This little book is the only letter of Paul’s that is in the Bible that is a letter to just an individual. Actually it is to Philemon and his family but it is not meant for a community. After reading commentary what can be gleaned from this letter is that Philemon had a slave that had fled his household and maybe went to Rome and met up with Paul. It is not known if he knew Paul before or if this was a chance meeting that they came to realize they had a mutual acquaintance in Philemon. Paul and Philemon were obviously friends.
“I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers,” Philemon 1:4 ESV
This verse lends to believing that Paul and Philemon have a history with Paul saying always. In fact it is believed that Paul had led Philemon and his family to Christ. At any rate Paul was in the habit of praying for Philemon. It wasn’t just a one time prayer. I had a friend once who really opened my eyes to prayer and she pointed out how many times someone may say “I’m praying for you” in passing and yet do they, do we really do it when we walk away? She also stated how many times does someone come back and say “hey thanks for praying” yet in the back of your mind you think “oh, I forgot”. Prayer is serious business. If I tell you I am praying for you, I’m going to pray for you. Sometimes it may be that I say “I’m going to say a prayer for you.” Then it may not go on my prayer list, (believe me it’s a long list) of the people I pray for on a regular basis, but I can assure you that if I say I will say a prayer I am going to say a prayer. Paul was in the habit of praying for Philemon so there was relationship there.
Paul is appealing to Philemon and his family in this letter to forgive and to open themselves back up to Onesimus who had found Christ through his encounter with Paul and was returning to them possibly to make things right after having fled them and for anything he may have taken from them when he left. Now back in those days what Philemon had done could have been punishable by death, even possibly being crucified. But Paul was appealing to Philemon because now Onesimus was more than a worker to him, he was a brother in Christ. Paul points out that Philemon, as a christian has to ‘do what is required (v 8) but he wants Philemon to forgive and accept Philemon back out of love.
“Yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you – I Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus – I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment.” (vv 9-10)
The things I love about this story is the underlying story. It never is clear if Onesimus knew Paul before he fled to Rome. But the people who have spent way more time than me studying seem to suggest that the meeting between Onesimus and Paul was a chance one. Onesimus fled Philemon as a different person than he was returning to him. In Rome he possibly went to work for the Roman officials who were guarding Paul while Paul was under house arrest. Paul apparently befriended him and led him to Christ. Even if he did know Paul before, it would be a stretch to think that he was seeking Paul out, I think. This gives me great comfort in the way I know God works behind the scenes. I have experienced myself chance meetings that turned out to not be so chance. That later I could look back and see God’s hand on it. I think, and I have told you before I am not scholar, but I think that God orchestrated this meeting. We never find out exactly how Philemon handled the return of Onesimus, I hope he handled it the way Paul appealed to him. I hope I will do the same if I am faced with people who I feel have hurt me in some way when and if they return for forgiveness.
Please pray for your pastors and your churches. A lot more churches are opening up this weekend. I am praying for safety and for God to move in them.