Philemon: Return of a Slave

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Return of a Slave

A Prayer, a Petition, a Promise.

Background: Paul writes to Philemon (in Colossia) from jail in Rome
Theme: Paul sends Onesimus, an escaped slave and new believer, back to his master
Outline: A Prayer, Petition and Promise
Key Verse: "I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains." (Phile 1:10, NIV)


{1:1} Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon, our beloved fellow worker,

Paul was apparently a prisoner in Rome, a prisoner of the Roman government. Why does he say a prisoner of Christ Jesus? Because in the book of Acts, he was told that he must be a witness and suffer many things for the sake of Christ. He was a prisoner in Rome because of his arrest in Jerusalem, where some Jewish leaders brought charges against him because he was a Christian. So ... he is a prisoner of Rome because of his testimony and faith in Jesus, and he considered it his duty to continue to witness and serve Jesus even while a prisoner.

{1:2} to the beloved Apphia, to Archippus, our fellow soldier, and to the assembly in your house:

Churches meeting in homes (or assemblies) are common in lands of persecution today, such as mainland China.

{1:3} Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

A Prayer

{1:4} I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers,

Paul prayed for his friends often, and gave thanks to God when he did pray. Do you pray for your friends? Are your prayers full of thanks?

{1:5} hearing of your love, and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all the saints;

Paul heard other people talk of the love and faith of Philemon, it was not just his own knowledge of his friend. This love was not just a warm feeling of affection, but love expressed in action. We do not know what Philemon did that showed his love and faith, but it was notable enough that people talked about it. Do you have a reputation for love and faith? Whatr are some ways we show our faith and love?

{1:6} that the fellowship of your faith may become effective, in the knowledge of every good thing which is in us in Christ Jesus.

Paul prayed specifically that Philemon's fellowship might be effective, that it would be practical. Sometimes it seems as if faith is impractical, but Paul prays for it to be effective and powerful. Paul will lead from this into a specific request, which Paul has prayed about before bringing to Philemon.

{1:7} For we have much joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother.

A Petition

{1:8} Therefore, though I have all boldness in Christ to command you that which is appropriate,

Paul is convinced that what he is requesting is God's will, and is able to command that it be done.

{1:9} yet for love's sake I rather beg, being such a one as Paul, the aged, but also a prisoner of Jesus Christ.

Paul, humbly, wants to ask this request on the basis of Philemon's regard and love for Paul. This is so that Philemon will respond by choice, wanting to do this favor, rather than feeling that he must and has no choice.

{1:10} I beg you for my child, whom I have become the father of in my chains, Onesimus,

We do not literally become the father of a grown man. Paul is not speaking of adoption, either. Rather, he has become the spiritual father of Onesimus by leading him to the Lord, Onesimus has become 'born again' as a child of God.

{1:11} who once was useless to you, but now is useful to you and to me.

Apparently, Onesimus was not a very good slave. And certainly he was no good to Philemon after he ran away. But Paul says he has become useful. This is a result of his becoming a Christian, which is not just a matter of the mind and inner beliefs, but also a matter of inner and outer change. In what ways have you changed since becoming a Christian?

{1:12} I am sending him back. Therefore receive him, that is, my own heart,

Yes, Paul is sending a slave back into bondage, with a strong request that he be freed. Much of the Roman world was in slavery. Craftsmen, teachers, and household servants were often slaves.

{1:13} whom I desired to keep with me, that on your behalf he might serve me in my chains for the Good News.

Paul is under house arrest, figuratively 'in chains', and would have liked to keep Onesimus with him.

{1:14} But I was willing to do nothing without your consent, that your goodness would not be as of necessity, but of free will.

Onesimus was Philemon's property, and Paul would not keep him without the blessing of Philemon.

{1:15} For perhaps he was therefore separated from you for a while, that you would have him forever,

{1:16} no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much rather to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

Paul knows full well that Onesimus ran away from his master. Knowing the character of Philemon, Paul would suspect that Onesimus was in the wrong. But since Onesimus became a Christian, his character has changed. Paul is looking at the Lord and His working. Even in the schemes of men, the Lord used these circumstances to give grace to Onesimus. Now Paul sends Onesimus back to his master, who is now a brother in the Lord.

{1:17} If then you count me a partner, receive him as you would receive me.

{1:18} But if he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, put that to my account.

Paul asks for Onesimus to be treated as Paul would be. This will be a radical change for Philemon and Onesimus, and goes against the grain of Roman culture. Still, Paul is suggesting that Onesimus may have stolen something, or perhaps Philemon suffered financial loss because of Onesimus being gone, and Paul sincerely offers to pay whatever Philemon has lost.

A Promise

{1:19} I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it (not to mention to you that you owe to me even your own self besides).

Paul had bad eyesight, but writes this letter in his own hand and keeps it private. He does remind Philemon that Paul is his spiritual father, who led Philemon to the Lord.

{1:20} Yes, brother, let me have joy from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in the Lord.

{1:21} Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even beyond what I say.

Concluding Remarks

{1:22} Also, prepare a guest room for me, for I hope that through your prayers I will be restored to you.

{1:23} Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you,

{1:24} as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.

{1:25} The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.

Updated March 2012
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