In studying the short letter to Philemon, we’ve looked at the central players of Paul (the author), Philemon (the recipient), and Onesimus (the subject).
There are also brief mentions of eight others: Timothy, Apphia, Archippus, Epaphras, Aristarchus, Luke, John-Mark, and Demas.
The foundational character, however, is Jesus. He is mentioned more often than any other in this letter, a total of six times.
The reality is that without Jesus, none of this matters. He is the ultimately the reason why this letter was written and he is the reason why each person was mentioned.
Without Jesus, Paul would not have been a missionary; without Jesus, Onesimus would have no desire to return to his master; and without Jesus, Philemon would have no reason to show mercy and offer forgiveness. And it is because of Jesus that each of the eight other characters are worthy of inclusion.
Jesus is the reason for the letter to Philemon — and the entire Bible. Without him, nothing else really matters.
The focus of Paul’s letter to Philemon is Onesimus, the runaway slave. Ironically, Onesimus means “useful.”
After Onesimus flees, he encounters Jesus through Paul. Paul mentors Onesimus and the two begin working together. However, it is not right for Onesimus to remain with Paul — even though what they are doing is important. To do so would be to defraud Philemon of Onesimus’s labor.
So Paul encourages Onesimus to return to his master, despite the risk it involves. A recaptured slave could have been punished or imprisoned for an attempted escape. To facilitate a positive reunion, Paul writes a letter to Philemon, pleading that mercy be accorded Onesimus.
While we don’t explicitly know the outcome of this drama, we can reasonably deduce it.
First, Paul’s petition on Onesimus’s behalf is so powerfully worded that it is hard to image anyone not complying.
Second, in the only other mention of Onesimus in the Bible, Paul announces that he is sending Tychicus and Onesimus to the people of Colossi. Paul also affirms Onesimus as being faithful and a dear brother. Since this trip could not have reasonably occurred prior to Onesimus returning to Philemon, it can be safely assumed that Philemon did as Paul requested, allowing Onesimus to return to Paul to work with him on Philemon’s behalf. This would put Onesimus in a position to take a trip to Colossi.
At last Onesimus can be useful indeed — to both Paul and Philemon, as well as to the Colossians and to God. This all happened because he did the right thing, returning to his master despite the risk.
While Philemon is the recipient of the letter that bears his name, Paul is the author. We know a great deal about Paul, as he is mentioned over 250 times* in the Bible, mostly in the book of Acts, but also in the letters that he wrote, as well as once by Peter. Only Jesus is mentioned more frequently.
From these mentions, we know Paul to be a missionary, a church leader, a church planter, a mentor, and a teacher. In the book of Philemon, we also see him emerge as an influencer to reconcile and restore broken relationships.
Reconciliation was the reason for Paul writing his letter to Philemon. Paul’s desire was to see Onesimus and Philemon’s estranged relationship made right. Paul encouraged both of them to the right thing: for Onesimus to return to his master regardless of risk and for Philemon to welcome him back without penalty.
Paul was able to assume this role of reconciler because he had a personal relationship with both parties. This history gave him a credibility that an outsider would have lacked, allowing him to positively influence them both.
If you, like Paul, are in relationship with two estranged people, should your role be to encourage them to pursue reconciliation? If you’re not sure, talk to God about it. He may have put you in that position for this very reason.
*The name Paul occurs a total of 239 times: 183 in Acts; 55 in his letters, and once in 2 Peter 3:15. Additionally, his original name, Saul, is mentioned 29 times, all in Acts.
In the story surrounding Paul’s letter to Philemon, there are three central characters: Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus. Since the letter is written to Philemon, let’s talk about him first.
Despite having a letter written to him, Philemon is only mentioned by name once in the Bible. It is in the book that bears his name.
Paul calls Philemon a “dear friend” and a “fellow worker” (v1). The church also meets in his house (v2). This doesn’t mean that Philemon is the leader of the church, but merely implies that he has the biggest house, thereby providing the most room for people to meet. By virtue of owning the biggest house, it is likely that Philemon is also wealthy. Additionally, Paul notes the Philemon loves others (v5) and is an encourager (v7).
Philemon also has a slave. However, we need to be careful not to vilify Philemon for this. Historians tell us that unlike forced enslavement today, much of the slavery 2,000 years ago was voluntary. Desperate people would voluntarily opt for slavery as a means of survival, either to pay off an insurmountable debt or to avoid starvation. Taking on a voluntary slave could therefore even be seen as an act of mercy. Though we don’t know the exact circumstances between Philemon and Onesimus, what we do know is that Onesimus ran away, leaving Philemon without his services.
Philemon was wronged. Will he seek retaliation or give forgiveness? Will he pursue justice or offer mercy?
Before these questions are answered, however, we must first looks at Paul’s role and Onesimus’s response, which will be in the next two posts.
The short, often overlooked book of Philemon is tucked towards the end of the New Testament, nestled between letters to Titus and to the Hebrews.
Philemon is a letter written by Paul to his friend Philemon about a man of mutual interest, Onesimus.
The short version is that Onesimus is a slave who runs away from his master, Philemon. Onesimus meets Paul, who tells him about Jesus, mentors him, and encourages him to do the right thing by returning to his master. To help facilitate the reunion, Paul jots a quick note to Philemon, which has been preserved for us in the Bible.
In addition to Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus, there are eight other names mentioned in this brief correspondence: Timothy, Apphia, Archippus, Epaphras, Aristarchus, Mark, Demas, and Luke. For each there is a story to be told and insight to be gained.
Of course, Jesus is also rightly mentioned in Paul’s letter to Philemon, a total of six times. Jesus is actually the central character in this story, for it all revolves around him.
Is Jesus the central character in your story, does your life all revolve around him?