In the last verses of the epistle we see three partnerships between i) Paul and Philemon, ii) Paul and Onesimus, and iii) Philemon and Onesimus.
Paul suggests that Philemon should recall that he and Paul were partners. That is they had the same concerns, interests, responsibilities and opportunities. Into this close knit understanding Paul seeks to introduce Onesimus, ‘Receive him as myself, v. 17. It is good to appreciate that we are partners with God in the great work of the gospel and partners with each other in the assembly. In fact when we join the assembly we take the position that should things go wrong we say, ‘blame me – it is my fault – I am a partner in this operation’. How much better is this approach than merely to stand on the sidelines and criticize the attempts of others.
Paul now takes up and deals with the delicate situation of the wrong Onesimus did, not only in running away, but probably also in stealing some of his master’s goods or money at the same time. It is always best to face up to facts no matter how difficult they may be and to get them put right in a spirit of love.
The amount involved, says Paul, should be put on his personal account with Philemon. It was clear to all three partners that restitution had to be made especially because there would still be other unsaved slaves in the house who would watch his return with interest. Not only had the right to be done, but it had also to be seen to be done. Paul’s guarantee was that he had written it with his own hand – Philemon could rely on it.
This raises interesting questions. Could Paul afford to pay? Would Philemon take the money from Paul as he was rich and Paul relatively poor?
It is likely that Paul could afford to pay. He received gifts from the saints; he worked as a tent-maker; he rented a home in Rome; and gave the appearance of being well enough off to be able to pay a bribe, or so thought Felix. But would Philemon take the money? It is almost certain that he would. The other slaves needed to see justice done. Onesimus needed to understand the cost of his wrongdoing. Paul of course does remind Philemon of a debt that he was still paying off, ‘thou owest unto me thine own self.
Paul was confident of his partner’s obedience and felt that Philemon, as was his wont, would find a way of doing even more than he was asked to do, v. 21. What more could Philemon do? It is possible that when Onesimus came back Philemon kept him for a period of time and then returned him to Paul. This would be typical of Philemon and would have brought great joy to all three partners. This is one of the marks of a Christian – to go the second mile. It is not attractive for believers to be selfish and grasping. All we have has been given to us and we should seek opportunity to return it to the Lord who gave it. Such an action as here described would bring Paul comfort and joy, v. 20.
On the basis that Philemon would receive Onesimus back in answer to Paul’s prayers, Paul now tells Philemon that the latter’s prayers are about to be answered too. Perhaps if we were more involved in answering other people’s prayers then our own prayers would be answered more quickly. Paul requests that Philemon prepare him a lodging as he anticipates that he will be able to visit soon. Clearly Philemon was a provider of hospitality not only to preachers but also to the relatively unimportant. What is necessary today is to provide hospitality to all the people of God in a world that rejects them and is hostile. The Lord Himself enjoyed hospitality at Bethany and often resorted there where He was welcome and was able to relax amidst the surrounding pressure and stress.
The burden of this section is simply that Philemon was praying for a visit from Paul. That would now take place and the forerunner was Onesimus.
At the end of the letter Paul’s fellow-prisoners and fellow-labourers salute Philemon. They see him as a worthy Christian – one able to forgive and to continue to provide help and sustenance to the saints. These good men – Epaphras, Marcus, Aristarchus, Demus and Lucas- unite in sending their love to Philemon and his family.
So this short letter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, dictated by Paul, penned and delivered by Onesimus was sent on its way and eternity will tell the benefit that it brought to all involved and to all who have had the opportunity of reading it down through the years. The challenge is that I should ensure that it is of real benefit to me, my family, my friends, the assembly and to all with whom I am in daily contact.