Greeting, 1-3

Philemon - sermon notes 1

[This was the first of a pair of sermons preached on this wonderful little letter of Paul.  The aim was to summarise the letter, while encouraging the listener to get into the feelings and experiences of the individuals involved.  The main applications came in the second sermon.]


I want to take you back in time to a day in the year AD 61. It is early evening, and Philemon and his wife Apphia are looking out from the veranda of their home in Colossae. Silhouetted against the sinking are two figures, making their way wearily yet purposefully towards them. As they draw closer, Apphia says to her husband, “I’m not sure who these two characters are, but one of them looks just like that slave of ours – you known, the one who ran away.” “You mean Onesimus – Mk Useless? He didn’t just run away, he took half our savings with him. Wherever has he been all this time? Whatever has he come back here for? He must realise I could have him killed. Still, I suppose he was bound turn up again – just like a bad denarius.”

The two travellers make their way up to the house. Sure enough, one is Onesimus, the runaway slave. The other introduces himself: “My name is Tychicus. I bring greetings from Paul in Rome.” He hands over a scroll. “This is a letter from Paul to the house-fellowships here in Colossae.” Onesimus says nothing. But he too has a scroll, which he gives to Philemon. “Well,” says Philemon, “we’ve better see what this has to say. Please come in, Tychicus. Any friend of Paul’s is a friend of hours. Onesimus, you rascal, you’d better stay out here. I havn’t a clue about what we’re going to do about you.’

Husband, wife, and traveller go inside. Apphia is curious to know the contents of the scroll which Onesimus has brought. She unseals it, and begins to read:-

‘Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus’ – This is a letter from Paul, too. It’s ‘To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home’ – “You must meet our son Archippus. He’s one of the leaders of the church here in Colossae. He’s a bit of a scholar. Paul gave him some work to do, straightening out the bad teaching in some of the other house fellowships, and I’ll bet Paul will want to know how he’s getting on.”

‘Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’ – “Yes, it’s from Paul, alright. That’s the way he always starts his letters.”

‘I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers’ – “That’s just like Paul too, isn’t it? He wants you to know that although he’s stuck under house-arrest in Rome he’s continually thanking God for you and praying for you.”

‘Because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints’ – “Yes, even at 1,000 miles away he’s keen to hear news that we are growing in faith and love.”

‘I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.’ – “What does that mean, Archippus?” “Father, Paul seems to be hinting that although he’s delighted with the news he’s heard about you, there’s something more he wants you to do.”

‘Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints’ – “Perhaps he’s thinking of that terrible earthquake last year. He must have heard how much you did for all the believers who were injured and made homeless then.”

‘Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love’ – “Philemon, Archippus was right. There is something Paul wants you to do. I wonder what it can be?”

‘I then, as Paul–an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus–I appeal to you…’ – “Well yes,” says Philemon, “anything Paul could ask me to do is nothing compared with what he has gone through for the faith.”

‘I appeal to you for my son Onesimus’ – “Onesimus!” “My son Onesimus!” “Where is Onesimus?” “We left him outside!” “Onesimus, you’d better come in!”

‘My son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains’ – “Onesimus, you ran away from us, stealing our money, made your way to Rome, to Paul, and he led you to Christ?” Onesimus smiles, and nods. Philemon and Apphia are thinking exactly the same thing: ‘While he was with us, we did everything we could to talk to him, to treat him fairly, to pray for him, and we couldn’t get him the least bit interested in the things of Christ. To be honest, we’d just about given up on him. He was lazy, uncouth and dishonest. So what does he do? He steals from us, runs away, and finds Jesus in a prison in Rome. It’s Apphia who puts her feelings into words, “It’s just like in that old hymn, isn’t it? – ‘God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform’.”

‘Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me’ – “Ha ha, that’s a good one, Onesimus. That’s what your name means, isn’t it – Useful? Paul is sure you’ve undergone a complete transformation.’ Onesimus’ smile is becoming a little broader.

‘I am sending him–who is my very heart–back to you’ – “Wow, Paul really cares about you, doesn’t he? It’s so painful for him to send you back to us that it’s as though he was saying goodbye to a part of himself.”

‘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–‘ – “What a wonderful God, who overules even the bad things we do and turns them into good!” exclaims Archippus. “It’s just like in the story of Joseph: ‘You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good'” (Gen 50:20).

‘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.’ – Archippus speaks up again, “Dad, Paul is asking you to do something difficult but very important. He is asking you to take Onesimus back, to forgive him, and to receive him as a Christian brother. But that’s nothing less than the gospel demands. For hasn’t Paul often said, ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ And hasn’t his teaching recently been, ‘Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.’?”

‘So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me’ – Philemon: “See how Paul puts himself in your place, Onesimus! Well, of course I would welcome him with open arms. And now he is asking me to welcome you in his place! I don’t think I want to refuse?”

