This is the shortest of Paul’s epistles with 1 chapter, 25 verses, and 430 words. It was written during the apostle’s first imprisonment in Rome in about 62 AD. Paul expected to be released from prison when he wrote this letter (Philemon 22). Philemon is the most neglected and overlooked of Paul’s epistles, but it contains many spiritual principles (e.g., brotherly love, Christian courtesy, forgiveness) and a spiritual picture of great doctrinal truth concerning salvation in Christ.
The books of the Bible are arranged according to divine order. It is fitting that this is placed at the end of Paul’s epistles. While it does not set forth doctrinal truth and practical exhortation in the same way that his other epistles do, it illustrates both through a real-life situation.
Paul referred to Philemon as his “dearly beloved, and fellowlabourer.” All that we know about Philemon is derived from this epistle. He was a believer (saved through Paul’s ministry, Philemon 19) that lived in Colosse (cf. Col 4:7-17) and was evidently a wealthy man because he had servants and a house large enough for the church to meet in. One of his servants, Onesimus, had run away and ended up in Rome. While in Rome, he meets the apostle Paul who leads him to the Lord (Philemon 10). Roman law permitted a master to execute a rebellious servant, but Philemon was a godly man and Paul was confident that he would forgive Onesimus and welcome him back not only as a servant, but as a brother in Christ.
Paul was a mediator between his new convert and his old friend. He does not command him as an apostle, but rather beseeches him as, “Paul the aged.” He writes with much feeling (“bowels” referred to 3 times, associated with heart, Jer 4:19; 2 Cor 6:11-12). He sent Onesimus back to his master with this letter in which he intercedes to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus. Onesimus also carried the epistle to the Colossians and possibly Ephesians (Col 4:7-9).
I. Greeting (Philemon 1-3)
II. Philemon character (Philemon 4-7)
III. Intercession for Onesimus (Philemon 8-21)
IV. Conclusion (Philemon 22-25)
The Scripture does not say that Philemon was a preacher, but he was what all believers should be – a “fellowlabourer” in the work of the ministry (“partner,” Philemon 17). The word “fellowlabourer” is associated with the word “fellowship.” Our fellowship should be centered around our labor for the Lord (Phil 1:4-5; 1 Thess 3:1-2). Notice also the terms “fellowsoldier” (Philemon 2) and “fellowprisoner” (Philemon 23). Ministry involves much more than preaching behind a pulpit. We need businessmen in the local church who like Philemon will be fellowlabourers in the ministry. Philemon was not too busy to serve the Lord! He served the Lord WITH his family (Philemon 2). His wife (Apphia) was spiritual enough to go along with allowing the church to meet in their house. His son (Archippus) was evidently a preacher (Col 4:17). A Christian home is more than a Christian family living in the same house. It is a Christian family living out their faith on a daily basis and serving the Lord together.
Why did Paul send Onesimus back to his master? Why didn’t he rebuke Philemon for having servants? Paul did not preach a social gospel. Slavery has existed in this world since the fall of man and still does today. The church has not been called to make the world a better place to go to hell from. We are called to get sinners saved out of this present evil world. If Paul would have told servants to run away it would have been against the law, endangered the servants, and worst of all it would have hindered the gospel. Paul considered the furtherance of the gospel to be much more important than his rights or even his life. For Paul, it was all about personal responsibility and not personal rights (1 Cor 7:20-24; 1 Tim 6:1-5). By sending Onesimus back to his master, Paul knew that he was not obeying the Law of Moses, which illustrates that in this age we are not under the law, but grace (Deut 23:15; Rom 6:14).
The word of God not only plainly states the truth, it also illustrates it through types and pictures. This little epistle provides us with a beautiful picture of salvation by grace. In this picture:
Onesimus represents lost sinners
Philemon represents God the Father
Paul represents God the Son
There are three great doctrinal truths concerning salvation by grace that are revealed and explained in Paul’s epistles that are illustrated by this real-life situation that took place between Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon.
Mediation (Philemon 10) — the truth that Christ is the mediator between God and man
Imputation (Philemon 18) — the truth that Christ took our sin and gives believers His righteousness
Identification (Philemon 17) — the truth that God now receives the believer as He does Christ
The name Onesimus means “profitable,” but in time past he had been an unprofitable servant to Philemon. Now that he was saved, he was profitable. Based on how he had served him in prison, Paul had confidence that Onesimus would be an excellent servant for Philemon (Col 3:22-24). Salvation not only changes our hereafter; it changes us here and now. Evidently, Onesimus desired to return to his master that he had wronged. Those that are right with God desire to be right with others. In time past, before salvation, we were unprofitable (Rom 3:10-19). But now, in Christ, we are made profitable (Rom 3:20-22; Eph 2; 1 Tim 4:8).
Just as Onesimus went back to his master’s house, this age will close when Christ takes us home to heaven.