A Study of Paul’s Letter to Philemon

A Study of Paul’s Letter to Philemon
Bob Burridge ©2015

Paul’s Letter to Philemon mainly deals with a request being made by the Apostle to a Christian in ancient Colossae. It also contains some broader statements, and some principles relevant to Christians in every period of history.

The letter begins with Paul’s greeting.

1, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved fellow worker

This letter was written by the Apostle Paul during his first imprisonment in Rome. He was in prison because of his testimony for the Gospel. False charges were brought against him by the unbelieving Jews in Jerusalem. After a long jail time in Caesarea waiting for trial, he appealed his case to Caesar in Rome (Acts 26). While awaiting due process in Rome, Paul was detained under house-arrest and was able to receive visitors and write letters.

Timothy was with him, evidently visiting Paul in Rome when this was written. He refers to him as “Timothy the brother”, as in a “brother in Christ”. He is mentioned the same way in Paul’s opening paragraph of his letter to the churches at Colossae (Κολοσσαί). Likely this letter was carried along with his letter to the Colossians.

The letter was written primarily to Philemon, a Christian in Colossae. You could more literally translate this last part of the verse this way, “to Philemon the beloved and co-worker with us.”

The main situation in this letter is that Philemon’s slave Onesimus ran away and met Paul in Rome. While there and through Paul’s ministry Onesimus became a Christian. Paul is asking Philemon to receive him back, not as a slave, but as a brother in Christ.

He also addressed the letter more generally to two others and to the church meeting at Philemon’s house.

2, and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house:

Apphia and Archippus are unknown to us. Some speculate that it was Philemon’s wife and son, but there’s no evidence to support that theory. Philemon was like Aquilla and Priscilla in that they had a church meeting in their house when they lived in Ephesus and Rome (1 Corinthians 16:19 and Romans 16:3-5). Most of the letter is addressed directly to Philemon. After this greeting Paul switches to using singular pronouns until the final closing paragraph.

Next, his pronouncement of “grace and peace” was addressed to all of them. The pronoun “you” is in the plural.

3, Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

God our Father is the source of Grace and Peace because of his covenant promises to us in the Lord Jesus Christ. “Grace” is that undeserved and unearned work of God to redeem and care for lost sinners. “Peace” is the inner calm the Holy Spirit works in his people by the work of Christ and the decree of the Father. It is not freedom from trials and problems, but an inner calm we find when we rest in God’s promises.

He ends the letter (verse 25) in the plural again reminding them all again about the Savior’s grace.

Next, Paul expressed his appreciation for Philemon.

While a prisoner in Rome, Paul received a report about how things were going with Philemon.

4, I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers,
5, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints,

Here he switches to singular pronouns and verbs so we know he is dealing more particularly with Philemon. The report probably came by means of a Rome visit by Epaphras (a leader in the Colossian church). It’s likely that Onesimus filled Paul in with more information.

The report told about Philemon’s love, and his faith toward Jesus, and for all the saints. Hearing this gave Paul the confidence he needed to ask this Christian friend to receive back his runaway slave.

It’s easy to understand the “love” part. Philemon loves the Lord Jesus, and he loves all the saints. But some struggle to understand what it means that Philemon had “faith” “for (unto) all the saints”. The key may be in properly understanding the word translated as “faith”. The Greek word is, “pistis” (πίστις). It has to do with trusting something or someone to be reliable.

Faith in Jesus means trusting what he has said, promised, and done. If the trust is real we act upon it confidently. This produces a “faithfulness” or “reliability” which are the first dictionary definitions listed for this word in the well received Greek Lexicon by Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich. Trusting in something with confidence will produce faithfulness to that same object. Philemon trusted in Jesus and was faithful to him. He also knew and trusted these other believers well enough to have confidence toward them too.

Paul’s thanks were directed to God, giving him all the credit for the love and faith shown in the life of Philemon.

Good reports produce thankful prayers.

6, and 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.

Paul prayed that the “sharing (or communicating) of your faith” may become effective in informing us and everyone about the good things God put in us, and about what he moves us to do for Christ’s glory.

7, For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.

Paul tells Philemon about the joy and comfort he received from his love as a brother in Christ. He is thankful that Philemon had refreshed the hearts of the saints (those trusting in Christ). The word here doesn’t really mean “heart”. That would be the Greek word “kardia” (καρδία – from which we get our word “cardiology”). The Greek word here is “splanchnon” (σπλάγχνον) from which we get our word “spleen”. It refers to our inner organs including even the intestines. It would be correct in that era and culture to say “I love you with all of my spleen.” It represents the inner places where our emotional feelings are imagined to be.