‘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–‘ – “Well, Onesimus, you do owe us rather a lot. There’s the money you took when you ran away, and, of course the value of the work you should have been doing…”

‘Not to mention that you owe me your very self’ – “Dad, think of what your own life would have been if Paul had not led you to Christ. Think of the value of eternal life. Now, are you going seriously to ask Paul to pay back what Onesimus owes you?”

Well, Paul’s gentle persuasion wins the day. We can imagine the reconciliation that took place between the runaway slave and his aggrieved owner, through the courteous intervention of a wise Christian leader confined to a jail over a thousand miles away.

“Onesimus, it is my privilege and duty to forgive you completely. I see that we are equal before God, and have the same need both to receive forgiveness and to show it. I welcome you just as I would welcome Paul himself. I forgive you for the ways in which you have wronged me. I receive you as a brother in Christ.”

And when at last Onesimus opened his mouth to say something, it was to ask if he could keep the letter that Paul had sent to Philemon. This was his reason: “If someone ever makes a collection of Paul’s letters for future generations to read, I’d like to make sure this one is included.” “Yes, but what will they make of it? Supposing some Christians, say, 1,937 years from now, who were neither slaves nor slave-owners, picked up this letter and tried to find in it a message from God for themselves. What would you say to them?’ “Well,” replied Onesimus, tucking the precious scroll under him arm and wearing a big smile on his face. “I’d say to them, ‘Come back next week, and you might just find out.'”

Philemon - sermon notes 2

Onesimus, a slave, had run away from Philemon. He had met Paul in Rome, and there become a believer. Paul sent him back to Colossae with a letter, asking the master to forgive the slave, and to receive him back.

What was Paul’s motivation? Clearly, he had come to love Onesimus as a Christian brother. Clearly, too, he believed that all people are equal in the sight of God. (Gal 3:28) ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’

What was Paul’s method? Interesting that he didn’t come right out and condemn slavery. However, this is in complete accord with the teaching of Christ, who made it clear that he had no interest in overthrowing the kingdoms of this world, in order to establish an earthly kingdom of his own. But the gospel does change things, only it starts with the heart. Paul sows the seeds of the liberating gospel into the tough soil of slavery. Those seeds bore fruit in the lives of Onesimus, the runaway slave, and Philemon, his master. The slave returns to the master, no longer a slave but “brother in the Lord” (Philem 15-16). The letter to Philemon is moving in the realm of personal relationships where the institution of slavery, together with all other forms of bondage and oppression, could only wilt and die.

But how did Paul sow these seeds in Philemon’s heart? How did he set about persuading Philemon to accept and forgive Onesimus?

One approach to the art of persuasion can be found in ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’. Title of famous book by Dale Carnegie.

‘Fundamental techniques in handling people’ – Don’t criticize, condemn or complain. ‘Six ways to make people like you’ – Become genuinely interested in other people; Smile, Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language, ‘Win people to your way of thinking’ – appeal to the nobler motives ‘How to change people without giving offense or arousing resentment’

Verdict – it’s half right.

But if you want to learn how to influence people for good, have a look at how Paul sets about it in this letter to Philemon. See how he builds rapport, engages the mind, appeals to the emotions. It is a masterpiece of tactful persuasion. Paul shows us what it means to be complimentary without being flattering, honest without being rude; to be persuasive without being manipulative. One big difference:- Paul’s motivation is not self-interest, but concern for the other person. His aim is not to get the best for himself, but to get the best for Philemon and Onesimus.

Now, where does that kind of tactfulness come from? It is the offspring of truth and love. Paul himself links these two words in Eph 4:15 when he says that we will really grow as Christians when we learn to ‘speak the truth in love’. How often do we as Christians fail to give proper care and attention to truth and love? How frequently we care for the one and neglect the other? Either in our zeal for the truth we become strident and doctrinaire. Or, in our concern to be loving we become both mentally and morally spineless.

‘Speaking the truth in love’ occasionally means having to say hard things to one another. But to do so truthfully and in love is not only a skill which must be learned, but also a right which must be earned. And it is earned by spending time building up trust with each other. ‘Speaking the truth in love’ demands that wherever possible, we should spend more time commending and encouraging the good we see in one another than in criticising the bad (in a ratio of 14:1).

(2 Sam 12:1-7) The LORD sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. (2) The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, (3) but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him. (4) “Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.” (5) David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die! (6) He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.” (7) Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man!”

Paul does not only have the good of Onesimus in mind. He is also concerned for Philemon. Where is it all leading to, as far as Philemon is concerned?

In proportion as Philemon learns to forgive, so he is becoming more like God. The more we forgive, the more evidence we show that we are children of our heavenly Father.

Someone has said, ‘We are most like beasts when we kill. We are most like men when we judge. We are most like God when we forgive.’

