Resource – Study on Philemon
Useless or Useful? You Decide.
1 Paul, [a] a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and [b] Timothy our brother,To Philemon our beloved fellow worker 2 and Apphia our sister and [c] Archippus our [d] fellow soldier, and [e]the church in your house:3 [f] Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Philemon’s Love and Faith
4 [g] I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I [h] hear of your love and [i] of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, 6 and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full [j] knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. 7 For I have derived much joy and [k] comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints [l] have been refreshed through you.
Paul’s Plea for Onesimus
8 Accordingly, [m] though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do [n] what is required, 9 yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now [o] a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— 10 I appeal to you for [p] my child, [q] Onesimus, ) or beneficial (see Philemon 1:20)[r] whose father I became in my imprisonment. 11 (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) 12 I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. 13 I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me [s] on your behalf [t] during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be [u] by compulsion but of your own accord. 15 For this perhaps is why [v] he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16 [w] no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as [x] a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, [y] both in the flesh and in the Lord.17 So if you consider me [z] your partner, receive him as you would receive me. 18 If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 [a] I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. [b] Refresh my heart in Christ.21 [c] Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. 22 At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for [d] I am hoping that [e] through your prayers [f] I will be graciously given to you.
23 [g] Epaphras, my [h] fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, 24 and so do [i] Mark, [i]Aristarchus, [j] Demas, and [j] Luke, my fellow workers.25 [k] The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
What is this letter?
This letter of Paul is the smallest book in the bible, a short personal letter from Paul to Philemon, written while Paul was imprisoned in Rome. According to John Gill, this letter was written at the same time as the book of Colossians. He says:
The Epistle was written at the same time as the Epistle to the Colossians, that is 61 to 62 AC, from Rome. In both Epistles Paul mentions his imprisonment and gives greetings from Ephaphras, Marcus, Aristarcus, Demas and Luke.
Who was Philemon?
Philemon was a wealthy Christian in Colossae that Paul had led to Christ on his missionary journeys through that region. John Gill gives us information on Philemon and the others that are addressed in verses 1-3:
Philemon is not mentioned anywhere else in the NT. The epistle shows that he was a believing Christian and an esteemed acquaintance of the Apostle. The Epistle is addressed to Philemon, with the church in his house, and to sister Apphia and Archippus. Archippus is also mentioned in Colossians 4:17. This shows that Philemon lived in Colossae. In Colossians 4:7-9 we learn that Onesimus was from Colossae also.
The Bridgeway and Thomas Coke commentaries both assume that Apphia is Philemon’s wife, and Archippus was Philemon’s son who was also involved in the house church.
Constable agrees that Apphia was likely Philemon’s wife, and as such she was definitely worthy of including in the letter due to her place in dealing with the household slaves.
Apphia was evidently a family member, probably Philemon”s wife. Paul may have addressed her specifically because normally the wife had day-to-day responsibility for the household slaves. [Note: Rupprecht, p458.]
The reason for this letter was dealing with a runaway slave named Onesimus that “belonged” to Philemon and had come into contact with Paul in Rome. After coming to Paul, Onesimus became a Christ follower and became very beneficial to Paul. Paul would have liked to keep Onesimus in Rome, but that was not Paul’s decision to make, according to the laws and customs of their culture (more on this in a bit) He was to send Onesimus back to Philemon. Paul left it up to Philemon to choose whether to free Onesimus to return to Paul or to stay in Colossae to serve the church there. The Bridgeway commentary makes the situation abundantly clear that Paul’s preference is to keep Onesimus, but that is Philemon’s call.
Although Paul would like to keep Onesimus with him, he feels that the right thing to do is to send him back to his original master, Philemon. No doubt Philemon would be happy to allow Onesimus to stay in Rome where he could continue to look after Paul, but that is a matter for Philemon to decide, not Paul. Whatever Philemon does, Paul wants him to do it willingly, not because Paul has forced him (12-14).
As you read this letter you see that the desired end result is forgiveness, grace and restoration of a runaway slave.
