The book of Philemon is Paul’s shortest letter and is co-authored with Timothy. They are penning the letter to Philemon who was a well-to-do slave owner that hosted a first-century church out of his home. Philemon had met Paul on an earlier mission where he became a follower of Jesus.
Onesimus was a slave to Philemon and happens to be the reason for the letter. Onesimus and Philemon had a falling out and Onesimus ran away. He ended up in prison with Paul and under Paul’s teaching, Onesimus also became a follower of Jesus and a friend. Through the relationship that developed, Paul became aware of the issue between Philemon and Onesimus so he writes this letter to not only restore Onesimus, but offers a plea for Philemon’s radical forgiveness.
Paul opens the letter in verse 4 reminding Philemon of their relationship. “4 I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. 6 I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. 7 Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.” Pay close attention to verse 6 here. “ I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ.”
Paul is setting himself up for what he knows is going to be a difficult request. Verses 8-10 “Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus,[b] who became my son while I was in chains.
Paul goes on in verses 13-14 to tell Philemon that he would prefer to keep Onesimus with him but is sending him back because he knows it is the right thing to do. Verses 15-17 Paul gets to his plea, “Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever—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 fellow man and as a brother in the Lord. So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.”
Paul has given Philemon a chance to practice radical forgiveness and then immediately moves to the gospel in action in verse 18. “If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.”
Paul is practicing for Onesimus just as Jesus has done for you and I. He has opted to take the punishment that we deserve for total restoration. This complete restoration can only be found through Jesus Christ.
Let’s apply this letter to our lives. First, be motivated by love to walk with others toward restoration. Second, practice radical forgiveness to the fullest.