It was the year 62 when Paul wrote this letter. It had been several years since he had first been through Ephesus but that was when he first met Philemon. Philemon came to the Lord from Paul's ministry and preaching. He was a dear brother in Christ. The crossing of their paths changed both of them and one could easily sed it was a divine appointment. However, their lives were vastly different and it seems their paths didn't cross often. Paul continued on his missionary journey and Philemon went on to Colosse. The church of Colosse met in the home of Philemon. From that we might assume Philemon started the church there.
Philemon was married and his wife's name is Apphia. A man named Archippus is mentioned and many believe this is their son. Also, in Philemon's household was at least one slave, a man by the name of Onesimus. Slavery had been around for hundreds and hundreds of years. Different cultures put people in chains and bondage for different reasons. Throughout history a person might find themselves in bondage because their nation was conquered by another. They might be in bondage because of finances, unable to pay a bill, so they are working off their debt. They might be in bondage by contract; a person would agree to serve for a time in exchange for basic needs of life. Racial bondage and slavery didn't extend back to ancient history. This was fairly new in the grand scope of history.
Slavery has been around since the beginning, since one man sought to control and possess authority over another. Slaves were considered property with no rights of their own. They were not even legally considered persons. They could be bought, sold, inherited, given as gifts and used to pay a debt. In 62A.D. a common laborer earned one denarii a day. The average slave sold for 500 denarii. So, a slave was worth less than 2 years wages. Slaves that were doctors or lawyers were worth up to 50,000 denarii. So being a slave master was somewhat of a status symbol. Slaves were important and valuable in that culture.
A slave master could treat his slaves however he saw fit. An evil and hateful master could beat a slave, even to the point of death with no legal ramifications. Slavery changed a little as the Roman Empire grew. It became common knowledge that a happy and content slave was a productive slave. The world started to realize that these people in slavery were in fact people. Slaves began to be educated. They learned trades and skills. In the Roman empire at least one third of the work force, maybe more, were slaves. That's millions of people. Some estimates say over a staggering 60 million. At one point the Roman government was going to cloth all the slaves different so they could be recognized. But that was quickly rejected because they realized the slaves would discover how many of them there really were and how easily they could organize and rebel. The uniform of a slave could quickly become the uniform of a rebellion.
In Paul's day, slaves were lawyers, doctors, accountants, librarians; just about any job could have been manned by slave labor. Slaves were a very normal part of the world and culture at that time. This the context, background and setting to help you see and understand this book.
As for Paul, he was under house arrest in Rome. His movements were restricted but he was in his own home. People could come and go and they did as he continued ministering and meeting with many people. Then, somehow, some way, Onesimus showed up at Paul's door. This was a Divine appointment orchestrated by God.
Onesimus had run away from Philemon. He apparently took some money or valuables from Philemon and ran away to Rome. In Rome a man could blend in the culture. There were slaves everywhere, in all walks of life. A man like Onesimus could hide there. He could hide from his master and make a life for himself. But he couldn't hide from God. God brought Onesimus to Paul. There are many speculations how this came to be. Regardless of how it happened, at that divine appointment, Paul preached the gospel to him. Onesimus bowed before the Lord. He repented of his sins and trusted Jesus Christ.
Now, Paul had a born-again runaway slave on his hands. It was a touchy situation. What was he to do? Onesimus was now a brother in Christ. He was forgiven, yet, he was still under the authority of his earthly master. He was a runaway and a thief. Now, in the Roman Empire they were starting to recognize that a slave had some rights. Rome began to grant them a trial when charges were brought against them. But Onesimus and Paul both knew, being a runaway was indefensible. A slave could be killed by his master. One historian records an incident in which a slave was carrying a tray of crystal goblets, and he dropped and broke one. The master instantly demanded the slave be thrown into a fishpond full of lampreys that tore the slave to pieces. Under Roman law there were practically no limits to the power of the master over his slave.
That kind of harsh punishment could affect Philemon's testimony. Philemon was in a tough place because he needed to be just and merciful and full of grace. Yet, disobedience had to be dealt with, didn't it? Would Philemon suffer at the hands of other slave masters if he let Onesimus off easy?
