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Introduction to Philemon
This Letter was written by the Apostle Paul, when he was a prisoner at Rome, and seems to have been written in the year 60, and sent by his hand, as was the Letter to the Colossians; seeing the same persons were with the apostle at the writing of both, and send their Christian greetings in the one, as in the other; compare Phm.1:23-24 with Col.4:10,12,14. And also Archippus, the pastor in Colosse, is made mention of in both, Phm.1:2 and Col.4:17. Some think that Philemon, to whom the Letter was written, was a Colossian, since Onesimus (Phm.1:10; Col.4:9), his servant, on whose account, and by whom it was sent, is said to be one of the Colossians (Col.4:9).
Philemon is thought to have been one of the seventy disciples (Lk.10:1,17), and afterwards Bishop of Gaza. The reason for the Letter was this; Philemon's servant, Onesimus, had either embezzled his master's goods, or robbed him and ran away from him, fleeing to Rome, where the apostle Paul was a prisoner in chains in his own hired house, under the custody of a soldier, and where he received all that came, and preached the Gospel to them (Acts 28:30), and among those that went to hear him, was this fugitive servant, and was converted under his ministry. He not only received the grace of God, but had such gifts bestowed on him, as to qualify him to be a preacher of the word.
Now the plan of this Letter is to reconcile Philemon to his servant, and to beg him to receive him again, not only as a servant, but as a brother in Christ, and the most wise and practical methods and arguments are used to do this.
The Letter, although it is a short one, is very instructive; revealing great humility in the apostle, that he did not think it beneath him to be concerned in doing such a thing as to reconcile a master to his servant. May we take note, and see that it is worthy of imitation.
It also teaches the right that masters have over their servants, which is not lost by their becoming Christians, and even ministers of the Gospel; and that recompense should be made unto them for injuries done by them. It also displays the riches of the grace of God, in the conversion of such a vile creature: and the wonderful
providence of God in overruling that which was sinful in itself, running away from his master, to the greatest good, even the conversion of him; and is an instance of surprising grace: and from this may be learned, that there IS salvation in Christ for the chief of sinners (1 Tim.1:15). No matter how bad your sin is or has been, God can forgive you!
This main idea of this Letter is to persuade Philemon to receive his servant Onesimus; the arguments used are taken from the general character he had for love to the saints and people of God.
Theme: Revelation of Christ's love for us; demonstration of how brotherly love should work
Philemon lived in Colosse, and apparently was a well-known among the citizens. He was brought to a knowledge of the Gospel through the work of Paul, and held a prominent place in the Christian community for his godliness and charity. He is called in the epistle a "fellowlabourer," and most likely held some office in the church at Colosse. It is that he took part in the work of spreading a knowledge of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The primary purpose of this Letter is to reveal Jesus’ love for us in what He died for us in pleading our case before God. This is one of the finest illustrations of substitution. Philemon 1:18 If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account; (KJV) . . . What an awesome Saviour we have! He took our place on that horrid cross in that agonizing dark three hours (Mat,27:45; Mk.15:33; Lk.23:44). Dear one, Christ Jesus agreed to take our place that day, and when He did, He paid the penalty for my sin and yours! Jesus was my Substitute, paying a price He did not owe, because I owed a price that I could NOT pay! All my sin, and yours, was laid on Jesus that day. All our sin was imputed to Him. He took our place in death, and He gives us His place in life. Philemon 1:17 If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself. (KJV) . . . Paul begs Philemon to take back his servant.
We either have a standing of Christ before God, or we have no standing at all. Onesimus, the unprofitable runaway slave, was to be received just as if it were Paul, the great apostle, would have been received in the home of Philemon.
This practical Letter is to teach brotherly love. Paul spoke of the new relationship between master and servant in the other Prison Epistles. Here he demonstrates how it should work. These men, belonging to two different classes in the Roman Empire, hating each other and hurting each other, are now brothers in Christ, and they must act like it.
Philemon Chapter 1
Genial Greeting to Philemon and His Family (Philemon 1:1-3)
Philemon 1:1 Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother, unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellowlabourer, (KJV)
Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother, unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellowlabourer . . . Paul does not mention that he is an apostle. When he was writing to the churches, he gave his official title: an apostle of Jesus Christ, but this is a personal letter to a friend. He need not defend his apostleship. I think Paul meant for this to be very personal. I wonder if he ever thought it might be read by many people. I wonder how many millions of people have read this brief Letter of Philemon.
