When we read the bible, there is one verse, 2 Timothy 3:16, where it says: ‘All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness’. This verse will cover every passage we read. What can we learn and gain from the passage of the scripture that is being examined? There are two ways of examining scripture. There is the instructional understanding, that is listening to the exposition and endeavoring to comprehend what the preacher is seeking to teach or reading the Word for ourselves with the object of learning the meaning of the passage. This might be termed the inductive approach.
The second is more subjective which is to listen or read and then to permit the Word of God to completely permeate us. This allows the spirit of the words and thoughts to cause the needed transformation in our soul. The letter(epistle) to Philemon has this unique character. The spirit of love and grace fills every verse. These qualities should be truly noticed as we a read through the letter. Let us briefly look at the book of Philemon and the circumstances that led to its’ being written.From what we know about the letter, Paul wrote it to convince Philemon to take his slave, Onesimus, back without penalizing him (v. 10-12, 17). Moreover, he wants Philemon to treat Onesimus, not merely as a slave but as a “beloved brother” (v. 15-16).Its’ contents attest that it is a personal letter that Paul sent by Tychicus to Philemon. However,some regard it as an addendum to the letter Paul sent to the Colossians. In Colossians, chapter 4:7-9makes it clear that Onesimus accompanied Tychicus to Colossae, where Philemon lived. For this reason, we find that there is a clear connection to the Colossian letter.
When we examine the letters (epistles) to both Timothy and Titus we find that they are full of doctrinal teaching. However, the manner in which the Philemon letter is written is such that it would impel that the heart and the affections to be moved in a way as to incite a spirit of love and grace in the reader. We also notice that it does not have a word of doctrine in it.
As we look at this letter, we find that there are three main characters referred to in the it. First there is Paul the writer, who refers to himself as Paul the aged and the prisoner of Jesus Christ. This is the first of his two imprisonments in Rome. I believe that he is saying that he is apprehended of Christ and is therefore his prisoner.
Then there is Philemon, who was apparently a wealthy citizen and a member of the church at Colossae. Paul addresses him as ‘the beloved and fellow workman’ (Philem. 1:1). He was one whom Paul had lead to a belief in Christ as is indicated in verse 19 of the letter. Paul also considers him his brother and indicates that he had worked with the apostle at an earlier time.
Finally, there is Onesimus, a slave of Philemon who had escaped and traveled to Rome. We can only surmise why he went to Rome. Perhaps he thought that he could hide among the citizenry there, since it was such a large city. While in Rome, he probably heard Paul preaching the gospel and was converted. Paul refers to him, in verse 9, as his child and one who had been begotten in his bonds.
Besides Philemon, the letter was also addressed to others. The first is ‘our beloved Apphia’, she was the wife of Philemon. Also, Archippus, who is described as our fellow soldier. He appears to bethe son of Philemon. The letter is also addressed to the church in thy house’ (Philem.1:2). During those times the church was not divided into the denominations as it is today. In anyone town, be it small or large, there would be a certain group of believers and these would comprise the church in that city. It may have been possible for them to meet in one place if a large enough building could be found was large enough, but if not they would meet in smaller groups. Sometimes one of these groups may have met in the home of one of its members. This was apparently the situation in the case of Philemon, as Paul addresses that group as ‘the church in thy house’.
