Philemon is a wonderful little, one chapter book in the Bible. It’s hard to find when you’re looking for it. The best way is to go to the larger book of Hebrews and just back up one page. There it is! It has a total of 25 verses. In Paul’s one chapter letter to a man named Philemon, probably residing in and part of the church family in Colossae, Paul frequently uses family references in identifying his addressees. He calls the men “brothers” four times. He refers to women as sisters twice. He calls God the Father three times and makes references to a church that meets in a home twice as well. In verse 10, Paul identifies himself as a spiritual father and the individual he lead to faith as his child. He writes, “I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment.”

Piecing together the timelines of Paul’s journeys from Acts and other comments in other Epistles, I believe the story of Paul and Philemon can be discerned. Paul planted the Church at Colossae and left it meeting in homes. The home it met in was Philemon’s. He was a wealthy man and slave owner. Through conversion, he became a spiritual child of the Apostle Paul. Several years later, one of his slaves, a man whose name means “useless” (Onesimus) apparently robbed Philemon and ran off to the big city to live a life of sin. Like the prodigal son, Onesimus soon runs out of money and ends up in a Roman prison. By this time, the Apostle Paul is also in Prison in Rome. There Paul leads Onesimus to faith. Runaway slaves were always returned to their owners in chains to be dealt with according to the owner’s wishes. Often that entailed execution! Having now become both men’s spiritual father, Paul writes this short letter to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus.

The most beautiful verse in this letter, which won it a place in the canon of Scripture, is verse 18. Paul pleads for Onesimus’ life to be spared because he’s now become useful. As a new believer his lifestyle has been reversed. But more importantly Paul seems to argue, because Philemon and Onesimus are now brothers in the faith. The bond that binds them together is Paul as their father, but also Christ as their mutual savior. He pleads with Philemon to receive his former slave who had deeply wronged him as a brother instead of a slave. In closing his plea to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus, Paul adds, “And if he owes you anything, or has wronged you in any way, put that on my account.” All of us owe a debt we cannot pay. All of us have wronged others in many ways and have been wronged by others. From the cross Jesus says, “put that on my account.” Boice writes, “This is a pageant… Philemon is playing the part of God the Father. Paul is Jesus Christ. You and I are Onesimus. What have we done? We have wronged God. We have stolen from him that which is rightly his—honor, worship, glory, obedience—and we have run from him in order to sin our fill. There is no chance of our ever being able to make up that which we owe…Instead we come to Christ and find him interceding on our behalf. “Father,” he says, “this runaway slave has wronged you. He owes what he can never repay. But he believes in me. He has been changed. Therefore, I ask that you charge all that he has done to my account.” Can you see yourself in this story?