(Eph 4:32) Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Eph 5:1) Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children.

(Mt 5:44-45) But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, (45) that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.

In a word, let us see in this letter to Philemon how Christians are meant to love one another, and hear the words of our Saviour, although uttered in a different context, “Go, and do thou likewise.”

Phm 1:1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker,

The greeting is a standard one for Paul, apart from the first phrase. Paul describes himself as a prisoner – an actual, rather than a figurative imprisonment, although he hopes soon to be released, v22. This serves to introduce the idea that the sacrifice he is about to ask of Philemon is trifling compared with the hardship he himself is now enduring. ‘How could Philemon resist an appeal which was penned within prison walls and by a manacled hand?’ (Lightfoot)

Of Christ Jesus – That is, he is a prisoner for the Lord’s sake. A request from someone who is suffering for the faith should, no doubt, be received with special consideration.

Our dear friend – Philemon belongs to a community of Christian love within which he is expected to demonstrate, as well as receive, kindness and forgiveness. Onesimus will shortly be referred to as ‘a dear brother’, v16 This phrase, and the next, suggest that Philemon is known personally to Paul. V19 confirms that Philemon had been converted through Paul’s ministry; this probably occurred in Ephesus.

Fellow worker – This would seem to mark Philemon out as some kind of officer in the local church, for Paul would probably not have addressed a private Christian thus. But it also reminds Philemon of the common task of witnessing to the gospel both in word and deed.

Phm 1:2 to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home:

To Apphia…to Archippus – Although these others are mentioned out of courtesy, the body of the letter is written to Philemon in the singular. However, if Onesimus is to receive the welcome Paul is hoping for, he will have to be reconciled not only to Philemon, but also to the family and to the church as a whole. Apphia may well have been Philemon’s wife. Archippus seems to have had some kind of recognised ministry taking up pastoral responsibility in the absence of Epaphras; (cf Col 4:17) hence the stronger term used to describe him. He may have been the son of Philemon and Apphia, given that the letter is addressed to the household.

Fellow soldier – ‘Although the condition of a soldier belongs to all Christians universally, yet because teachers may be regarded as standardbearers in the warfare, they ought to be ready more than all others to fight, and Satan usually gives them greater annoyance.’ (Calvin)

The church that meets in your home – A fascinating little sidelight on the NT local church: a group of people met in this house for prayer, praise, and study. This church had not been founded by Paul, nor had he visited it, Col 1:1-8 2:1. It could be that the church developed from his work at Ephesus, Acts 19:10,20,26, and that the founder was in fact Epaphras, Phile 23. This, apparently, was the church which met in the home of Philemon It is mentioned here because Onesimus would have to be recognised as a true believer and take his place within the fellowship of the church. It is to be recalled that the early churches had no special buildings for their meetings; therefore private homes were used. It is possible that the entire Christian community of Colosse met her. However, the community may have consisted of several groups, each meeting in a different home. If the latter was the case, this would account for Paul’s concerns about unit. In any case, the mention of the church shows that this is not simply a private communication between Paul and Philemon.

‘The New Testament churches met in homes Rom,16:5,23 1 Cor 16:19, and perhaps the church in Philemons house was one of two assemblies in Colossae.’ (Col 4:15) (Wiersbe)

Phm 1:3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Grace…and peace – ‘Observe, Spiritual blessings are first and especially to be sought for ourselves and others. The favour of God and peace with him, as in itself it is the best and most desirable good, so is it the cause of all other, and what puts sweetness into every mercy and can make happy even in the want of all earthly things. Though there be no herd in the stall, and the labour of the olive fail, yet may such rejoice in the Lord, and joy in the God of their salvation, Hab 3:17,18. There are many that say, who will show us any good? But, if God lift up the light of his countenance, this will put more joy and gladness into the heart than all worldly increase, Ps 4:6,7. And Nu 6:26, The Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.’ (M. Henry)

Thanksgiving and Prayer, 4-7

Phm 1:4 I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers,

Verses 4-7 clear the way in a most courteous and tactful way for the main thrust of the letter, the request concerning Onesimus. It has been remarked that Paul’s introductory thanksgivings a function similar to that of an overture to an opera – they announce the main themes which will be developed later. In these four verses a number of such themes are stated: ‘love’; ‘heart’; ‘sharing/fellowship’; ‘partner’; ‘good/goodness’; and so on.

I always thank my God – Not so much unceasing as regular praise to God. ‘God is the author of all the good that is in any, or that is done by them.’ (M. Henry) What God has already done for them becomes the basis of Paul’s prayer that God will do yet more. ‘It deserves attention, that he at the same time prays for that very thing for which he “gives thanks.” Even the most perfect, so long as they live in the world, never have so good ground for congratulation as not to need prayers, that God may grant to them, not only to persevere till the end, but likewise to make progress from day to day.’ (Calvin)

It was characteristic of Paul to open his letters with expressions of thankfulness and praise to God. It was so whether he was writing to individuals such as Timothy or to churches in general (Galatians being the exception).

