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1 Cor 11:1 “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”

1Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved fellow worker 2and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, 5because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and all the saints, 6and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. 7For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you. 8Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, 9yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— 10I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. 11(Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) 12I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. 13I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will. 15For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. 17So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. 18If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. 20Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. 21Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. 22At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you. 23Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, 24and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. 25The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.


Philemon is a wealthy guy associated with the church in Colossae. The letter is addressed to him, along with Apphia (his wife) and Archippus – a Christian worker, possibly a pastor, who is addressed in the letter to the Colossians (Col 4:17 – he is exhorted to fulfil his God given ministry). The name Philemon is derived from the greek word for love “philo” - his name means “friendly.”

The bulk of the letter concerns Onesimus – a slave who had escaped and become a Christian while he was on the run. Now a personal acquaintance and friend of the Apostle Paul, he is being sent back to his master – who is also now a Christian and Paul is interceding for him in this letter. The name Onesimus means useful or beneficial.

Paul is writing from his jail cell – v1 he calls himself a prisoner, rather than an apostle – and appealing to Philemon’s heart, rather than to his own authority as an Apostle (v8-9). He refuses to pull rank in order to affect reconciliation – but rather seeks to persuade, by appealing to the gracious nature of Philemon – as a brother in Christ. He asks that Philemon would receive this rebel slave as though he were Paul himself.

For a slave to run away was a criminal offence and, depending upon the will of the master, a capital offence. It was often punished by crucifixion: other times it was punished with branding – an F on the forehead for fugitive. The Roman empire had something like 60 million slaves – and there was the great fear of a slave revolt. Bishop Lightfoot notes that slaves were often crucified for far lesser offences than running away.

So Onesimus is being sent back in a situation where he faces the possibility of death – some would say his master had a duty to make an example of him. And so Paul’s pleading on his behalf is very real.

Paul emphasises that his love for Philemon is genuine: v4 He thanks God for him, v7 “For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother”, v 17 “If you consider me your partner”, v22 “prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.”

But Paul also emphasises his love for Onesimus – v10 “my child, Onesimus”, v12 “I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart.” v13 “I would have been glad to keep him”, v16 “as a beloved brother, especially to me.”

Are these just words by Paul? Is Paul just giving Onesimus “cover” to return home without getting hurt? No – the genuineness of his appeal is seen in v18-19, where he makes himself the guarantor for Onesimus. He says: “If you have any complaint, any injury, it’s now up to me to make that up to you.” In other words, Onesimus receives by imputation and promise, the benefit of the relationship between Paul and Philemon.

He rounds off the letter outlining his desire to come and visit Philemon and then the greetings from his team of fellow workers: Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke. All mentioned in Paul’s letter to the Colossians,

  • Epaphras was a native of Colossae (Col 4:12) - an evangelist and church planter who had planted the original church in Colossae. Here he is listed as Paul’s fellow prisoner – not prisoner as in criminal, but as in captive, prisoner of war.
  • Mark is a fellow Jew, is a cousin of Paul’s long time companion Barnabas. Like Barnabas, it is likely that Mark would have been of the tribe of Levi.
  • Aristarchus is a Macedonian from Thessalonica who we first meet in Acts 19 being attacked along with Gaius by a lynch mob in Ephesus. In Colossians, it is Aristarchus who is listed as Paul’s fellow prisoner.
  • Demas – only mentioned three times in scripture – is listed as Paul’s fellow worker here. No further information is given, neither here nor in Colossians, but in 2 Timothy 4:10 we receive the tragic news that Demas has departed for Thessalonica – and is in love with this present world.
  • Luke is the best known of Paul’s companions here: author of the gospel that bears his name, the book of Acts as well as travelling companion and fellow worker alongside Paul.

The Picture Of The Gospel

We see rebel slaves, brought back to God by the power of the gospel

Consider the father, the creator God who owns us. To whom we are indebted. Like Onesimus, however, we run away. We rebel, breaking the law, seeking autonomy – literally, self-law. We end up away from God – in a place like Rome, of which Bishop Lightfoot says, “Rome was the natural cesspool for these offscourings of humanity.”

However Jesus, beloved by God the father, comes and finds us. He redeems us and makes us of one family with himself and God that father. He intercedes with God on our behalf and makes reconciliation on our behalf.

He makes mention of his righteous suffering on our behalf, in order that we might receive grace as a result. He stands as our surety – fully paying the debt of our trespass, our sin against God. And he brings us into the presence of the Father – confidently. And the Father who by rights, should have demanded our death, on the basis of the redemption of Christ and by the intercession of Christ takes us back – not as returned slaves, but as family. To love as he loves Jesus.

Jesus gives us his relationship with the Father by imputation – as though he is “sending [his] very heart.” And Jesus is confident that God’s gracious provision will outweigh his request on our behalf: like Paul, he knows that God will do more than he asks.

Where once we were useless to God on account of our rebellion and sin, now we are his treasured possession.

The Power Of The Gospel

We see human relationships transformed by the power of gospel

Philemon was a slave owner, Onesimus was a slave and a criminal. The standard penalty for his transgression is death. Paul demonstrates his confidence in the power of the gospel to change lives that he is willing to send Onesimus – whom he evidently loves greatly – back to a master who can (and some would say should) have him killed.

Yet Paul has seen the impact of the grace of God on Philemon life. Although Philemon could have Onesimus killed, Paul knows he won’t. In fact he’s confident that Philemon will not just accept Onesimus and fulfil Paul’s requests – but that Philemon love for Paul and love for Jesus and consequent love for Onesimus will lead to all that Paul asks and much more being done to welcome Onesimus back as friend and a brother.

The Promise Of The Gospel

We see hope because in it we see the heart of Jesus as our redeemer and intercessor

Parallels of the prodigal son – except that here we see the heart of Jesus displayed, not just the father.

We see his pleasure in achieving reconciliation & seeing relationships restored between God and man.

We see his generosity – willingly paying whatever price is required in order to make things right between us and God.

We see his intercession – in standing in the gap between God and man in order intercede on man’s behalf.

We see his love – in commending this ransomed slave as his very heart

“Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;” Isaiah 49:16

We see the power of the promise of his grace in the transformation of relationships.

Why is the letter to Philemon in the bible? It displays the heart of Christ as reflected in his servant Paul.

Endnote: “Ignatius, in his Epistle to the Ephesians, maketh mention of Onesimus, as pastor of Ephesus, next after Timothy. The Roman Martyrologue saith, that he was stoned to death at Rome, under Trajan the emperor.” (Trapp)