It’s not much of a letter. It wouldn’t even fill a whole sheet of paper. It’s just twenty-five verses in the English Bible. But stop and read it, and you’ll find the big heart... the loving heart of Paul!
Here’s the short story. A slave named Onesimus had escaped and run away from his master in Colossae and made his way to Rome. There, he was introduced to Paul, who led him to faith in Christ and later convinced him to rightly and repentantly return to his master. The letter, addressed to the slave-owner, Philemon, was carried by Onesimus as he returned home.
Slavery was prevalent and widely accepted in the Roman Empire. In the first century, one out of three persons in Italy was indentured. It seems so wrong to us today, but the economies of the ancient world were dependent upon slave labor.
With a quill pen in his hand (Philemon 19), his short letter is addressed by “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother” (Philemon 1). The Apostle, with Timothy by his side, was living in Roman captivity under house arrest. Paul addressed the letter “to Philemon our dear friend and coworker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church that meets in your home” (Philemon 1-2). Apphia was likely Philemon’s wife, while Archippus was probably his son.
Philemon was affluent enough to own slaves and to have a home that was large enough to accommodate a house church. He had most likely been saved under the influence of Paul’s teaching and preaching, and maybe by the Apostle himself (Philemon 19).
Paul considered Philemon a “friend and coworker” (Philemon 1) and wished for him “grace ... peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philemon 3). Paul wrote to his friend, “I always thank my God when I mention you in my prayers, because I hear of your love for all the saints and the faith that you have in the Lord Jesus. I pray that your participation in the faith may become effective through knowing every good thing that is in us for the glory of Christ. For I have great joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother” (Philemon 4-7).
Paul then turned the conversation to Onesimus. “I, Paul, as an elderly man and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus, appeal to you for my son, Onesimus. I became his father while I was in chains” (Philemon 9-10). Paul pointedly asked Philemon to accept Onesimus back into his employment without any ill will or hard feelings. A slave owner had the right to execute a runaway. Paul begged him not to do so.
Many years earlier, an angry Saul of Tarsus had heard the dying deacon, Stephen, pray, “ ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” And after saying this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7:60). Paul also knew the precious words of Jesus. “Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Jesus died to pay Paul’s debt... and mine.
Now, appealing for his convert, Paul begged Philemon, “don’t hold this sin against him.” “If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it” (Philemon 18-19).