Church father such as Ignatius, Tertullian, Origen, and Eusebius were all in agreement that Paul wrote the letter to Philemon (“fi-lay-mon”). Paul names himself more than once (v.1, 9. 19) and also names people who we see in his letter to the Colossians, adding weight to their shared authorship. What’s it about then? Why did he write to Philemon?
Philemon was written to a man who had a runaway slave. This was serious and scandalous in this place and at this time. There was no departing quietly on the midnight flight unbeknown to anyone. Professionals were hired to track down runaways, who then faced torture or even death. The runaway at the centre of this letter, Onesimus, had found his way to Rome and had somehow met Paul. Through Paul’s influence and teaching Onesimus becomes a believer and is then sent back to his former master (vv.12-13).
How would it go? Would he be received back as he is expecting, or as he is hoping? Paul has sent him back to Philemon along with a trusted friend, Tychicus, and a letter…a letter that we are going to walk through together day by day.
Paul is going to ask Philemon to receive Onesimus as a beloved believing brother, not a thieving runaway slave. Paul is going to offer to step in and offer to take any punishment deserved by Onesimus, and by doing so set before us a wonderful model of Christian forgiveness that finds its roots in Christ Himself.
The letter we call Philemon is then, fundamentally, about grace and forgiveness. We are to be motivated by grace, we are to put God’s grace in our lives into action, and we are to realise that if it were not for God’s grace our lives would be heading down a very different path. As we move through Philemon together look for the Lord Jesus: look for His grace, look for His forgiveness, and look for His willingness to take the punishment you deserved.