I also emphasize here that this is the only occasion in Paul’s letters where he directly addresses a woman. Here he calls her ‘the sister’. Paul’s reason for this, is that he is writing concerning the return of a runaway slave. Apphia, as the supervisor of the household staff would have to handle the situation, therefore the apostle wisely preparing her in advance for his (Onisemus’) return. Verses 1-7
Now let us take a look at the substance and purpose of his letter. In doing this we must remember that we are seeking instruction or guidance in righteousness – that is the Christian way to deal with the situation that this letter covers. We are not looking for teaching or doctrine because Paul is writing this letter as a friend, not as an apostle.Paul does not begin by asserting his apostolic authority as he does in most of his letters. It had probably been a long time since Paul had seen Philemon. However, he had constantly heard of Philemon’s love and of his faith towards the Lord Jesus and moreover towards all the saints. In verse 4, Paul thanks God for Philemon, and informs Philemon that he is praying for him. This is a great example the apostle is giving to all of us. We should pray specifically, that is by name, for those we know who are in need of the help of God. However most of the time we pray a corporate prayer that embraces all, rather then praying for specific needs.Love among Christians should be an avid feature in all of our lives. Divine love is active, and here we find it being demonstrated in Philemon. He had a love for the saints as well as a love for sinners. Philemon lived up to his name which means, “friendly” and he demonstrated this by living according to 1 John 3:14, where we read: ‘We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren’
In verse 6, we observe Philemon’s faith and see that it was certainly something that was not lackluster, but vibrant. His expression of his love was an energetic display of every benefit he enjoyed in company with Paul and other followers of Christ. The outward demonstration of his faith was spontaneous and not contrived or onerous. Then, in verse 7, we are told that Philemon’s display of love was an encouragement and served to stimulate the saints with whom he had fellowship.
Since Onesimus was a slave, there are a few observations I would like to make concerning slavery in Old Testament times. Slavery has been practiced back to the beginning of man’s history. Also to be noted is that the bible does not condemn it. For the most part, slavery ended during the late 1800’s. Yet, even today there are still places where slavery exists. There have been honorable and wicked slave owners. The Old Testament made provisions made for the welfare of the slave.
These are some of the passages that deal with this issue: Ex. 21:1-11, Duet. 5:22-33, 15:12-18, Job 31:13-15; Jer. 34:8. In the New Testament Eph. 6:9, which advises the slave master to treat the slave with respect, not being harsh with him but treating him fairly because God does not esteem one person above another.
Also, we read in Galatians 3:27: ‘For all you who have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor freeman; there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.’
In verses 8 to 16, we have the true body of the letter, this is what the apostle Paul was deeply concerned about and was greatly upon his heart. Paul was sending a runaway slave back to his master and he was concerned about the way Philemon would receive him. As we have already stated, slavery was an established practice and by law slave owners had rights. In a case as that of Onesimus, the slave owner could have dealt with him very harshly. But a conversion had taken place in Onesimus during his absence from his master. Now he was no longer an ordinary slave. He was a Christian and from now on the relationships between master and slave were to be different. Although they were still master and slave, they were now also brothers in Christ. This is the title that Paul uses in addressing Philemon.
All those in Christ are regarded alike, and this now applied to Philemon and Onesimus. Not only does Paul address Philemon as brother, but he uses words such as ‘enjoin’ and ‘beseech’. These are not expressions of command that he may have used when asserting his apostolic authority, but are those of love and grace. Paul says to Philemon that whereas Onesimus was useless as demonstrated in his running away, he is now useful and true. In verse 3, he had sought that the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ might be shown to Philemon, and now in this letter he exhibits such in his approach to him. Such grace should be displayed by all believers, especially to one another.
Even though Paul considers Onesimus his child, he does not minimize Onesimus’s running away nor does he seek to make excuses for him – despite the warm and loving feelings that he had for him. This shows that not only should love, grace and courtesy be shown in Christian relationships, but righteousness should also be predominant. If ‘righteousness exalteth a nation’ (Prov. 14:34 ), it should certainly be demonstrated in the Christian family. When he ran away, Onesimus had certainly proved unprofitable. In the business terms of today, he had been a valuable asset and his disappearance would have been considered a great loss. But now he is returning, although still a slave, he is also, as stated earlier, a brother in Christ and that makes a significant difference. Not only will he be a better slave, but another member of Philemon’s household will also be a brother in the body of Christ.
