Who is Onesimus
Onesimus is the gentleman that generated the letter that was written by Paul to Philemon. He is mention also in Paul’s letter to the Colossians (see Col 4:9). This letter is one of Paul’s most personal in nature, meaning it is addressed to a specific person instead of a group or church. The Timothy letters were also to a degree but contained teaching to be presented and passed onto churches.
Onesimus is one of many many slaves within the Roman Empire. Many of these were Greeks captured through the battles they had with the Romans. Many Romans themselves were slaves for various reasons, like indebtedness. Onesimus was a slave to Philemon who lived in Collossae and we know from Paul’s letter to the Colossians 4:1 that many there had slaves: “Masters, grant your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.” Onesimus at some point stole from him and ran away. He worked his way to Rome where he crosses paths with Paul who in turn lead him to Christ. We have to remember as we go through this this is a letter not a conversation, hence one sided. We do get a hint from vs14 that Philemon released Onesimus back to Paul.
The main thing to keep in mind as we go through the letter and the three takeaways is the level of maturity of each person; Paul, Philemon and Onesimus.
Philemon 4-7 Acknowledge the gift that person has.
I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers, (Paul is letting Philemon know that he is thanking God for putting Philemon in his life and the joy that brings to Paul) because I hear of your love and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints (Paul had lead Philemon to Christ in an earlier trip to Colossae) ( we understand this from vs 19) 6 and I pray that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for the sake of Christ. 7 For I have had great joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother. (Paul is giving thanks to Philemon for what he has meant to Him through his continued service to Jesus our savior). (This sounds similar what Jesus taught the disciples when asked, “Teach us how to pray”.)
Philemon 8-16 Disciple/Shepherd that person through the concern/issue.
Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to order you to do what is proper, (Paul had the authority to order this as an apostle) 9 yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you—since I am such a person as Paul, an old man, and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— (He appeals with love, age and situation) 10 I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I fathered in my imprisonment, (text does not expand on how or why their paths crossed) 11 who previously was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me. (A changed person through Christ) 12 I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart, (really expresses Paul’s feelings for Onesimus) 13 whom I wanted to keep with me, so that in your behalf he might be at my service in my imprisonment for the gospel; (he is supporting the ministry and proofed to be very helpful) (Paul wanted to keep Onesimus with him but not without Philemon’s consent) 14 but I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion, but of your own free will (not forced upon you but becoming your choice) 15 For perhaps it was this reason that he was separated from you for a while, (Gods divine intervention) that you would have him back forever, 16 no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
Philemon 17-21 Express confidence in them.
If then you regard me as a partner accept him as you would me. 18 But if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account; (Paul ask that Onesimus wrongs against Philemon be put on him, this is just what Christ did with our sins and the Father) 19 I, Paul, have written this with my own hand, I will repay it (not to mention to you that you owe to me even your own self as well). (Paul is pointing Philemon’s thoughts to the past) 20 Yes, brother, let me benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, since I know that you will do even more than what I say.