It was probably typical for Philemon to receive a letter to the church since they met in his home. In fact, he may have received many letters before from a variety of people including the apostles. He might have expected at this point to find something like “To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae,” as the other letter read. But that was not the case. It was a letter from Paul sent to him personally, “Philemon our beloved fellow worker” (Phile. 1:1).
The term beloved is used by Paul as a term of affectionate endearment. It means “dear friend.” And it is always used in the Bible with reference to those who are Christians. In fact, when referring to Christians as a whole, Paul calls them “beloved sons” or “beloved of God.” It was also used by God when speaking of His son, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17).
To this Paul adds “fellow worker” which emphasizes companionship and equality. It raises Philemon to Paul’s level. It is important because Paul has not emphasized his apostleship in any way. He hasn’t disconnected himself from the beloved of God. They are both beloved. And so Paul, who is in the middle of laboring for the Lord, is identifying Philemon as one who labors just the same. They are co-laborers for the Kingdom. Thus Paul calls him a fellow worker. Imagine how many organizations would do better if the leaders had this mindset!
Philemon was converted under Paul’s ministry most likely while Paul ministered in Ephesus. (Acts 19:10) His conversion was genuine. His authenticity was known among many people because of the grace that flowed from him. Here in Paul’s letter, we find no correction of any kind. In fact, when Paul implores him to exercise abundant forgiveness, he never gives the impression that he thought Philemon would respond in any other way except positively.
Since he was a man of authentic faith, he possessed godly character. He understood forgiveness and so there was no reason to instruct him. He knew what it was like to have his transgressions overlooked by God, so it was easy for him to do the same with others.
It can be noticed throughout history, both Biblical and secular, that forgiving is not an easy thing to do. Most people, even the great kings, express envy, jealousy, hate, pride, and bitterness. And this should come to us as no surprise since it is native to the sinful heart. Even while writing a book on forgiveness I can acknowledge this to be true.
Forgiving others is something unnatural in its deepest sense. Therefore, it is considered a divine gift from God and even a proof of salvation (Jn. 15:12; 1 John 3:14). Real forgiveness can only come from a regenerated, spirit-filled heart. Philemon had such a heart. He was one of the beloved. The beloved of God were the ones who forgave.
But his godly character isn’t only seen in his eagerness to forgive. Philemon was a generous person when it came to giving to the church. He was a wealthy man. And typically, wealthy people struggle with evil in a way unknown to others. (1 Tim. 6:10) However, Philemon was not the typical wealthy person. He had servants and many things. But, he considered them to be the Lord’s – every last bit of it. He was very generous.
In verse 2, Paul addresses “the church in [Philemon’s] house.” Philemon gave up his things and his servants for the sake of the kingdom. He hosted an entire church in his home. The implication here is that his house was very large, for even Paul requested a guest room for himself. (Phile. 1:22) This was true even during a time when persecution was on the rise. Harboring a Christian during the persecution was nothing trivial.
There are a few other things we can learn from this letter about this man. He was genuine, forgiving, full of character, generous, and as verse 22 suggests, he was prayerful. Paul didn’t ask him to pray. Paul knew that he was praying. Why else would he have such a godly character? (Acts 9:11)
Much of this letter is dedicated to the character of Philemon. It is a letter requesting forgiveness of another brother in Christ. Philemon, who is considered by Paul to be a godly person, is expected to forgive totally.
A good way to summarize this piece on Philemon is with a portion of the letter that we will examine more closely in the next chapter. Paul says this to Philemon:
“I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, 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. For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.” (Phile. 1:4-7)
Philemon’s character will be the subject of many more writings ahead. For the meantime we will leave it. There is much more to say about him. The Lord willing, it will serve us more effectively in the pages to come.
From the book, Forgiveness: A Commentary on Philemon, by Jacob Abshire