Paul’s “postcard” to Philemon is the shortest and perhaps the most intimate of all his letters. …a masterpiece of diplomacy and tact in dealing with a festering social sore in the Roman empire: human slavery. Onesimus, a slave of Philemon, had stolen from his master and run away to Rome. There he met Paul (who was under house arrest, Acts 28:16–30) and with the claims of Jesus Christ.
After his conversion, Onesimus faced yet another confrontation, this time with his estranged master Philemon. Paul sends him back with this letter in hand, urging Philemon to extend forgiveness. Onesimus had left him as his bond servant. Now he was returning as his brother in the Lord. (1.)
A letter about Onesimus
Onesimus (Ὀνήσιμος, Onēsimos, “useful”). He’s likely a runaway slave and we have reason to believe he’d stolen from or had other “domestic trouble” with Philemon. (2.)
He’s escaped his master, fled to Rome, and met the Apostle Paul during Paul’s imprisonment. Onesimus became a believer and Paul then sent him back home to see to this business with Philemon.
Appeal to Philemon
Paul writes to Philemon with two things:
1. Onesimus is now a fellow brother in the Lord to both Paul and Philemon.
2. Philemon had a spiritual debt to Paul, who had led Philemon to the Lord (Philemon 19)
Paul wrote only 25 verses, as we count them, but what he covers is deep.
I would implore you with my last breath: get your nose in the Book.
Culture is eating Christians alive with issues that don’t matter. I’m more assured as I read Scripture that I can depend on Scripture, not my experience. If-Then theology is heresy. God may, in His kindness, bless us—and He does, a lot. Because He is good.
The world is crazy, but Scripture is stable and trustworthy. Don’t let the world teach you theology. I keep thinking about how the American church has gotten into such a mess. We can’t let culture tell us what to do and think.
Have courage: God is sovereign and we’re not.
You have to come to account with your personal sin. Money, sex, and power will never fulfill your longings—you have to have an encounter with the Person and Work of Jesus Christ.
That’s the foundation by which we live. That’s the story of Scripture.
Philemon 4-9 This is a fascinating prayer. What is this phrase that he’s using here? “I pray the fellowship of your faith may become effective—” what’s that mean?
It means financial generosity (c/f Philippians 1:6)
The first thing Paul brings up is an appeal to Philemon’s financial generosity. He appeals to Philemon by his confidence in Christ, that Philemon will continue in financial generosity. Paul was not afraid to call him to a good thing.
Before we come to Christ, we are useless. In Christ, we are useful—to Him and to others.
Slaves no longer
Philemon 16 Powerful words! No longer a slave, but more than that: a beloved brother. The transformation of the gospel forgives us of our sin and makes enemies brothers. This is the only true solution to injustice.
Someone else paid our debt
Philemon 18-21 Paul was influential in Philemon’s coming to Christ, and he is willing to pay whatever debt is due. This isn’t a command, it’s a reminder.
This 25-verse book tells us:
- Financial generosity is the demonstration of a person who is faithful, loves Christ, and wants to help others.
- We’re useless until we know Christ, and then we’re useful. Men and women, if you are in Christ, God can use you for good. God wants to use you in your sphere of influence.
- Once a slave to sin, now a brother in Christ. This is true freedom. Efforts to combat modern-day slavery are good! I applaud them! But do you and I understand that we are no longer slaves to sin? We were slaves to sin but when we come to Christ, we’re set free.
- Last: someone else paid our debt.
- Bruce Wilkinson and Kenneth Boa, Talk Thru the Bible(Nashville: T. Nelson, 1983), 442.
- Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Letter to Philemon: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, pp. 25-33, for an excursus on slavery in antiquity. 3Ibid., pp. 17-19.