At the same time Paul wrote his letter to the Colossians, he wrote a personal note to a man named Philemon whose slave he had converted to Christianity. Paul wrote to Philemon asking him to forgive his slave Onesimus for stealing from him and running away because he was now his brother in Christ. Paul’s personal appeal to Philemon was based on the same principle he had been talking about in his letter to the Colossians. Paul said, “I thank my God, making mention of you always in my prayers, hearing of your love and faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints, that the sharing of your faith may become effective by the acknowledgment of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus” (Philemon 5-6, NKJV).
Paul’s statement, “that the sharing of your faith may become effective” (Philemon 6, NKJV) meant that he wanted Philemon’s faith to be real, he wanted him to act like the Christian he claimed to be. Philemon was well known for his hospitality to believers (Philemon 7), but the fact that he owned slaves may have made some people wonder whether or not he had actually been born again. Paul encouraged Philemon to exhibit behavior that was consistent with being a follower of Christ, doing something that Jesus would have done.
Paul’s appeal to Philemon to act like a Christian and forgive his brother in Christ was counter to the culture of that day. Slaves were expected to be treated differently than others and were severely punished for any wrong doing. Under Roman law, Onesimus’ crime was punishable by death (Introduction to The Epistle of Paul to Philemon, p. 1754). Paul explained to Philemon that there may have been a greater purpose in what happened to him. He said, “For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, 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 15-16, NKJV).
Paul concluded his appeal to Philemon by stating, “If then you count me as a partner, receive him as you would me” (Philemon 17, NKJV). The Greek word Paul used that is translated partner, koinonos means a sharer that is associate (G2839). What Paul was saying was that he and Philemon were equals in the eyes of Christ and Onesimus was also. Paul pointed out in his letter to the Colossians that there was no distinction between believers. He said, “there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).