“One of the people Paul chose to deliver the letters we know as Colossians and Ephesians was a man named Onesimus. Onesimus was originally from Colossae, and would have been known to the people there. But Paul was compelled to write a separate letter for him. This was because Onesimus had been the slave of a wealthy Colossian named Philemon, in whose home the church met. Onesimus had run away, probably robbing Philemon in the process. In Rome he had become a follower of Jesus. He’d been helping Paul in prison, but now Paul needed him to return to Colossae. Paul’s hope was that Philemon would not only forgive Onesimus, but welcome him as a brother and no longer a slave.
Paul’s brief letter to Philemon stresses the change in Onesimus’s life. His name meant useful in Greek, and Paul tells Philemon that while he had formerly been useless (a servant Philemon couldn’t count on), now he could be useful to both of them. Paul doesn’t put Philemon under any obligation. His appeal is on the basis of love, and he promises to honor the demands of justice by making restitution himself if necessary.
Most likely Paul’s appeal was successful, or this letter would not have been preserved. In the life of Onesimus we have a clear example of the kind of transformation that occurred in thousands of lives as the gospel message spread throughout the Roman Empire.” *
1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker— 2 also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home:
3 Grace and peace to you[a] from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Thanksgiving and Prayer
4 I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. 6 I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. 7 Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.
Paul’s Plea for Onesimus
8 Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9 yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— 10 that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.
12 I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 13 I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. 15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.
17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. 20 I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ.21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.
22 And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.
23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. 24 And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.
25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
The reaction of Onesimus to the message of Jesus is to return to reconcile his relationship with his former master.
The reaction of Paul is to send Onesimus back, but appeal to Philemon for grace and forgiveness.
Paul is also working to overcome the social institution of slavery.
- He is not asking Philemon to receive Onesimus back as a slave, but to welcome him as a brother.
- John Piper: “…without explicitly prohibiting slavery, Paul has pointed the church away from slavery because it is an institution which is incompatible with the way the gospel works in people’s lives. Whether the slavery is economic, racial, sexual, mild, or brutal, Paul’s way of dealing with Philemon works to undermine the institution across its various manifestations. To walk “in step with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14) is to walk away from slavery.”
This is the power of the Gospel – it turns slaves into brothers. It cancels our debts. It gives us the courage to forgive and be forgiven.
- Can you identify with either Philemon or Onesimus? In what way?
- Do you have a relationship that needs restoration? Do you need to forgive or be forgiven?
- Paul shows Philemon how slavery is incompatible with the message of Jesus. How can this Gospel (good news) change the way we view other norms in our society?