Paul begs Philemon to have mercy on a runaway slave. Paul appeals to Philemon to forgive Onesimus.
The letter is written to Philemon, the owner of Onesimus, one of the millions of slaves in the Roman Empire, who had stolen from his master and run away.
Paul informed Philemon that Onesimus, a runaway slave, had become a Christian. Apparently, when Onesimus escaped from Philemon, he stole money or property and fled to Rome, hoping to disappear among the masses in the empire’s capital. Probably as a result of Paul’s ministry, Onesimus trusted Christ as his Savior. Realizing that Philemon was his legal owner, Paul sent him back to Colossae with the letter, encouraging Philemon to welcome him as a fellow believer, not as a slave (vv. 15– 16). He also emphasized that Onesimus had become “useful” in serving Christ (v. 11).
INVITATION TO PHILEMON
From prison in Rome, Paul sent his friends Tychicus and Onesimus to Asia Minor to deliver the letters we know as Colossians and Ephesians. Tychicus hadn’t ever met the people Paul was writing to, so Paul had to introduce him in these letters (see pp. 1654 and 1664). Onesimus was originally from Colossae and the people there would have known him. Even so, Paul also had to write on his behalf; in fact, he had to write a separate letter for him. This was because Onesimus had been the slave of a wealthy Colossian named Philemon, who hosted the community of Jesus-followers in his own home. Onesimus had run away, probably robbing Philemon in the process, and had ended up in Rome. Thehe became a follower of Jesus. He’d been helping Paul in prison, but now Paul needed him to return to Colossae. Paul hoped that Philemon would not only forgive Onesimus, but welcome him no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. Paul’s brief letter to Philemon stresses the change in Onesimus’ life. His name means useful in Greek, and Paul tells Philemon that while Onesimus had formerly been useless (a servant he couldn’t count on), he could now be useful to both of them. The letter reminds Philemon how much he owes Paul, since it was Paul’s own co-workers who love, but also promises to honor the demands of justice by making whatever restitution Philemon required. It’s most likely that Paul’s appeal was successful. This letter, and the other two that Onesimus and Tychicus were carrying, would probably not have been preserved otherwise. One tradition says that Onesimus was not only freed to work with the churches, but eventually became the leader of the large and influential community of believers in Ephesus. In his life, therefore, we have a specific example of the kind of transformation that occurred in thousands of lives as the good news about Jesus spread throughout the Roman Empire.
but also to Archippus, another leader of the church, and to Apphia (probably Philemon’s wife), likely hoping that they would help persuade Philemon to do as he was asking. Even so, he doesn’t put Philemon under any obligation. He ultimately appeals to him on the basis of
Philemon was a Christian, and he owned a slave. Slavery was a part of the fabric of nearly every culture and nation. Runaway slaves were considered criminals and were subject to harsh treatment or even death.
The Egyptians, Persians, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans all practiced slavery.
Paul’s letter to Philemon addresses the subject of a runaway slave.
Onesimus was a slave who had robbed and run away from his owner, Philemon, and had fled to Rome, where he came in contact with the teachings of the apostle Paul. He accepted the Christian faith as taught by Paul and had actually become a convert. Paul then sends Onesimus back to his former master with this letter and the hope that they can reconcile their differences and begin a new and better relationship.
The letter to Philemon is a message from God to people of all times and ages on how to eliminate all issues that divide men’s hearts.
Highlights of Philemon
Here are the highlights of how Paul approached this very difficult task in this letter:
1. Paul reminds Philemon that he is imprisoned in Rome for preaching the faith that both of them believe (verse 1).
2. He thanks Philemon for his great love and service to God’s work (verses 4-7).
3. Paul calls him a brother in the faith (verse 7).
4. He asks Philemon to welcome Onesimus back as a special favor to him and refers to Onesimus as a totally changed man and as Paul’s son in the faith (verses 8-10).
5. Paul writes that Onesimus is now a valuable asset to him in the ministry and is very dear to his heart, but he wants Philemon to see this also (verses 11-14).
6. Paul implies that all this is actually God’s purpose being worked out and that Onesimus should be treated more as a brother in the faith rather than as a slave. Paul writes that whatever Philemon does for Onesimus, it is as if he is doing it for Paul (verses 15-17).
