Paul’s Letter to Philemon is unique among all of his writings because it is a private letter addressed to an individual. While we would not assume this was Paul’s only private letter, it is the only one which has survived and been incorporated into the New Testament Canon.
This letter is also a powerful demonstration of the grace of God. It shows the power of God to change lives and to make people new in Christ.
Over the next few days we will look at this letter.
Let me give you a quick overview.
Philemon is one of Paul’s prison epistles (Philippians, Ephesians, and Colossians are the other three). Paul wrote these epistles while imprisoned in Rome about AD 60-62. Acts 28 gives the background for the imprisonment and the epistles that came from it.
While we are only reading one side of the communication, the following seems to have been the setting for the letter.
While Paul was a prisoner at Rome, Onesimus, a slave of Philemon escaped and stole from his master. Philemon seems to have been a part of the church at Colossae. In the providence of God, Onesimus made his way to Rome ( probably with the money he had stolen from his master) and miraculously met Paul.
At the witness of Paul, Onesimus trusted Christ and was saved. That event left Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon with a dilemma. Should Onesimus return to his master? Should he stay with Paul? What would Philemon do?
Paul’s letter reflected the answer. Onesimus would return. Paul wrote to Philemon to ask that he receive the slave who had runaway and stolen from him not as a slave but as a brother.
The name Onesimus means “profitable” in Greek. Paul made his name a pun. He who had been “unprofitable” to Philemon had become very “profitable” as he ministered to Paul. Paul asked that Philemon receive him and possibly to send him back to Paul to minister.
Tomorrow we will look at the power of the Gospel demonstrated in the lives of Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus. I encourage you to read the letter each day as we look at this remarkable message.