THE EPISTLE OF PAUL TO
O U T L I N E
Overview of Philemon. This is the last of Paul’s pastoral epistles (canonically speaking), although chronologically it was written earlier than those to Timothy and Titus. The Pastoral Epistles were written not to assemblies but to individuals in various circumstances. These epistles tend to be more personal than others, and more practical as well. They are written usually much later, after the doctrine of the Church has already been laid down. The epistle to Philemon is a “prison epistle”, because it was written when Paul was in Rome under house-arrest (Acts 28). Evidently the epistle was written toward the end of the first imprisonment, because Paul expected to be released shortly and to visit Colosse (v.22). We discover that Philemon was a wealthy landowner in Colosse, who had gotten saved along with his wife. There was a gathering of the Colossian assembly in Philemon’s home (perhaps one of several meetings). Philemon owned a slave named Onesimus, who stole from Philemon and ran away. Paul could say that Philemon owed himself to Paul, which would indicate that Philemon had been saved through Paul at some point (perhaps at Ephesus, Acts 19:10), although we know Paul had never visited the saints in Colosse in person (Col. 2:1). These were crimes punishable by death in the Roman Empire at this time. Onesimus found his way to Rome, where he met the apostle Paul in prison! Perhaps he was is prison himself on some offense. Onesimus was saved through the labors of Paul, which caused Paul to refer to him as “my child, whom I have begotten in my bonds”. Onesimus was ready to begin serving the Lord, and in doing so make himself serviceable to Paul. Before this could take place, Paul felt it was necessary for things to be set right between Onesimus and his master Philemon, who were now brothers in Christ. Paul sent Onesimus back to Colosse along with Tychicus, carrying two letters: one for the assembly in Colosse, and this letter for Philemon. In this letter Paul exhorts Philemon to welcome Onesimus and forgive him! This was a very difficult situation naturally, but it was an opportunity for divine love and Christian grace to be expressed! Paul knew he could count on Philemon to do what he asked and more. This epistle might seem out of place in the canon, until we see it as the way the truth of Christianity is lived out practically (Eph. 4:32). In this sense, the epistle to Philemon is the perfect appendix to the pastoral epistles, and to the epistles of Paul in general.
A Picture of the Gospel. This little epistle affords us a beautiful type of the gospel. Onesimus as a thieving, runaway slave pictures the sinner, who has wronged God in pursuit of his independence. Just as Paul asked Philemon to receive Onesimus as himself, so God has received us in the place of His own beloved Son! Just as Paul offered to recompense Philemon for any damages owed by Onesimus, so Christ has suffered the punishment for our sins, the just for the unjust.
Slavery and the New Testament. In the early days of Christianity, the institution of slavery still existed. The New Testament was not written to cause a world-wide slave revolt in the Roman Empire. However, knowing God's heart as revealed in scripture, we can see that slavery, in the sense of treating human beings as property, is morally wrong. The Law of Moses put certain limits on slavery. To sell a person into slavery against their will was condemned (Ex. 21:16). For Hebrew servants, there was the year of release, which came after six years (Deuteronomy 15:12-18). Slaves also had to observe the Sabbath rest (Deut. 5:14). God took these limitations very seriously (see Jeremiah 34:8-22). When we look at these principles, it becomes clear that to be a slave in Hebrew society was most likely a far better portion than to be a slave in pagan society. Nevertheless, "the law made nothing perfect" (Heb. 7:19). From reading both Old and New Testament scriptures, we see that bondage against a person's will was never God's desire. When we come to the New Testament, God does not overthrow the institution of slavery. From scriptures like 1 Timothy 6:1 we can see that there is nothing morally wrong with the master/servant relationship, if it is conducted in an honorable way. Instead of looking to change society, God gives instructions for how one can be an overcomer in the circumstances of slavery! When a slave was saved, they were brought into a new creation that totally eclipsed their outward identity; "...there is neither bond nor free... for ye are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28), and were given higher motives in their service, "as unto the Lord" (Eph. 6:7). History shows that the gospel spread in the first century most quickly through the slave population of the Roman Empire!
Application to Employees. Although much of the world today is free from slavery, there is still an application to us of these New Testament principles concerning slaves or servants. Although many Christians today are not in slavery, most must work for a living. The employer/employee relationship is similar in many ways to the master/servant relationship, as the principles of respect, honesty, obedience, and fair treatment still apply.
