Paul the zealous evangelist, the untiring traveler, this was the person Philemon had known and was brought into Christian fellowship by, was now a prisoner in Rome and so begins his letter to Philemon: “Paul a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved friend and fellow laborer, to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldiers, and to the church in your house.”
House churches were common in the early Christian church and what is apparent by Paul’s letter, is that Philemon, is now leader in the church which met in his own home. Paul continues “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Years ago, having read and studied the other letters of Paul, my first impression and the impression that initially turned me off toward Paul was his arrogance. At that time, it almost kept me from studying Philemon. But when I finally sat down and read this little book, a completely different picture of Paul developed. In fact, as I read and then re-read this little book, I began to see that Paul is acting the part of a father toward Philemon and Onesimus. Paul almost plays the role of Christ, which we will see as our study continues. Please, do not think I believe he is Christ, rather that Paul gives us an example of Christ’s role in the plan of salvation.
In Matthew chapter 18, Christ gives us an example on how we are to handle the situation when our brother or sister in Christ has committed a sin against us or if I have sinned against them (Matthew 18:15-20). As Paul opens his letter, you can see Paul’s concern for both Philemon, who had money stolen from him by his slave, Onesimus. Then Onesimus runs away. But you can also see Paul’s love and compassion toward the fugitive slave and thief, who has now accepted the crucified and risen Lord as his savior and becomes a Christian.
Onesimus, as a slave had not been profitable. He was now, upon becoming a Christian and gaining an understanding of his responsibilities to God and his fellow man, had indeed become profitable. So much so that Paul would have accepted him as his own servant and brother if Onesimus had not already been the property of Philemon.
Paul starts his letter with a warm greeting and explaining that he, Paul, prays daily for Philemon the wealthy Christian who feels such love for the Lord that he has become a leader in his local church, a church that he has opened his home to for his fellow brothers and sisters in Christ to fellowship and worship together.
What an example Philemon gives to us. Perhaps the Christian community of today should show more love and compassion toward one another by opening our homes for Christian fellowship and the worship of our heavenly father. Then the churches of today might not suffer from declining membership, loss of loving relationships and the loss of relationships that truly have Christlike love and concern for each other.
This was often the method that Christ used and the early church used that caused the whole world to sit up and take notice.
In our next post, we will look at the reason Onesimus ran away and the significance of what he stole.