Paul wrote this letter from Rome in about A.D. 60, when he was under house arrest (Acts 28:30-31). Onesimus was a domestic servant who belonged to Philemon, a wealthy man and a member of the church in Colosse. Onesimus had run away from Philemon and had made his way to Rome, where he met Paul, who apparently led him to Christ (verse 10). Paul convinced Onesimus that running from his problems would not solve them, and he persuaded Onesimus to return to his master. Paul wrote this letter to Philemon to ask him to be reconciled to his runaway slave.
Timothy's name is included with Paul's in 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon. Timothy was one of Paul's trusted companions; Paul wrote two letters to him . . . First and Second Timothy.
Unto Philemon our dearly beloved . . . it sounds as if Paul is buttering him up, but Paul loved this man, and he is going to make a request of him.
Philemon 1:2 And to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellowsoldier, and to the church in thy house: (KJV)
And to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellowsoldier, and to the church in thy house . . .
Apphia apparently was the wife of Philemon. While Philemon is a Greek name, and he was a citizen of Colossae, Apphia is a Phrygian name. Possibly Philemon went to Colossae, going into some sort of business, and became a wealthy man there. He met and married a Phrygian girl named Apphia. And Archippus our fellowsoldier . . . some think this was their son. He as not a soldier of the Roman army, but a soldier in the army of Jesus Christ. Paul had written elsewhere that we all are to be good soldiers of Jesus Christ (2 tim.2:3).
And to the church in thy house . . . not only had they been converted, but they had a church in their house. The church building has become far too important to people today. The local church in Paul's day was not in a separate building. They did not have a special building, they simply met in homes. It is estimated that for two hundred years, Christians met in homes.
Philemon 1:3 Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (KJV)
Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ . . . this same form of greeting is used in the other Letters (Rom.1:7; 1 Cor.1:3; 2 Cor.1:2; Gal.1:3; Eph.1:2; Phil.1:2; Col.1:2; 1 Thes.1:1; 2 Thes.1:2; 1 Tim.1:2; 2 Tim.1:2; Tit.1:4). Even though this Letter is just a very small one, Paul introduces it in the same way as the larger Letters.
Good Reputation Of Philemon (Philemon 1:4-7)
Philemon 1:4 I thank my God, making mention of thee always in my prayers, (KJV)
I thank my God, making mention of thee always in my prayers . . . Philemon is a man for whom Paul prayed, as was Timothy (2 Tim.1:3). The thought here is that every time Philemon's name was mentioned, Paul prayed for him. Paul was a man much in prayer, and frequently at the throne of grace.
Philemon 1:5 Hearing of thy love and faith, which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all saints; (KJV)
Hearing of thy love and faith, which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all saints . . . love and faith spring from the free favor and love of God, and are the pure gifts of His amazing grace. If there is faith in the heart, it is confessed by the mouth! Love, both to Christ and to His people, shows itself, as well as faith, in works of righteousness (Tit.3:5).
Paul puts love here before faith, contrary to the right order of those spiritual habits, for love is the fruit of faith, which worketh by love. And faith; faith in Christ . . . Philemon had faith towards the Lord Jesus . . . faith in Christ, resting His confidence in Him for salvation, and a love which worked towards Christ and the saints..
Philemon 1:6 That the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus. (KJV)
That the communication of thy faith may be effectual . . . most likely means fellowship or communion (2 Cor.13:14). His faith was shared with others. The life of Philemon was a testimony.
By the acknowledging of every good thing that is in you in Christ Jesus . . . every good thing was the result of the fact that "...it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure" (Phil.2:13). I think the meaning is, that every good thing that is in the saints, or among them, should be recognized to come to them in and through Christ Jesus, in whom all fulness of grace dwells (Jn.1:16), and it is only from Jesus that every good thing is conveyed.
And every good thing that is communicated, or done in faith, will be successful for any good purpose, should be admitted as done by the grace and strength of Christ.
Paul's prayer for Philemon was setting the stage for the request Paul would make in this letter. Philemon was active in his faith and generous in sharing its blessings. As he gained a fuller understanding of all that Christ had done on his behalf. This knowledge should cause him to respond correctly to Paul's request regarding Onesimus. All God’s TRUE children should be active in sharing our faith with others.
