Traditionally, Philemon has been believed to be a member of the Colossian church. Paul writes him this delicate letter asking him to reinstate his former slave, Onesimus. Onesimus fled to Rome after robbing Philemon – a fatally punishable offense. Somehow he came into contact with Paul in Rome and came to faith in the Lord Jesus. The former slave changed quickly and became someone particularly helpful to Paul, so much so that Paul calls him a ‘dear brother’. Interestingly, ‘Onesimus’ means useful and Paul suggests to Philemon that this former slave convert to Christ will be exactly that to him in his new state.
There are a few different lenses with which to read this letter. Let’s examine them.
The social lens. The issue of slavery and Christianity is an interesting one. Many have noted that Paul makes no effort to teach about the practice of slavery at all here. He simply asks that Philemon receives Onesimus back, not as a slave but as a Christian fellow brother and helper.
The moral lens. There is such a thing as dealing with our past and making matters right. Onesimus had to face up to his past and place himself in the hands of Philemon. Paul sent him back there. Facing up to our past, admitting, making right and honouring broken situations is often a requirement from God.
The spiritual lens. David Pawson in his book, Unlocking the Bible says that this letter is a wonderful picture of the gospel. We are slaves that have robbed and dishonoured God and fled. We meet Jesus and He sends us back to the Father, now becoming useful to God. Beautiful.