Since Paul’s letter to Philemon is only one chapter long, half of which is his greeting and closing words, there is really not that much to say, but here are my thoughts. Paul is writing this letter from prison, and it does not really give any teaching on doctrine or theology. Rather this is all about asking one of his friends, Philemon, to give help to another of Paul’s friends, Onesimus.
Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. (Philemon 1:11 NIV)
Not much is said about exactly who Onesimus is, but Paul gives some clues about this person. He tells Philemon that Onesimus formerly was useless, but now he is useful. From this I gather that Onesimus either was not a Christian, or perhaps was an immature Christian, the last time that Paul has communicated with Philemon. Most likely he was even a criminal, given that Paul was in prison when he became friends with Onesimus. I am just making educated guesses here based on the limited text of this letter, but regardless of Onesimus’ previous life, he is a man that Paul now loves like a son. Paul talks similarly about Timothy and Titus, as when he disciples a young believer, he truly takes them under his wing and helps them along in life.
PHILEMON AND ONESIMUS REUNITED
Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever. (Philemon 1:15 NIV)
I do not know if Philemon and Onesimus are family, neighbors, friends or enemies, but it is obvious that Philemon and Onesimus have a long-standing relationship with one another. They have been separated for some time (perhaps because Onesimus was in prison?) now, but Paul is sending Onesimus home as a changed man. This may be a prodigal son type story, but the details are not clear. Paul does mention that Onesimus was a slave, but now he is a partner in the Lord.
Whatever their relationship used to be, Paul wants Philemon to now treat Onesimus like a dear friend and welcome him in with open arms. Paul wants them to work together for the sake of the Gospel. Paul cares so much about Philemon and Onesimus teaming up and working together that Paul even offers to pay off whatever debts Onesimus owes to Philemon.
PAUL IN PRISON
The biggest thing I have drawn from this letter is that Paul, even when he is in prison, is looking out for fellow believers the best that he can. He is not afraid to ask people for huge favors, which is something I personally struggle with. I tend to ask God for help and then go about trying to accomplish things by myself, rather than trusting my burdens to my Christian friends.
Paul also does not focus on who someone used to be, but he only cares about who they are. This is probably because Paul’s life was changed so dramatically on the Road to Damascus, so he is quick to forget the sins of one’s past. It probably also helps that Paul feels at home with prisoners since he spent so much time in prison himself, surrounded by all kinds of criminals. You could be the worst criminal, but if you are now a believer and a changed man, none of that history matters anymore. This is probably pretty indicative of how God looks at us as well.