Read Philemon 1 (The Message)
I, Paul, am a prisoner for the sake of Christ, here with my brother Timothy. I write this letter to you, Philemon, my good friend and companion in this work—also to our sister Apphia, to Archippus, a real trooper, and to the church that meets in your house. God’s best to you! Christ’s blessings on you! 4-7 Every time your name comes up in my prayers, I say, “Oh, thank you, God!” I keep hearing of the love and faith you have for the Master Jesus, which brims over to other believers. And I keep praying that this faith we hold in common keeps showing up in the good things we do, and that people recognize Christ in all of it. Friend, you have no idea how good your love makes me feel, doubly so when I see your hospitality to fellow believers. 8-9 In line with all this I have a favor to ask of you. As Christ’s ambassador and now a prisoner for him, I wouldn’t hesitate to command this if I thought it necessary, but I’d rather make it a personal request.
10-14 While here in jail, I’ve fathered a child, so to speak. And here he is, hand-carrying this letter—Onesimus! He was useless to you before; now he’s useful to both of us. I’m sending him back to you, but it feels like I’m cutting off my right arm in doing so. I wanted in the worst way to keep him here as your stand-in to help out while I’m in jail for the Message. But I didn’t want to do anything behind your back, make you do a good deed that you hadn’t willingly agreed to.
15-16 Maybe it’s all for the best that you lost him for a while. You’re getting him back now for good—and no mere slave this time, but a true Christian brother! That’s what he was to me—he’ll be even more than that to you. 17-20 So if you still consider me a comrade-in-arms, welcome him back as you would me. If he damaged anything or owes you anything, chalk it up to my account. This is my personal signature—Paul—and I stand behind it. (I don’t need to remind you, do I, that you owe your very life to me?) Do me this big favor, friend. You’ll be doing it for Christ, but it will also do my heart good. 21-22 I know you well enough to know you will. You’ll probably go far beyond what I’ve written. And by the way, get a room ready for me. Because of your prayers, I fully expect to be your guest again.
23-25 Epaphras, my cellmate in the cause of Christ, says hello. Also my coworkers Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke. All the best to you from the Master, Jesus Christ!
Who are the major players?
Paul – an apostle of Jesus Christ and the writer of this letter. Paul, while not the founder of the Colossian Church, had visited there and obviously had a great deal of influence and leadership.
Philemon – a member of the Colossian church, more than likely wealthy, and host of a “house church.” Known to be a kind, loving, and generous person.
Onesimus – a useless slave of Philemon, who had not only run away, but had more than likely stolen property from his master, Philemon.
Onesimus was a runaway slave and more than likely a thief. The punishment for a runaway slave was varied and often severe. If he were to return (or be returned) his transgressions could lead Philemon, his owner, to inflict beating, imprisonment, branding and even death upon him. For Philemon to be reunited with his slave and accept him as a brother in Christ and treat him as such (without any punishment), would truly be possible only through incredible grace and mercy shown.
Paul, while imprisoned in Rome (house arrest – able to receive friends and visitors), had met Onesimus and more than likely led him to the Lord. As he discipled Onesimus, Paul obviously was struck by Onesimus’ heart for God and for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For a “slave” and a new believer to trust Paul enough to return to his former master showed the incredible faith of Onesimus had in not just Paul, but in his Savior. Obviously, Paul knew that Onesimus, now a Christ-follower, must return to his master to make things right. So, confident that Philemon would receive Onesimus as a brother in Christ rather than a slave, he gave Onesimus a letter to give to Philemon. However, even though Paul was hopeful all would go well with this “re-uniting,” he used his influence to create the best scenario possible for this meeting:
What Philemon would have to do to receive Onesimus as a brother, rather than a slave:
We have no Biblical record of what happened when Onesimus returned.
It is interesting however, that Paul did hint that he would visit when he was able (vs. 22 - And by the way, get a room ready for me. Because of your prayers, I fully expect to be your guest again). Perhaps Paul thought this might give Philemon the final “push” to accept Onesimus as a brother. How would it look if Paul showed up and Philemon, a leader the church, had not taken heed of Paul’s encouragement?
It is possible however, that Onesimus became a bishop of the province of Asia.
Church history tells us that 50 or 60 years later, in a letter written to the Christians at Ephesus by the Christian martyr Ignatius, the name Onesimus appears again – this time as a highly-regarded bishop in the province of Asia.
Where is your standing with Christ?
Do you realize that no matter your past - you are offered eternal life – equality with all mankind who also believe in the Name of Jesus Christ?
So… Onesimus – a former slave leading the church of Asia?
You – a child of God – brother of Jesus – home for the Holy Spirit of God - literally a partaker of the Divine?
The letter to Philemon illustrates the power of forgiveness - this is the beauty of Christ – the beauty of the Bible – the glory of the Church – the story of grace and mercy.
What will you do with this story?
God is calling you today, urging you today and making possible for you today to receive and give Christ’s unlimited, unrequited love and forgiveness for yourself and in turn granting it to all.