Paul made an appeal for Onesimus,
Philemon’s former slave.

8, Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required,
9, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you–I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus–

Paul made it clear that receiving Onesimus back as a fellow believer was the right thing to do. He could have used his Apostolic authority to command him, but instead he appealed to Philemon’s good judgment. He should do what is “required”. The King James Version translates it as “convenient”, translating “anaeko” [ἀνήκω] which means “is proper, fitting, a duty”. As a participle it refers to “the proper thing”. For the sake of love Paul would rather let it be Philemon’s decision.

Paul adds that he is an “elderly person” (an elder person “presbutaes” [πρεσβύτης]), and one who has gone to prison for Christ. He mentions these qualifications to show his years of experience, and his own willingness even to suffer for what’s right.

On the basis of his own reasoned and informed wisdom he now makes his appeal.

10, I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment.

Not until verse 10 does Paul mention this runaway slave by name. “Onesimus” is the last word in the sentence as Paul wrote it in Greek. More literally it would read, “I appeal to you concerning my child, whose father I became in my imprisonment, Onesimus.”

First he lays out the spiritual connection with this man. Then he identifies him. As Philemon read this line he would hear Paul talk about a man Paul considers to be his own spiritual child, someone he fathered spiritually while in Roman prison — and who is this man? Onesimus, your runaway slave!

11, (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.)

His name “Onesimus” means “profitable, helpful”. The play on words that follow is interesting: He was once “useless” (“a-chraestos” [ἄχρηστος]) to you. Now he is “useful” (“eu-chraestos” [εὐχρηστος]) to you and to me. It’s the same root word (“chraestos” [χρηστος] – “useful, worthy, beneficial”) with different prefixes: “not-useful, worthy, beneficial” and “good-useful, worthy, beneficial”. He left as a rebellious, run-away slave, and probably a thief. He returns as a useful and trustworthy brother in Christ.

12, I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart.

Now Onesimus is ready to come back as a transformed person, repentant of his sins against Philemon and God, and ready to live responsibly obeying God’s moral principles. Ready to be a real helper.

The word for “heart” here is the same one as back in verse 7 (splanchnon – σπλάγχνον). Sending this new son in the faith back to face his master was a deeply emotional choice.

We see from Colossians 4:7-9 that Tychicus was also coming with Onesimus. He would also plead for this run-away confirming what Paul was reporting.

Colossians 4:7-9, “Tychicus will tell you all about my activities. He is a beloved brother and faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts, and with him Onesimus, our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will tell you of everything that has taken place here.”

Next Paul lays out the case for Philemon
to receive Onesimus back as a useful brother.

13, I 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,
14, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord.

Paul was so pleased with the help and encouragement of Onesimus, that he would have been happy to have him stay with him during his stay in bondage for the Gospel. If Paul kept Onesimus there, it would be like Philemon helping him through his servant.

But he believed that it was best to send him back. Onesimus had an obligation to go back and face Philemon. There was a wrong that needed to be made right, and Paul didn’t want to take advantage of the situation without Philemon’s consent.

Behind it all was God’s plan.

15, For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever,
16, no 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.

Maybe this was why God had ordained that Onesimus would run away as he did. This slave’s wrong actions demonstrated how even evil is providentially turned around to bring Glory to God. A lost sinner was brought to faith in Christ. A rebellious man became a good helper and brother in the Lord. Philemon would be blessed to have a fellow believer there with him, to replace a former mere slave.

There were some issues that had to be dealt with, so Paul continues his letter beginning at verse 17.

Paul made it clear that if Onesimus had built up any debts, Paul would pay them himself.

17, So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me.
18. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.
19, I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it–to say nothing of your owing me even your own self.
20, Yes, brother, I want 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 say.

Verse 17 could be more literally translated: “Therefore, if you have me as a companion, receive him as me.” There was no question that the answer to the first part was “yes”. They clearly considered one another to be partners. Therefore as a friend, he asked Philemon to receive Onesimus as if it was Paul himself.

Paul then offered entering a legal relationship called a “surety”. It assures satisfaction of a debt by another party. There are three parties to the agreement: The principal party is the one who undertakes the obligation. The surety guarantees that the obligation owed to the second party will be performed by some third party.