It should be noted that Paul does not congratulate Philemon on his Christian conduct, but gives thanks to the God from whom all blessings flow.

As I remember you in my prayers – No complacency here: Paul is thankful for what God has already done in Philemon’s life, but he prays for that work to be completed. Cf. Php 1:6. By the way, how often do we let people know, not only that we will pray for them, but also that we have prayed for them and are praying for them.

‘Our prayers and praises should be offered up to God, not for ourselves only, but for others also. Private addresses should not be altogether with a private spirit, minding our own things only, but others must be remembered by us. We must be affected with joy and thankfulness for any good in them, or done by them, or bestowed on them, as far as is known to us, and seek for them what they need. In this lies no little part of the communion of saints. Paul, in his private thanksgivings and prayers, was often particular in remembering his friends: I thank my God, making mention of thee in my prayers; sometimes it may be by name, or at least having them particularly in his thoughts; and God knows who is meant, though not named. This is a means of exercising love, and obtaining good for others. Strive with me, by your prayers to God for me, said the apostle: and what he desired for himself he surely practised on behalf of others; so should all. Pray one for another, says James, 5:16.’ (M. Henry)

Love in Action

  • Thankful for the good seen in others, v4
  • Seeks the welfare of others, v10
  • Deals honestly with others, v12
  • Bears the burdens of others, v18
  • Believes the best in others, v21

Phm 1:5 because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints.

I hear about your faith – probably from Epaphras, Col 1:4,7-8; 4:12, and possibly from Onesimus himself.

And your love for all the saints – love which he hopes will now be further called forth for the benefit of Onesimus.

This verse has a chiasmic (ABBA) structure in the original: ‘hearing of your love and faith which you have towards the Lord Jesus and to all the saints.’

‘This praise, which he bestows on Philemon, includes briefly the whole perfection of a Christian man. It consists of two parts, faith in Christ, and love towards our neighbors; for to these all the actions and all the duties of our life relate.’ (Calvin)

‘These two must go together; for he who loveth him that begat must and will love those also that are begotten of him. The apostle joins them in that, (Col 1:3,4) we give thanks to God since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus, and of the love which you have to all the saints. These bear the image of Christ, which will be loved by every Christian. Different sentiments and ways in what is not essential will not make a difference of affection as to the truth, though difference in the degrees of love will be according as more or less of that image is discerned. Mere external differences are nothing here. Paul calls a poor converted slave his bowels. We must love, as God does, all saints.’ (M. Henry)

Phm 1:6 I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.

I pray that – supplied by the NIV

You may active (effective) in sharing (Gk. koinonia) your faith – The idea is that of ‘making a contribution’. Paul hopes that Philemon’s faith might lead to some definite action to help Onesimus. ‘Sharing your faith’ does not refer to personal evangelism. It means, rather, a practical outworking of one’s faith in a way that will benefit others. ‘The idea we need to grasp – the theme that dominates the letter – is that, in Christ, Christians not only belong to one another but actually become mutually identified, truly rejoicing with the happy and genuinely weeping with the sad, Rom 12:15; cf 1 Cor 12:26 2 Cor 11:28f. Koinonia is part of the truth about the body of Christ. All are bound together in a mutual bond that makes our much-prized individualism look shallow and petty.’ (N.T. Wright)

So that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ – Again, Paul is preparing Philemon for the request which follows, v14. Just as Christ has given freely to us, without compulsion, so we should give spontaneously to others. Mt 10:8, ‘Freely you have received, freely give.’

Phm 1:7 your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.

You, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints – Some specific instance of Philemon’s love-in-action seems to be in mind here. Once again, Paul is appealing to past generosity in order to pave the way for an appeal for future kindness. ‘As Philemon had shown himself to be a true Christian brother in the past, he is again called to live up to this description by the way in which he received Onesimus.’ (Wilson)

Paul’s Plea for Onesimus, 8-22

Phm 1:8 Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do,

Paul now turns to a direct plea on behalf of Onesimus.

Therefore – That is, ‘What I am about to ask you to do is based on what I already know you to be.’

I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do – There is a very real authority which Paul has as an apostle, although he declines to exercise it. If he did so, Philemon would probably do what he asked, but only the minimum, and then with resentment. ‘This was a matter within the compass of the apostles power to require, though he would not in this instance act up to it. Observe, Ministers, whatever their power be in the church, are to use prudence in the exercise of it; they may not unseasonably, nor further than is requisite, put it forth; in all they must use godly wisdom and discretion.’ (M. Henry)

Paul treads carefully and weighs his words, wishing to make his meaning clear without causing unecessary offence. Rather than command Philemon, he entreats him, building on the friendship that has already been established between them, and appealing to Philemon’s character as a Christian man.

