SURVEY OF PHILEMON
No Longer a Slave but a Beloved Brother
Philippe R. Sterling
The community of love within the church transforms relationships and indirectly undermines unjust social structures.
Paul writes from prison in Rome to Philemon who is a leader of a church which meets in his house in Colossae. Philemon is probably a wealthy landowner with slaves. He had come to believe in Christ under Paul’s ministry. Onesimus, one of his slaves, ran away after perhaps stealing from him and made his way to Rome. In Rome he encounters Paul and believes in Christ. Paul hopes to reconcile Onesimus and Philemon. He writes to appeal to Philemon to receive back his runaway slave as a beloved brother who now would be useful to him and to Paul. The name Onesimus means “profitable, useful.”
Literary Structure and Content
I. Opening: Paul greets Philemon as a beloved brother and invokes God’s grace and peace (1-3).
A. Salutation: Paul refers to himself as a prisoner of Christ, refers to Philemon as a beloved brother and
fellow worker, and addresses others in Philemon’s church fellowship (1-2).
Paul is a “prisoner of Christ.” He does not mention that he is an apostle as he does in other letters. He is in a humble state subject to Christ. He does not rest his appeal on apostolic authority but on personal relationship.
Philemon is a beloved brother and fellow worker. “Love/beloved” is repeated five times in the letter (1, 5, 7, 9, and 16). Philemon belongs to a fellowship of brotherly love and has shown the quality of love.
Paul mentions others in Philemon’s church fellowship. Apphia, Archippus and the church in Philemon’s house are witnesses to Paul’s appeal for Onesimus. Philemon thus may be accountable to the church fellowship in how he responds to Paul’s appeal.
B. Invocation: Paul invokes God’s grace and peace to the church fellowship — plural “you” (3).
II. Thanksgiving: Paul gives thanks for Philemon’s love and faith towards God and all who believe (4-7).
Elements of the thanksgiving relate to the appeal which follows. Paul has heard of Philemon’s love and faith towards the Lord Jesus and all the saints (5). Will he express that brotherly love to Onesimus (16)? He has refreshed the hearts of the saints (7). Will he refresh Paul’s heart by reconciling with Onesimus and sending him back to Paul (20)? Paul prays that the fellowship of his faith will be effective for Christ’s sake (6). The passage prepares the ground for the appeal that follows.
III. Appeal: Paul appeals to Philemon to receive back Onesimus not as a slave but as a beloved brother (8-20).
A, Tone of Appeal: Paul is making an “appeal” not giving an order (8-9).
Paul refers once again to himself as a prisoner of Christ and not as an apostle. He does not use his apostolic authority to order Philemon to do what is proper, but instead appeals to him because of his confidence in Christ. It is usually better to appeal than to command.
B. Basis of Appeal: Paul appeals to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus on the basis of his present usefulness to
both Paul and Philemon (10-16).
1. Usefulness to Paul: Onesimus has become a believer through Paul and is useful to him (10-13).
Paul is the spiritual father of Onesimus. Philemon bears a similar relationship to Paul (19). Onesimus might have been a great loss in the past but now he is highly useful to both Paul and Philemon. Paul has a close relationship with Onesimus and in sending him back to Philemon he is sending back a part of his own heart. Philemon’s response to Paul’s appeal will have a significant effect on Paul and all who read the letter. Paul implies his desire to have Onesimus return to minister to him in his imprisonment on behalf of Philemon after his reconciliation with Philemon.
2. Usefulness to Philemon: Onesimus will be useful to Philemon were he to receive him back not as a slave
but as a beloved brother (14-16).
Paul does not want to force Philemon’s decision but desires his free consent. Were Philemon to reconcile with Onesimus, he would have him back as a beloved brother forever. The reference to the eternal expands the appeal of Paul from the temporal service relationships to the everlasting fellowship of believers.
Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus now relate to one another as members of a family of faith. The status of Onesimus has shifted from a slave to “more than a slave,” that is “a beloved brother.” Onesimus will be useful to Paul and Philemon in the physical sense, “in the flesh,” and in the spiritual sense, “in the Lord.”
C. Stated Threefold Appeal: Paul asks that Philemon would do three things: accept Onesimus as he would
accept Paul; transfer to Paul whatever debt Onesimus incurred; and refresh Paul’s heart in Christ (17-20).
1. First Part of Appeal: “Accept him as you would me” (17).
Paul states outright what he desires Philemon to do. If he regards Paul as a partner, he should accept Onesimus as he would accept Paul.
2. Second Part of Appeal: “Charge that to my account” (18-19).
Whatever debt Onesimus owes to Philemon should be transferred to Paul. Paul is the guarantor of the debt. Paul promises to repay and writes the promissory note with his “own hand.” Paul mentions Philemon’s debt to him. He had probably led Philemon to Christ. Philemon is indebted to Paul for his spiritual life, a debt far greater than that which Onesimus had incurred and for which Paul was willing to repay.
3. Third Part of Appeal: “Refresh my heart in Christ” (20).
Paul seeks a benefit from Philemon. By reconciling with Onesimus and sending him back to Paul, he would refresh Paul’s heart in Christ. Paul uses three references to “heart” to frame and form his appeal. Philemon has refreshed “the hearts of the saints” (7). Onesimus is Paul’s “very heart” (12). Philemon should refresh Paul’s “heart in Christ” (20).
Paul leaves it to Philemon to work out his response to Paul’s appeal. Should he receive Onesimus back as a beloved brother in Christ? Should he charge Onesimus’ debt to Paul? Should he repay his own debt to Paul by sending Onesimus back to Paul?
IV. Closing: Paul expresses confidence of Philemon’s obedience, asks for the preparation of lodging for him should
he be released from prison, cites greetings from fellow workers, and extends a benediction (21-25).
Paul has made his case and has confidence that Philemon will do even more than that for which he has appealed. While Philemon is being gracious to Onesimus, Paul asks that he prepares a place for him to stay should he be given back to him as a result of his prayers. As with the invocation (3), Paul’s benediction (25) is in the plural including Philemon and the church community.
The benediction focuses on the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul knows that it will take grace for Philemon to forgive and welcome back Onesimus as a beloved brother. Grace is available. Philemon just needs to receive grace and act with grace.
Theological Reflection and Application
Paul writes a public letter to Philemon appealing to him to receive back his runaway slave Onesimus no longer as a slave but as a beloved brother in Christ. The fellowship of love within the church transforms relationships and indirectly undermines unjust social structures such as the master/slave structure of Paul’s time.
What happened to Onesimus? Did Philemon receive him back as a brother? Was Onesimus useful?
Fifty years after this letter was written, one of the church fathers, Ignatius, was on his way to Rome to be executed. As he was traveling, he wrote a letter to the church of Ephesus. Ephesus is not far from Colossae. Ignatius praises the Bishop of Ephesus, and says he is one of the finest leaders he has ever met. The Bishop of Ephesus has an interesting name. It is a slave name. The Bishop’s name is Onesimus.
How did Paul’s letter to Philemon make it into the New Testament? The Apostle Paul probably wrote hundreds of letters throughout his life. This one contains no doctrine, it settles no controversies, it fights no heresies – it is just a personal note.
Some of Paul’s letters were collected and preserved at the end of the first century in the city of Ephesus. Could it be that the Bishop himself slipped this letter among the other letters of Paul that were preserved, because he wanted to tell the world, "I was once a slave, but I owe my life to the Apostle Paul"? Perhaps he was saying, "Now, by God’s grace, I am a Bishop in the church.”