God truly must have a special love for runaways. Scripture records dozens of people who were inclined to flee. From Adam and Eve's attempt to avoid God (Gen.3:8), through Jacob's escape from his brother (Gen.27:43), past generations of God's people on the run, to that inner circle of disciples who fled from the garden when Jesus was captured (Mk.14:50), the Bible is a collection of runaway lives. God's special love for runaways is beautifully illustrated in the life of a slave named Onesimus.
We are not told why Onesimus ran away from Philemon's house in Colossae. Eventually, he and Paul were later reunited in Rome. Although we might desire details, Paul simply wrote that Onesimus became a follower of Jesus. Later, his spiritual growth caused Paul to call him a faithful and beloved brother (Col.4:9).
In time, Paul and Onesimus decided it was time for the runaway to return home. Paul wrote a letter of explanation to his friend Philemon, assuring him that Onesimus would now serve him wholeheartedly. Although the culture of the day gave masters complete control over their slaves and although severe punishment usually faced a runaway, Paul challenged Philemon to think of Onesimus more as a brother than as a slave. Paul took responsibility for any repayment Philemon might need or demand of Onesimus. As difficult as it might be for him, Onesimus, the runaway slave turned believer, had to return and face his old life as a new person.
When God finds a runaway, He nearly always sends them back to the very place and people from which they ran from in the first place.
Has your relationship with Christ given you new opportunities and resources to face what you formally ran away from?
Onesimus is mentioned in Col.4:9, and is the subject of Paul's letter to Philemon.
The grace of faith CANNOT be communicated from one to another. A believing parent cannot transfer it to his children, nor a master to his servants, nor a minister to his hearers; nor a person to his spouse.
But the grace of faith, an account of it, its work and movements, the joy of it, and the peace which a soul is filled with through believing, may be given to the mutual comfort and building up of saints; and it may be shown to others by the fruits of it, works of righteousness . But here it seems to mean acts of charity, communicating to the needs of others, as flowing from faith in Jesus.
Philemon 1:7 For we have great joy and consolation in thy love, because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother. (KJV)
For we have great joy and consolation in thy love, because the bowels of the saints are, refreshed by thee, brother . . . Paul had great joy and consolation in the love of Philemon for other believers and for him. Bowels or heart implies the entire emotional nature. It is the inner life of the believers that had great satisfaction through him. Philemon was the kind of person who would have entertained evangelists and saints in his home. His house was open to them. He was a wonderful person.
Gracious Plea for Onesimus (Philemon 1:8-16)
Philemon 1:8 Wherefore, though I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee that which is convenient, (KJV)
Wherefore, though I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee that which is convenient . . .
Paul is making a gracious plea on behalf of Onesimus. He is coming to the reason of his letter. He approaches his subject tactfully and lovingly. He is going to make his request for Onesimus on a loving basis.
Philemon 1:9 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. (KJV)
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 . . . for love's sake means the love of Paul and Philemon for each other as believers in Christ Jesus. Being such a one as Paul the aged . . . Paul was only in his sixties, but he was an old man. He had suffered much (2 Cor.11:24-27), and had been greatly persecuted as a missionary for Christ. This had aged him. Paul says to Philemon, “I am an old man now."
A prisoner of Jesus Christ . . . it is evident that he could not come to Philemon in person (Phm.1:1).
Philemon 1:10 I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds: (KJV)
I beseech thee for my son Onesimus whom I have begotten in my bonds . . . Paul is pleading on behalf of his son. Paul was not married, but he had many spiritual sons. He calls Timothy and Titus his sons, and now Onesimus. Paul had led Onesimus to the Lord even though he himself was a prisoner at the time.
Philemon 1:11 Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me: (KJV)
Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me . . . Onesimus means "useful." Paul used a play on words, saying that Onesimus had not been much use to Philemon in the past but now had become very useful to both Philemon and Paul. Even though Paul wanted to keep Onesimus with him, he was sending Onesimus back, pleading that Philemon accept him not only as a forgiven runaway servant but also as a brother in Christ. Every man, in his state of unregeneracy, is unprofitable (Rom.3:12).
Philemon 1:12 Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels: (KJV)
Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels . . . from Rome to Colossae, back to Philemon, wherever he was, along with this Letter. Paul is asking Philemon to receive Onesimus just as if he were receiving Paul.
Philemon 1:13 Whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel: (KJV)
Whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the Gospel . . . Paul now admits that he would have liked to have kept Onesimus. He was there in prison, old, sick and cold and Onesimus could have helped him. But Paul could not do that. He says,
Philemon 1:14 But without thy mind would I do nothing; that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly. (KJV)
But without thy mind would I do nothing; that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly . . . Paul is saying, I would not keep Onesimus because that would not be right, although I would like to. If you want to send him back to me, that will be all right. Did Philemon send Onesimus back to Paul? We do not know. I think there is a good chance that he did. One day we will find out!