Paul is not being manipulative in verses 8-14, he is just letting Philemon make the decision that is culturally appropriate. Philemon would be the only one legally that could make the decision to free Onesimus to return to Paul and serve him in ministry. This would be an example of Showing grace as a Christian master. Paul knew from his relationship with Philemon, that he would make the right decision without having to be told what to do. Constable explains this in his commentary
“Paul must have put Philemon in a precarious position indeed. In pleading for forgiveness and restitution for Onesimus without a punishment that was obvious to all, he was confronting the social and economic order head on. While he does not ask for manumission, even his request for clemency for Onesimus and hint of his assignment to Paul defied Roman tradition. By this plea Paul is also giving new dignity to the slave class.” [Note: Rupprecht, p460.]
This was not just a personal letter, but one that would be read before his house church and many others in the area as they were useful for teaching sound doctrine. The appeal that Paul made would be out in the open for all to hear. Constable points this out in his commentary that the public nature of the request makes it that much more of an important request.
“. . . Paul knew Philemon as modern commentators cannot and no doubt had a good idea of how Philemon was likely to react to such sentiments being read in public in the church of which he was a member as well as leader.” [Note: Dunn, p328.]
This type of appeal would have had much greater force in the honor-shame culture in which these people lived than it does in modern western power-weakness culture.
Who was Onesimus?
There is a lot to learn here about a runaway slave. Why is it so important that we still have this letter, and it was considered worthy to be included in the canon of the New Testament? This letter, while very personal in nature, tells us a couple things very important to the culture of the early church. One is that slavery was very prevalent in that culture. The other was that regardless of race or cultural class, forgiveness is to be offered between believers.
Here is what we know about Onesimus. He was a slave that belonged to Philemon. Somehow or another he made it to Rome. Either on purpose or on accident, he encountered Paul, who led him to a saving knowledge of Christ.
FB Hole in his commentary seems to follow this line of logic and also assumes that Onesimus had stolen some money, maybe to fund his travels.
In verse 11, Paul makes a play on words in telling Philemon of both the change in the heart of Onesimus and his utility to Paul while with him in Rome. Constable points out in his commentary that Onesimus was maybe given his name as a slave due to the stereotype of slaves from Phrygia, the place of Onesimus’ origin.
“Achrestos [“useless”] designates Onesimus with reference to his flight and the time before his conversion. Apparently he was useless even before he ran away. He was a Phrygian slave and as such “had confirmed the popular estimate of his class and nation by his own conduct” [Note: J. B. Lightfoot, St. Paul”s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon , p310.] since Phrygian slaves were proverbial for being unreliable and unfaithful.” [Note: O”Brien, p292.]
For Onesimus, even before coming to Christ, it had to be terrible to be a slave and walk around with the name “profitable”, but to be a low class slave, and not even live up to your name. That happens today. Each of us walk around with labels that were either given to us from someone else or ourselves. Maybe it’s “failure”, maybe it’s “not measuring up”, maybe it’s from a mistake we made years ago. It is not God that wants you to keep these labels. It is the enemy. God is a God that can change the label of a “useless” slave to useful through the work of grace.
Gill points to the use of the “play on words” twice within the letter to point out that this slave that ran away is not the slave that is coming back…
Twice in this epistle Paul uses a play on words in respect to Onesimus whose name means “profitable”. But Onesimus had not honoured his name when he had fled from his master Philemon and perhaps even stolen something. Onesimus had experienced a radical change. To this the Apostle alludes, in verse 11 , with the words “unprofitable” and “profitable” (Greek: achrestos – euchrestos ).
The Problem of Slavery
I told you that we would look at the cultural aspect of the role slavery played in the early church. We addressed this somewhat in our series on Titus. However in this letter of Paul, you see a little more personal look at how the cultural institution of looked like in the early church.
John Gill explains the tension that the church and society dealt with in regards to slavery
Slavery was a fixed component of the social and governmental order in antiquity. A slave was considered a “thing” and therewith the sole property of his proprietor. …Although slavery was a consequence of man’s sin and therefore not according to the will of God, slaves did not receive outward liberty from their often hard fate when they believed in the Saviour Jesus Christ. They were however encouraged to be faithful witnesses for God and His grace through their new life in Christ; and even more so if their masters were not Christians.