Paul wrote in Colossians 4, verse 1:
1 Masters, give your bondservants what is just and fair, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.
Paul wrote this at the same time he wrote to Philemon. The letter of Colossians also went right to Philemon and the church there. Philemon, the slave master, was at least a sort of elder, if not a pastor.
The letter to the Colossians was primarily to warn them of false teachers. But at the end of the letter, Paul wrote this.
7 Tychicus, a beloved brother, faithful minister, and fellow servant in the Lord, will tell you all the news about me. 8 I am sending him to you for this very purpose, that he may know your circumstances and comfort your hearts, 9 with Onesimus, a faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will make known to you all things which are happening here.
Paul sent Tychicus to Colosse to deliver the letter we know as Colossians. This letter was for all the church. And he mentioned that he sent Onesimus back also. Yet, Paul also sent another letter. The second letter was this letter to Philemon. It is more of private letter. It wasn't necessarily written to everyone there. Paul had a new brother in Christ and friend in Onesimus and he is addressing the slave master Philemon on his behalf.
You can see this is a very personal letter. Most of Paul's letters were written knowing that they would be read to the church and then passed on to other churches. Paul knew this matter was primarily between him and Philemon, but Apphia, Archippus, as well as the church would all be affected. Since the church met in Philemon's home, Onesimus had likely served in the midst of these people. What ever Philemon's reaction was, it would reflect on the church and the Lord.
The letter opened in a gentle tone. Paul appealed to Philemon and his family as friends and family and not as an apostle. He wasn't giving them commands and doctrine. Instead, he was appealing to them for mercy.
Paul started out at the beginning of this letter acknowledging the good things that were going on in the church in Philemon's home. Their faith and love toward the saints was noteworthy and reputable. The love of verse 5 is agape love. This kind of love is a willful act of self-sacrifice and humility.
Then in verse 6, Paul says, "that the sharing of your faith may become effective by the acknowledgment of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus." Philemon and the church there had a good reputation. He heard good things and knew these good things were an acknowledgement of the Lords work in their lives. The word "sharing" there at the beginning is the word koinonia. It means fellowship, sharing of life. This was a fellowship who practiced agape love. Their koinonia wasn't just good times, it was powerful. They weren't just learning about God's truth they were living it and experiencing it. This experience was deep and rich and full and life changing. Paul told Philemon that his work was building up the saints and they were being refreshed and that was bringing joy to Paul and Timothy. Philemon refreshed the saints. This is going to be important in a minute. Paul awarded Philemon with this good reputation toward the saints and then he was going to tell Philemon that Onesimus was a saint. That's going to make it awfully hard for Philemon to punish him.
Verse 8 starts with therefore, "Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting, 9 yet for love's sake I rather appeal to you." If Philemon were an unbeliever, Paul couldn't have made this appeal. It would have been a waste of parchment. But Philemon was a man of God, seeking Godly things. Paul established that, and then said "therefore" because you are this way I expect you to respond in a way that is consistent with this agape love and koinonia. It was like Paul saying, Philemon, since you are a loving, humble, living a sacrificial life, joined in fellowship with all believers and an awesome man of God, I know you're going to agree with me so I don't have to command you.
Verse 8 again, Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting, 9 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— 10 I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, 11 who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me.
Paul says he has the apostolic authority to order Philemon to accept Onesimus back. But he had confidence that Philemon would do the right thing. Instead of ordering him how to handle it, he appealed to his sense of love for a brother in Christ. And he appealed to him, hoping he would yield to him as a friend and grant the wish of an old man, who was a prisoner.
Paul called Onesimus his son. He was Paul's child of faith. He came to the Lord from Paul's ministry, even while Paul was in chains. It would be fascinating to know how Onesimus ended up in Paul's presence at that divine appointment.
In verse 11 it says, Onesimus once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me. This is actually a play on words. Onesimus means profitable. Paul is just pointing out that Onesimus was once profitable only as a slave. Now he can be profitable to Paul and Onesimus as a man of God.