‘Hence pastors are reminded that the hearts of their people must be soothed with all possible gentleness, wherever this method is likely to be more advantageous, but yet so as to know that they who are treated so gently have nothing less exacted from them than what they ought to do.’ (Calvin)

‘Estimates suggest that there were 60 million slaves in the Roman Empire, men and women who were treated like pieces of merchandise to buy and sell. A familiar proverb was So1 many slaves, just so many enemies! The average slave sold for 500 denarii (one denarius was a days wage for a common laborer), while the educated and skilled slaves were priced as high as 50,000 denarii. A master could free a slave, or a slave could buy his freedom if he could raise the money. (Ac 22:28)

If a slave ran away, the master would register the name and description with the officials, and the slave would be on the wanted2 list. Any free citizen who found a runaway slave could assume custody and even intercede with the owner. The slave was not automatically returned to the owner, nor was he automatically sentenced to death. While it is true that some masters were cruel (one man threw his slave into a pool of man-eating fish!), many of them were reasonable and humane. After all, a slave was an expensive and useful piece of personal property, and it would cost the owner to lose him.’ (Wiersbe)

Phm 1:9 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 on the basis of love – ‘Since Paul has been given impressive proof of Philemon’s love, he will not invoke his authority as an apostle to command what ought to be done. He prefers to entreat “for love’s sake.” (Wilson)

An old man – Some versions translate ‘ambassador’, but it is unlikely that Paul would use an official title in what is a personal appeal. He would have been around sixty years of age.

The reader might at this stage have assumed that Paul was going to ask something for himself. No no: read on.

Phm 1:10 I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains.

I appeal to you – After the foregoing careful preparation, Paul arrives at the main point of his letter. This is in the singular: it is Philemon himself who is being appealed to.

My son Onesimus – Paul makes it clear how he views Onesimus: not as slave, a runaway and a thief (although he was all these things) but as a son.

Who became my son while I was in chains – Onesimus was converted through Paul’s ministry while the latter was in prison. The idea of spiritual parenthood is used in relation to the Corinthians, (1 Cor 4:15) Timothy (1 Cor 4:17) and Titus. (Tit 1:4) Let us reflect on, and be encouraged by, the thought that Philemon and others in Colosse may well have worked and prayed for some considerable time for Onesimus. The expected channel fails, the slave runs away, and comes to faith in a totally unexpected way.

‘Paul’s plea for Onesimus is often compared with the letter written by Pliny the Younger in which he asks Sabinianus to forgive his freedman for having run away. But though both letters deal with a similar situation, the contrasts are more striking than the resemblances. Pliny is uncertain of the future good conduct of the freedman, but Paul has no doubt about the slave’s. In assuming that Sabinianus will be justly angry, Pliny begs him not to resort to torture; whereas Paul not only counts on Philemon’s forgiveness but also expects him to receive his slave as a brother beloved, v16. Pliny sternly threatened the freedman, but there is no hint that Paul spoke severely to the slave. Pliny’s letter appeals to Stoic virtue, but Paul’s recknons on the response of Christian love.’ (Wilson)

Phm 1:11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.

Formerly he was useless to you – ‘I’ll say he was,’ we can imagine Philemon thinking. There is a play on words here, for ‘Onesimus’ means ‘useful’. Slaves such as Onesimus were notorious for their laziness and unreliability. And such had Onesimus been formerly. But now he is a transformed character, and can be profitable both to Paul and to Philemon.

‘Christianity knows nothing of hopeless cases. If professes its ability to take the most crooked stick and bring it straight, to flash a new power into the blackest carbon, which will turn it into a diamond.’ (MacLaren)

Phm 1:12 I am sending him-who is my very heart-back to you.

I am sending him back – Paul sends Onesimus back with the accompanying letter. But it is with some regret, since Onesimus has become very dear to him. He is accompanied and supported by Tychicus, Col 4:7-9.

Who is my very heart – A remarkable expression of the way Paul not only loved, but identified with, Onesimus. He had received him into his very heart. This being the case, any kindness shown to him by Philemon will be as if it had been shown to Paul. ‘Here-‘ Paul seems to be saying, ‘I am sending you a part of my very self.’

Phm 1:13 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.

