This little epistle was written by Paul to Philemon in order satisfactorily to deal with the problem of Onesimus which had been complicated conversion.
1. Paul the Prisoner
Initially Paul describes himself as a prisoner of Jesus Christ, v. 1. This is unusual in that he normally describes himself as ‘an apostle of Jesus Christ, by the will of God’, see Col. 1. 1. In this latter form of address he is con-cerned to make clear to the church his apostolic authority. His written word comes to them as the will of God and as inspired by the Holy Spirit of God.
However, in this epistle he is anxious not to direct Philemon but to beseech him, and in order to do this he appeals to the sympathies of Philemon and the other readers of this epistle. To be a prisoner at any time and in any place is not a desirable situation, but to be a prisoner of Nero was something that most dreaded, for usually the end of their ill-treatment was death, or if one survived, then to be thrown to the lions or suchlike. So Paul, by pointing out that he is a prisoner would touch the heart of Philemon and cause him to read the rest of the letter in a sympathetic frame of mind.
Paul could rightly have described his imprisonment as due to unjust circumstances, or accurately as being a prisoner of Nero. While admitting to being a prisoner, however, he lifts it all on to a higher plane by saying he is a prisoner of Jesus Christ. This, like his apostleship, he now declares to be in the will of God.
While the message of the gospel is a liberating force, (we were in bondage before salvation), yet many who preached it found themselves incarcerated, with no release in view, and many died in those circumstances. The lesson for us today is to see and to understand that the circumstances we find ourselves in are in accord with His will. If we can see it in that way it will make the burden substantially lighter and we shall be considerably better equipped to help others in their difficulties.
2. Timothy our Brother
Timothy was a fellow-worker with Paul and was of course known to Philemon. Paul is indicating to Philemon that he is part of a wider family and thus has wider responsibilities than heretofore. He speaks not of Timothy my brother, but ‘Timothy our brother’, v. 1. Into this wider fellowship also would come Onesimus who is described later in the epistle as ‘a brother beloved’, v. 16.
So, as brethren we need to appreciate that we have responsibilities for the whole household of faith whether known to us personally or not – we are brethren. As such we feel the need for mutual support and trust and realize that whatever we do or say affects others in the family.
3. Philemon our Dearly Beloved
Philemon was not only dearly loved by Paul but also by all who knew him. He is ‘our’ dearly beloved. Later in this epistle we shall see much of his character and work and at this point we have only to mention that Paul reminds him of the high esteem in which he is held due to the loveliness of his spiritual nature and work. He is a fellow labourer – a fellow slave just like Onesimus. Whether bond or free, slave or master, rich or poor we all have the same standing before God, and it is always good to remind the people of God of the affection in which they are held.
4. Our beloved Apphia
It is generally accepted that Apphia is Philemon’s wife. She too shared her husband’s spirituality and Paul addresses the letter to her because, being a household matter, it is right that she be consulted. She had lost out at the departure of the household slave and should have input in connection with his return. In this matter it is important that husband and wife should be of one mind.
5. Archippus our Fellow-soldier
Thought to be the son in the family Archippus would also be consulted. Paul was clearly concerned that the possible return of Onesimus should not cause dissension in the family. Having ‘soldiered’ with him Paul believed that Archippus would have a positive input to the discussion and support his parents in their decision in this matter.
6. The Church in thy House
In those days the church met where it could. It had not become confined to buildings and met where life went on. To often we build ‘churches’ or ‘halls’ which became symbols of religious worship and are rated by the populace as no different from the denominations. This church met in Philemon’s home. The house was suitable in size and in atmosphere for a gathering of the Lord’s people and for worship of a holy God. Is ours? Paul addresses the church because, while Philemon, Apphia and Archippus could decide to receive Onesimus back to the house, that did not mean that he could automatically be received into the church. That decision was one for the church itself and all its members – not only the most influential ones. So today we need to keep separate in our minds the church and the family when dealing with spiritual and domestic matters. Where this is not seen clearly all kinds of problems arise and proliferate, thus debilitating the testimony.
7. Grace and Peace
Here is the salutation. Clearly, grace was needed, and if all went well peace would ensue, Both these things emanate from God and the Lord Jesus Christ. So to end his introduction Paul desires to show Philemon that what he has in mind will require great grace – it is, however, available from God. The end result of making a right decision, no matter how difficult it may be, is always peace in the heart, in the family and in the church. A person’s actions may affect many, as did those of Onesimus and as would those of Philemon in due course. Both God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ were involved in this salutation given by Paul. There is always heavenly interest in the practical details of our lives.