Since it’s highly likely the majority of you have probably not even read Paul’s letter to Philemon yet alone studied it, before we work our way through the substance of text only to close by unpacking two overarching themes very relevant to today’s culture, I want to begin by establishing some context by first unpacking some relevant background information.
Following a dramatic clash with the religious leaders of Judaism that threw his very life into jeopardy, the Book of Acts closes with the Apostle Paul (who’s a Roman citizen by birth) on his way from Jerusalem to Rome in order to stand trial before Caesar Nero. The year is now 62 AD and the beloved Apostle is being held in the capital city under house arrest.
While there is no doubt Paul’s freedom has been seriously restricted by his circumstances, such a dynamic does afford him the opportunity to write - which is important. During his confinement Paul will pen letters to the churches located in Philippi (Philippians), Ephesus (Ephesians), Colossae (Colossians), as well as this small letter to a man named Philemon.
Beyond the prominence of his writings, there is also evidence of Paul’s ability to influence those around him. Case in point, Paul will close his letter to the Philippians saying, “All the saints greet you, but especially those who are of Caesar's household.” Additionally, it would also appear Paul was even able to maintain an ability to minister outside his cell as well.
Enter a runaway slave by the name of Onesimus. While we aren’t given a whole lot of biographical information for Onesimus (such as his ethnicity, how long he’d been on the run, or why he’d fled from his master in the first place), we do know he’s arrived in Rome after undertaking a 1000 mile journey from the city of Colossae (located in Asia Minor).
In addition to being a fugitive, we also know Onesimus had stolen money from his master making him a wanted man. Historically, because there existed roughly 60 million slaves in the Empire, Rome always feared a slave rebellion. As such slaves who’d dared run from their masters were often met with a swift brutality. Onesimus’ life was in grave peril which is why he’s made his way into the heart of Rome hoping to be lost in this incredible sea of people.
Though we aren’t given the specifics of how Onesimus eventually crossed paths with the Apostle Paul a few things become evident by the substance of this letter… At some point Paul ends up sharing his faith with Onesimus only to see him encounter Jesus for himself. He’s saved and his life changed. Then, in addition to being discipled by the Apostle, in his gratitude Onesimus proves to be a dependable helper for Paul during his imprisonment.
And finally, in a twist of fate and irony, the Apostle Paul and this runaway slave end up sharing an interesting relational connection… Philemon - Onesimus’ master, the one he’s fled and stolen money from! At some juncture in his discipleship Paul reaches the conclusion that for Onesimus’ benefit it was important he return to Philemon and make things right.
Scripture actually indicates that Paul’s letter to the church located in Colossae (Colossians) was not only sent along with this letter to Philemon, but that it was carried by two men - one of which was none other than Onesimus! In his closing Colossians 4:7-9 records, “Tychicus, a beloved brother, faithful minister, and fellow servant in the Lord, will tell you all the news about me. I am sending him to you for this very purpose, that he may know your circumstances and comfort your hearts, with Onesimus, a faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will make known to you all things which are happening here.”
Before we work our way through the text of this letter, it’s important you understand Philemon is unique among the Pauline Epistles. Though the majority of Paul’s writings were addressed to a local church (hence they’re titled for this purpose) with even the letters labeled for individuals still meant for public consumption (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus), Paul’s letter to Philemon was a personal note which explains its brevity and substance.
Knowing Onesimus’ toxic relationship with Philemon (master and runaway slave), the fact Philemon’s been wronged (Onesimus had stolen money from Philemon), and that there would be legal ramifications with his return, Paul writes to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus.
And note: What Paul is doing had a cultural precedent. According to Greek and later Roman Law an escaped slave was allowed sanctuary at either an altar (place of worship) or the home of one of his master’s friends. If the slave was convinced to return home, the friend would write a letter seeking to intercede on the slaves behalf. If the slave still refused to return, they’d be resold in the market with the profits being returned to the original master.
The context for this letter is not only fascinating, but absolutely unparalleled to the rest of Scripture… Paul is in a Roman prison, has led this runaway slave Onesimus to Jesus, only to now be sending him back to his master Philemon with a letter of endorsement. Imagine the moment Onesimus shows up at Philemon’s door with a personal note from Paul!