I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me – But Paul is not willing to deny Philemon his right to Onesimus, so he is sending him back in the hope that Philemon might gladly return him to continue to help and support Paul. Notice the way in which Paul identifies Philemon with Onesimus – ‘assuming that Philemon had been wishing that he himself could render such service to Paul; and also that, prevented by distance from doing so, Philemon, had he but know all the circumstances, would have been only too happy to substitute the services of Onesimus for his own.’ (Hendriksen)

While I am in chains for the gospel – ‘From this last consideration we infer, that we ought to aid the martyrs of Christ by every kind office in our power, while they are labouring for the testimony of the gospel; for if exile, imprisonment stripes, blows, and violent seizing of our property, are believed by us to belong to the gospel, as Paul here calls them, whoever refuses to share and partake of them separates himself even from Christ. Undoubtedly the defence of the gospel belongs alike to all. Accordingly, he who endures persecution, for the sake of the gospel, ought not to be regarded as a private individual, but as one who publicly represents the whole Church. Hence it follows, that all believers ought to be united in taking care of it, so that they may not, as is frequently done, leave the gospel to be defended in the person of one man.’ (Calvin)

Phm 1:14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced.

Spontaneous and not forced – Here is a general rule for the Christian, that no good deeds are acceptable to God except those which are offered freely. Love cannot be compelled, and so the decision must be Philemon’s. Cf. 2 Cor 8:1-6; 9:7.


Tactfulness is a notable virture. Although worldly people can show it to a remarkable degree, Lk 16:8, in its highest form it is a Christian grace. It is the offspring of love and wisdom. It is the ability to be honest without being rude.

God himself is the model for tactfulness, as shown in his dealings with our first parents, Gen 2:18-24; 3:9-19; with Cain, Gen 4:7, 15; with Abraham, Gen 12:1-3; and Jonah, Jon 4:10,11.

Jesus demonstrated this quality also, as with the Samaritan woman, Jn 4:1-42; with Thomas, Jn 20:24-29; and Peter, Jn 21:15-17.

Other human examples include (a) from the OT – Abraham, Gen 13:1-13; Joshua, Josh 24:15; Abigail, 1 Sam 25:14-33; Nathan, 2 Sam 12:1-12; Solomon, 1 King 3:16-28; and Mordecai, Esth 4:13f. (b) from the NT – Joseph, Mt 1:19; John the Baptist Jn 3:22-30; ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’, Jn 27:19; Gamaliel, Act 5:33-42; the Jerusalem Conference, Act 15:22-29; Lydia, Act 16:15; the town-clerk, Act 19:35-41; Paul, Act 23:6-9; 27:20-26, 33-36.

For further light on Paul’s tactfulness, consider that he was eager to become ‘all things to all people’, 1 Cor 9:22; that he would choose one approach to the Jews, Act 13:16-41 and another to the Gentiles, Acts 17:22-31. Moreover he was willing to work with his hands in order not to be a burden, 1 Th 2:9. He habitually spoke words of praise and encouragement even when he needed to follow with reprimands and admonitions. Yet he never used flattery, 1 Th 2:5, and when necessary could express deep indignation, Gal 3:1. The letter to Philemon is a model of tactfulness throughout.

Such use of tactful discretion is often recommended in Proverbs – 1:4; 2:1-5; 2:11; 3:1-12; 3:21; 5:2; 8:12; 1-:19; 11:22; 15:1, 17, 28; 19:11; 22:24; 25:11.

Adapted from Hendriksen, The Epistles to the Colossions and Philemon, 231f.

See also Phile 1:14.

Phm 1:15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good-

Perhaps the reason he was separated from you – A euphemistic expression, focusing on Philemon’s loss rather than Onesimus’ desertion. This suggests that God has overuled the evil for good. ‘If we are angry on account of offences committed by men, our minds ought to be soothed, when we perceive that those things which were done through malice have been turned to a different end by the purpose of God. A joyful result may be regarded as a remedy for evils, which is held out to us by the hand of God for blotting out offences. Thus Joseph-when he takes into consideration, that the wonderful providence of God brought it about, that, though he was sold as a slave, yet he was elevated to that high rank, from which he could provide food for his brethren and his father-forgets the treachery and cruelty of his brethren, and says, that he was sent before on their account.’ (Ge 45:5) (Calvin)

So Paul, without excusing Onesimus for any wrongdoing, also perceives the overuling providence of God. ‘See the hand of God in all that has happened,’ he seems to say. Cf Gen 50:20.

That you might have him back for good – Before, there had always been a risk that Onesimus might have run away. But now, Philemon can have him back as a changed man, for good. The loss was temporary; the gain is permanent.

Phm 1:16 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 man and as a brother in the Lord.

No longer as a slave – That is, no longer merely as a slave, but something more and something better. The relationship is now something other than master and slave, since both alike are brothers in Christ, 1 Cor 7:21-24; Col 3:11.

Calvin comments that ‘the elect of God are sometimes brought to salvation by a method that could not have been believed, contrary to general expectation, by circuitous windings, and even by labyrinths. Onesimus lived in a religious and holy family, and, being banished from it by his own evil actions, he deliberately, as it were, withdraws far from God and from eternal life. Yet God, by hidden providence, wonderfully directs his pernicious flight, so that he meets with Paul.’

