Let’s Meet Philemon and Onesimus


Have you ever considered how a short note, a little letter, an email, or a text message could have lasting impact on those that receive it? That’s Philemon. It’s like a text message from Paul.

Of Paul’s letters, Philemon was the shortest he wrote (only 25 verses; 335 words). Philemon sits at the end of Paul’s 13 letters that are organized from longest to shortest. The longer letters were written to churches (Rome, Corinth, etc.) and the shorter ones were more pastoral and personal and written to specific people (e.g. Timothy, Titus, & Philemon).

I think it’s fair to say that in Paul’s greeting to Philemon we see things we are used to seeing in Paul’s greetings (vs.1-3).  We are used to seeing Paul’s name at the beginning of his letters. We usually sign our letters at the end, but this is how one wrote letters in the first century. We are used to seeing Paul include Timothy. Paul & Timothy were BFF’s. They likely met Philemon in Ephesus 10-years earlier when he came to faith under Paul’s ministry.  We are used to seeing Paul write from prison. Likely he is in Rome (or Ephesus). It’s where he also wrote the letters to the churches in Ephesus, Philippi and Colossae.  We are used to seeing a network of names to whom the letter is addressed. And we’re used to seeing Paul’s trademark greeting, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”.

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Paul addressed the letter to Philemon who lived in Colossae (modern-day Turkey). We don’t know a lot about him, but with a little detective work it is likely that he had sizable wealth (from a black wool business?). His wealth was seen in his home—it was big enough to host a small church and he had at least one house servant. Philemon likely funded part of Paul’s missionary journeys. And Paul refers to his generosity, hospitality, and good reputation. Philemon is just a good guy who shares his wealth and shares his faith. But their relationship went deeper than money as Paul considers Philemon a good friend, “a beloved fellow worker,” and a spiritual son (v.19). Paul gushes over Philemon like a sappy daddy (spiritual daddy).

Paul also mentions “Apphia our sister” (Philemon’s wife?) and “Archippus our fellow soldier” (Philemon’s son? and teacher). Paul seemed to know all of them both well (cf. Colossians 4:17). Philemon has a ‘family church’ thing going, but Paul doesn’t seem to have any concerns about that. He’s all smiles. What’s not to like when a family is following Jesus?

Although the letter was addressed to Philemon the bulk of the letter is about Onesimus. We do not know much about Onesimus either. We do know that he was Philemon’s slave, he committed some kind of crime, and ran away. Either he miraculous ended up in the same prison as Paul or it is more likely he found where Paul was being held (for preaching about Jesus) to ask for help. Paul not stifled by his circumstances continued preaching to his ‘captive audience’. Onesimus came to faith and Paul discipled him. As Paul learned Onesimus’ story he encouraged him go back and reconcile with his master, Philemon. So Paul sent him to Colossae with at least two letters in hand—a letter to the church in Colossae, in Philemon’s house, and another letter to Philemon himself. It was risky. Paul knew he may have sent Onesimus to his death sentence, but he also knew the kind of man Philemon was.

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Can you imagine being Onesimus on that long trip from prison to Colossae? (The fear, guilt, and shame?) Could you imagine being Philemon as he answers the door and sees Onesimus standing there with two letters in hand? (The anger, betrayal, and confusion?)

This is not just a letter or story. It’s a visual of how the gospel affects relationships. The beauty is that this letter is true. It wasn’t burned or shred, but framed for all the church to read for all time. It was preserved for you read. It may be the shortest of Paul’s letters but it is one of the most personal, gentle, simple, purposeful, and powerful you’ll ever read. As one commentator said, “It is infinitely precious.”

Stay tuned for more…

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