By Tim Sullivan


The book of Philemon is one of the four "prison epistles" that Paul wrote along during his first imprisonment in Rome (chronicled by Luke in Acts 28). Colossians, Ephesians and Philippians were epistles to entire congregations; this letter was to one man.

A. The Introduction

Philemon 1:1-2:
1 Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother, unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellowlabourer,
2 And to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellowsoldier, and to the church in thy house:

Two pieces of evidence lead to the conclusion that Philemon was a wealthy man. First, his home was large enough to be the meeting place of "the church in thy house." Second (as shall be seen), he owned slaves.

Church historians agree that Christians met in private home until the 3rd century AD.

Apphia was very likely the wife of Philemon. Archippus was likely the pastor of the church. He was mentioned by name and singled-out for an exhortation in Paul's letter to the Colossians:

Colossians 4:17:
And say to Archippus, Take heed to the ministry which thou hast received in the Lord, that thou fulfil it.

Paul begins his letter to Philemon with his customary benediction:

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

Grace and peace are gifts from God through his Son. Truly there is no peace without grace, and no grace without peace.

B. Philemon's Character

Although it possible that these two men never met face-to-face, Paul was clearly aware of this man's good reputation and his service to the church.

Philemon 1:4-5:
4 I thank my God, making mention of thee always in my prayers,
5 Hearing of thy love and faith, which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all saints;
6 That the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.

Paul’s prayer for Philemon (in verse 6) is similar in theme to other prayers found in his epistles. Paul exhorted those doing well to continue in their well-doing. His exhortation to the church in Thessalonica is another example of this.

1 Thessalonians 4:9-10:
9 But as touching brotherly love ye need not that I write unto you: for ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another.
10 And indeed ye do it toward all the brethren which are in all Macedonia: but we beseech you, brethren, that ye increase more and more;

C. Paul’s Charge to Philemon

Paul was keenly aware of Philemon's joy of service.

Philemon 1:7:
7 For we have great joy and consolation in thy love, because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother.

It could also be said that Paul understood how important it to Philemon to uphold his example of Christian generosity. This is precisely the reason Paul knew he could count on him for something that went beyond the usual request.

Philemon 1:8:
8 Wherefore, though I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee that which is convenient,

To "enjoin" someone is to give him an order or command. "That which is convenient" is that which is fitting or appropriate. Paul was pressing Philemon to make a certain sacrifice, first because Paul was his spiritual elder, and second because it is was the right thing to do. The third and most important factor, it was the loving thing to do.

Philemon 1:9:
9 Yet for love’s sake I rather beseech thee, being such an one as Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ.

The matter at hand concerned a runaway slave named Onesimus who was bound to Philemon. Since the time he had left Philemon, Onesimus had met Paul and through him, the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul was now sending Onesimus back to Philemon, but not before making his aware that his slave was now also brother in Christ to them both.

Philemon 1:10-12:
10 I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds:
11 Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me:
12 Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels:

It is important to recognize that Paul did not condemn Philemon for owning a slave. It is equally important to know that biblical slaves were often (though not always) indentured servants paying off their debts. In such a situation, the servant would be wrong to hold a grudge against his master or try to escape his obligation.

Ephesians 6:5-6:
5 Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ;
6 Not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart;

Before he returned Onesimus to him, Paul wanted Philemon to know his personal preference was for Onesimus to remain with him to help him. He commended this same man in his letter to the Colossians.

Colossians 4:9:
9 With Onesimus, a faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They shall make known unto you all things which are done here.

Nevertheless Paul knew that Philemon had the final word in the matter.

Philemon 13-14:
13 Whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel:
14 But without thy mind would I do nothing; that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly.

Paul made the bold suggestion that Onesimus' running away was an act of providence to bring about his salvation.

Philemon 15-16:
15 For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever;
16 Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord?

D. Paul’s Wise Offer

Paul wanted to ensure that Onesimus would be well-treated upon his return. He therefore made a personal pledge to Philemon on his behalf:

Philemon 1:17-19a:
17 If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself.
18 If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account;
19a I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it ....

However, Paul also reminded Philemon of his own debt to him! Note how Paul says, "I do not say to thee" but then tells him anyway! It is interesting that the reason for Onesimus' servitude to Philemon was also one of debt.

Philemon 1:19b:
19b ... albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides.

Paul now calls upon Philemon to remember his own past acts of virtue. As you have refreshed others, Paul says, so refresh me.

Philemon 1:20-21:
20 Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord: refresh my bowels in the Lord.
21 Having confidence in thy obedience I wrote unto thee, knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say.

As an added impetus, Paul let Philemon know he expected to be able to soon visit him, inferring that he would then be able to see for himself how Onesimus was being treated!

Philemon 1:22
22 But withal prepare me also a lodging: for I trust that through your prayers I shall be given unto you.

A person could be excused from accusing Paul of using everything short of outright manipulation to convince Philemon to do the right thing. And yet, this is exactly what it means to "beseech" someone to conduct himself as is fitting for a Christian.

Romans 12:1:
1 I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.

E. The Salutation and Postscript

The last three verses of Paul's letter to Philemon contain his salutation to various members of the church. Along with Onesimus, each of these man are named in the last verses of Colossians.

Philemon 1:23-25:
23 There salute thee Epaphras, my fellowprisoner in Christ Jesus;
24 Marcus, Aristarchus, Demas, Lucas, my fellowlabourers.
25 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.

Once again, Paul's message begins and ends with grace.

The postscript to this epistle is not included in all Bible versions. "Written from Rome to Philemon, by Onesimus a servant." It would serve to underscore to Philemon that Onesimus was indeed a helper to Paul, and that he himself knew the content of Paul's letter.


Presented September 4, 2016 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana