7 Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.
12 I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 13 I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. 15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.
20 I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.
Philemon 1:7, 12-16, 20-21 NIV
This is an amazing letter from Paul and Timothy to his friend and brother in Christ, Philemon. As Paul is going to make a plea for Philemon’s slave Onesimus to also be accepted as a brother in Christ Paul begins his letter with:
1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker
Pleading the cause of a slave who is a brother in Christ, Paul begins by putting himself into a similar position as a prisoner of Christ Jesus thusly hoping to achieve agreement from Philemon on his pleas for Onesimus.
First some information about Philemon, he is listed among the seventy (or seventy-two) disciples or apostles in the book of Luke. He was a wealthy Christian and minister of the house church that met in his home. During the first general persecution in the reign of Nero he was martyred at Colossae along with Onesimus and others. Clearly by that time they were no longer master and slave.
So now let us look at our first verse of the day; 7 Your love [Philemon’s love] has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people. How does Philemon refresh the hearts of the Lord’s people?
“The refreshment of which the apostle speaks was produced by the relief which Philemon’s works of charity brought to them in their distresses. And the saints who were thus refreshed were not those only who lived in Philemon’s neighbourhood, but those also who were driven from their homes for the name of Christ, or who went about preaching the gospel. Perhaps also the apostle meant that the knowledge of Philemon’s charitable actions gave great joy even to the saints who had no need of his good offices.”
The next time Paul mentions a heart, it is his own; 12 I am sending him [Onesimus] — who is my very heart — back to you. How did Onesimus become as if he were Paul’s own heart? We are not told other than in verse 13 he helped Paul while he was in chains. However it happened Onesimus became so dear to Paul that for him to leave was like cutting the heart out of his chest. Nonetheless, Paul did not want to keep Onesimus without Philemon’s consent (v14) and now tells Philemon, you may now have him back, but not as a slave. Instead as a dear brother in Christ (v15-16). From the background given above that seem to have occurred.
Near the end of this letter Paul writes, 20 I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ and further he writes 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask. Paul is confident Philemon will receive Onesimus as a brother in Christ and that alone will refresh Paul’s heart in Christ for it is only in Christ is such a thing possible. Paul made this plain in his letter to the Galatians
26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
In a time when slavery was incredibly widespread, Paul’s letter to Philemon was revolutionary noting in Christ there was no difference between a brother in Christ who was a slave or free. Today it is revolutionary to simply stick to the truth of Jesus and His Word, but there is great freedom in doing so, knowing it pleases God.