Philemon 1:1-3, “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved friend and fellow laborer - to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Paul begins this letter different than most. Not only does he fail to reference his apostleship as he does in 9 of his 13 letters, but he introduces himself simply as “a prisoner of Christ Jesus.” Though he’s being held in a Roman prison under strict guard, Paul viewed his circumstances differently. The sovereignty of God was at work in his present situation.
Understand, failing to mention his apostleship as he does in the companion letter to the Colossian church wasn’t an accident. Paul is making it clear he wasn’t writing to Philemon under his apostolic authority or in his official, God-ordained capacity. Paul was writing to Philemon as a friend… This letter was to be received as a personal correspondence.
The mention of the “beloved Apphia” and “Archippus our fellow soldier” only adds to the personalized nature of this letter. Most theologians see “Apphia” as Philemon’s wife with “Archippus” being his son. Mentioned in several of the writings of the early church fathers it’s even thought “Archippus” may have been the pastor of the church in Colossae.
I love Paul’s familiar salutation to this man and his family. “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Right from the beginning Paul is reminding Philemon of two profound realities. First, his relationship with “God the Father” was based in a “grace” he’d received through “Jesus” who was not only his “Lord” but the “Christ” - his Savior.
Secondly, Paul’s salutation aims at reminding Philemon that both his “peace” with God and “peace” with his fellow man flowed from this same “grace” that reconciled him with God through Jesus. Since the importance of grace will reemerge at the end of the letter as well I’m going to leave a more detail explanation for the conclusion of our study.
In his greeting Paul affirms several important things about Philemon - which is important because this is the only place he’s mentioned in Scripture. Not only was Philemon viewed by Paul as a “beloved friend” and “fellow laborer”, but the church met in his home. While we have no idea how these two came to know each other, it’s clear Paul had not only been instrumental in Philemon’s encounter with Jesus, but they’d grown close in the process.
Philemon 1:4-7, “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. For we have great joy and consolation in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you, brother.”
As Paul shifts from his greeting to the substance of the letter, there are several things he seeks to affirm to Philemon. First and foremost, Paul wants his dear friend to know that, while he may be sitting in a Roman cell, Philemon was in his thoughts and “prayers.”
To this end Paul says he “makes mention of him always.” Though you’ll find this phrase recorded in Paul’s other letters, what makes this instance significant is that it’s the only time we have Paul praying for a specific individual. The point is that Paul is making sure his friend knows he deeply cared from him - enough to be praying for him constantly!
Notice the substance of Paul’s prayer… “I thank my God for you always.” Whatever the connection these two men had, it’s evident their love for one another ran deep. Paul was deeply thankful for his friendship with Philemon and the fact they served Jesus together.
Paul was also grateful for the wonderful reputation Philemon had in his community. He says, “I thank my God… hearing of your love and the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints.” This man was not only known by his “love” for and “faith” in Jesus, but it was a “love and faith” that overflowed from his life to “all the saints.” You might say Philemon had an effective faith… One that manifested in a love for others!
Paul continues by explaining that while Philemon had developed such a sterling stature it was his prayer for his friend “that the sharing of his faith may become (more) effective by the acknowledgment of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.”
What Paul means is that he prays that Philemon might continue to grow in the knowledge that “every good thing” manifesting from his life came specifically from “Christ Jesus!” You see Paul understood that greater ministry effectiveness stems from an increased awareness that anything good in his life came directly from Jesus. The more you grow in this knowledge the more you depend on Him and not yourself - which increases your ministry effectiveness.
And why was this important… “For we have great joy and consolation in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you, brother.” Philemon was making such an impact that Paul was praying this would not only continue, but expand exponentially. Though he doesn’t know it yet, Paul is about to give Philemon an opportunity to do just that.
Philemon 1:8-9, “Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting, yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you - Being such a one as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ.”
“Therefore” or literally because of these things (the work Jesus was already doing in and through Philemon’s life) Paul is going to make an “appeal.” Though Paul feels he has every right to issue a command or a directive to Philemon (“I might be very bold to command”), the Apostle believes it was more important “for love’s sake” to simply ask a favor of his dear friend. The word “appeal” in the Greek means “to call to one’s side” or “to admonish.”
