Philemon is the shortest of Paul’s many letters, with just 25 verses and 335 words in the original Greek; considerably less than this article. It is unique in that it argues for no specific doctrine and is purely personal in nature. It is the personal correspondence of the apostle to a friend. Despite this, there is nothing pedestrian or mundane about this brief missive, and it has excited controversy over the years. During the American civil war, Philemon was used both in support of and to decry the practice of slavery. Paul’s very nature of addressing the subject that necessitated the letter has drawn comment, with Martin Luther famously describing Philemon as a “work of holy flattery”.

What makes this letter wonderful is neither the controversy it has excited nor the opinion of a faintly derogatory German. This epistle is a deeply personal appeal to Philemon, a beloved co-worker, on behalf of Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave (Phlm v16), appealing for him to accept the fugitive slave back into his household. It is exciting, because in this epistle we see the kind heart of the apostle, ever open to the very lowest and poorest of the human race. For in them he saw those “for whom Christ died”, and Onesimus was just such a one.

The first verse of the book informs us that Paul is imprisoned at the time the letter was written, most probably in Rome. He is feeling old, and tired and describes himself as “Paul the aged” (Phlm v9). Onesimus himself accompanied this letter (Col 4:9). It was sent in conjunction with the letter to Colosse (Col 4:7–8) and perhaps also the letter to the Ephesians (Eph 6:21), Tychicus being entrusted with the delivery of them all. When the apostle sealed this letter and sent it on its way, he lost a “minister” (esv), one whom he had “fathered in (his) imprisonment”, whom he described as his “own tender affections” (roth), Onesimus.

Of Philemon, the key recipient of the letter, nothing is known other than what can be gathered from this epistle. He was evidently a Colossian, which may be inferred by the description of Onesimus, Philemon’s slave, as “one of your own” (Col 4:9). Philemon had been converted by Paul at an earlier date (Phlm v19) and Paul is now able to address him in the familiar warm tones of someone he knows well.

It would appear that Paul had not as yet visited Colosse (Col 1:4,9; 2:1), but that Philemon’s conversion was a consequence of Paul’s work in nearby Ephesus. It seems likely that Philemon was well off, given his household included at least one servant (Onesimus) and his home was large enough to hold the Colossian ecclesia (Phlm v2). It is clear from Paul’s greeting and praise, that Philemon was a man of great faith and value to the ecclesia (v5).

It seems that Onesimus, having fled Philemon’s house for reasons not given, had gone to Rome, the destination of choice for runaway slaves, and there had encountered the imprisoned apostle. Whether this was Onesimus’ intention from the beginning, to seek Paul’s help regarding his rift with Philemon, or whether their meeting was forced by the hungry realities of the life of a fugitive on the streets of Rome, is not known.

What is certain is that this meeting was anything other than coincidental. That “unseen Providence which men nickname chance” had driven Onesimus to the apostle and Onesimus, once a slave, was begotten of Paul “in (his) bonds” (Phlm v10). With Onesimus now reconciled to the Father as a “beloved brother” in Christ, the burden of Paul’s letter is to repair Onesimus’ damaged relationship with Philemon.

Paul’s appeal to Philemon is masterful. Almost half the letter has been expended before the apostle provides the reader with any clue as to his object in writing. Paul first greets Onesimus and other members of his household, perhaps his wife and son, in a way that has become the signature of the apostle; “grace … and peace” (v1–3). The next few verses are spent encouraging the good qualities Paul has observed in his “fellow worker” Philemon and inspiring him to greater efforts of loving endeavour, motivated by a deepening appreciation of Christ’s work (v4–7). He then begins to build his appeal, reminding Philemon that although he could command obedience, as an apostle, he would rather, for “love’s sake” appeal for it.

The verse in which Paul finally broaches the subject of Onesimus is dramatic. One can almost imagine the gasp of surprise as the reader reached the words of verse 10, ‘my own son, whom I have begotten here in prison … Onesimus!’ That Paul, in faraway Rome had met a mutual acquaintance would be amazing … that he would be writing about a fugitive slave, incredible … but that the slave now be a brother as well … a miracle!

The apostle then begins the work of persuading Philemon to accept Onesimus back. He explains to Philemon his internal dilemma, describing how indispensible Onesimus had become to him, and how little he wanted to return the slave. Paul relates how he would not retain Onesimus in his service, much as he needed his assistance, without the consent of Philemon. He was sending Onesimus back, for if he retained Philemon’s servant, the good services received at Onesimus’ hand may not have been willingly given.

Paul then turns his pen to the subject of providence, suggesting that God had blessed the outcome of Onesimus’ flight, turning bad to good, that Philemon might receive back much more than a hireling, a brother in Christ. Paul appeals to Philemon to put any outstanding debts, whether financial or emotional we are not told, on Paul’s account, promising that he would repay.

Here we see again the masterful penmanship of the apostle. Philemon is turned from creditor to debtor in the space of just two verses, and burdened with unlimited obligation to the apostle, being reminded that he owes the apostle “your very self besides” (asv).

Paul concludes by appealing to the best in Philemon, wishing to see in Philemon something that would refresh his tiring spirit. He completes his appeal by putting on record his confidence that Philemon would live up to and exceed his expectations.

The letter concludes with a request that Philemon prepare to have Paul come to stay. While this may have been a veiled warning that Paul might one day check in to see how “Brother Onesimus” fared, the tone here is one of hope, as Paul yearns to be free to spend time with his brothers and sisters. Finally, there are salutations from others with Paul in Rome and his closing benediction, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit”.

One thing that stands out in this letter is that the text lacks any mention of Onesimus’ remorse or the basis for his return. It is common among us to accept that any sin can be forgiven, but demand that remorse and repentance be expressed in order for us to feel forgiveness is a valid response. Yet the apostle provides Philemon with not so much as a hint to commend forgiveness.

Rather, Paul identifies himself with Onesimus. In so doing, Philemon was forced to ask not how he felt about Onesimus, but what his response would be to Paul “the aged”.

This is like Christ who encourages followers to forgive as forgiven, rather than because another is remorseful.

Although Paul remarks that Onesimus is now “a useful person” (v20 – “have joy” is in the Greek a play on Onesimus’ name, which means “useful”), the key point is not that Onesimus is a reformed character as proved by any remorse, but that he is now a brother as proved by his faith. Paul calls on Philemon to view Onesimus as a different person, no more as an unprofitable fugitive, but, as Paul himself. In much the same way, we are called upon to view even those who have wronged us as better than ourselves, and to see Christ in them.

Since the apostle was in prison, this letter, which accompanied Onesimus’ return to Philemon, illustrates to us his great care even from a distance. One can hardly imagine a more effective appeal, couched in language of utmost sensitivity. Without knowing the outcome of Onesimus’ journey, we can picture Philemon being drawn through a spectrum of powerful emotions by Paul’s emotive pen, from encouragement to obligation and finally to forgiveness as he welcomes his errant servant, his brother, home.