Introduction: Philemon’s Character (vv.1-7)
¶ 1 Paul, prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timotheus the brother, to Philemon [‘affectionate man’] the beloved and our fellow-workman, 2 and to the sister Apphia and to Archippus our fellow-soldier, and to the assembly which is in thine house. vv.1-2 Writer and Recipients. When Paul wrote this epistle, he was a prisoner in Rome. Yet he does not call himself a prisoner of Rome, but a “prisoner of Christ Jesus”. He realized that he was there because the Lord had put him there! Paul doesn’t write as an apostle, nor does he use his apostolic authority. He was seeking to reach Philemon’s heart, and perhaps the hearts of others in the assembly as well. Paul includes Timothy with himself in writing. We can learn from Paul’s epistles that it is wonderful to take every possible opportunity to express unity. He calls Timothy “the brother”, stressing his relationship in the family of God rather than any apostolic authority, as we see in other places. Paul addresses Philemon, whose name means ‘an affectionate man’. Paul affectionately refers to him as “Philemon the beloved and our fellow-workman”. Philemon was very dear to the apostle’s heart, and Paul will appeal to that bond in this epistles. Paul also addresses “the sister Apphia”, who most likely was the wife of Philemon, and “Archippus our fellow-soldier”, who may have been the son of Philemon and his wife Apphia, although it is only speculation. This young brother is referred to as “our fellowsoldier”, showing that he was a devoted servant of Christ. Yet at the end of Colossians (Col. 4;17), he was to be specifically exhorted to “fulfill” a certain “ministry” that was given especially to him “in the Lord”. We do not know what this service was. It may have been public, or perhaps very private. But it belonged to Archippus, and it was his duty to fulfil it. We also learn that Philemon was hospitable; “and to the assembly which is in thine house”. Philemon must have been a person of means, as he had a home large enough for the assembly to meet. The work of hospitality is extremely valuable, as it provides an atmosphere for the development of brotherly love among the saints.
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. v.3 Greeting. Paul prayed for sustaining grace and peace for the soul “from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ”. The Christian’s relationship to God as Father, and to Christ as Lord, are emphasized.
¶ 4 I thank my God, always making mention of thee at my prayers, 5 hearing of thy love and the faith which thou hast towards the Lord Jesus, and towards all the saints, 6 in such sort that thy participation in the faith should become operative in the acknowledgment of every good thing which is in us towards Christ Jesus. 7 For we have great thankfulness and encouragement through thy love, because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother. vv.4-7 Thanksgiving for Philemon. Paul was thankful for Philemon, and mentioned him at his regular prayer times. Paul knew of Philemon’s character; “hearing of thy love and the faith which thou hast towards the Lord Jesus, and towards all the saints”. Faith is implicit trust, and love (agápe) is a sacrificial and unconditional love, selfless in that it gives and expects nothing in return. Philemon had faith and love in operation toward the Lord first, and then “towards all the saints”. What we are before the Lord flows out to our brethren! The occasion of this epistle would be a test of Philemon’s love. Paul had heard of Philemon’s love toward all the saints, and now Paul sends Onesimus home, effectively saying, “Here is one of the saints”. He speaks of Philemon’s “participation in the faith”. The love of Christ constrained him! This shows that Philemon was a real Christian, actively participating in Christianity, unlike so many who are standing on the sidelines. The fact that Philemon was an energetic participant in Christianity was “operative in the acknowledgment of every good thing which is in us towards Christ Jesus”. The qualifier “in us” refers to that which Philemon saw in Paul and the others that was of Christ. In other words, the Divine nature in Philemon reacted in recognition of that which was suited to it in Paul, i.e. every good thing. Paul had the flesh too, but love focuses on what is of Christ, and acknowledges it! This is a key to love and peace among the saints. The report of Philemon’s conduct brought “great thankfulness and encouragement” to the apostle in prison. Particularly, it was Philemon’s love toward the saints, which resulted in the “bowels” or affections of the saints being refreshed. How we need individuals like Philemon, to warm the hearts of the Lord’s people! Paul uses the common greeting of the believers (Acts 9:17), referring to Philemon as “brother”.
Body: Exhortation to Receive Onesimus (vv.8-22)
¶ 8 Wherefore having much boldness in Christ to enjoin thee what is fitting, 9 for love’s sake I rather exhort, being such a one as Paul the aged, and now also prisoner of Jesus Christ. vv.8-9 Paul’s Approach. Paul could have with “much boldness” used apostolic authority to “enjoin” Philemon to receive Onesimus, but he would not do that. Grace always acts in a higher way, and so Paul would appeal to Philemon’s heart; “for love’s sake I rather exhort”.1 When we do “what is fitting” out of a response in our hearts, it produces joy. But if we do under compulsion it will not have the same effect; “Not for that we have dominion over your faith, but are helpers of your joy” (2 Cor. 1:24). Paul presents the circumstances that would strike a cord of compassion in Philemon’s heart; “being such a one as Paul the aged, and now also prisoner of Jesus Christ”. He puts forward his age and how he had suffered (Gal. 6:17). How could you refuse this dear old servant of Christ, in prison for his faithfulness, this simple request? The heart responds.