Warren Wiersbe’s commentary gives us a picture of what Onesimus could have been facing when he returns to Philemon. It also shows the cost to Philemon of a runaway slave.
“If a slave ran away, the master would register the name and description with the officials, and the slave would be on the “wanted” 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.” [Note: Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, 2:270-71.]
In verses 17 and following, Paul makes a plea to Philemon to receive Onesimus as a brother. He does not plead for freedom, but rather forgiveness. Paul also makes very plain that he is willing to pay any costs incurred on Onesimus’ behalf. This is an excellent picture of Christ’s role as mediator for us before the father. He provided the way and the cost for our forgiveness and restored relationship with God.
Barclay in his commentary on Philemon, points out that Paul’s purpose in sending Onesimus back was not to help him get a free pass, but to provide him means to grow as a believer, and in relationship with his master.
“Christianity is not out to help a man to escape his past and to run away from it; it is out to enable a man to face his past and to rise above it.” [Note: William Barclay, The Letters to Timothy, Titus , and Philemon , p321.]
FB Meyer also draws the comparison between Paul offering to pay whatever has been lost on behalf of Onesimus to the ransom that was paid for us by Christ and His work on the cross.
Paul offers to assume all the losses which Onesimus had brought on Philemon, and signs the bond with his autograph, as our Lord paid the great ransom price for us all. Finally, Paul delicately reminds his friend, in Philemon 1:19, that Philemon owed him a great deal more than a trifle of money, namely, his spiritual life. Does not our Lord address us in similar terms? We surely owe ourselves to Him!
Constable echoes this in his notes as well that Paul wants to work as an agent of grace and restoration in this relationship. This is something we need to learn from in our own families and communities.
Paul then hastened to remove a possible obstacle. Pilfering was common among slaves (cf. Titus 2:10). Paul seemed to be unaware of anything specific that Onesimus owed Philemon , but he offered to pay whatever might be indebted if such a condition existed. Onesimus may have stolen from Philemon.
Paul reminded Philemon in this letter that on a spiritual level, that Philemon, Onesimus, and even Paul were all on an even level in the eyes of God. Regardless of the social level that each of us may or may not be part of, we are all equal in God’s eyes. We are all created and loved by Him. He desires for each of us to have a relationship with Him that starts now and lasts forever. He sent Jesus to live a sinless life, die on the cross and raise again three days later so that we may all have redemption through Him. It does not matter our race, family, place of origin, or social class. He died for all. Paul is reminding Philemon that even Onesimus was worthy of God’s grace.
So how did it end?
We do not know the whole of the “rest of the story” as Paul Harvey would say, but the accounts of the early church fathers give us a little bit of what might have happened.
The only thing that we know for sure is that both the letter from Paul to Philemon and the letter from Paul to the Colossians traveled from Rome to Colossae with Tyhicus (one of Paul’s regular ministry companions, and sometimes secretary/transcriptionist) and Onemisus. There is recod of this also in Colossians 4:9.
Constable gives a little more information in his commentary on Philemon.
However the fact that Philemon preserved this epistle and allowed it to circulate among the churches strongly suggests that he did behave as Paul had requested. In Colossians 4:9 Paul referred to Onesimus as “our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of your number,” which would have encouraged reception of him in Colossae. According to Christian tradition Onesimus later became bishop of Ephesus. [Note: O”Brien, p265.] However, another Onesimus may have been this bishop. [Note: Fitzmyer, p15.] Later church legends also identified Philemon as a bishop of Colossae. [Note: Ibid, p86.]
The part about Philemon and Onesimus becoming bishops of early churches is solely based on church tradition, and not entirely proveable.
Regardless of how the story ends, there is much we can learn from this letter about grace, salvation and forgiveness.
As we close our time in the scriptures this morning with quiet worship in the Quaker tradition, I challenge you to focus in on you answer to the following questions:
• Am I forgiving others and treating them with Grace?
• Am I treating others how Christ would want me to treat them, regardless of race, background, or any other differences?
• What did God teach me this morning from the Book of Philemon?