548.) Philemon

A hundred years after Christ, the bishop of Ephesus was a man named Onesimus. Ancient tradition says he is the same Onesimus as in this letter.

Philemon 1

Today’s New International Version (TNIV)

1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus,

General agreement is that Paul wrote this personal letter during his first imprisonment in Rome, a house arrest as described in Acts 28:30-31.  He does not, however, describe himself as a prisoner of Rome.  He sees himself as a prisoner in obedience to the call of the Lord Jesus Christ.

and Timothy our brother,

To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker— 2 also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home:

Map of Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) showing the town of Colosse. Smyrna is present-day Izmir.

Philemon was a Greek landowner living in Colosse.  He had been converted under Paul’s ministry and now his house serves as the meeting place for the church there.  (Perhaps Apphia was his wife and Archippus his son — but that is  speculation.)

One scholar has written:  

“Up to the third century we have no certain evidence of the existence of church buildings for the purpose of worship; all references point to private houses for this. In Rome several of the oldest churches appear to have been built on the sites of houses used for Christian worship.”


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

Thanksgiving and Prayer

4 I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear about your love for all his people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. 6 I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. 7Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.

Philemon has been a blessing to Paul.  He has opened his heart and his home to the followers of Jesus.

Paul’s Plea for Onesimus

8 Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9 yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— 10 that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains.

Now we get to the point of this letter.  Onesimus was a domestic slave who belonged to Philemon.  Onesimus had run away from Philemon to Rome, where he had run into Paul (a close friend of Philemon — cue the music “It’s a Small World After All” . . .)  and been brought to Christ, or as Paul says, he “became my son.”  A master in the Roman Empire had the legal right to kill a runaway slave.  Paul wants to show Philemon a better way.

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

This is a cute play on words from Paul — if you know that the name “Onesimus” means “useful” or “profitable.”

12 I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 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. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary.

Clearly, Paul wanted Onesimus to stay, because he had become a big help. Paul sweetened his appeal in three ways.

First, if Onesimus stayed he could serve Paul on your behalf. “Philemon, if you leave Onesimus with me, it’s like you serving me, because Onesimus is your rightful servant.”

Secondly, if Onesimus stayed he helped a man in chains. “Philemon, I know Onesimus might be of some use to you. Yet I am in chains, and need all the help I can get.”

Thirdly, if Onesimus stayed he helped man in chains for the gospel. “Philemon, please don’t forget why I am here in chains. Remember that it is for the sake of the gospel.

But without your consent I wanted to do nothing: Paul made his appeal and made it strong and skillfully. At the same time, he really did leave the decision to Philemon. He would appeal in love, but he would not trample over the rights of Philemon.

–David Guzik


15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while

Again we see Paul’s facility with language.  How much nicer it sounds to say “he was separated from you” than “your slave ran away from you.”

was that you might have him back forever— 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 fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.

Paul is asking no small thing — that Philemon see his runaway slave now as his own brother, his equal in Christ!

Colossians 3:1, 11

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.  Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.


17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.

What an encouragement this must have been to Onesimus!  Paul’s genuine love for him surely strengthened his new faith!

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. 20 I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit (some “usefulness,”  some “profit”) from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.

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

23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. 24 And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.

Each of these names is also mentioned in the conclusion of the letter to the Colossians (Colossians 4:10-17)

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


Martin Luther liked this short book. “This epistle,” he wrote, “shows a right noble lovely example of Christian love…. Even as Christ did for us with God the Father, thus also does St. Paul for Onesimus with Philemon… We are all his Onesimi, to my thinking.”


Did Onesimus go back?  Did Philemon welcome him as a brother?  We do not know.  Yet — who could refuse Paul’s heartfelt request?

The letter to Philemon is all about reconciliation. Our world, like Paul’s, is filled with barriers between people — race, social class, age, political leaning, ethnicity, language, gender, and so on.  Other separations come from disagreements and quarrels and misunderstandings.   This letter proclaims the good news that Christ can transform even seemingly hopelessly broken relationships into deep and loving friendships.  May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ in our spirits allow these transformations to happen in us and through us, to the glory of God!



“Song of Reconciliation”  sung by Susan Ashton, Margaret Becker, and Christine Dente.  Lyrics follow.

Where there is love there is a peace
And in the cages that bind the bitter heart it is release
Hold it close to your chest, let it move and let it rest
For it is here to set your mind at ease
Where there is love there is a peace

Where there is hope there is a dream
To rise above, to remit and to redeem
To go back, to go where there’s no hurt or anger there
To find the song that you once could sing
Where there is hope there is a dream

Where there is faith there is a chance
To alter the course and fight the winds of circumstance
Not to scar, but mend, not to break, but to bend
And not to know but to understand
Where there is faith there is a chance
Where there is hope there is a dream
Where there is love there is a peace


Images courtesy of:
Onesimus.    http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_9Um6_5nIHEI/TIPk1cvAU4I/AAAAAAAAEC8/qV5GGu8O3HY/s320/Onesimus.jpg
map.     http://oneyearbibleimages.com/colossae.jpg
heart and home.     http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_2B6fe4fbhpo/S62Elzg9XVI/AAAAAAAAAts/g1xXflp30To/s1600/home+is+where+the+heart+is.JPG
if you please.    http://www.playfulpromises.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/If-you-please-logo.jpg
clasped hands.    http://www.britsattheirbest.com/images/h_alban_hands_220w.jpg
“Philemon: Forgiveness that leads to Reconciliation.”     http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_Feukw-lGZRI/TMru1D1IIYI/AAAAAAAAASQ/Et6qaOqX7CU/s1600/philemon-title-slide-slide01.jpg

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