10 I exhort thee for “my” child, whom I have begotten in my bonds, Onesimus, [‘useful’ or ‘profitable’] 11 once unserviceable to thee, but now serviceable to thee and to me: 12 whom I have sent back to thee: but do “thou” receive him, that is, “my” bowels: vv.10-11 The Request. Finally, Paul comes to the root of the matter: he wanted Philemon to forgive and welcome Onesimus, the bearer of the letter. We find that Onesimus had been a slave of Philemon’s, who stole from Philemon and ran away. These were crimes punishable by death in the Roman Empire at this time. Onesimus found his way to Rome, where he met the apostle Paul in prison! It could be that he was in trouble with the law. Onesimus was saved through the labors of Paul, which caused Paul to refer to him as “my child, whom I have begotten in my bonds”. The language is calculated to strike a chord in Philemon’s heart; a converted Onesimus was the fruit of Paul’s bonds! There was a tremendous change with Onesimus. Onesimus’ name means ‘useful’, and Paul is making a play-on-words! He was once “unserviceable” to Philemon, meaning that he was a bad servant. But now, Onesimus was a new creature! The fact that Onesimus was willing to go back was proof that he was repentant. He was now a good servant, useful not only for Philemon (who didn’t know it) but for Paul as well! Paul was anxious to see Onesimus begin laboring in the gospel, but he wanted Onesimus to return to Philemon first to make things right. Onesimus was still under Philemon’s authority, and the matter of his rebellion had never been addressed between the two face-to-face. It could create a rift among the saints for this to be passed over without reconciliation. Yet Paul expected Philemon to receive Onesimus as “my own bowels”, i.e. with just as much affection as he would Paul himself!2 Notice the way he refers to Onesimus; not as Philemon’s servant, but as Paul’s son!
Bondage and Freedom. Onesimus is like many who are seeking freedom, freedom from many forms of bondage. Perhaps he thought rebellion would give him freedom. But rebellion against authority never truly gives liberty. When Onesimus met Paul, the apostle was in chains. Perhaps it was the first time Onesimus had seen a prisoner that was truly free! “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed” (John 8:36). Paul viewed himself as a prisoner of Christ Jesus (v.1). To be totally free is to be totally submitted to the will of God. It could be that the Lord used the example of Paul, in addition to his preaching, to convert Onesimus!
Personal Forgiveness. The New Testament speaks loudly about the need for Christians to forgive those who sin against them. Whenever we are offended, we must forgive our brother in our heart (Matthew 18:35). We may not be able yet to express our forgiveness for them audibly, but the Christian ought to always have a forgiving spirit as forgiveness is the basis of our relationship with God (Ephesians 4:32). You don’t audibly extend forgiveness to someone who has sinned against you until they have audibly expressed repentance; see Luke 17:3-4. The circumstances of this epistle give us a powerful example of personal forgiveness. This is what Paul was calling on Philemon to do!
13 whom “I” was desirous of keeping with myself, that for thee he might minister to me in the bonds of the glad tidings; 14 but I have wished to do nothing without thy mind, that thy good might not be as of necessity but of willingness: vv.13-14 Paul’s Motives. Paul had a desire to keep Onesimus with him at Rome, to minister to Paul just as Philemon would have done if he were there, “in the bonds of the glad tidings”. This expression describes the bond of fellowship between those who labor together in the work of carrying forth the good news to lost souls. There is nothing that unites the hearts of the saints more than laboring together in the gospel! However, Paul would not make this decision to keep Onesimus without having Philemon’s mind. Neither would he force Philemon to free Onesimus, although he expected it. How careful we should be not to presume upon the grace and generosity of our brethren! We learn much about Christian courtesy and the importance of seeking to maintain unity. Paul desired that Philemon would free Onesimus to serve with Paul of his own free will, not because the circumstances compelled him to. When we seek to do something for the Lord that involves our brethren, we should do our utmost to have them go along willingly, not of necessity. The pattern set forward here is what will make for peace and shared joy among the brethren.
