The Apostle Paul along with Timothy (v.1), while imprisoned in Rome around C.A.D. 62, wrote his shortest yet personal letter to his friend and fellow co-laborer in ministry, Philemon, for whom the epistle is named. Philemon was a leader and possibly elder of a church in Colossae that met in his home. He was a man of great wealth, wealthy enough to have servants and slaves. One of Philemon’s slaves, Onesimus, had run away from Philemon’s property, quite possibly because he had stolen from his lord (v. 18). Upon his flight from Colossae, Onesimus providentially meets with Paul while the apostle is in prison. It is possible that Onesimus was determined to meet with Paul in order that Paul may plead on his behalf to his friend Philemon. Either way, while in company with Paul, Onesimus hears the gospel of Christ and becomes a Christian and begins to assist Paul in ministry (vv. 10-13). Paul, following Roman law, knows that he must send Onesimus back to Philemon which is the occasion for this letter.
Paul sends the letter back with Onesimus and expects the letter to be read before all (v. 2), even though it is directly addressed to Philemon. The reason being: there is much for the church at large to learn from this pithy epistle. The message that Paul is relaying to Philemon and the house church can be summed up with one word: reconciliation. Paul calls two men reconciled to God to be reconciled to each other. As the cross has both a vertical and horizontal beam, the benefits of the cross are vertical and horizontal as well.
First, both Philemon and Onesimus have been reconciled to God through Jesus. The broken relationship between God and these two sinners has been mended. They are no longer enemies of God, but friends of God. Even more, they are not just servants, they are sons. And this reconciliation with God, leads to transformed lives. Paul writes of how Onesimus was once useless – particularly due to his kleptomaniac ways – but now is useful to Philemon just as he has been useful to Paul (v. 11). Onesimus is now living up to his name (Onesimus meaning useful); stated better, Onesimus is living up to his full humanity, to be all that he was called to be as an image bearer of God.
Secondly, Paul is writing to Philemon, not commanding but in hopes (vv. 8,9) that the vertical reconciliation in both Onesimus and Philemon will lead to the horizontal reconciliation between the two. Paul’s request to his friend is simple: forgive Onesimus and receive him back. Yet, Paul goes even further to request that Philemon not only receive him back peaceably, but to no longer consider Onesimus a slave but rather a brother in Christ (vv. 15, 16). Just as Philemon is not a slave in God’s house, Paul wants Onesimus to be a slave no longer in Philemon’s house.
In the letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul writes of the mystery of the gospel, which is the ingathering of Jews and Gentiles together as one people of God. In Philemon, the great mystery of the gospel affects the individual relationship between slave and master. “In Christ there is neither, slave nor free…”. No greater depiction do we have of this than Paul’s epistle to Philemon.