Onesimus’s actions may have had a wider impact than just upon the household of Philemon and it also points to the fact that Onesimus is to be returned to “the church” as a brother in the Lord. We can assume the possibility that Apphia is the wife of Philemon and Archippus is either a son or other household member. It is also worth noting that the church met in “his home” and despite the financial ability to hire a building we find the Christians in the place of first beginings.
3. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul’s salutation that appears in other epistles, declares his desire for grace and peace to extend to the church.
4. 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.
Paul expresses his thanks to God for Philemon as he remembers him in prayer. How probable it was that Paul’s remembering of all the congregations that he had established was a constant source of inspiration for prayer and demonstrates his apostolic fatherhood of these churches established throughout the empire. He states that his thanks is stimulated by two things – “your faith in the Lord” and “your love for all the saints” – how wonderful that it is these two activities that promote his thanks and that these are the fulfilment of the law. Loving God and others.
Paul prays that Philemon may be active in sharing his faith, and that as a result of his active sharing he will have a full understanding of every good thing possessed in Christ. Other translations indicate that this active sharing is a expression of all the good things we have in Christ made know to others. The activity is not just a sharing of our faith verbally but an outward expression of our love and compassion to all. We know that Paul is addressing Philemon as in verse 7 he refers to “because you, brother” is in the singular.
Paul acknowledges Philemon’s love which has encouraged Paul and given him great joy and that he has refreshed the hearts of the saints. We should also note that Paul again does not revert to authority but continues with a conversation of friendship which is very positive and encouraging.
8. 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.
Paul hints that he could refer to his position of authority but that his appeal is on the basis of love for this is the relationship which Philemon has with Paul and the church. Paul approaches Philemon as “Paul” an old man and prisoner for Christ rather than “an Apostle”.
This should be a point of reference especially for church leaders and all servants of the Lord who can take example from Paul’s approach to Philemon.
Paul appeals to Philemon – In the original Greek the order of words would have been different. In the original, the name Onesimus comes last in the sentence. The order of the Greek is this: “I appeal to you for my son who became by son while I was in chains – Onesimus.” This order of words is important as Philemon would have been introduced to a son and a son converted by Paul himself. The appeal was for Paul’s son in the faith.
Onesimus whose name means “useful” is declared by Paul to have been useless but now useful to both Paul and Philemon. Paul states that prior to his conversion and whilst in the house of Philemon he was in fact useless and now having been converted he has become useful.
12. I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 13. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favour you do will be spontaneous and not forced. 15. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good— 16. no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.
Paul states that his intention is to send him back to Philemon, and this would be the legal requirement as Onesimus held the status of a slave. Therefore it only right that Paul send him back to his master. Yet paul indicates that he would be of assistance to Paul. Paul also indicates that Onesimus term of slavery may have been limited in years and therefore now on his return as a brother in the Lord this would go beyond the term.
Our understanding of this situation is greatly helped by an appreciation of slavery during this period and its relationship to the working of the Roman empire. When we hear the word slave we tend to think within our own time frame of history and personal experience. We think of “shackles slavery” best exemplified in the enslavement of the Black African. Yet this would lead us to a less than accurate view of slavery in the New Testament period.
The condition of slavery might result from war, piracy, exposure of a child, sale of a child, sale of self to pay debts, by order of the courts or birthing by a slave mother. The slave had not legal status and was regarded as a “thing”. Paul says that he sends back a “man”. The slave was able to earn an income and was therefore able to purchase their freedom.
17. So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. 20. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.
Paul asks Philemon to welcome Onesimus as he would welcome Paul and tempers this with an offer to make right any damages caused. Paul states that he writes this with his own hand and that he will pay back any loss caused by Onesimus but indicates that it was Paul who was instrumental in the salvation of Philemon.
Paul invites Philemon to bless him and enforces this invitation with an expectancy that goes beyond these requests.
22. And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.
Paul asks for a room to be prepared for him as he hopes to be able to return to the church in Colosse in answer to Philemon’s prayers. It is probable that Paul was referring to the first release from his imprisonment in Rome.
23. Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. 24. And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.
25. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.