15 for perhaps for this reason he has been separated from thee for a time, that thou mightest possess him fully for ever; 16 not any longer as a bondman, but above a bondman, a beloved brother, specially to me, and how much rather to thee, both in the flesh and in the Lord? vv.15-16 Great Gain. Paul muses about the purpose of God in all that had transpired. Philemon had lost his slave for a time, but now he would possess Onesimus forever as a “beloved brother”. Philemon got back more than he lost! The expressions of Paul regarding the bond of fellowship in these verses are some of the highest and most beautiful in the whole of scripture. The earthly relationship between master and slave is only for this life. The bond of Christian fellowship is eternal! A servant is one who obeys your commands out of a sense of duty, but a brother is one who has a shared nature and family; therefore the relationship is “above” that of a slave. When you possess a slave, you have his time, energy, and skills at your disposal for a limited span of time. But when you have a brother, you have the person’s heart for life. One can be replaced, but the other is invaluable! In this way Philemon would get Onesimus back: “in the flesh” as a servant whom he could “loan” to Paul, and “in the Lord” as a beloved brother!
17 If therefore thou holdest me to be a partner with thee, receive him as me; 18 but if he have wronged thee anything or owe anything to thee, put this to my account. 19 “I” Paul have written it with mine own hand; “I” will repay it: that I say not to thee that thou owest even thine own self also to me. vv.17-19 Put This To My Account. We see in these verses how deeply the grace of God and the love of Christ had penetrated the heart of Paul. Grace is simply oozing from every word! In v.17, Paul choses his words very carefully. He says “if”, not taking for granted that Philemon would associate himself with Paul. He uses the co-equal relationship of partner, to put Philemon on a level above a mere helper! He even reverses the natural order, not “you with me” but “me with you”! Paul asks Philemon to receive Onesimus as himself. What grace! To receive this thieving runaway slave with the same favor, the same heart, the same embrace as he would the beloved apostle! In vv.18-19, Paul offers to pay anything that Onesimus owed Philemon, i.e. anything the affectionate brother was unable to forgive. In this way Paul becomes so similar to his Master. Christ has taken our sins and offenses on Himself; God has laid our debt to Christ’s account, and He has paid the uttermost farthing! Now God is free to receive the vilest sinner who truly believes, just as He would receive His own Son! “He has made us accepted in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:6). Such love may be hard to believe, but it is true; “Herein is love made perfect with us, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because even as He is, we also are in this world” (1 John 4:17). All of this is calculated to touch Philemon’s heart. Imagine a heart so cold as to require reimbursement from the afflicted, imprisoned apostle! The only fitting response for Philemon is to say, “It is nothing, I forgive it all!” To bring the persuasion to higher level, Paul also reminds Philemon that he was a debtor to Paul for his conversion.3 He says “I won’t say it”, but he does anyway; “that thou owest even thine own self also to me”. What offense could be so great that it could tip that balance? What sin can our brother sin against us, that is more to forgive than what Christ has forgiven us? The greatest offense against us is but a 200-pence debt compared to our 10,000-talent offense against God (Matt. 18:21-35). “And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Eph. 4:32).
20 Yea, brother, “I” would have profit of “thee” in the Lord: refresh my bowels in Christ. 21 Being confident of thine obedience, I have written to thee, knowing that thou wilt do even more than I say. vv.20-21 Confidence in Philemon. Paul expressed his desire to have “profit” from Philemon, not financially, but “in the Lord”. Paul is continuing to make a play on words, where “I would have profit” is a slight variation of the name Onesimus. Paul was expecting Philemon to forgive Onesimus and free him to serve the Lord. Onesimus had shown real promise (Col. 4:9), and Philemon should not stand in the way of the work the Lord would do through Onesimus. This would be a great profit for Paul who was still in prison, and for the saints in general. But more than profit, Paul’s affections would be refreshed by this invigorating demonstration of grace. Paul was “confident” that Philemon would forgive and free Onesimus, obeying not by constraint but willingly, and it was in this confidence that Paul wrote the epistle. It was obedience to the Lord rather than to Paul’s authority. He felts sure that Philemon would go above and beyond what Paul had asked.
22 But withal prepare me also a lodging; for I hope that I shall be granted to you through your prayers. v.22 Travel Plans. Paul was nearing the end of his first imprisonment, and hoped to be released soon. He viewed his release as an answer to the prayers of the saints; “I hope that I shall be granted to you through your prayers”. Paul planned to visit Colosse when he was released, and wanted Philemon to prepare a room for the apostle to lodge in. It is clear that Philemon was known for his hospitality.