Paul sent Onesimus back because it was the right thing to do. He really wanted to keep him there to assist him. But he didn't want to do it behind Philemon's back. What Paul really wanted was for Philemon to send Onesimus back of his own free will.
Paul told Philemon to receive him back. But not just that, he was to accept Onesimus just like he would Paul. Think about this. Philemon would embrace Paul, maybe wash his feet. They laugh and share with each other, ask how friends and relatives are. Philemon would prepare a place for him to stay. He would prepare a feast for a long-lost friend. That's what Paul wanted Philemon to do for Onesimus instead of kill him or crucify him. It's like saying, I know Onesimus is a runaway slave and you have the right to kill him, but, just because you have that right don't mean it's the right thing to do. Don't look at it as losing a slave, look at it as gaining a brother in Christ. Paul said it may be that he was separated from you for a while so that when he came back he would be a brother and not just a slave.
Philemon could receive him back then Onesimus wouldn't be a runaway slave any longer. He could then send Onesimus to Paul with a letter stating he was to work for Paul. It would be like Philemon serving Paul, assisting in his ministry, through the work of his slave Onesimus. Paul called Philemon a fellow servant and brother. Paul also now considered Onesimus a fellow servant and brother. Paul wanted Philemon and the church there in Colosse to see Onesimus as a man with a changed heart. A man that no longer had to run and in hopes of finding some freedom, he found his freedom in Jesus Christ. His status as a slave didn't change. But now, he served a higher master.
Could Philemon, his family and the church look at this slave as a man, as a brother in Christ? That would be difficult. As the church, could they look at him as anything less than a brother? How could they? How could any one person who has come to the understanding of their own shame and sin before a holy God and know of the amazing grace and kindness shown to them by that God ever be so cold and merciless as to deny another human being the status of being also created in God's image? This doesn't even take into account that the person was now also a brother in Christ.
Philemon had to make a tough decision. If he reacted one way, the church and the Lord would be shamed. If he reacted the other way, what would the slaves and the other slave masters think? He had to choose what principles would guide his life.
Paul saw purpose in this entire event. God was working in the lives of all involved. For Philemon, this was a test. The customs and laws said this man was his property. And property had no rights. If he chose to destroy that property, it was his right. But, as a Christian, he had consideration beyond this world and its customs and laws. Onesimus was created in the image of God. This man was now born again. He was a new creature in Christ. Did Philemon really have a choice?
To Paul, initially it was a quandary. Onesimus was a brother and he wanted to be with Paul. He was helpful to Paul but he belonged to Philemon. Paul's decision was easy. It was one based on honesty and integrity. That was the pattern of Paul's life so there was no hesitation. His response was also out of love for Onesimus. If he stayed with Paul, he would always be on the run. The longer he was gone, the worse it could go for him.
And Onesimus, we can't forget him, he was in a tough place. Imagine having to go back. This was a test of his new faith. What would it do to Onesimus's faith if Philemon punished him? I think Onesimus went back of his own free will though. There was a lot at stake. He was trusting Jesus. The world and culture at that time said punishment was in order. At best he would be branded on the forehead with the letter "F" to mark him as a fugitive. At worst, a runaway slave could be crucified. I think Paul explained to Onesimus that going back was the right thing to do. It was an act of faith that said, this world and its values no longer hold me in bondage. God was his strength and his courage. Regardless of outcome, Onesimus was walking in faith. That's a very mature viewpoint from a new Christian.
At this point you have to wonder if Philemon ever really had a choice. Paul was very persuasive but he was also very sincere in his desire. He wanted Onesimus to come back to Rome and minister with him. If Onesimus cost Philemon anything; if he stole anything or lost anything of value in this, it was to be charged to Paul. Paul said, I'm writing this down and I'm good to my word. I'll repay you. This was Paul's own promissory note to Philemon. Then, almost a parenthetical statement, he says, "by the way, don't forget you owe me your own self." Paul was just reminding them he brought the gospel to them and there should be an eternal gratitude for that.
