"Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker," NIV translation
This letter was written by Paul while he was under house arrest in Rome. He introduces himself and reminds us that he was there by the will of God and that it was not by the will of men. The letter is addressed to a dear friend that came to Christ while Paul was teaching in Ephesus. This friend was a rich man that lived in Colosse and had went to Ephesus to hear Paul teach.
"to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home." NIV translation
The letter was also addressed to his wife and son as well as to the group of believers that met in their home. It is hard for us to understand today as we see huge places of worship all over the place but, in the early days, they did not have dedicated buildings for worship so they met in homes.
"Grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." NIV translation
This was Paul's usual formal greeting that he opened his letters with. He always put grace before peace as a reminder that it is only by grace that we have peace with God.
Philemon 4 & 5
"I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints." NIV translation
Paul always prayed for the individuals and groups of believers that he had brought to Christ. Here, he lets us see what he prayed and he starts by thanking God for his faith and love for the saints. Paul had heard about his faith and had evidence of it in his love for fellow believers.
"I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ." NIV translation
Paul prays that they will be active in their faith so that they will grow in their walk with Jesus. Our faith grows by studying the Word of God and putting it into action.
"Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints." NIV translation
Do you rejoice at the success of your brothers and sisters in Christ? Any teacher loves to see their students succeed and it gave Paul great joy to see the people he had brought to Christ living an active faith. Likewise, we invite you to refresh our hearts by telling us about how God is using this website to build you up in your faith.
Philemon 8 & 9a
"Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love." NIV translation
Now, Paul makes the transition into the serious nature of the letter. When he says that he could order Philemon to do what he is going to ask, it is more as a teacher than as a boss. Paul led this man to Jesus and taught him about what that faith means and how to put it into practice. Because of that, he could tell Philemon the right thing that must be done and expect him to be obedient. Instead, Paul used the basis of love which comes from that relationship with Jesus Christ.
Philemon 9b & 10
"I then, as Paul - an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus - I appeal to you for my son, Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains." NIV translation
Paul gets to the reason for this letter and it is a plea for freedom for a slave named Onesimus. The name Onesimus means "profitable" and we see that he was led to faith in Jesus by Paul while he was under house arrest in Rome. The basis for his plea for Onesimus is not out of authority but out of love for an "old man" (Paul was about 60 here) who was in chains by Christ. We may think that it is odd that Paul says that he is a "prisoner of Christ" but he understood that it was only by the will of God that he was under arrest. If God wanted him to be free, then there would have not been any man that would have had the ability to hold him and he understood that it was an opportunity to tell people about Jesus. There are many in the world today that are in the same type of situation but we and they can be encouraged by the fact that God is in control and not those that have them in chains. (God has them right where He wants them!)
"Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me." NIV translation
When Onesimus was with Philemon, he was not content and even ended up running away to see Paul. A worker that is not happy at his work will be much less productive than one who is. After he came to Christ, he had purpose and was productive in his help to Paul. Paul is now telling Philemon of the fact that, because of Christ in him, Onesimus can now be useful (profitable) in whatever he does. As Christians, we should be the most productive employees that can be found because of the fact that we work for Christ and not for men.
Philemon 12 & 13
"I am sending him - who is my very heart - back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel." NIV translation
Paul sent Onesimus back to his master and he explains how much he loves him and how useful he is in the ministry. Philemon must have helped Paul at some point in the ministry and Paul now explains that he would like to have Onesimus' help in Philemon's absence.
"But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced." NIV translation
We may look at this and think that Paul is trying to manipulate him to get him to do what he wants but Paul is sincerely trusting God. He is simply asking for Philemon to pray and do what God tells him to do with Onesimus.
Philemon 15 & 16
"Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good - no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord." NIV translation
Paul shows us here that he does not know what God's will is in this matter but he knows that God is in control. He reminds Philemon that Onesimus is now identified with Christ and so his value is as a brother and not as a slave. A slave will do things because he has to while a brother will do things out of love.
Philemon 17 & 18
"So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me." NIV translation
What a beautiful picture of grace as Paul demonstrates, in practical terms, what it means to be like Jesus. He asks Philemon to treat Onesimus as if he were Paul. That is exactly what Jesus did for us when He came and took our place on the cross. Onesimus deserved severe punishment for being a slave and running off from his master but instead Paul asked that anything he owed be charged to Paul. We deserved death for our sin yet Jesus paid our bill. Now, God welcomes us just as He welcomes His Son, Jesus Christ.
"I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back - not to mention that you owe me your very self." NIV translation
Paul promises to pay what is owed on behalf of Onesimus and also reminds Philemon that he owes Paul. This same promise was made throughout the Old Testament to the Jews as well as to us and spoke of the coming of Jesus.
"I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ." NIV translation
Paul is hoping that Philemon will allow Onesimus to return to Rome to assist in the ministry but he is simply asking him to pray and listen to God. Knowing that Philemon prayed and listened to God would bring joy to Paul's heart much like a teacher that sees one of their students succeed.
"Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask." NIV translation
Paul knew God and he also knew that Philemon was a disciple so he knew that he would be obedient. Paul is talking about Philemon's obedience to God and that is why he asked him to pray and listen to God. We should ask ourselves if others know that about us. Do they know that, no matter what happens, we will pray, listen to God, and be obedient? That is what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ (disciple).
"And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers." NIV translation
This may sound like Paul is being bossy or demanding but this would have been encouraging to Philemon. We (in the USA) are not accustomed to the kind of hospitality that was common in these times (and is common in many parts of the world today) but it would have been an insult for Paul not to stay with him when he went to Colosse.
Philemon 23 & 24
"Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke my fellow workers." NIV translation
Paul passes on the greetings of the team members that have been working with him. Paul was a great Christian leader but he was also a team player and was quick to point out the fact that we need to work together for the glory of God. We, too, need to work as a team (now more than ever) as the Day of the Lord is closer than ever before!
"The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit." NIV translation
Paul sums up his prayer for a friend, (Philemon), with the hope that he would be reminded of the gift that he has been given through Jesus' sacrifice. When we are reminded of that, it is easier to have patience in our dealings with the people around us as we remember that we didn't deserve God's favor in our lives.