Paul knows what he’s about to ask of Philemon will prove to be challenging - which probably explains why Paul also butters him up with a little sympathy. “Philemon, though I could tell you want to do - knowing you’d obey me, as a dear friend - old and presently a “prisoner” for Jesus - I’d rather share with you my heart about a matter near and dear to my heart.”
Philemon 1:10-14, “I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me. I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel. But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary.”
The purpose of Paul’s “appeal” now comes front and center… Though Onesimus may have ran which undoubtedly came at a great personal cost for his master Philemon (“who once was unprofitable to you”), in a twist of fate this man had become of pivotal benefit to Paul.
Paul explains that he not only led Onesimus to the Lord (“whom I have begotten while in my chains”), but over time Onesimus had become a spiritual “son” to him. Their relationship since Onesimus’ salvation had become so important to Paul that he even says, “I wished to keep him with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the Gospel.”
And yet, in spite of all of this, Paul knew the right thing would be for Onesimus to return and reconcile with his master Philemon. Paul’s “appeal” and “his heart” was for Philemon to “receive Onesimus”, forgive him, and set him free, so that he could come back and minister with him. He adds, “But without your consent I wanted to do nothing.” In order for Onesimus to be free Philemon would have to liberate him “not by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary.”
Philemon 1:15-16, “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 flesh and in the Lord.”
I like the way Paul transitions to this next point. “For perhaps…” Paul refuses to play the Holy Spirit in Philemon’s life and become overly dogmatic. Though in no way does Paul claim the harm Onesimus had practically caused Philemon when he stole from him and ran away was part of God’s providential plan, Paul does seek to challenge Philemon’s perspective.
“Perhaps he departed for this purpose.” In light of the fact Onesimus ran away only to cross paths with Paul where he eventually came to know Jesus as his personal Savior, could Philemon at least concede something good came out of it all? Not only had Onesimus lifted Paul’s spirits while he was in prison, but in the process he’s become Philemon’s brother!
“For this purpose…” While Onesimus likely ran from Philemon for all the wrong reasons, God had a much larger plan in mind - Onesimus’ salvation! Paul is trying to get his dear friend to see the situation from an eternal perspective - a heavenly vantage point. Though Onesimus may have left Philemon as a slave, he’s now returning as a brother.
Philemon 1:17-19, “If then you count me as a partner, receive him as you would me. But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account. I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay - not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides.”
In a profound sense Paul is wanting Philemon to see that there was no longer a difference between he and Onesimus. Though at one point they may have been master and slave, there was now no escaping the reality they were brothers in Christ Jesus. To hammer home this point, Paul even goes so far as to say, “Receive him as you would me!”
What a picture! Paul so deeply wants Philemon to forgive, restore, and set Onesimus free that he was willing to stand beside a man who was guilty. And not only that, but Paul was willing to take Onesimus’ punishment onto himself! “If he has wronged you or owes anything” you can charge it to my account - as long as you remember “you owe me” even your life!
Philemon 1:20-25, “Yes, brother, let me have joy from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in the Lord. Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. But, meanwhile, also prepare a guest room for me, for I trust that through your prayers I shall be granted to you. Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you, as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow laborers. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.”
Once again the ball is in Philemon’s court. Paul is simply “appealing” to his friend not making demands. And yet, there is no doubt the Apostle is emphatic. He writes, “Let me have joy!” In the Greek Paul uses the word “onimēmi” which means “to be useful.” In actuality the name is similar to “Onesimus” indicating Paul is using a play on words… “Give me Onesimus!”
He then says, “Refresh my heart” which is clearly Paul’s way of playing on the earlier mention of how Philemon’s “love and faith in Jesus” had manifested to those around him. “Philemon, my prayer has been for you to grow in grace and here’s your opportunity. I know you’ve been harmed. I could, but won’t tell you what to do. That said… I “have confidence that you’ll do even more than I say” as you consider Jesus and all He’s done for you.”
