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Paul's Letter To Philemon

INTRODUCTION: This letter was written by the Apostle Paul to a local assembly that met in the house of a man who was a well loved believer. Paul's greeting named two others in the assembly, but the main content of the letter was intended for this man named Philemon. Paul made an appeal for another man who had apparently been a runaway slave, but Paul wanted to send him back to Philemon as one who had since become a disciple of Christ Jesus. Paul did not want to use his authority as an apostle to exert pressure because he believed Philemon would respond from love to take Onesimus back as a new brother in the LORD.

NOTE: Scripture passages are from the 1936 Williams New Testament.


Philemon 1 "1 Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and my brother Timothy, to our dearly loved fellow-worker Philemon, 2 to our sister Apphia, to our fellow-soldier Archippus, and to the church that meets at your house: 3 Spiritual blessing be with you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4 I always thank my God every time I mention you in my prayers, 5 because I continue to hear of the love and faith you have in the Lord Jesus and all His people, 6 and I pray that their sharing of your faith may result in their recognition in us of everything that is right with reference to Christ."

COMMENTS: There is nothing directly in the letter to reveal the city or region where Philemon lived, but Paul included Timothy as he greeted Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus by name, and the rest of the church in general. Verses 17 through 22 (covered in section D below) seem to indicate that Paul had previous personal contact with Philemon. The local church met in the house of Philemon, but Paul did not give any indication that Philemon was the pastor of the church. There is no mention of Apphia anywhere else in scripture, but Archippus is mentioned in Colossians and it is possible that he was actually the pastor of this assembly. More will be said about him in section E of this study. The opening to the three who were named, and to the rest of the church, included the desire that spiritual blessing would be with them in peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul then directed his remarks to Philemon as he expressed that he had thankfulness to God when ever he prayed for him because he often heard of the love and faith he had in the Lord Jesus and in all of the Lord's people. Paul also prayed that as others shared in Philemon's faith, they would be able to recognize everything that is right with reference to Christ. This could be a way of saying that Christ should be seen in the conduct of each Christian, and Paul's further comments could then be applied in general terms to other situations where Christians need to reconcile a matter that has developed to cause separation between them.


Philemon 1 "7 Yes, I have felt great joy and encouragement over your love, because the hearts of God's people have been refreshed by you, my brother. 8 So, although through union with Christ I have full freedom to order you to do your duty, 9 yet I prefer to appeal to you for love's sake, although I am such as I am, Paul an envoy of Christ Jesus but now a prisoner for Him too; 10 yes, I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whose father I have become while wearing these chains. 11 Once he proved to be useless, but now he is useful to you and me; 12 I am sending him back to you, which is all the same as sending my very heart."

COMMENTS: Paul complemented Philemon as a brother who has brought great joy and encouragement to him by knowing that Philemon's love had refreshed the hearts of other saints. So, Paul began to appeal to Philemon to act out of that love rather than to obey an instruction from Paul as an apostle of Christ. Paul said this was his preference though he was an envoy of Christ Jesus and even a prisoner for him at that present time. Paul then began to explain that Onesimus became a child of his in the faith, as he was converted while Paul was being held as a prisoner. When Paul said that once Onesimus had proved to be useless, that could certainly be true for a slave who became a runaway. Paul planned to send Onesimus back to Philemon and that would allow him to fulfill his responsibility to his master in obedience to the Lord. Paul said now Onesimus was useful to both of them, but Paul was going to send him back to Philemon even though it would be as if he sent his own heart. This was of course, a very endearing way to express how he felt about the newly converted Onesimus.

There is no explanation of how Onesimus had resources for a long journey that presumably would have taken weeks from the local church location to arrive at Rome. We also do not know why he went to Paul as a non-believer since he had already been in the midst of Christian influence in the house of Philemon. The simplest explanation may be that he left under some difficult circumstance, but then was led through the Spirit to the apostle Paul to fully understand faith in Jesus Christ, and to learn about reconciliation among Christians.