Philemon 1:15 For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever; (KJV)
For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever . . . the meaning is, that it was possible that this was permitted by God, so that Onesimus might come under the influence of the Gospel, and be far more serviceable to Philemon as a Christian, than he could have ever been in his former relation to him. What seemed to Philemon to be a hard blow, and what seemed to him to be wrong on the part of Onesimus, might have been permitted so that he might receive a higher benefit. Such things are not uncommon in human affairs. God certainly does work in very mysterious ways!
Philemon 1:16 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? (KJV)
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 . . . not now means no more, no longer. It means that he had been a servant before in this condition, but was not to be now.
It is true that slavery existed in the heathen nations when the Gospel was first preached, and it is doubtless true that many slaves were converted (1 Cor.7:21-22), but the mere use of the word servant does not really prove that he to whom it is applied was a slave. If Onesimus were a slave, there is reason to think that he was of a most respectable character (Col.4:9), and indeed all that is implied in the use of the term here, and all that is said of him, would be met by the supposition that he was a voluntary servant, and that he had been in fact entrusted with important business by Philemon. It would seem from verse 18, "or oweth thee aught," that he was in a condition which made it possible for him to hold property, or at least to be entrusted with it.
Since Onesimus had become a believer, his status and relationship to Philemon are different. He is still a slave according to the Roman law, but he is more than that to Philemon. He is now a beloved brother.
Guiltless Substitutes for Guilty (Philemon 1:17)
This verse, along with the next verse, gives us one of the finest illustrations of full substitution and imputation. Behind Paul's plea is Christ's plea to the Father on behalf of the sinner who trusts Christ as the Saviour. That sinner is received on the same standing that Christ is received. In other words, the truly saved sinner has as much right in Heaven as Christ has, for he has His right to be there because of his faith in Jesus. Eph. 1:6 To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved We are accepted in the beloved. (KJV)
Philemon 1:17 If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself. (KJV)
If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself . . . IF Philemon considered himself a companion and friend of Paul, as he no doubt did, as being engaged in the same common cause, and a partaker of the same common faith, and interested in the same common salvation; then he begs him on behalf of Onesimus, suggesting that he was as dear to him as himself; that he loved him as his own soul; and that he should take whatever respect and affection were shown to him as done to himself; and that he wanted him receive Onesimus into his house, his heart and affections, as just he would receive Paul himself, should he come to him. In other words: "Since you count me as a partner, I want you to receive Onesimus just like you would receive me. You always put me in your guest room. Don't send Onesimus out in the cold; put him in the guest room."
Glorious Illustration of Imputation (Philemon 1:18)
Philemon 1:18 If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account; (KJV)
If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account . . . wronged thee is a milder term than "robbed thee." It seems that Onesimus confessed some such act to Paul. Put that on mine account . . . I will make good the loss to thee if you request it. The latter parts of verses 19 & 21, indicate that Paul did not expect Philemon would demand it.
All of this is a remarkable picture. When I come to God the Father for salvation, I can hear the Lord Jesus Christ say on my behalf: "If this servant has wronged Thee or owed Thee anything, put it on My account." Do you really comprehend all of this? Christ on the Cross paid the penalty for my sins. But wait . . . that is not all. Then God the Father would say, "That servant is not fit for Heaven." Then the Lord Jesus would say, "If You count Me as a partner, receive this servant as if it is Me." Dear one . . . THAT is what it means to be in Christ (2 Cor.5:17), and accepted in the Beloved (Eph.1:6). What a marvelous picture this is of the way God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ accept you and accept me. That makes this a very precious Letter.
General and Personal Items and Requests (Philemon 1:19-25)
Philemon 1:19 I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it: albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides. (KJV)
I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it: albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides . . . the Lord Jesus Christ gave His life and shed His precious Blood (1 Pet.1:18;19) to pay our entire penalty of sin. Paul had led Philemon to the Lord. How could he ever repay Paul for that? Because Paul was Philemon's spiritual father, he was hoping that Philemon would feel a debt of gratitude that he would repay by accepting Onesimus with a spirit of forgiveness.