‘This passage makes it clear that Paul does not consider immediate, forced emancipation the true solution of the slavery problem. He does not say, “that you might set him free,” but “that you might have him back, no longer as a slave but something better than a slave, a brother beloved.” When a slave becomes a “brother beloved,” he ceases to be a slave, though he still is, as in this case, a servant.’ (Hendriksen)

Phm 1:17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.

If you consider me a partner – a koinonos – one who shares in, and shares out, all the spiritual benefits that are ours in Christ. So Paul is saying, ‘If you reckon that you share with me in all the good things of Christ, let this sharing extend equally to Onesimus.’

Vv 17f provide an excellent example of Gal 6:2 in action.

Welcome him as you would welcome me – ‘This is to me an illustration of what Jesus Christ has done for us as believers. Gods people are so identified with Jesus Christ that God receives them as he receives his Son! We are accepted in the Beloved (Eph 1:6) and clothed in his righteousness. (2 Cor 5:21) we certainly cannot approach God with any merit of our own, but God must receive us when we come to him in Jesus Christ. The word receive in Philemon 17 means to receive into ones family circle. Imagine a slave entering his masters family! But imagine a guilty sinner entering Gods family!

Paul did not suggest that Philemon ignore the slaves crimes and forget about the debt Onesimus owed. Rather, Paul offered to pay the debt himself. Put it on my account I will repay it! The language in Philemon 19 sounds like a legal promissory note of that time. This was Pauls assurance to his friend that the debt would be paid.

It takes more than love to solve the problem; love must pay a price. God does not save us by his love, for though he loves the whole world, the whole world is not saved. God saves sinners by his grace, (Eph 2:8-9) and grace is love that pays a price. God in his holiness could not ignore the debt that we owe, for God must be faithful to his own Law. So he paid the debt for us!

Theologians call this the doctrine of imputation. (To impute means to put it on account.) When Jesus Christ died on the cross, my sins were put on his account; and he was treated the way I should have been treated. When I trusted him as my Saviour, his righteousness was put on my account; and now God accepts me in Jesus Christ. Jesus said to the Father, he no longer owes you a debt because I paid it fully on the cross. Receive him as you would receive me. Let him come into the family circle!’ (Wiersbe)

Luther states: ‘Even as Christ did for us with God the Father, thus Paul also does with Philemon.’

Phm 1:18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.

If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything – In reality, Onesimus may have stolen a considerable amount to have paid for the long journey to Rome. The word ‘if’ is slightly puzzling: surely a converted Onesimus would have been honest enough to confess any such wrong-doing? Perhaps what Paul is saying is this: ‘If you still feel wronged by him, or if you still count him in debt to you.’ In other words, Paul is inviting Philemon to forgive Onesimus completely, but the choice must be a free one. If he refuses to do so, then Paul is willing to stand in Onesimus’ place.

Charge it to me – Not that Paul is likely to have had the means to pay any substantial debt. But he is saying, in effect, ‘Make me your debtor, rather than Onesimus.’

Phm 1:19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back-not to mention that you owe me your very self.

I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand – as a signed IOU.

I will pay it back…you owe me your very self – But before you assert your right to be repaid by me (perhaps a substantial sum of money), think about what you owe me (your very life). Philemon had evidently come to faith through Paul’s ministry, perhaps while on a visit to Ephesus, Acts 19:10.

On those who have been forgiven being expected to forgive others, see Mt 18:23-35

Phile 1:20 I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ.

I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord – Note how closely Paul identifies himself with Onesimus: he counts favour to him as if it were favour to himself.

Refresh my heart in Christ – just as you have refreshed to hearts of many others, v7. But it is often harder to be a saint at home than abroad.

‘Hence we infer that the faith of the gospel does not overturn civil government, or set aside the power and authority which masters have over slaves. For Philemon was not a man of the ordinary rank, but a fellow-labourer of Paul in cultivating Christ’s vineyard; and yet that power over a slave which was permitted by the law is not taken away, but he is only commanded to receive him kindly by granting forgiveness, and is even humbly besought by Paul to restore him to his former condition.’ (Calvin)

Phile 1:21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.

Confident of your obedience – Not so much obedience to Paul (for he had declined to use his apostolic authority to command Philemon to do anything) as obedience to the gospel, Rom 10:16; Phil 2:12; 2 Thess 3:14.