Philemon 1 "13 I would have liked to keep him with me, to wait on me in your stead while I wear these chains for the good news, 14 but I would not do a single thing about it without your consent, so that this kindness of yours to me might not seem to come by compulsion but voluntarily. 15 For perhaps it was for this reason that he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16 not as a slave any longer but more than a slave, a dearly loved brother, especially to me and much more to you, both as a servant and as a Christian."

COMMENTS: Paul's emphasis was not that he was a prisoner of the Roman government, but through the first two, and now this third reference of his condition, declared himself to be a prisoner of the LORD while he continued to spread the gospel. It is interesting that Paul had no complaints about his own condition of being held by a human authority. Paul indicated that he would have liked to keep Onesimus there to render personal service that Philemon could not provide due to being separated. However, Paul would not keep him there without express consent, because he would be taking advantage of the situation as if Philemon had with great kindness sent him to serve in his place, and then Philemon might feel compelled to leave him there. Paul said perhaps Onesimus had been away from Philemon with a purpose that had not been expected. But now he could return as a servant and also as a dearly loved brother in Christ, and Philemon could experience that new relationship in an even greater way than could Paul.

Paul may have counseled Onesimus in matters of the Christian relationship for slaves to their masters to prepare him to return, and Timothy could have given similar counsel since it was contained in Paul's letter to him when Timothy was a church leader at Ephesus. 1 Timothy 6:1 All who are under the yoke of slavery must esteem their masters to be deserving the highest respect, so that the name of God and our teaching may not be abused. 2 Those who have Christian masters must not pay them less respect because they are brothers; they must serve them all the better, because those who get the benefit of their service are believers and so are dear to them. These are the things that you must continue to teach and urge them to do."

There were similar instructions for slaves in Paul's letters to Colosse, and also instruction for the slave owners. That letter may have been written after the letter to Philemon, and it provided clear instructions to additional believers. Colossians 3 "22 Slaves, practice obedience to your earthly masters in everything, not as though they were watching you and as though you were merely pleasing men, but with sincerity of heart, because you fear the Lord. 23 Whatever you do, do it with all your heart, as work for the Lord and not for men, 24 for you know that it is from the Lord that you are going to get your pay in the form of an inheritance; so keep on serving Christ the Lord. For the man who wrongs another will be paid back the wrong he has done; and there are no exceptions. 4:1 Masters, you must practice doing the right and square things by your slaves, for you know that you have a Master in heaven."


Philemon 1 "17 So, if you consider me a comrade, take him to your bosom as you would me. 18 And if he has done you any wrong and owes you anything; charge it to my account. 19 I, Paul, write it with my own hand, I will pay it in full - not to mention the fact that you owe me your very self besides. 20 Yes, brother, I would like some return myself from you in the Lord's work. Through Christ refresh my heart. 21 I write you in perfect confidence in your compliance with my wish, because I am sure that you will do even more than I ask. 22 And have a guest-room ready for me, too, for I hope that through your prayers I shall have the gracious privilege of coming to you."

COMMENTS: Paul urged Philemon to receive Onesimus back in the warmest manner, even as he would receive Paul if he visited in person. Paul pledged to take personal responsibility to make good any wrong or to repay anything owed by Onesimus as if it was his own account to make right. Paul emphasized that he was putting this pledge in his own hand writing, and he added that Philemon owed him much in a spiritual sense. That may mean that Paul had personally led Philemon to his point of belief in Christ. Paul wanted to see from this brother, a return in the Lord's work through Christ, that his heart would be refreshed by such spiritual fruit.