7. Whatever Onesimus took from Philemon, Paul says he will repay (verses 18-19).
8. Paul continues by saying that he is confident that Philemon will do what is right and receive his former servant as a brother in the faith (verses 20-21).
Paul urges Philemon to practice the faith that he claims to follow and demonstrate that faith by building a new relationship with his former servant.
Slavery was practiced in the nations and empires of the first century, but Paul is making it clear that some of society’s ways of handling matters have no place in God’s Church.
The problem of slavery between Philemon and Onesimus should be resolved because each one embraced the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Bible.
The way to peace
The causes of human conflict come from human nature apart from God, each person doing what seems right in his or her own eyes. As long as people do what they think is right to them, there will always be friction, anger, discrimination, violence and war.
For more than two years during his third missionary journey, Paul ministered in Asia Minor among the people of Ephesus. This was a successful period for the apostle to the Gentiles, who saw many converts among both residents of Ephesus and visitors to the city.
One of the visitors converted under Paul’s teaching was a man named Philemon, a slave owner from the nearby city of Colossae (Philemon 1:19).
In the Bible book that bears Philemon’s name, Paul addressed his “beloved brother” as a “fellow worker,” a title given to those who served for a time alongside Paul. Clearly, a kinship existed between Paul and Philemon, one that would serve a significant purpose in light of the circumstance that brought about the letter.
A slave named Onesimus had escaped from his owner, Philemon, and had run away from Colossae to Rome in the hope that he could disappear into that populous, urban environment. Once in Rome, Onesimus, either by accident or by his own design, came in contact with Paul, who promptly led the runaway slave to faith in Jesus Christ.
Paul had already been planning to send a letter to the Colossian church by the hand of Tychicus. So in AD 60 or 61 from a prison cell in Rome, Paul wrote a personal letter to Philemon and sent Onesimus the slave back to Colossae.
The letter to Philemon reminds us that God’s revelation to humanity is intensely personal. In more formal biblical works such as the Gospels or the epistle to the Romans or even Paul’s letters to churches at Philippi or Colossae, it might be easy to get the impression that God does not care or have time for the trials and tribulations in a single household. Philemon stands as one piece of strong evidence to the contrary, revealing that lofty doctrines such as the love of God, forgiveness in Christ, or the inherent dignity of humanity have real and pertinent impact in everyday life. The book of Philemon illustrates that principles like these can and should profoundly affect the lives of believers. What’s the big idea? Paul’s message to Philemon was a simple one: based on the work of love and forgiveness that had been wrought in Philemon’s heart by God, show the same to the escaped and now-believing slave Onesimus. The apostle’s message would have had extra force behind it because he knew Philemon personally. Paul had explained the gospel to Philemon and had witnessed the profound result: new life blossoming in a once-dead heart (Philemon 1:19). Paul knew that conversion is nothing to trifle with, but that it should be honored and fostered. So Paul made a request. He wanted Philemon to forgive Onesimus, to accept the slave as a brother in Christ, and to consider sending Onesimus back to Paul, as the apostle found him useful in God’s service (1:11–14). Paul did not minimize Onesimus’s sin. This was not some kind of cheap grace that Paul asked Philemon to offer. No, there was sacrifice required in this request, and because of that, Paul approached the topic with gentleness and care (1:21). His letter to Philemon presents in full color the beautiful and majestic transition from slavery to kinship that comes as a result of Christian love and forgiveness. How do I apply this? Live long enough, and you will understand the difficulty of offering forgiveness when you have been wronged. It does not come easy, yet as believers, we have to recognize that our ability and willingness to offer it are the result of Christ’s saving work on the cross. Because of that fact, forgiveness serves as a determining factor in who we say we are and how we hope to live our lives. When we do not forgive, bitterness takes root in our hearts and chokes the vitality out of us. In what ways has forgiveness been a struggle for you since you accepted Christ’s forgiveness? Allow Paul’s letter to Philemon to encourage forgiveness in your own life, and trust God to foster renewed life in your heart and your relationships.
This is a letter written to Philemon, an influential member of the Church at Colosse in Asia Minor.
