On the surface, Paul’s letter to Philemon seems more like a personal letter, and its inclusion in the Bible is initially perplexing. However, given that it’s also addressed to the church that met in Philemon’s house, it’s clear that Paul intended it as more than a private communication.
The book of Philemon addresses doing what is right in God‘s eyes and forgoing personal rights and what would be acceptable action from a legal or societal standpoint. The ramifications of this example have wide reaching application.
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.
Whereas John-Mark had an early collapse and then made a comeback, Demas started strong but ended in failure.
Demas began well. In Paul’s letter to Philemon, Demas is called a co-worker and in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, Demas sends his greetings. Clearly he was involved with Paul’s ministry in a helpful and supportive role.
However, in one of Paul’s darker moments, he sadly laments that Demas “loved the world” and “deserted me.” Despite his one-time standing as a co-laborer of Paul, Demas did not finish well.
Jesus said, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” Demas first looked back and then he went back, turning his back on Paul, on ministry, and on God.
Unlike John/Mark who started poorly and finished strong, Demas started well and finished poorly.
Looking on our past, we see both successes and failures. Today we stand at a crossroads. What will our future look like? Will we turn our back on our faith like Demas or finish well like John-Mark?
Luke was another companion of Paul. He wrote the Gospel of Luke and The Acts of the Apostles. Despite having penned two major books in the Bible — comprising about 25% of the content in New Testament — Luke is only mentioned three times in the Bible, so we don’t know too much about him.
First, we learn that he is a “dear friend” of Paul’s and a doctor. He is also esteemed by Paul as a “fellow worker.” Third, in one of his darker hours, Paul laments that “only Luke is with me.” As such, we see Luke as faithful and persevering.
We also know that Luke was a participant-observer in many of the events he recorded in the book of Acts. We see this through his first person narratives and the use of the pronoun “we.”
Although Luke was not a leader or an apostle, his contribution to our faith and understanding of Jesus and his church is significant. Doctor Luke’s ministry function was not leading or preaching, but rather playing a silent and almost unnoticed supporting role .
His work was quiet, but his legacy lives on, loudly influencing Jesus’ followers two millennia later.
Another of Paul’s friends, mentioned in his letter to Philemon, is Aristarchus. We first hear of Aristarchus in Acts. We learn that he is a Macedonian from Thessalonica who is traveling with Paul on one of his missionary journeys. Later, when Paul is sent to Rome as a prisoner, Aristarchus (along with Luke) travel with him. Aristarchus is both loyal and supportive.
Aristarchus is also esteemed by Paul as a fellow worker, as well as being mentioned as a fellow prisoner. Just like Epaphras, Aristarchus’s assistance to Paul and service to God does not preclude him from suffering.
While righteous suffering for our faith is not a given, it should not be viewed as an anomaly either.
If we do suffer, however, it is important to suffer for the right thing. If we suffer because of something foolish we said or did, that is not suffering for God, but suffering for our shortsightedness. There is nothing noteworthy or Godly about that.
The letter to Philemon ends with a list of supporting players who send their greetings and implicitly endorse Paul’s missive of reconciliation.
First up is Epaphras, who by being singled out, stands alone in noteworthy acclaim. Simply and succinctly, Paul notes that Epaphras is “my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus.”
The Bible only contains two other references to Epaphras, both occurring in Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae. First, in the opening lines, Paul calls him a “dear fellow servant” and then a “faithful minister.”
Later, in his closing remarks, Paul, again confirming that Epaphras is a servant of Jesus, adds that “He is always wrestling in prayer.” I’m not really sure what it means to wrestle in prayer, but it is a compelling image. I welcome anyone who would wrestle in prayer for me — and I hope to do the same for others.
So, Epaphras is a servant of Jesus, a faithful minister, and a devotee to prayer. For this, he spends time behind bars.
Doing the right things for Jesus doesn’t necessarily keep us from suffering for him. In fact, suffering for Jesus, may just be affirmation that what we are doing for him is right.
Archippus is mentioned twice in the Bible, both times in letters from Paul. First, in the letter to Philemon, Archippus is one of the addressees and is called “a fellow soldier.”
Then in Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae, he inserts a personal message to Archippus. Paul says, “See to it that you complete the work you have received in the Lord.”
Over the years, I have talked to scores of people who enthusiastically share what God has called them to or told them to accomplish. Sadly, when I run into them later, I learn that they haven’t followed through. I find that something distracted them, that they decided their own ideas superseded God’s, or some such other excuse.
When God calls us to a task, we need to complete it.
In the second verse of the letter to Philemon, Paul mentions two obscure people, Apphia and Archippus. Some people speculate that because they are listed together they are marriage partners or ministry partners. While we don’t know for sure, what is clear is that Apphia is listed first.
It would have been counter-cultural in that day to list a female before a male (or perhaps to even list her at all). But God, through Paul, uses this as a means to elevate the status of women, affirming their role in his church. This is not to make women superior to men, but to bring them to a point of parity.
What is interesting about Apphia is that this is the only mention of her in the Bible, so we have no idea what she did that was so worthy to garner such a prominent place in this letter. It would be safe to assume that she was worthy of this, be it through her character, her faith, her service, or some other noteworthy trait.
Like Apphia, who we are and the things we do may be largely unknown, but God does know — and that’s what counts.
I earlier stated that Paul is the author of the letter to Philemon. This is correct, but not exclusively so. Timothy is also listed in the opening credits. While we don’t know Timothy’s degree of involvement, the letter does state that it is from Paul and Timothy.
This isn’t an isolated occurrence either. Check out the opening verse in 2 Corinthians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and 2 Thessalonians, as well as Philemon. In each case, Timothy is listed as a partner in the correspondence. We don’t know if he was a co-author, a collaborator, or played some other role, but it is clear the letter is also from him.
There are many other references to Timothy in the Bible, including in two letters from Paul to him. From these we develop a composite picture of Timothy as a disciple, a helper, a co-worker, Paul’s son in the faith, a brother, and a servant. We also know that he told others about Jesus and was thrown in jail as a result.
Paul goes on to affirm that Timothy “proved himself.” While Timothy didn’t need to earn his salvation or do something to garner God’s attention or favor, it is noteworthy that he proved himself in the work he was called to do.
Our challenge as we follow Jesus is to likewise prove ourselves as worthy.
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.