Philemon was a wealthy believer who hosted a first-century church, likely of Colossae, in his home (Philemon 1:2). Evidently Philemon had been led to faith by the apostle Paul (Philemon 1:19). Philemon was known for his faith in Christ and his love for others (Philemon 1:5). The "the hearts of the saints [had] been refreshed through [him]" (Philemon 1:7).
Philemon owned a slave named Onesimus who had run away. This slave had then met the apostle Paul and had become a Christian. Paul composed a personal letter to Philemon, which appears in Scripture as the book of Philemon. In this letter, Paul promises to repay any debt that Onesimus owes (Philemon 1:18–19). In the letter, "old man" Paul (Philemon 1:9) appeals to Philemon rather than commands him to receive Onesimus back "no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother… in the Lord" (Philemon 1:16).
Paul models in his letter how the gospel changes the relationships between believers so that power is no longer lorded teacher over disciple, elder over younger, nor free citizen over slave, but rather how every believer is a fellow brother or sister to be treated graciously. Knowing Philemon's understanding of the gospel, his hospitality, and his love "for all the saints," Paul was confident Philemon would welcome back Onesimus (Philemon 1:5). He stated, "Confident of your obedience, I write to you knowing that you will do even more than I say" (Philemon 1:21).
Because this personal letter is included in Scripture, one can assume that Philemon did indeed forgive Onesimus his debt and welcome him as a fellow brother in Christ. In this way, Philemon reflected the gracious attitude Paul modeled in this letter.
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