Paul’s letter to Philemon is an example of personal follow-up. Unlike other letters that we have looked at in this series on Paul’s follow-up, it is addressed primarily to an individual. Paul writes to his friend, Philemon, that his heart might be refreshed (Phm 20). Specifically, he writes that Onesimus (Philemon’s slave) might be reconciled to his master now that he has become a believer. The letter teaches us that the gospel provides the basis for reconciliation of broken relationships. It also guides us in helping believers become reconciled.
Douglas Moo writes in his introduction to Philemon:
This short private letter stands, then, as an important reminder of the communitarian aspect of Christianity that many of us, in our individualistic cultures are so prone to forget. In Christ we belong to one another; we enjoy each other’s company and support; and we are obligated to support, to the point of sacrificing our own time, interests, and money, our brothers and sisters.
The details behind the letter are not clear. We would like to have more details than Paul provides, yet Philemon and Onesimus clearly would have known those details. Likewise, the church in Philemon’s house would have known the general circumstances behind Onesimus’s absence. While this may frustrate our curiosity, we have enough information to understand how the gospel transforms and restores relationships between believers.