I have read Philemon many times and have usually taken it on face value and thought of it as just being about Paul sending a letter to a slave owner asking him to accept back a slave and treat him kindly with forgiveness.
Looking at it more closely today I discover that there is a lot more to it and a significant “hidden” message.
Paul begins the letter with greeting Philemon, his family and others who are obviously known to Paul. Paul praises Philemon in v 4&5 for the good work he does and his love and care for the church
Brother Philemon, every time I pray, I mention you and give thanks to my God. For I hear of your love for all Gods people and the faith you have in the Lord Jesus.(GNB)
Paul may appear to be flattering Philemon but he is preparing the ground for the real purpose and message of his letter by reminding him of how important it is to love and care for the church family.
Onesimus apparently was a slave who has run away, possibly having stolen from Philemon. Under the Roman law at the time, this would have incurred a death penalty for Philemon so I imagine that Onesimus would not have been very keen on the idea of returning, but Paul is demonstrating to Philemon how much he has changed.
Onesimus apparently meant “useful”. Paul plays on this in verse 11 by saying;
At one time he was of no use to you, but now he is useful, both to you and to me.
Paul explains that he would like to keep Onesimus with him but knows that he must return to face up to his actions and seek forgiveness even if there are unpleasant consequences. Sometimes, even though we have received forgiveness from God, for our own benefit and those of others it is sometimes necessary to deal with the penalty required for those actions. Perhaps the person harmed will be as Philemon is urged to be, and be forgiving and give the wrong doer a second chance.
Now here the thing….
Paul is interceding with Philemon on behalf of Onesimus, even offering to pay back the debt on his behalf.
So if you think of me as your partner, welcome him back just as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to my account (v17 – 18 GNB)
Paul is demonstrating an example of what Jesus does for us. We are the wrongdoers but Jesus intercedes with the Father for us, imploring him to treat us with the same love and affection that he does for his Son. Jesus even paid the price for us by dying in our place. Onesimus should have faced the death penalty but because Philemon accepted Paul’s intercession, Onesimus received forgiveness and was possibly set free just as we receive God’s forgiveness though Jesus and are set free from the consequences of our past which would have been death but we are given new life!!! (somebody say HALLELUJAH!!! please)
This is the reason that such a short apparently trivial letter and situation is included in our Bibles as it preaches the Good news in just a few verses.
As an aside I also noticed in the final greetings in verse 23 Paul refers to Epaphras being in prison with him and sending greetings too but it struck me that even though Paul and Epaphras were in prison, they were still thinking of other people and praying for them. They were not wrapped up in their own problems but concerned about others.
I remember a dear lady we knew and we were privileged to be able to visit her in hospital the evening before she died unexpectedly. We had been struck by her keenness not to wallow in self pity or her own problems but concerned about us and how we were doing (and the cat). It is possible to still have a loving and caring heart even in the midst of our own difficulties