Then, in Verse 20, Paul said, Yes, brother, let me have joy from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in the Lord. Back in verse 7, Paul said the hearts of the saints were refreshed by Philemon. Now, Paul called on Philemon to refresh him by allowing Onesimus to return to him.
Paul begins to wrap his letter in verse 21: Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. 22 But, meanwhile, also prepare a guest room for me, for I trust that through your prayers I shall be granted to you.
Paul added that he knew Philemon would do the right thing. And he would be coming to see how this all turned out. This fact alone would have helped influence Philemon's decision. This essentially says, I have confidence the Lord is working his purpose. I trust that you'll do the right thing and I'm coming to make sure of it. Then Paul closes the letter.
How did the story end? Do you suppose Philemon willingly allowed this runaway slave to return to Paul and minster with him, essentially granting him his freedom? Did he punish Onesimus in any way? We don't really know!
In this story, we can learn from each of these men. We can relate to Onesimus because we were all in bondage to sin. Each of us was an Onesimus at one time. If you are now in Christ, you now look back and see we were in bondage. Our master was our own pride and flesh. We served willingly and then suffered from the shame our old master brought on us. For a while we ran, searching for something, seeking freedom and liberty. When we came to our new master, we each received much better than we deserved. We were lavished with an amazing love. We were shown kindness and mercy. Our lot in life didn't change but our standing before God did. Our earthly status appeared unchanged but our eternity was now secure and the real person became untouchable by the things of the world. Our names are the same, I'm the same person in this world, to this world, but I'm a new person on the inside. And in time, that new person will permeate every aspect of who you are in this world. We are each an Onesimus.
We can each learn from Paul in this letter. In Paul we see a man who looked like Christ. I hope we can all relate to that. Paul stood by another man willing to pay the debt he owed. Seeking mercy and grace on his behalf. Not just asking but persuasively and aggressively seeking a good outcome. Paul showed a sacrificial love for a man who was a criminal. That's exactly what Christ did on the cross. He took my place on the cross. He took your place on the cross. Paul was the advocate for a man without an advocate. He was the hope for the hopeless; help for a man with no friend. This is what we are all being conformed to; the image of Christ.
And Philemon, we can all relate to him. Here you stand. On one hand you have something of value and you are losing it. You've been made a fool and look weak to your peers. The world says crucify him, demand satisfaction, hold on to your rights, don't give an inch. And our faith says, agape', koinania. It says be merciful, loving, forgiving. It says wash his feet and serve him. Like Philemon, we find our self in those places. The world calls for one thing and our faith another. How do you respond? Do we worry about what people will think, of how it will look to others. Are we worried about being rejected by the world? Or do we fear the Lord and trust Him?
We've all been an Onesimus; we are called to be like Paul; and we find ourselves in the uncomfortable role of Philemon. I think the purpose Paul saw in this event continues today. As the Lord allows us to see ourselves in the lives of these men maybe its a divine appointment that you heard this message today.
So, that's the book of Philemon and we don't know the ending. What do you think happened to Onesimus? We don't really know but I think it turned out just like the Lord wanted it to. I think His will was done. And I believe Philemon, Paul and Onesimus all met and discussed it all in detail in heaven.
Now that you've read this book you might ask, "Why is this letter in our Bibles?" Why is it important? In the year 110, around fifty years after this letter was written, the bishop of the church in Ephesus was a man by the name Onesimus. Could this have been the former slave of Philemon? If Onesimus was in his late teens or early twenties when Paul wrote this letter, he would then be about 70 years old in 110. That would be a reasonable age for a bishop.
If you look back at how all these letters came to be in our bible, you'll find that there is some historical evidence that the letters of Paul were first gathered as a group in the city of Ephesus. It may well have been Onesimus who first gathered the letters of Paul. And among those letters was this one, his own charter to freedom.
During the severe persecution of Christians in Rome. Onesimus, the bishop of Ephesus was imprisoned. Tradition says that he was martyred when he was stoned to death at Rome. And he went to his final divine appointment before the Lord.
©2011 Doug Ford
Revised & updated 2019
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