Philemon, to whom this book of the Bible is addressed, was a friend of the apostle Paul. He evidently lived at Colosse with Apphia, his wife, and Archippus, his son. Philemon’s house was a meeting place for God’s people, so that Paul could write of “the church in thy house” (v. 2).
Onesimus, with whom the Epistle is mainly concerned, had formerly been a servant of Philemon (v. 16). He had wronged his Christian master and then had run away (vv. 15,18). In God’s great mercy, however, Onesimus had been thrown into contact with Paul at Rome and converted so soundly that Paul could speak of him not long after as “a faithful and beloved brother” (Colossians 4:9).
Tychicus was at that time leaving Rome for Colosse, bearing Paul’s letter to that assembly. Paul used this occasion to send Onesimus back to his own people, so that he might be reunited with the master whom he once had wronged. It was no light matter for Onesimus to once more stand in the presence of Philemon, so Paul thoughtfully wrote an explanatory and intercessory letter to Philemon, making Onesimus the bearer of it. That short letter—the Epistle before us—God has seen fit to enshrine in Scripture.
In the first place, it shows us how the converted sinner has his feet turned into paths of practical righteousness. When Onesimus wronged his master, Philemon, he was an unconverted man. Now he has become a beloved brother, but this does not relieve him of obligations incurred by his former sin. In God’s view, that sin was forgiven amongst all his other sins, for he stood “justified from all things” (Acts 13:39). But when it comes to Philemon, Onesimus must make confession and some kind of restitution. If we have done wrong to another, no more effectual proof of our repentance can be given than that of confession and restitution, as far as that may be within our power.
Knowing what damage has been done to the name of Christ among God’s people in similar episodes, this letter has many valuable lessons:
- for the offending party: a return in all humility to the one offended with confession and an acknowledgement of his rights as to restitution.
- for the offended party: the reception of the repentant offender in grace with the fullest possible acknowledgement of all that God has done in him.
- for the mediating party: an absence of anything approaching a dictatorial spirit, coupled with ardent love for both the offended and the offender, expressing itself in counsel marked by courtesy and tact.
Our Blessed Mediator
We can see ourselves depicted in Onesimus and his sad history. We too were “unprofitable.” We “wronged” God and consequently were His debtors, owing what we could not pay. We too “departed” from Him, since we feared Him and desired to be removed as far as possible from His presence. Our alienation was the fruit of sin.
Paul’s mediation between Philemon and Onesimus illustrates, though only faintly, what Christ has done for us. He charged Himself with our iniquities and took upon Himself the judgment we rightly deserved. It will be our privilege to bless His name for ever because, in His marvelous grace, He looked at the debt which our sins had incurred, and said to God, “Put that on My account.”
— F. B. Hole