Plea for a Slave – Philemon
When I was young I read a book called Twice Freed. It was written by well know children’s author Patricia St John. It is a story based on the events written in this letter by Paul. Patricia has taken the Biblical facts, and woven a story around them, as is quite popular these days. It was a very moving story, and threw a wonderful light on the background to the events covered.
Paul was in prison in Rome at the time. Philemon lived in Colossae, a city in central Asia Minor, modern day Turkey, with his family, Apphia, probably his wife, and Archippus, probably his son. They had a slave, a young man, which was quite common in those days. His name was Onesimus, which means ‘profitable’ or ‘useful.’ Paul knew this family, and had probably visited them at some stage. In fact Philemon may have become a Christian through Paul’s preaching (v 19).
Unfortunately, Onesimus ran away from the home. Something had gone wrong. Perhaps he had stolen something, and was afraid of being found out. But somehow he found himself in Rome. Paul was in prison in Rome at the time, and by God’s grace he met Onesimus. Paul shared the gospel with him and he was born again. Paul wanted Onesimus to stay with him to minister to him while he was in prison. But something had to be sorted out first!
Paul wrote letters to the churches in Colossae and Ephesus, and he sent them by the hand of Tychicus. So Paul wrote this letter to Philemon and sent it with the other letters, and also sent Onesimus as well. I expect Onesimus was a little bit nervous. He was being sent back to his master! How was Philemon going to respond?
In his letter to Philemon, Paul starts with his usual introduction in verses 1 – 3, and then in verses 4 – 7 he thanked God for Philemon, for his love and faith, always mentioning him in his prayers, especially for his sharing of his faith, praying that that it will be effective. Paul had great joy and comfort because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by him.
Then Paul brings his request. “I appeal to you for my son Onesimus …” Paul was his spiritual father, and probably also like a foster father to him. “… who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me …” Once he was not living up to his name, but now he is! “Receive him as you would receive me. I wished to keep him with me … but without your consent I wanted to do nothing … perhaps he departed for a while … that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave – a beloved brother … But if he has wronged you or owes you anything, put that on my account.” Isn’t that a wonderful practical example of what Jesus has done for us! Jesus wants God to accept us as he accepts him. He takes our unrighteous on Himself. Paul goes on to say “Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more that I say.”
In one of the accompanying letters, to the church at Colossae, Paul says that Onesimus is a faithful brother. We don’t know the outcome of this story, but I am sure that whether Onesimus stayed with Philemon or went back to Paul, God’s purpose was fulfilled to the satisfaction of all involved. God is good!