Though we aren’t told what Philemon does, there is historical evidence that he ends up forgiving Onesimus and that God eventually used this freed slave in mighty ways. One of the grand questions concerning Philemon is why of all of Paul’s personal correspondence this was the only letter preserved and later included in the Cannon of Scripture.
According to Ignatius, writing to the church in Ephesus, he mentions a succession of pastors who’d ministered in this church. He says the Apostle John was succeeded by Timothy who was then later replaced by Onesimus. Guzik adds, “There is historical evidence that the letters of Paul were first gathered as a group in the church of Ephesus. Perhaps Onesimus compiled the letters, and wanted to make sure his charter of freedom was included.” Aside from this I can see all kinds of reasons the Holy Spirit wanted this letter included in Cannon!
Before we seek to unpack the two overarching themes presented in this letter, we do need to address the elephant in the room… There is no way around the fact Philemon (a friend of Paul, a believer, a minister of the Gospel, a good man known by his love and faith in Jesus, someone who’s very home housed the early church in Colossae) owned slaves.
Now there are many ways you can tackle this difficult reality… On one hand I could excuse Philemon by saying slavery was simply a cultural norm in the Roman Empire (i.e. most of the world was enslaved). Not to mention, slavery existed in literally every single culture up to this point in human history (Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, even the Jews).
Aside from this I could attempt to defend Philemon by drawing an important distinction between slavery in a 1st-century context as opposed to the way we view it in our Westernize, 21st-century perspective. For example in the Mosaic Law as well as in the Grecian and Roman context slavery could be a voluntary act designed to help a person pay off debt or provide for one’s basic needs. The truth of history is that slavery as a manifestation of racial prejudice like we saw in America between whites and blacks didn’t emerge until the 16th-century. Slavery in Biblical times simply didn’t carry with it the same type of social stigma.
If I wanted to get philosophical in my defense of Philemon, I could also make the argument that while we’ve abolished slavery have we really achieved freedom? The sad reality is that most everyone in our free society actually finds themselves in a different kind of slavery altogether. Enslaved to debt, a job they hate, an addiction, sexual proclivity, insecurities, etc. Mike Tyson said, “Some people try to get you out of slavery for you to be their slave.”
Though in America there is no doubt we’ve been afforded liberty, it’s only the liberty to choose our ultimate masters. Plato said, “The most aggravated form of slavery comes out of the most extreme liberty. Excess of liberty seems to pass into excess of slavery.”
In actuality, if I wanted to get spiritual… Even Christianity isn’t the freedom from slavery, but the opportunity to choose a better master - Jesus Christ. Men like Paul, James, Peter, Jude, and Epaphras describe themselves in Scripture as being “bondservants of Jesus Christ.” In 1 Corinthians 7:22 Paul writes, “He who is called while free is Christ's slave.” In Philippians 2:7 Paul even goes so far as to describe Jesus as presenting Himself as a slave to His father.
The truth is that the Bible is clear humanity was not created to be free from authority or governance. We either serve the True and Living God or we find ourselves enslaved to our base desirers. In Romans 1:25 Paul says when humanity fell from our design we “exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.” Andy Warhol observes, “Being born is like being kidnapped. And then sold into slavery.”
And yet, don’t mistake all of this as the Bible condoning slavery in the modern context as it manifests from a place of racial superiority. In Galatians Paul writes that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus… Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.” In his letter to the Colossians Paul again affirms that “there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all.”
With all of this in mind let’s quickly get to the two big ideas established in this letter… First, notice how Paul seeks to influence social change. Don’t forget he’s writing to a slave-master lobbying for him to forgive and set free a runaway. I guess in many ways in order to get to the essence of what Paul’s doing it’s important to point out what he doesn’t do!
Never once in this letter do we see Paul rebuke Philemon for owning slaves. As a matter of fact, Paul is very careful not to overstep his authority. Instead of issuing a command or directive, Paul makes an appeal to Philemon as a loving friend. In actuality Paul even acknowledges how Onesimus’ actions had negatively impacted Philemon - a slave owner!
Additionally, we don’t find Paul railing against the existence of slavery either. Once again Paul refuses to even delve into the intricacies of this social topic going so far as to send Onesimus back to his master to avoid controversy. As an Apostle Paul issues no mandates seeking the abolishment of slavery nor does he make championing this injustice his platform.