Knowing that you will do even more than I ask – Christian liberty, properly understood, does not lead to us doing less, but doing more, than is expected or required. But what exactly did Paul have in mind here? ‘Was Paul hinting in Philemon 21 that Philemon should do even more and free Onesimus? For that matter, why did he not come right out and condemn slavery? This letter certainly would have been the ideal place to do it. Paul did not condemn1 slavery in this letter or in any of his letters, though he often had a word of admonition for slaves and their masters (Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 3:22-4:1; 1 Tim. 6:1-2; Titus 2:9-10). In fact, he encouraged Christian slaves to obtain their freedom if they could (1 Cor. 7:21-24). During the American Civil War, both sides used the same Bible to prove2 their cases for or against slavery. One of the popular arguments was, If3 slavery is so wrong, why did Jesus and the Apostles say nothing against it? Paul gave instructions to regulate slavery, but he did not condemn it. One of the best explanations was given by Alexander Maclaren in his commentary on Colossians in The Expositors Bible (Eerdmans, 1940; vol. VI, p. 301): First, the message of Christianity is primarily to individuals, and only secondarily to society. It leaves the units whom it has influenced to influence the mass. Second, it acts on spiritual and moral sentiment, and only afterwards and consequently on deeds or institutions. Third, it hates violence, and trusts wholly to enlightened conscience. So it meddles directly with no political or social arrangements, but lays down principles which will profoundly affect these, and leaves them to soak into the general mind. Had the early Christians begun an open crusade against slavery, they would have been crushed by the opposition, and the message of the Gospel would have become confused with a social and political program. Think of how difficult it was for people to overcome slavery in England and America, and those two nations had general education and the Christian religion to help prepare the way. Think also of the struggles in the modern Civil Rights movement even within the church. If the battle for freedom was difficult for us to win in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, what would the struggle have been like back in the first century? Christians are the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matt. 5:13-16), and their spiritual influence must be felt in society to the glory of God. God used Joseph in Egypt, Esther and Nehemiah in Persia, and Daniel in Babylon; and throughout church history, there have been believers in political offices who have faithfully served the Lord. But Christians in the Roman Empire could not work through local democratic political structures as we can today, so they really had no political power to bring about change. The change had to come from within, even though it took centuries for slavery to end.’ (Wiersbe)

Phile 1:22 And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.

Prepare a guest room for me – Lightfoot says, ‘There is a gentle compulsion in this mention of a personal visit to Colosse. The apostle would thus be able to see for himself that Philemon had not disappointed his expectations.’

I hope to be restored to you – Not merely does he hope to be released from prison, although that of course is implied, but more positively his prayer is that, ‘I will be granted to you.’ Underlying this is his conviction that there is a God who hears and answers prayer. Although we cannot be certain about the timing of Paul’s various journeys and imprisonments, it is likely that he was indeed released from this his first Roman imprisonment and engaged in further missionary exploits.

In answer to your prayers – Paul refers to the 2nd person plural here. He confident of the prayers, not only of Philemon, but of Apphia, Archippus and all the others meeting in their house. We should not miss the two-way praying which was going on: Paul for them, and they for Paul. Cf 1 Thess 5:25.

Closing Greetings

Phile 1:23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings.

Epaphras – He is also referred to in Col. 1:7; 4:12. ‘We gather that Epaphras evangelized the cities of the Lycus valley in Phrygia under Paul’s direction during the latter’s Ephesian ministry, and founded the churches of Colossae, Hierapolis and Laodicea. Later he visited Paul during his Roman captivity, and it was his news of conditions in the churches of the Lycus valley that moved Paul to write the Epistle to the Colossians.’ (NBD)

‘Epaphras was probably the pastor of the church; and he had gone to Rome to assist Paul. Whether he was a voluntary1 prisoner for Pauls sake, or whether he had actually been arrested by the Romans, we do not know. We must commend him for his dedication to Christ and to Paul.’ (Wiersbe)

Phile 1:24 And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.

Demas – Who later forsook Paul, 2 Tim 4:10. ‘And if one of Paul’s assistants, having become weary and discouraged, was afterwards drawn aside by the vanity of the world, let no man reckon too confidently on the zeal of a single year; but, considering how large a portion of the journey still remains to be accomplished, let him pray to God for steadfastness.’ (Calvin)

‘John Mark was with Paul (Col. 4:10), the young man who failed Paul on his first missionary journey (Acts 12:12, 25; 15:36-41). Paul had forgiven Mark and was grateful for his faithful ministry (see 2 Tim. 4:11). Aristarchus was from Thessalonica and accompanied Paul to Jerusalem and then to Rome (Acts 19:29; 27:2). Demas is mentioned three times in Pauls letters: Demas1 . . . my fellow worker (Phile. 24), Demas2 (Col. 4:14), Demas3 hath forsaken me, having loved this present world (2 Tim. 4:10). John Mark failed but was restored. Demas seemed to be doing well but then he fell.

Luke, of course, was the beloved physician (Col. 4:14) who accompanied Paul, ministered to him, and eventually wrote the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts.’ (Wiersbe)

Phile 1:25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

This conclusion matches that found at the close of the Letter to the Galatians. Gal 6:18.