We must understand that in the world we may hold a higher office then someone else, but in the kingdom of God the roles can be reversed; for example a person may be a Christian and a member of the same church as his employer. On the job he is the employee, but in the church he has the same standing as his employer and may in fact hold a more responsible position. Such a situation is indicated in verse 12, where Paul refers to Onesimus as one with himself, thus such a relationship is now formed between slave and master. What could Philemon do but to receive him as a brother? In verses 13 and 14, Paul greatly desired to retain Onesimus’ company. He was an old man, he was in prison, even though he was still able to serve the Lord in the gospel and other ministry. For these reasons, and in a personal way also he would have greatly appreciated the help of a younger man. If Paul had the mind to keep Onesimus, upon hearing of Paul’s circumstances, Philemon would no doubt have granted his request, having regard for Paul’s need and remembering too that he was an apostle.
But that would not have been a brotherly way of treating Philemon nor would it have been the right thing to do. Philemon must be given the opportunity to show his own spirit of love and grace and be able to show it willingly. This is the manner in which the Lord deals with us. He delights when we respond to Him willingly. If only for this reason, Paul is wise in sending him back.Speaking of wisdom, (1 Cor. 1:30 tells us that ‘Christ Jesus… is made unto us wisdom’), (Proverbs 3:17 says that ‘her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace’.) His desires should be our desires. (2 Cor. 5:15 says ‘They which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto Him who died for them and rose again’).
The ‘perhaps’ of verse 15 is very important, it leaves room for the working of God. Onesimus is now a ‘brother beloved’ both to Paul and Philemon, and what is especially applicable to Philemon is that this is true both ‘in the flesh’, that is in the human relationship, and also ‘in the Lord’, that is in the spiritual relationship.
In verses 17 to 19, we are shown a very important principle. First of all the apostle reminds Philemon that they were partners. The word used for this expression is ‘koinonia’, which is also translated ‘fellowship’ and means complete oneness. In verse 18, there is a speculation that Onesimus had robbed his master before running away, and now Paul says: ‘If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought put that to my account’. Then, confirming his guarantee, he adds: ‘I will repay it’. This reminds us of the doctrine of imputation. It is put before us as an illustration, but it is not given asdirect teaching. We read in Psalm 32:2 ‘Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity’. And Romans 4:8 confirms this with the words, ‘Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin’. But man is a sinner and in due time we will receive the wages of sin, for sin is a diligent employer. Since sin is imputed to us, the question arises, how can we become unimputed? Paul said, ‘Put Onesimus’ debt to my account, I will repay it’.
Here Paul is a beautiful type of our blessed Lord. In effect the Lord Jesus said: ‘I will repay’, and He did so upon the Cross. In verse 19, Paul reminds Philemon that he owes his very life to him and Paul asks him to grant him this favor. In verse 21, there is the hint in the solicitations of Paul that he is urging a new triumph of grace in the heart of Philemon, that he might even grant Onesimus his freedom.
Finally, he asks that a lodging might be prepared for him. This is clear evidence that he expected to be released from prison, but also showing what practical fellowship prevailed in the early church. He then sends greetings from individual saints, but not in any special order. All are mentioned in the Colossian epistle, but there Aristarchus is a fellow prisoner, here it is Epaphras. Mark and Demas are referred to with no other comment. His usual final greeting is given in verse 25.
In this exposition of this very beautiful letter I have tried to highlight some of the features which should characterize those of us who are in the Lord. I pray that we have the grace to demonstrate them in practical Christian living. I say that because many times we look at people who have treated us wrong and we hold grudges and even refuse to forgive them when they repent.
Yet, as the Apostle Paul demonstrates in this letter that Christ has a loving heart and forgives us at his expense. The unbeliever can know that even though he has done wrong, there is still forgiveness in the Lord. His/her life can be changed as is demonstrated by the life of Onesimus. He even goes so far as to say that we should love not only our brothers and sisters in the Lord but our enemies as well. However, many of us have even forgotten that what some of them are, we once were before we received Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.
In comparison, the world system would have no forgiveness and would want to exact punishment for everything we do wrong, no matter how small. In all of our wrong God forgave us – Be like God. Especially if you say He is your Father.