There are certain passages and even books in the Bible that, though they might tell an interesting story, might leave some wondering why they are in the canon of inspired Scripture. The book of Philemon very well might fall into that category. Here we have the story of the apostle Paul writing to a slave-owner named Philemon. At this point and time, Paul is under house-arrest in Rome and apparently had come into contact with a run-away slave named Onesimus. Onesimus had fled from his master Philemon in Colossae and had traveled around 1,000 miles to Rome, no doubt hoping to get lost in the bigger city. Little did he know that the sovereignty of God would lead him into contact with Paul, who led him to Christ. Interestingly enough, at some point in the past Paul had also led Philemon to the Lord (Philemon 19).
This puts Paul in a very unique position. Onesimus had wronged Philemon by running away and by possibly stealing money in the process. However, like Philemon, now Onesimus was also a believer and Paul wanted to do what he could to see that this situation was handled properly. Though it is uncertain if Onesimus had a legal obligation to return to Philemon, Paul (and no doubt Onesimus) knew this was the right thing to do. So Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon with this letter asking him to forgive Onesimus for running away and to receive him as a brother in Christ. We don’t know the end of the story but we can certainly hope that Philemon received both Onesimus and this letter in the proper spirit.
So what can we learn from this story? Besides some truths about how to handle interpersonal problems, we also see some very neat parallels to our salvation in Christ. Onesimusrepresents us. We have “run away” in rebellion from God. (Isaiah 53:6) At some point in our lives, we have a personal encounter with Jesus Christ (represented by Paul) and because of this relationship with him we have direct access back to God (represented by Philemon). This story of redemption could not be better stated than by what Paul said in verse 18. “If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account.” Isn’t that essentially what Christ says to the Father about us? “Father, put any sin that that individual commits on my account!” What a perfect picture of atonement and redemption!