(First of three: Philemon 1-7)
THE EPISTLE OF PHILEMON
1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved friend and fellow laborer, 2 to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4 I thank my God, making mention of you always in my prayers, 5 hearing of your love and faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints, 6 that the sharing of your faith may become effective by the acknowledgment of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus. 7 For we have great joy and consolation in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you, brother. 8 Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting, 9 yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you—being such a one as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ— 10 I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, 11 who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me. 12 I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, 13 whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel. 14 But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary. 15 For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, 16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. 17 If then you count me as a partner, receive him as you would me. 18 But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account. 19 I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay—not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides. 20 Yes, brother, let me have joy from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in the Lord. 21 Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. 22 But, meanwhile, also prepare a guest room for me, for I trust that through your prayers I shall be granted to you. 23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you, 24 as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow laborers. 25 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.
The apostle Paul who wrote this brief epistle was a tentmaker by trade. He might have been trained by his father in the family circle. He probably went through the training stages—of apprentice, journeyman, then master—having served under a master himself, perhaps his father. Paul would have agreed with Luther’s comment on the Fourth Commandment: “…that we do not despise our parents and masters…but give them honor…serve and obey them…and hold them in love and esteem.” We know those words well, and also realize that we have been in servitude to masters all through our lives. Think “schoolmaster” and “homework.”
His work involved making portable canvass shelters, also possibly portable enclosures for animals and shops for tradesmen.
This seems to have been the apostle’s main business, though a sideline business (so to speak) of persecuting Christians began to occupy much of his time. A member of the Jewish Council in Jerusalem, Saul (who would become Paul) had been a strict Pharisee of the tribe of Benjamin. He had no love for Christians.
That was the case until he met Jesus, who led him to take up another business. It had to do with homes, but it was mainly that of meeting in homes to talk to people about Jesus Christ, building them up in Him by conducting instruction classes and Communion services. In that way the apostle was “building” dwellings for God and believers, with the Word of God being his tools and building materials.
Paul seems to have met Philemon in Ephesus. Philemon later on moved to the city of Colosse with his family and servants and established a church in his home there.
The reason for this particular epistle (letter) is that one of the servants (Onesimus) had stolen some money or goods from Philemon’s house and ran away. He ended up in Rome—in the company of Paul in prison—and was there converted by Paul.
In this special letter Paul doesn’t jump right into the delicate matter of returning the slave, in spite of a sense of urgency. Rather, he begins with factors that will mean so much to a converted Onesimus; he refers back to the warm and generous spirit of Philemon and his family; he speaks of their love for the Lord Jesus, and His for them, and their willing service to Christ and to fellow-believers. They were homebuilders themselves!
It is this atmosphere which Onesimus needed. Paul felt he must send him back and dearly wished that Philemon would accept his return.
Paul doesn’t come across as a harsh taskmaster, but as a good master of his Christian profession. And we see that Philemon has somewhat of a reputation for being a kind and warm man—that’s what the name “Philemon” means—to all the believers in his area.
This name, and that home, will be the perfect tarp [tarpaulin, a durable protective covering] for Onesimus.