Philemon has been on my mind a lot lately, mainly because in my understanding of it, Paul is saying more than just a few things. First, he is ordering Christians to submit to worldly justice if they have committed worldly crimes. Second, he is injecting himself in a brother’s business by first harboring a slave and then by asking for forgiveness of that slave. Lastly, for now, he is asking Philemon to treat the escaped slave as he would have treated Paul.
I thought I might just try my hand at a pure paraphrase, to get what I hear when I read this letter out.
You know me, remember? But, Timothy is here with me as well. You are our friend, our brother, and more than that, Philemon, you are working with us in Christ. Tell dear Apphia and Archippus and all those who work in the house church that we love them as well. May our God, our Father and Lord, Jesus Christ, give you his grace and his peace.
You are always in my prayers and I thank God for you, my friend. I hear about your love towards believers, but I hear also about your faith in the Lord Jesus. I pray then that when you realize just what can be done for the cause of Christ because of your faith, your fellowship with others will bring out more good things than these. Timothy and me, we celebrate in our troubles finding them eased by your love, because brother, you have helped so many believers that we feel it too.
I can either ask you something or command it, because I have that freedom in the name of Christ to set things right, but I want to ask you to do something for this old man who is a prisoner for the sake of Jesus Christ – do you love me?
See, I want to ask you about my son, Onesimus, whom I led to Christ while I set in this prison. You remember him, don’t you? He was useless to you, but he has become an integral part to both of us and I am sending him back to you.
Welcome him back.
He carries my love.
I should have kept him here with me, because you are not here to help, so that he could have helped me in these chains I carry because of the Gospel, but I didn’t want to do this, not without your permission, of course. I mean, I want your love for me to be because you want to, not because I make you love me.
You know, if you think about it, Philemon, this separation between you and him may serve something good. See, now you get to have him back forever. No, not like a slave, but something more. Something like a brother in life and in the Lord – I love him, don’t you? – but maybe even something more to you. If you love me, and walk with me, I want you to consider him me.
If he has hurt you, or stolen from you when he escaped, charge it to me. I’ll pay the bill. My signature is good enough – I want to pay his debt and will not mention how much you owe me, not even the fact that you owe your own self to me.
Brother Philemon, this would help me to rejoice with you in the Lord, so let the news of this return to me and cause me joy in the name of the Lord.
I am confident that you will obey these requests, and most likely, you will go beyond even these things, but if I were you, because when I get out, I am coming to see you, so keep praying and get me a room ready!
Epaphras just walked into the room and says hello. Mark – remember him? – Aristarchus, Demes, and Luke are working here with me as well.
Philemon, may the free gift of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.