The subject of the letter is a runaway slave named Oneisimus who had ‘apparently’ stolen some money or things of worth from Philemon, his master, and fled to Rome where he could blend in with the large population and not be easily found. Somewhere in his travels he became involved with Paul and the Christian Church in Rome. It is apparent that he became a believer and a much loved co-worker with Paul.
The primary purpose of this letter, the most personal of all Paul’s letters, was to ask Philemon to forgive Onesimus and accept him back as a beloved brother and fellow servant in the gospel
Paul begs Philemon to have mercy on a slave.
I ask that you receive Onesimus back, not as a slave, but as a brother.
Onesimus had made his way to Rome, where, in the providence of God, he came in contact with the apostle Paul, who led him to trust in Christ. So now both Onesimus and Philemon were faced with doing their Christian duty toward one another. Onesimus was to return to his master and Philemon was to receive him with forgiveness as a Christian brother. Death was the normal punishment for a runaway slave, but Paul intercedes on behalf of Onesimus.
The letter to Philemon deals with the practice of slavery. The slave Onesimus robbed his master, Philemon, and ran away, making his way to Rome and to Paul. Onesimus was still the property of Philemon, and Paul wrote to smooth the way for his return to his master. Through Paul’s witnessing to him, Onesimus had become a Christian and Paul wanted Philemon to accept Onesimus as a brother in Christ and not merely as a slave.
Paul had warned slave owners that they had a responsibility towards their slaves and showed slaves as responsible moral beings who were to fear God. In Philemon, Paul did not condemn slavery, but he presented Onesimus as a Christian brother instead of a slave. When an owner can refer to a slave as a brother, the slave has reached a position in which the legal title of slave is meaningless. The early church did not attack slavery directly but it laid the foundation for a new relationship between owner and slave. Paul attempted to unite both Philemon and Onesimus with Christian love so that emancipation would become necessary.
Philemon was not the only slave holder in the Colossian church (see Col. 4:1), so this letter gave guidelines for other Christian masters in their relationships to their slave-brothers. Paul did not deny the rights of Philemon over his slave, but he asked Philemon to relate the principle of Christian brotherhood to the situation with Onesimus (v. 16). At the same time, Paul offered to pay personally whatever Onesimus owed. This letter is not an attack against slavery as such, but a suggestion as to how Christian masters and slaves could live their faith within that evil system.
Paul reminds Philemon that he is thankful to God for him because, even in Rome he has heard of Philemon’s faith in Jesus Christ and his love for the believers.
Paul prays that Philemon will be active in sharing the faith. To us this would sound like witnessing or preaching.
“Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, (9) yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I then, as Paul–an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus—I appeal to you for my son Onesimus,* who became my son while I was in chains.
“I am sending him–who is my very heart–back to you. 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. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good—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 man and as a brother in the Lord.”
Again Paul masterfully appeals to the Christianity of Philemon—if Onesimus is a believer he will be a better man and will be trustworthy and work with you.
“So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back–not to mention that you owe me your very self.” (NIV)
Again on a personal level, “So if you consider me a partner welcome him as you would welcome me”
And even more! “If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.” Paul knew about the Good Samaritan didn’t he?
Paul is sure of the response he will get, knowing full well that he has completed this task as directed by the Holy Spirit.
“And one thing more: Prepare a guestroom for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.”
So here we have a masterfully written letter. One that tugged at the heartstrings, leaned heavily on a Christian’s faith and forgiveness, and trusted heavily in the value of a relationship between two men, Paul and Philemon. Paul going the extra mile for Onesimus is a wonderful testimony to his character. Paul said if this man owes any debt at all charge it to me. And because I say so you should treat him as a brother and forgive him. And because of this Onesimus could stand before Philemon without fear of retribution. Jesus did the same thing when he went to the cross for our sins. We were unworthy and deserving of punishment for our sin but His shed blood covered our sins and paid our debt for us. Now if we accept Him as Lord and Savior, we may stand before our Father God without sin and without fear.
• Greetings (1–3)
• Thanksgiving and Prayer (4–7)
• Paul’s Plea for Onesimus (8–21)
• Final Request, Greetings and Benediction (22–25)