In a book of the Bible containing just 25 verses you might expect that it had little to offer in Biblical truth. But the opposite is the case. We have in these few verses an example of true repentance and a subsequent possibility of reconciliation.
The story involves a slave who escaped from his master and later became a Christian believer. In the providence of God he came into contact with the apostle Paul and their friendship enriched both their lives. However Paul believed that this slave Onesimus had unfinished business as a runaway slave. He felt he should return to his master.
This is the background to the letter he wrote to Philemon, the master in question. It urged Philemon to receive him back not as a slave but as a Christian brother. The letter provides a clear understanding of the need for forgiveness from God and the way repentance and faith opens the door for that to happen. Forgiveness from God should lead to the forgiveness of one another.
The Greeting. Verses 1 to 3
In this greeting we read that Paul is joining with Timothy in writing to Philemon. He addresses Philemon as a beloved fellow worker and also includes in the greeting “Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier” as well as the members of the church who met in Philemon’s home.
His greeting is similar to that in many of his other epistles, 3 “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Philemon’s Example of Love and Faith Blessed Others. Verses 4 to 6
Paul praised God for Philemon’s faith and love, 4 “I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints.” Philemon had not only come to love God but he allowed his love to flow through to his fellow saints.
Paul also prayed for Philemon’s sharing of his faith that it would impact those around him in positive ways. Especially that they might know all the good that they had in Christ in their commitment to Him. 6 “and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.”
The Blessing Philemon Had Been To Paul. Verse 7
7 “For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.” Philemon’s love had blessed Paul because he had heard of the impact Philemon was having amongst believers. Their hearts had been refreshed through him. [NOTE1].
Paul’s Plea for Onesimus. Verses 8 to 21.
Paul’s letter to Philemon had a deeper purpose. It was to bring an appeal to Philemon rather than a command. 8 “Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, 9 yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus—10 I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment.”
Philemon knew who Onesimus was. He had been a slave to Philemon but had escaped and run away. In the providence of God he came into contact with Paul and been converted to Christ. Not only that but their love for each had grown deeply so that Paul called him “my very heart.” [verse 11].
Paul’s description of Onesimus was very generous. He described him as being formerly “useless “to Philemon but through his conversion had become “useful” to Paul and to Philemon. 11 (“Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.”) [NOTE 2]. However, Paul believed that Onesimus should return to Philemon even though he would feel his loss deeply. 12 “I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart.”
Paul had been faced with a difficult decision. Should he keep Onesimus with him or should he send him back to Philemon. As he explained, 13 “I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord.”
Paul realised that God had over-ruled so that Onesimus had come under his influence and been won to Christ. But he believed that he should send Onesimus back to his former master, 15 “For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever. 16 no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” What Paul is doing here is urging Philemon to forgive Onesimus and to bring him into fellowship as a full brother in Christ and not receive him back as an errant runaway slave.
In fact, he wants Philemon to offer Onesimus the same sort of reception he would give to Paul himself as a brother in Christ. 17 “So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me.“ But past sins ought to be addressed and not ignored. Onesimus was in Philemon’s debt. However, Paul has a solution he puts to Philemon, 18 “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self.” Paul was willing to cover any debt that Onesimus might owe to Philemon, if indeed Philemon wanted repayment of what was owed him. Paul added a subtle reminder. Philemon was actually in Paul’s debt. He owed his new life as a believer to Paul who had led him to Christ.
As Paul concludes his letter he asks a favour of Philemon with the confidence that Philemon will do far more than Paul is asking for. 20 “Yes, brother, I want 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 say. “
Paul fully expects that Philemon will indeed receive Onesimus back as a beloved brother in Christ. That would refresh Paul’s heart. [NOTE 3]
These few verses in this letter to Philemon reveal a lot about Paul, Philemon and Onesimus. We have Paul sharing his heart with Philemon in what Philemon meant to him. But he also shared his heart about a runaway slave whom he had brought to Christ. Add this was happening while Paul was in prison.
Philemon seemed to be a faithful godly man who gathered believers into his home to instruct them. As a result they had been refreshed by his faith and his love.
Onesimus had been blessed by God in coming into contact with Paul in prison. He had been converted to Christ and stayed near Paul in order to serve him. He finally fulfilled the meaning of his name by becoming “useful” rather than remaining useless.
Throughout the letter God’s gracious ministry to humans is recorded and the possibility of being refreshed by Him as we seek to remain faithful to Him, is evident.
[NOTE 1]. “Hearts” here is from [splagchnon; σπλάγχνον] which can mean the bowels or intestines which was seen as the source of deep emotions, often translated as “compassion.”
“Refreshed” is from [anapauō; ἀναπαύω] meaning to take rest or to be refreshed. In other words those who been ministered to by Philemon felt spiritually deeply refreshed as a result of his ministry.
[NOTE 2]. Onesimus’ name means “useful.” But he had not been useful to Philemon in perhaps stealing from him and running away. “Useless” is from [achrēstos; ἄχρηστος] which is the opposite of chrēstos meaning useful. However now as a believer, Onesimus had become “useful” or profitable [euchrēstos; εὔχρηστος] where the [eu] means good or well or profitable.
[NOTE 3]. ‘Refresh” here is the same word as in verse 7. As Philemon had refreshed the saints around him, Paul expects his own heart to be refreshed as Philemon obeyed his wishes and accepted Onesimus in brotherly love.
Blog No.412 posted on Wednesday 03 August 2022.