Postcard on forgiveness
is the best way to describe Philemon. It is the
briefest of Paul’s letters, contains only 334 words
in the Greek text.
This is the most personal of all letters Paul wrote
(vv. 1, 9, 19). It is so short it is like a
"postcard." It was hand carried to Philemon by
Onesimus and Tychicus, who also delivered the
letters we know as Ephesians and Colossians to their
DATE AND PLACE:
Philemon is one of the first prison epistles Paul
wrote from Rome on his first imprisonment about A.D.
61 (vv. 1, 9, 10, 13, 23). These included Ephesians,
Philippians and Colossians. Philemon 22 reflects
Paul’s hope to be released from captivity soon.
Philemon is closely connected with other epistles,
especially Colossians. Timothy is mentioned along
with Paul in the opening of both epistles. Those who
send greetings at the end of Philemon are said also
to send greetings at the end of Colossians (cf .
Archippus in Col. 4:17). Philemon was written to go
with Onesimus on his return to his master. According
to Colossians 4:7-9, Onesimus was to accompany
Tychicus to Colossae (cf. Eph. 6:21-22).
Onesimus, a slave of Philemon, prominent member of
the church at Colossae, had stolen from his master
and sought. Freedom by fleeing to Rome. Onesimus
came in contact with Paul in Rome and was converted
to Christ (v. 10). Paul wrote this letter to
Philemon to tell him of the conversion, and to plead
for the returning slave. R. B. Jones writes, "It is
a private letter, but deals very definitely with the
Christian teaching that would ultimately make human
slavery impossible." "This leltter is not an attack
against slavery as such, but as suggestion as to how
Christian masters and slaves could live their faith
within that evil system. It is possible that
Philemon did free Onesimus and send him back to Paul
(v. 14)" (C. C. Ryrie). The primary goal of the
letter is to seek Onesimus’ reinstatement as a
brother in the Lord, and in the household of
Philemon from which he had fled.
One Christian brother makes his plea to another to
forgive and restore another brother.
This postcard is a model of courtesy, discretion,
tact and loving concern for a runaway slave to
another brother in Christ who has legal authority to
extract justice. It is a tactful, highly personal
letter to a personal friend on a very delicate
SLAVERY IN PAUL’S TIME:
Slavery in the time of Paul was an evil thing. A
slave has been compared to nothing more than a
"living tool" who had no power or rights. He was at
the disposal of his master who had absolute rights
over him. He could even put him to death if he ran
away or stole from his master. Pliny says, "He can
brand someone with a hot iron for stealing a couple
What made it worse was
the slaves were deliberately held down. There were
in the Roman Empire sixty million of them and the
danger of revolt was constantly to be guarded
against. A rebellious slave was promptly eliminated.
And, if a slave ran away, at best he would be
branded with a red–hot iron on the forehead, with
the letter F—standing for fugitivus,
runaway—and at the worst he would be crucified to
This letter is filled
with practical applications of Christian love. It
brings out the best in others (v. 4). It seeks the
welfare of others (v. 10), and deals honestly with
them (v. 12). It bears the burdens of others (v.
18), and believes in the best of them (v. 21).
The Advocacy Law of Rome:
The Roman law stated that a slave might flee to an
influential friend of the master and implore his
intercession. Paul probably uses this appeal in v.
15, and to the changed life of Onesimus (vv. 11-14).
Please accept Onesimus as a brother (vv. 16-17).
Accept him as you would accept me. Paul gives his
own personal pledge, "I will repay." You can "charge
it" to my account (vv. 18-19). "You owe me. . ." one
How much we owe Jesus
Christ! II Cor. 5:21 God imputed, charged to Christ
our sin debt; credited to us His righteousness. God
receives us in the merit of Christ. CHRIST SAID:
"CHARGE IT TO MY ACCOUNT!"
We are all slaves to sin!
Christ paid our sin debt. Col. 2:13-14
He has now adopted us as
His sons (v. 16). Onesimus is "more than a slave. .
. brother." Paul then makes his appeal, "Refresh my
heart" (v. 20) - cause cheer, relieve.
ONESIMUS THE BISHOP OF
Ignatius, one of the
great Christian martyrs, wrote in a letter to the
churches of Asia Minor, about 50 years later.
Ignatius makes the same pun Paul does regarding the
bishop of the church at Ephesus. It may well be that
the Onesimus of Philemon, the unprofitable runaway
slave has become the great bishop of Ephesus.
1. Christ enables us to
triumph over our circumstances through fellowship
with Him. Paul was a prisoner, not of Rome, but of
Jesus Christ! (v. 1, 9, 23). How many of us know
what it is to experience limitations, persecutions,
frustrations and to sit down and write of ourselves
as the prisoners of Christ Jesus? It is the
privilege of every believer, but possible only of
those who are living in true fellowship with Jesus.
Opposite of "poor me" syndrome.
2. Life in Christ changes
Paul and Philemon: "Love
seeketh not its own." cf. vv. 12-14, "I wanted to
Paul and Onesimus: "Love
beareth all things." cf. vv. 18-19 "Charge it to me.
I will take care of Onesimus’ debts."
Onesimus and Philemon:
"Love suffereth long, and is kind." cf. vv. 15-17
You have been hurt, but it is time to forgive.
3. Our relationship with
others test our relationship to Christ. The burden
rests on Philemon to forgive Onesimus. Could
Philemon angrily refuse to receive Onesimus? Could
Onesimus refuse to return to Philemon? Could Paul
keep that which was not his own? My relationships to
other men test my relationship with Christ.
4. Social evils can be
changed by transformed lives. The Colossian church
was composed of rich and poor, master and slave. The
church lives through the power of a common love.
ILL: Quechuas: drunken weekends. Accept Christ -
profitable, hardworking contribution to society.
5. Christ radically
changes our lives. Martin Luther said, "We are all
the Lord’s Onesimi, we are all the Lord’s profitable
servants. How have we been made profitable to the
Lord? Where are we unprofitable? The unprofitable
becomes profitable. It is the perpetual picture of
Christ dealing with men. cf. Isa. 53:6. We were all
runaway slaves to sin.
Example of changed lives:
Philemon: faith and love toward Christ and the
Onesimus: man changed
from unprofitable to profitable
Paul: living above his
circumstances. "Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus."
Title: Introduction to
Series: Introduction to