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Philemon: A Story of Grace
by Carol Berubee
http://www.tonyabetz.org/MSM/Product/philemon.htm

Page 1 of 1

Whatever Paul was able to offer to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus, Yeshua our Lord was able to offer much more to Father on our behalf. This is the overarching theme of the letter: Grace; not only that grace that Paul expected Philemon to extend to Onesimus, but that source of grace in Christ Jesus our Lord who stood in for us.


Onesimus was a runaway slave who was subsequently saved under the preaching of Paul during Paul's first Roman imprisonment. Philemon was the master of Onesimus. In this letter, Paul appeals to Philemon's position in Christ in a plea to Philemon to forgive Onesimus and welcome his return, not as a slave, but as a brother in the Lord.

This personal letter to Philemon was written while Paul was imprisoned in Rome, about A.D. 61 or 62. Onesimus was from Colosse (Colossians 4:9), as was Philemon, and it is apparent that when Onesimus ran away from Philemon's home, he ended up in Rome. Paul was under house arrest there for two years while awaiting trial before Nero and during which time he was allowed visitors. Onesimus must have been one of those visitors because Paul counts him as a son in the Lord, begotten under his own preaching (Philemon 1:10).

Tychicus carried letters from Paul in Rome to the churches at Ephesus (Ephesians 6:21) and Colosse (Colossians 4:7-8), and in this latter event, Onesimus is also included. It is most likely that Onesimus was also carrying this letter to his master, Philemon.

In this letter, Paul puts himself forward as surety for Onesimus, for it is apparent that Onesimus had stolen from Philemon in the past (v. 18). Whatever Paul was able to offer to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus, Yeshua our Lord was able to offer much more to Father on our behalf. This is the overarching theme of the letter: Grace; not only that grace that Paul expected Philemon to extend to Onesimus, but that source of grace in Christ Jesus our Lord who stood in for us. What's more, Yeshua stood in for us while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8). How easy, then, must it be for us to extend grace to those who have already been saved and who seek reprieve under repentance.

Paul means "the little one" and Philemon means "the loving one." Here, we see the great love of Paul, the mighty apostle, but we are reminded that he is the little one, the lowly servant. And we see Paul appealing to the love that Philemon has for his brothers and sisters in the Lord (vv. 5-7). Would Philemon be so loving to the one who had previously wronged him? Would he live up to his name?

Onesimus means "profitable" or "helpful." He had been anything but profitable to Philemon in the past. Now he seeks to make things right with his new brother in the Lord, to be profitable for the sake of the Gospel.

Let's look at this letter verse by verse.

We see in the first three verses that Paul wrote this letter but that he also includes Timothy. Then we see that the letter is addressed to Philemon, Apphia (probably his wife), Archippus (maybe their son), and the entire church that met in Philemon's home. We often think of this letter as a personal letter, which often connotes privacy, but certainly not in this case. The subject matter, and the way in which Paul addresses said matter, is quite personal. Paul holds nothing back in his affection for Philemon and his expected response from his friend. But we can hardly say that this was a private letter, from one friend to another. No doubt, because this letter was addressed to the entire group of Christians meeting in Philemon's home, it was circulated among them or, perhaps, was read aloud to them by Philemon himself.

In verses 4 through 7, Paul speaks of Philemon's great love for the brethren. Some may read this as some sort of manipulation to prod Philemon, but in reading all of Paul's letters, we see that he often is very passionate about people, and is not afraid to speak the truth -- good or bad. Philemon was influenced by Paul's preaching to the point of salvation and so it is not unusual for Paul to express such emotion toward one he considers "his own." Even though there is no indication that Paul had met Philemon at the time of this writing, we do know that Philemon was converted through Paul, probably when Paul was preaching for about three years in Ephesus (A.D. 54-57, or so). Colosse was about 100 miles east of Ephesus and it would not have been uncommon for a Colossian to venture into Ephesus. Paul wrote the letter to the Colossians and this letter to Philemon in about A.D. 62, even though he had never been to Colosse. Paul would not go to Colosse until after his first Roman imprisonment, somewhere between A.D. 64 and 67.

Verses 8 and 9 are quite illuminating. We see here that Paul, because he was an apostle, could have commanded Philemon to accept the returning Onesimus as a brother, free in the Lord, owing nothing. Yet Paul does not command, he "beseeches." He asks Philemon to consider Paul, now aged, having given so much of his life for the sake of the Gospel, and to accept his commendation of Onesimus.

Paul reminds Philemon that Paul's ministry was instrumental in Philemon's conversion (v. 19). As an apostle, having authority from the risen Christ, Paul could have commanded that Philemon pardon Onesimus and welcome the man into his home as a brother (v. 8). But Paul does not use his office in such a way. Instead, he lets his own testimony, Gospel work, and character persuade Philemon. He "beseeches" Philemon (v. 9), as a brother, to love Onesimus as a brother, as well.

Verse 10 tells us that after Onesimus ran away from Philemon's home, he went to Rome where he was converted to Christianity under Paul's teaching. And we see in the next verse that Paul is mindful of what the name "Onesimus" means: profitable. He says that while Onesimus was unprofitable to Philemon in the past, he is now profitable, or helpful, to both Paul and Philemon. As a Christian, Onesimus was now profitable. No one is profitable in this life until he is saved, at which point he becomes profitable in the Body of Christ.