Conclusion: Final Salutations (vv.23-25)
23 Epaphras salutes thee, my fellow-prisoner in Christ Jesus; v.23 Epaphras, Paul’s Fellow-Prisoner. Epaphras was mentioned in Colossians several times. In Col. 1 we find that he was from Colosse! Paul had gotten to know Epaphras in his travels, and he was much used of the Lord in the area of Colosse (Col. 1:7-8). Here we learn that Epaphras was also taken prisoner in Rome, and was in bonds with the apostle Paul as his “fellow-prisoner in Christ Jesus”. But Epaphras had not forgotten his dear brethren at home, and was steadfastly praying for the saints in Colosse, as well as those in the nearby cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis (Col. 4:12-13). Epaphras would pass along his salutation to Philemon!
24 Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow-workmen. v.24 Others, Paul’s Fellow-Workmen. There were others who were not imprisoned with Paul (like Epaphras), but they labored with Paul nonetheless. Paul mentions four of them who passed along their greetings to Philemon: Mark, or “John, whose surname was Mark”, as he is called in Acts 12:12; 12:25; 15:37, was a servant of Christ and a New Testament writer. Famously, he abandoned Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey, and then Paul refused to take him on the second missionary journey (Acts 15:38). Evidently Mark was restored from his previous failures, and was once again used in broader service! Aristarchus was also a “fellow-captive” with Paul (Col. 4:10), although that detail is not mentioned here. We read somewhat about Aristarchus in the book of Acts. We find that he was from the region of Macedonia, and specifically from Thessalonica. He was with Paul in the uproar in Ephesus, and accompanied him from that time onward (Acts 19:29; 20:4; 27:2). Demas was another one of Paul’s fellow-laborers. However, by the time we come to 2 Timothy, Demas had been fully swept along with the tide that had turned against Paul (2 Tim. 1:15), and at that time Paul had to say “Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world, and is departed unto Thessalonica” (2 Tim. 4:10). Luke was one who travelled with Paul as early as the second missionary journey, and perhaps even earlier. He is referred to as “the beloved physician” (Col. 4:14). No doubt Luke’s talents as a trained physician were very useful to Paul on his journeys, and that tender care for Paul continued to the very end (2 Tim. 4:11).
25 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. v.25 The Importance of a Gracious Spirit. The final prayer of the apostle was for a spirit or attitude of grace for Philemon. “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” is the grace that the Savior displayed in His pathway. If Philemon was to forgive Onesimus allow him to be useful to the Lord, it would require the same gracious spirit that the Lord Jesus Christ displayed here in this world (2 Cor. 10:1). May we always maintain a gracious spirit!
The Importance of Having a Gracious Spirit. It is perhaps one of the most important things in our Christian life to maintain a right spirit. It is possible to do right things with the wrong attitude. “All the ways of a man are clean in his own eyes; but the LORD weigheth the spirits” (Prov. 16:2). God insists that His servants reflect His character. As the Father of spirits (Heb. 12:9), the Lord is correcting our attitude or spirit. We see this with Moses, when he failed to reflect the gracious heart of Jehovah to the children of Israel, and said "Hear now, ye rebels, etc." and struck the rock twice (Num. 20:10). Because of this he was not allowed to enter Canaan. We see it again with Elijah, who remained faithful to the Lord, but developed a bad attitude, and said twice "I, even I only, am left, etc." (1 Kings 19:14). Because of this, Elijah was told to anoint Elisha to be prophet instead of him. The same is true in the New Testament. There are a number of times where we are exhorted to have a right spirit at the very close of Paul's epistles. Each occasion corresponds to a circumstance where is would be easy to develop a bad attitude or spirit:
- Galatians 6:18. When we have been carrying on in a legal way, and when we have been corrected.
- Philippians 4:23. When there are disagreements between brethren.
- Philemon 25. When we are called on to forgive someone who has offended us.
- 2 Timothy 4:22. When we look around and see failure in a day of public ruin.
- To command what is right is certainly not wrong in one possessed of due authority. But grace, while it respects law in its own sphere, acts incomparably above law in a sphere of its own, of which Christ is the centre and the fulness, the object, pattern, and motive. The apostle therefore, whatever the rights of his position and this even “in Christ,” puts love forward, and thus only beseeches one who like himself realised his incalculable debt to the love of God in Christ our Lord. – Kelly, W. The Epistle to Philemon.
- Love me, love my dog, say men. The apostle says of Onesimus, He is my very bowels. Could such a one be a light object to Philemon? – Kelly, W. The Epistle to Philemon.
- He reminds Philemon that he was indebted to him for his own salvation — for his life as a Christian. – Darby, J.N. Synopsis of the Books of the Bible.