Paul sincerely loved Onesimus. Paul showed his love by personally guaranteeing payment for any stolen goods or wrongs for which Onesimus might be responsible. Paul's investment in the life of this new believer certainly encouraged and strengthened Onesimus's faith. We should be grateful when we can invest in the lives of others, helping them with Bible study, prayer, encouragement, support and friendship.
General and Personal Items and Requests (Philemon 1:19-25)
Philemon 1:20 Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord: refresh my bowels in the Lord. (KJV)
Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord: refresh my bowels in the Lord . . . although Paul was Philemon’s spiritual father, having been the instrument of his conversion, yet he calls him his brother, as being a partaker of the same grace, and a minister of the same Gospel; and tells him, that should he grant his request, and receive Onesimus back again, it would give him great joy and pleasure, and he would rejoice in the Presence of the Lord concerning him. It would refresh his soul . . . the sense being that he desired that he would receive Onesimus again, which would give him an inward pleasure, and refresh his spirit. He is saying that nothing could be more calming and refreshing to him.
Philemon 1:21 Having confidence in thy obedience I wrote unto thee, knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say. (KJV)
Having confidence in thy obedience I wrote unto thee, knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say . . . this is a very personal letter, and in a way, we are reading it over the shoulder of Philemon. Paul states his confidence in him and actually truly feels that Philemon will do more than he requests.
It is typical of TRUE believers to always do more than is requested of them because we are SO grateful for what God has done for us. Jesus asks us to go the second mile. Maybe the reason that some of us are so spiritually poor today is that we have been stingy with the Lord, we have just been too lazy to walk that second mile with Him. The Lord Jesus is a loving and generous Lord. We should be a loving and generous people.
Philemon 1:22 But withal prepare me also a lodging: for I trust that through your prayers I shall be given unto you. (KJV)
But withal prepare me also a lodging: for I trust that through your prayers I shall be given unto you . . . Paul expects to be released from prison. He asks for prayers for that reason. Since this letter was probably written during Paul's first confinement in Rome, he was released and probably visited Philemon personally.
Paul was released from prison soon after writing this letter, but the Bible does not say whether or not he returned to Colossae.
Philemon 1:23 There salute thee Epaphras, my fellowprisoner in Christ Jesus; (KJV)
There salute thee Epaphras, my fellowprisoner in Christ Jesus . . . Epaphras was a Colossian, and minister of the church at Colossae, and so was most likely well known to Philemon, who seems to have been of the same place and church (Col.1:7; 4:12-13).
My fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus . . . In the cause of Christ (verse 1). The circumstance of his being a prisoner is not mentioned in the parallel place in the epistle to the Colossians, but nothing is more probable.
Philemon 1:24 Marcus, Aristarchus, Demas, Lucas, my fellowlabourers. (KJV)
Marcus, Aristarchus, Demas, Lucas, my fellowlabourers . . . Marcus was Barnabas's sister's son, the son of that Mary, in whose house the church met, and prayed for Peter when in prison (Acts 12:12). His name was John Mark (Acts 12:25), whom Saul and Barnabas took along with them to Antioch, and from thence, in their travels, to other parts; but he leaving them at Pamphylia, was the occasion of a disagreement between Saul and Barnabas afterwards, when returned to Antioch; the latter insisting on his going with them again, and the former refusing it on account of his departure from them; which contention rose so high that they parted upon (Acts 15:37-39). Although after this Paul was reconciled to him; he approving him to be a faithful and useful minister of the Gospel; and therefore he desires Timothy to bring him along with him (2 Tim.4:11).
Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke are also mentioned in Col.4:10,14. Mark had accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey (Acts 12:25). Mark also wrote the Gospel of Mark. Lucas (Luke) had accompanied Paul on his third missionary journey and was the writer of the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. Demas had been faithful to Paul for a while but later deserted him (2 Tim.4:10).
Philemon 1:25 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen. (KJV) Written from Rome to Philemon, by Onesimus a servant.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen. . . . the salutation is the same as in all the Letters; the form of it agrees with (Gal.6:18).
This beautiful little letter concludes with personal greetings to mutual friends.
Paul urged Philemon to be reconciled to his slave, receiving him as a brother and fellow member of God's family. Reconciliation means re-establishing a relationship. Christ has reconciled us to God and to others. Many barriers come between people . . . race, social status, sex, personality differences . . . but Christ can break down these barriers. Jesus Christ changed Onesimus's relationship to Philemon from slave to brother. Christ can transform our most hopeless relationships into deep and loving friendships.
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