In contrast to the way Christians today try to enact social change aimed at rectifying societal injustices, Paul employs a more radicle approach… He seeks to influence the human heart, and he does this in two ways. First, Paul begins and ends his letter with the grace of God. It was simply a reality that the same grace that had saved Philemon had saved Onesimus.
You see, through the prism of God’s grace found in Jesus, Paul is trying to get Philemon to view Onesimus in a new context. Not only did God’s grace remove all distinctions, but it created a much larger similarity. Because of Christ and what He did on the cross Onesimus was his brother. Paul says Philemon could “receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave - a beloved brother both in flesh and in the Lord.”
What makes Paul’s approach so brilliant is that he’s effectively abolishing the framework for slavery by emphasizing God’s grace. Though previously Philemon and Onesimus had a slave-master relationship, they were now brothers in Christ Jesus. Paul’s appeal was for Philemon to treat Onesimus as Christ had treated him… With an unmerited favor!
Honestly, as Christians facing all types of social injustices in our culture, we’d be wise to model Paul’s approach. Notice Paul sought to influence social change without convoluting his larger message. He could preach grace alone, knowing grace had the power to effect real social change by first effecting change in the human heart.
Unlike many Christians who’ve become known by what their against (Anti-Gay, Anti-Trans, Anti-Hollywood, Anti-Liberal, Anti-Trump, Anti-Obamacare, Anti-NFL, Anti-Gun, Anti-GOP, etc.), because Paul championed Christ alone he didn’t allow himself to become defined by the things he was against, but rather the one Person he was for!
Aside from this what made his strategy revolutionary was that he knew grace was the only way to effect real change. Instead of an outside-in approach to change (imposing laws onto sinful men), he employs an inside-out approach (transforming the hearts of sinful men).
Understand… Because culture reflects society, railing against cultural decay fails to address the core problem. You see the key to the transformation of culture is the transformation of the individuals who makes up that society. Sure legislation might be the ultimate byproduct of societies change of heart, but it will never be the catalyst.
Attempting change through law never proves to be the ultimate remedy. We’ve had 50 years of Civil Rights Law, but to what end? The country is more divided than ever before and racial tensions are at there highest. What our culture needs isn’t Christians protesting societal ills… What our world needs most is Christians proclaiming Jesus and the power of His grace!
Onesimus could have refused to return to Philemon on the basis that slavery was wrong. Philemon could have refused to forgive on the basis he’d been robbed. Sadly, if each man played the victim both would have missed out on the greater miracle - reconciliation! And yet, since Paul focuses on the heart behind the injustice and not the injustice itself, God’s grace challenged the way they saw themselves and influenced the way they viewed each other.
The other big idea established in this letter big builds off the radicle nature of grace… On their own it’s unlikely the work of reconciliation would have occurred. What was needed was a man like Paul willing to arbitrate. It’s amazing that Paul felt so strongly about Onesimus returning and Philemon forgiving that he was willing to absorb the cost to see it happen.
Regardless of the issue of slavery there is no doubt Onesimus was a guilty man who’d stolen from Philemon. And while Paul’s appealed was for Philemon to forgive on the basis of God’s grace, the Apostle was willing to pay the price and make restitution if it was necessary.
Friend, can you think of a better picture of Jesus? You and I had a Master that we ran from like Onesimus. In spite of God’s love and the life He provided, we fled stealing from Him the very life He gave. We ran as far as we could until the day our path crossed with Jesus. How amazing that in His desire to see us reconciled with the God we were running from Jesus was not only willing to stand with the guilty, but was willing to pay our debt as well.
Martin Luther said, “Here we see how Paul lays himself out for poor Onesimus, and with all his means pleads his cause with his master, and so sets himself as if he were Onesimus, and had himself done wrong to Philemon. Even as Christ did for us with God the Father, thus also does Paul for Onesimus with Philemon. We are all his Onesimus, to my thinking.”
The appeal of Jesus before His Father for all who’d come into His grace is the same as the one Paul made to Philemon, “If then you count me as a partner, receive him as you would me” and “if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account. I will repay!”
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