Since this letter had others mentioned in the salutation, Paul apparently intended that his expectations would not be read by Philemon alone. We have no record of the group dynamic that may have been at work in this situation, but any others who took any part in this would have been under an obligation to do so carefully in Christian love. Since others in the local assembly would have known the way Onesimus had left, it was probably important for them to know the circumstances behind his return, while the only genuine resolution would need to be settled between Philemon and Onesimus. Paul expressed complete confidence that Philemon would respond to his request in a most generous fashion. Paul also requested that Philemon prepare a guest room and then to pray that Paul would have the privilege to soon be the guest of his gracious hospitality. Philemon apparently had abundant quarters since Paul had no hesitation to ask for a guest room to be made ready. This may have also been a subtle way of encouraging Philemon to quickly reconcile with Onesimus in the event that Paul would visit there.


Philemon "23 Epaphras, my fellow-prisoner in the cause of Christ Jesus, wishes to be remembered to you. 24 So do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow-workers. 25 The spiritual blessing of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit."

COMMENTS: In the opening of Paul's letter to the Colossians he wrote of the prayers that were offered for them because of their faith in Christ Jesus and of their love for all God's people. That opening records that Epaphras had been the one who shared the gospel of Jesus Christ with the Colossians some time earlier, and then personally reported to Paul that it had been bearing fruit and growing among them from the day they first heard of God's favor as love was awakened in them by the Spirit. Epaphras was with Paul at the time the letter to Philemon was written and he was also with Paul when the letter to the Colossians was written.

From the content of Colossians chapter 4, it is evident that Paul's letter to them was carried by Tychicus and Onesimus. Paul described Onesimus as "a faithful and dearly loved brother, who is one of your own number." It may be that after Onesimus had returned to Philemon, he subsequently became more generally known by believers at Colosse, and had again been with Paul before returning to Colosse with Tychicus. Epaphras may have been continually with Paul for the writing of the two letters since Paul included this comment in Colossians chapter 4: "Epaphras, one of your own number, a slave of Christ Jesus, wishes to be remembered to you. He is always earnestly pleading for you in his prayers that you may stand fast as men mature and of firm convictions in everything required by the will of God. For I can testify how great his toiling for you is and for the brothers in Laodicea and Hierapolis." Next, the remark made concerning Archippus in the letter to the Colossians seems to be appropriate for a continuing ministry if that letter was sent some time after the reference to him in the opening of the letter to Philemon. Paul then closed Colossians with a reminder that he was still a prisoner. Colossians 4 "17 And tell Archippus, "See to it that you continue until you fill full your ministry which you received in the Lord's work." 18 This farewell greeting is in my own hand, from Paul. Remember that I am still a prisoner. Spiritual blessing be with you." What an appropriate desire to express to either open or close a greeting among Christians.


LORD, when I think of Paul's life I want to have some of the attitude he had, that whether he was traveling to spread your Word, or as a prisoner in Rome, he was always serving you from his heart. Because of his very evident example in his circumstances, he could easily minister to a runaway slave, and then make an appeal to Philemon to act in love to Onesimus. LORD, I want to keep in mind the fact that others may be involved in many aspects of interpersonal relationships between two people when an assembly of believers share much of their lives together. In such a setting, it should not be necessary to apply leadership authority to maintain mutual respect regardless of an individual's social standing or the wrongs that need to be forgiven. Love should always be the foundation of any effort to reconcile difficulties. Paul was an apostle chosen directly by you, Jesus, but he continued to serve even while a prisoner as a result of hatred from his own Jewish people, and even carried a burden for their salvation. The conversion of this man Onesimus was validated by his willingness to trust you as he returned to Philemon without knowing what kind of reception awaited him. May I trust you, LORD, in similar times when there is uncertainty ahead of me. Help me to demonstrate a confidence, as did Paul, in the strong faith that I have seen in other Christians for those times when they will be tested by various trials. May I pray for them out of that confidence, and in complete faith that you, LORD, are always watching over your children. Thank you for the record of strong ties between separated believers in an era when both communication and transportation were not nearly as available and rapid as today. Help me, LORD, to use the advantages of advanced communication and travel to encourage other Christians. May your spiritual blessing be with me and my Christian friends. Amen.

Published 30 December 2014