Verses 12 and 13 are very helpful to us in understanding our responsibility in society and under authority. In Romans 13, Paul says that the Christian is to obey the authority that God has ordained. Yet, we see here that Paul has decided to send Onesimus back to Philemon. There are two issues that need to be addressed concerning this decision.

First, according to Deuteronomy 23, Paul should not have returned Onesimus to his master, but should have let Onesimus stay in Rome. But the Christian is not under the law, but under grace. Paul writes in another place that love fulfills the law (Romans 13:8-10). This love is manifested in and through the believer by the divine grace of God; it is the fruit of the Spirit. How much this love and grace is manifested here in this letter! Love does not come through the law that was nailed to the cross, but from the Lord who died on that cross.

Second, many unbelievers have used this letter to place a mark against Christianity as a religion that approves of slavery. Yet, a careful reading of this letter, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, allows us to see just the opposite. At that time in history, under Roman law, a master had the right to discipline a runaway slave as he saw fit. It was common for a master to brand a returned slave. It was also acceptable to put to death a returned slave. Grace intervenes as Paul pleads with Philemon to receive Onesimus as a brother and no longer a slave, thereby providing Onesimus safety and fellowship.

Had Paul directly spoken out against the practice of slavery, no doubt he would have been put to death, for slavery was intrinsic to the Roman empire. Rome would not have spared the lives of Christians had they involved themselves in such political affairs. Rather, Paul sees the Gospel as the answer. He sees that as individuals are converted, they will give up such inhumane practices. Paul teaches that those who are converted to Christianity when they are slaves should remain as slaves and to give honor to their masters. Again, if these slaves were to rebel against the institution of slavery, Rome would not have been kind. It must also be noted that Paul seemed to think the Lord might return during Paul's lifetime. With that in mind, we can see that there would have been little use in political revolution.

What was foremost in Paul's mind, instead, was the spreading of the Gospel, even if it meant a Christian slave loving his master, sharing the Gospel through word and deed, and accepting any consequences. Even though God had ordained authority to Rome, and Rome granted authority to its slaveholders, Paul opts to work through the law of Christ -- love and grace -- when dealing with matters of law and government. He does not stir up trouble; yet, he is a champion of human freedom, a freedom which he sees can only come through Christ. He appeals to Philemon, not as a slaveholder endued by Rome with rights under the law, but as a brother in Christ.

Onesimus is now a Christian and is willing to be a minister of the Gospel. Paul knows that Philemon is also a Christian who has demonstrated his love to many brethren. It is this Christian home into which Paul is sending Onesimus. Would Philemon exercise his right under Roman law to brand this returned slave? Or, as Paul was anticipating (v. 21), would he recognize that Onesimus was now branded by the Lord, a bondservant of Christ?

Another interesting aspect concerning slavery is that it was common for household slaves to be manumitted around the age of thirty. It is likely that Onesimus was rather young when he ran away, for if he had been close to thirty, he would most likely have been anticipating his freedom through manumission. It was common for a manumitted slave to remain with the master's family but with all the privileges of a freed man. But even a manumitted slave, although conferred with the status of Roman citizen, could never hold public office. It is interesting to note that tradition holds that Onesimus was quite a prominent elder in Ephesus some years later. Could it be that although Rome would not allow a former slave to hold public office that God elevated this former slave to eldership in His Church? Our privileges in Christ far exceed any success we may gain on this earth.

We see that Paul would have desired that Onesimus stay in Rome to minister. Yet, Paul sends this letter to Philemon and pleads with him to forgive Onesimus and "receive him forever" (v. 15). In verse 14, Paul says that he would not command Philemon, for he wants Philemon's decision to be voluntary and not compulsory. Is this not how our Father works? He does not accept us because we make a decision, thereby forcing His hand; rather, He accepts us because He had already decided before the foundation of the world, of His own will, to redeem us (Ephesians 1:4).

And Paul intimates that Onesimus had gone astray so that Philemon would receive the reward by forgiving Onesimus and counting him as a brother upon his return (v. 15). This is an illustration of God's love toward us. We have all been unprofitable, we have all gone astray (Romans 3:12). But it is God's good pleasure, by His own will, to forgive the wayward sinner and receive him forever. In so doing, God is glorified.

Paul, as a type of Christ, "saves" the wayward Onesimus. Onesimus is now profitable to the Lord. Paul sends Onesimus to his Master with a letter of commendation, pleading with Philemon, out of love, to accept Onesimus on the good word of Paul. Is this not what Yeshua did for His own?

Yeshua saved the sinner and made him profitable in the Kingdom of God. He says to Father, in effect, "I have purchased this one. Out of love for Me, accept this one, receive him forever. Use him as You will, for in Your good wisdom, You will be glorified." We especially see this in verses 17 through 19, where Paul tells Philemon to accept Paul "as a partner" and to "receive [Onesimus] as you would me." Yeshua tells Father to accept the wayward sinner as He accepts His Son. This wayward sinner, who has wronged Father, is redeemed by Christ. The sinner's wrongs are put on His account.

If God allowed Onesimus to go astray so that Paul would minister to him and then Philemon would have opportunity for good works concerning Onesimus, then may we say that this, too, is a picture of God's sovereignty in election?

God saves whom He will, when He will, in what manner He will. While it may be unfathomable as to why God allows people to be sinners in the first place, we see here that, in the end, God is glorified all the more when a sinner is received of Him forever. We are all born slaves to sin. Only God can redeem us from the slave market and set us free. Only God can transform us into profitable servants. Only God can save us that we may be with Him forever.


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