Church Education Resource Ministries



The Epistle of Paul
to Philemon

Theme- Forgiveness is a central theme in this epistle.


Introduction- Onesimus a slave had run away from his master Philemon and also robbed his master (v18). The slave’s travels brought him into the providence of Rome, and by the grace of God came into contact with Paul. Paul then led the slave (Onesimus) to a relationship with Jesus and the slave became a child of God with Paul. Paul then writes Philemon his master to persuade him to forgive Onesimus of what he had done and to not treat him as a slave, but as a brother in Christ. Under Roman law, the slave was to be punished with death, but Paul’s letter is meant to persuade Philemon not to execute Onesimus. Perhaps Philemon had a tough time forgiving his slave, or perhaps it was easy for him. Regardless Paul writes his appeal to the slave master, which hopefully persuades him to treat Onesimus as a brother in Christ and not a convicted slave guilty of death.


Paul is the author of this short epistle, which was written about AD 60 from Rome during Paul’s first imprisonment. This epistle was written about the same time that Ephesians and Colossians were written. This epistle is included among the “prison epistles” and is a very useful text for anyone wanting to really understand what forgiveness is, and or preach on the topic from a practical standpoint. Its easy to intellectually understand forgiveness, but its even more difficult to apply the teachings taught in the scriptures, lest alone this epistle.


I. Paul’s Appreciation of Philemon (v. 1-7)
A. Paul addresses himself as a prisoner in verse 1 which tells the reader that this letter is being written from a prison in Rome. In the 1st verse does Paul call Philemon “dearly beloved” and “fellowlabourer.” The NIV uses the words “dear friend and fellow worker” to simplify the interpretation. In verse, 2 Paul makes it clear that this letter is also addressed to a house church. House churches were very prominent during Paul’s day, due to heavy persecution of the brothers. There are some niche evangelical and charismatic circles today that practice the house church tradition. House churches were the basic unit of urban life in Paul’s day in the Greco-Roman world. These churches were made up not only of family members, but also of slaves, hired laborers, and sometimes business associates. Often former slaves who offered service to their patrons in return for protection and support were included. Some would view the household as a microcosm of the city. “All the relationships of power, protection, submission, honor, and duty that must be properly tuned if a city is to flourish—all these exist between husband and wife, master and slave, and also parents and children” (Cousar, The Letters of Paul, 67-68). It was possible that Onesimus was a member of Philemon’s house church.

(Application) Appreciating others sometimes can be quite difficult considering how self-centered and egocentric most are these days. However, Paul clearly gave thanks and showed his appreciation for another brother in Christ. Paul had a serving heart and deeply loved this brother. He modeled some Christ Like attributes that Christians should have towards each other.

B. In verses 3 does Paul use “Grace and Peace” and these were a standard in all his letters. Grace meaning God’s undeserved favor and Paul uses this word perhaps to appeal to Philemon to show Onesimus some grace. Onesimus needs grace, and he needs the help of Paul to persuade his master. Also in this verse does Paul use the phrase “Lord Jesus Christ” which in itself implies that Jesus is equal with God and a member of the trinity. The passage implies that both God and Jesus are coequals in the trinity and both are able to grant Grace and Peace.

C. In verses 4 does Paul thank God for the fellowship of the church at Colosse and their support of him. This tells me that Paul had a close trusted relationship with the church, and with Philemon. Philemon trusted Paul and would listen to what he had to say. Paul had earned respect and an audience with the house church and Philemon. In verse 5-6, Paul starts off with praise for the church because of the churches love for Christ and all the saints. This church was flourishing and was a church that followed God and the Lord Jesus Christ. This church was a model of a Bible based church, and a church that dearly loved God and his children. Finding such churches can be difficult in this day in age.


(Illustration) Once I was a member of a church that deeply loved God and all the saints (just like the church mentioned in Philemon). This church had serious Bible studies, and most of the saints loved each other as themselves. Truly, this church was a church that modeled the church in verse 4).

In verse 6 its interesting that the KJV, NKJV and the ESV imply that the church is already active in sharing their faith with unbelievers, Paul only prays that their witness would become effective. However the NIV says “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith” and to me this implies that this church is not active in evangelism but are reclusive and are not out evangelizing as they should be. Perhaps the NIV translated this verse incorrectly. The church is already active in evangelizing, they just need to become more effective.

D. In verse 7 does Paul declare that he has great joy in the love of this church and the “bowels” of the saints are refreshed by Philemon. The word “bowels” had a much different connotation in the ANE culture than it would today, so the modern versions wisely use the word “heart” instead. But regardless of the technical details of the word, what Paul states in this verse speaks very highly of Philemon. I believe that verse 7 is the climax of the 1st part of this book and shows the reader clearly that Paul had a great appreciation for the slave owner Philemon.

II. Paul’s appeal for Onesimus (v. 8-25)

A. Paul starts off verse 8 saying that he could be bold and order Philemon to put Onesimus to death as was the law, but Paul appeals to Philemon on the basis of love. Paul says that he is an old man and a prisoner of Jesus Christ.

B. Paul says in verse 10-11 that Onesimus became his son while he was in chains. This would imply that Paul and Onesimus met somewhere and Paul led him to Christ and to a saving faith in Jesus. After his conversion this slave became both useful to Paul and Philemon. Onesimus was useless to Philemon after he stole from him and ran away. But after his conversion this slave became a brother in the Lord, and useful to Paul and also Philemon. Paul makes the assumption that Philemon’s slave will be useful to him.


C. In verses 12-13 Paul tells Philemon that he is sending back his slave to him, and he also says that he would have liked to keep him, but he knew it was not right, and Onesimus was more useful to Philemon than to Paul.


D. In verses 15-16 does Paul tell Philemon that he will have his slave back for good but the next time would be not as a slave but as a brother in the Lord. Paul assures Philemon that Onesimus is a very dear man, not only to Paul but to Philemon as well. Paul makes a wild assumption that Philemon will even consider accepting this slave back.


E. In verses 17-19 Paul starts off by telling Philemon that he should welcome back Onesimus as he would welcome back Paul himself. Philemon has no reason according to Paul not to take him back and should accept him back. Paul shows some sacrificial Christ like love in verse 18 by telling Philemon that he himself will take account for Philemon’s debt.


(Application) This is a Christ-like spirit and truly something that Christians should be practicing. Christ paid a debt he did not owe, and took the place of sinners. Paul offers to pay a debt he does not owe, and to take the place of someone that deserves death. Paul offers to pay back Onesimus’s debt, and assures him this by declaring that he is writing this letter with his very hand. Many Christians today do not consider others more important than themselves and do not care to pay for the debt of others. This was not the kind of sacrificial love that Paul taught by his example in this epistle.


Conclusion: Forgiveness is so hard for many, and especially for those that have been severely wronged like Philemon. So many want to get even, or to count the score, but not Paul. Paul urged Philemon to forgive Onesimus who had done him a great deal of wrong. This epistle is an example of forgiveness with the central theme, and offers the reader an example of someone that was willing to take the sacrifice of someone that owed a debt (v.18). I challenge those that read or hear this message to take it into practice and forgive someone that has wronged them, and not to harbor bitterness in their hearts.

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