The book of Philemon is merely…a letter of reference or recommendation to give a credible account of Onesimus’ progression as a brother in Christ. Onesimus, a slave of Philemon, had become a believer of Christ because of Philemon. Typically the head of the household was a role model for the rest of the household in their faith! Thus, it may have just been name sake, but Onesimus seeks Paul so deeply that Onesimus actually runs away from Philemon and his household. Onesimus runs and grows his faith so deeply in God (Philemon 1:14-16) that Paul says explicitly how he fathered a child and now Onesimus is ready to be more than just an inquisitive person, but a true Christian brother. Paul is writing to Philemon to explain this slave is of much more value than physical labor.
There is the context of the message, but this message was so private, as all letters of recommendation are, yet it was so public for the rest of humanity to see. Why? What sense does it make that Paul writes a letter of recommendation for a slave, something so private that no other man could see, but when God did the final draft of the Bible: this letter makes it in the final cut? Well in order to see why God puts the book in there, let’s take the perspective from Onesimus, previously mentioned as the slave. In order for Onesimus to grow in his own faith, it was necessary for him to break out or to run away from his slave master and seek something much greater that can help him in any situation imaginable. You see, Onesimus runs away to Paul, seeking Paul for help in growing to Christ. Paul fathers Onesimus for a time period and then Onesimus heads back to Philemon.
However, here’s something to really catch your attention, because I believe the book has two purposes, two perspectives, and two different thought processes depending on your current situation. Let us now take the perspective of Paul, whom is imprisoned at the time. Paul takes this guy, with Timothy by his side, and takes the time to teach his good friend’s slave. Remember Paul is in jail at the moment, Paul is in his most vulnerable state, times where you and I would be angry at God. Here’s where it gets crazy though! Paul not only helps this random guy by helping him get straight with God, but (v.15-20) “Maybe it’s all for the best that you lost him for a while. you’re getting him back now for good – and no mere slave this time, but a true Christian brother! That’s what he was to me – he’ll be even more than that to you. So if you still consider me a comrade-in-arms, welcome him back as you would me. If he damaged anything or owes you anything, chalk it up on my account. This is my personal signature – Paul – and I stand behind it. (I don’t need to remind you, do I, that you owe your very life to me?) Do me this big favor, friend. You’ll be doing it for Christ, but it will also do my heart good.”
– Paul is writing that it’s not so bad that you lost your slave, because now you’re not just getting back a slave but a Christian brother! But Paul backs up Onesimus by saying that not only is he a changed man, but that if (and I assume he did) Onesimus owes Philemon anything that Paul will clean the entire slate of anything that he owes. Paul will pay any debt that Onesimus has endured or accumulated over the years. Wow. Can you imagine that? Picture how much a slave owes his slave owner, making merely nothing? Yet Paul says to put it on his tab, as if this is Onesimus getting a second life. But (v.21-22) speaks of Paul and his confidence of Philemon, saying, “I know you well enough (Philemon) to know you will (forgive his debt). You’ll probably go far beyond what I’ve written. And by the way, get a room ready for me. Because of your prayers, I fully expect to be your guest again!
Let’s wrap this up by putting this in our terms, with great contextual knowledge. Paul took this guy who was a slave under his wings and cleared everything that had every happened to this guy. How similar does this to sound to what Jesus has done for each and every one of us? Jesus will break us our of any bondage, issue, or anything that we encounter if we seek Him, Jesus. Not only will Jesus get us out of bondage, but He will literally wipe our slate clean as snow, just as Paul does for Onesimus. You see, the reason this message was private is because Paul wanted to be directly personal with a good friend and brag one-on-one to Philemon about Onesimus. But the reason God felt that this private message was so important and significant for the rest of public humanity to view is because of the way Paul handled Onesimus. How Paul acted exactly as Jesus would have, as we all should have. If Paul was doing this on his spare time, in private, imagine the works of this guy in the public? This not only teaches us what Jesus does for us, but illustrates how we should take people under our wings and bless them unconditionally in any way that we can. The message is so big here, so significant, but so short and sweet as well. You could literally read this letter in one minute, but the importance, the context, and the significance is so great that we needed to read this book in order to see what Jesus can do for us. It shows all three phases of the relationship, first we must seek Him, second we must assist others, and third we must follow the same ways of Jesus as we are missioned to do so. Our sole purpose on Earth is to seek Jesus and to be fishers of men and bring as many people as we can to this amazing one that we call God! Thus we must reflect His astounding radiance to the rest of humanity, but also in private as well.