Philemon is a very different kind of letter from Paul. It is not written to a church like Colossians or Romans, and it is not written to a co-worker like Timothy or Titus. It is written to a particular individual in a church, to address a very specific and personal pastoral issue. What this issue is will become clear as the letter proceeds. But while specific to the church leader Philemon, the letter gives us a wonderful insight into the dynamic, transforming character of Christian fellowship, and the pastoral heart and approach of the great apostle and church planter, Paul.
Paul and Timothy bring greetings to Philemon, a lady called Apphia, (perhaps his wife), Archippus (either a key church member or perhaps even Philemon’s son), and to the church (vv. 1–2). Interesting. In many ways this is a personal letter addressing a personal issue, but Paul expected the letter to be read out to the whole church. The church met in Philemon’s home, so they would know Onesimus, the man who, in a moment, would be revealed as the reason Paul is writing. While not all things personal should be shared with the church, this letter is a wonderful picture of true Christian fellowship. We weep and laugh together. We bear each other’s burdens. We pray for each other and encourage one another. Therefore, it is appropriate in this situation that Philemon’s spiritual brothers and sisters listen in while Paul addresses him personally.
As Paul prays for Philemon, we see the calibre of the man. Philemon is full of faith and love for both Christ and His people; his life is a refreshing blessing for the believers (vv. 4–7). And Paul wants Philemon’s partnership in the faith to be effective (v. 6). Of course, Paul says this knowing the request he is about to make of Philemon. When someone lets you down, it tests a relationship. Onesimus has deeply wronged Philemon. His return will test Philemon’s understanding of true Christian fellowship, and Paul prays he might know all the good that God wants him to do, for Jesus’ sake.
What is your experience of fellowship in your church? Are you in relationships with others that are transparent, supportive, and include mutual accountability? What can we do to deepen the fellowship in our churches?