1 Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our beloved fellow worker 2 and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, 6 and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. 7 For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.
8 Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, 9 yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— 10 I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. 11 (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) 12 I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. 13 I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. 15 For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
17 So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. 18 If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.
21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
Philemon is one of the shortest and most interesting books of the New Testament. Paul writes it to save the life of a young, run-away slave. Onesimus had been helping Paul during his imprisonment. Ancient prisons did not provide the prisoner with clothing, food, or any of the necessities of life. That was the responsibility of the friends and family of the incarcerated. But Onesimus was a run-away slave who belonged to a Christian man living east of Ephesus, probably around Colossae. Apparently, Onesimus is going back to his old master. Philemon, the slave owner, would have been within his legal right to have Onesimus killed for running away, likely by crucifixion. Romans, who were terribly afraid of their slaves, saw such brutal punishments for run-away slaves as a deterrence, to keep the rest of them docile.
Paul writes this letter, which often comes across as manipulative to our ears, in order to save the man’s life. But I have always wondered why Onesimus returned. Did he go back because the Gospel had taken hold of him, and he realized that his act of running away was a crime for which he needed to make amends? Did Paul send him back? Why did the run-away return to his master when he knew it might mean his death?
It took great courage to walk up that road to his old master’s house. Did Onesimus think about turning aside and returning to his life on the run? Did he spend sleepless nights on the journey? Why did he go back? We do not know the answer to these questions, only that he did, and this letter was given to Philemon at that event. We are not even sure if the letter worked. But there is a very old tradition which I am inclined to believe. The third bishop of Ephesus on record is a fellow named Onesimus. Is it the same man? Perhaps. The tradition goes on to say that Onesimus is the one who collected Paul’s letters into a single book which was circulated, and which eventually became that part of the New Testament where we find the letters of Paul. The last letter in that collection, the shortest of them all, and the most personal, is this one. I can imagine it was precious to Onesimus. It has come to be precious to me too.