This reflects what Jesus did for us as our Savior. He paid our debt in our place. The price of our sins has been paid in full by him. We often speak of the “suretyship” of Christ.

Was Paul financially able to make a promise like that? During this first imprisonment in Rome, Paul was confined to his own living space (Acts28:30). He either had comfortable savings, or financial contacts which were reliable.

He not only received contributions from the churches and individuals for his missionary work, he also worked as a tent maker. There was a time when he worked at this along with Aquilla and Priscilla (Acts 18:2-3). The word “tent-maker” there is “skaenopoios” (σκηνοποιός ). The tents they made probably included those used by shepherds and travelers. The tents were usually made of skins or some type of cloth, and often had to be replaced or repaired. So he likely had the ability to earn a good living on his own when necessary.

Paul wrote at least this last part in his own handwriting. He did this to authenticate the promise of the surety. He regularly wrote part of his letters with his own hand as proof that it was genuine (2 Thessalonians 3:17).

As a further encouragement to honor Paul’s request about receiving Onesimus back as a Christian brother, Paul brings up that Philemon owed him a lot. Not a financial debt, but probably a spiritual one for all the help Paul had given him. He wasn’t too demanding about it, saying “to say nothing of ” it – yet cleverly he does mention it.

Paul fully trusted that Philemon would do the right thing as requested, and do even more.

Paul made one more closing request:

22, At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.

Here in verse 22 Paul returns to the 2nd person plural “you”. This part therefore is directed to all to whom the letter is to be read.

The Apostle was confident that he will be released from prison soon, and be able to visit Colossae personally. The charges against him were primarily Jewish, not Roman, and there was no admissible evidence. Paul’s appeal to Caesar in Rome took the matter out of the hands of the local courts (Acts 25:11). We know from his second letter to Timothy that he was released from this imprisonment and later arrested again. The second time it seems to have been on the grounds of Roman law. Evidence external from the Bible indicates that he was executed for his faith.

He asked them to prepare a room for him when he arrived. The word for “Guest room” is the Greek word “xenia” (ξενία). It’s often translated as “hospitality”, particularly to someone from another place. The root word “xenos” (ξένος) specifically means “foreigner”. Our English word “xenophobia” is fear of foreigners. The word came to be used for a room where this kind of hospitality is practiced, a guest room. This hospitality was not just having guests over. It was a willingness to provide a room for visitors from another town, province, or culture.

Paul asked them to pray that by God’s grace he would be able to come to visit them as he planned.

The letter ends with a list of greetings.

23, Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you,
24, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.

Paul sends greetings from five men. It’s almost the same list given in Colossians 4:10-14. The mention of these same men further confirms that the letter to Philemon was sent along with his Letter to the Colossians. Colossae was the city in which Philemon lived.

Three of them were circumcised Jews, fellow Kingdom workers, and had been a comfort to Paul.

Colossians 4:10-11, “Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, and Mark the cousin of Barnabas (concerning whom you have received instructions–if he comes to you, welcome him), and Jesus who is called Justus. These are the only men of the circumcision among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God, and they have been a comfort to me.”

Aristarchus was a fellow prisoner at that time. Acts 19:29 tells us he was a Macedonian from Thessalonica. He had a Greek name, but was of Jewish descent

Mark was the cousin of Barnabas. Most identify him with John-Mark. There were some disagreements between Paul and John-Mark about their mission work in Acts 15:37-39. The Colossians had received some type of instructions about him. They should welcome him if he comes there. Obviously Paul still respected Mark.

Justus was also called “Jesus”. He was not mentioned in the Philemon letter. “Jesus” was not an uncommon name among the Jews. He also took on the Roman name “Justus”.

Three are evidently Gentiles.

Colossians 4:12-14, “Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God. For I bear him witness that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis. Luke the beloved physician greets you, as does Demas.”

Epaphras was a minister of the church in Colossae. He was probably the one who brought the report about them to Paul. Colossians 1:7-8, “just as you learned it from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf and has made known to us your love in the Spirit.”

Luke was probably the Physician, writer of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. He traveled with Paul on some of his missionary journeys.

Then he listed Demas. If he is the same one as in 2 Timothy 4:10 he is said to have “deserted” Paul. Here he is evidently in good standing with him when this letter was written.

Then Paul adds a Benediction:

25, The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

This is almost the same wording as his ending to the Letter to the Galatians (6:18, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen.”) There he adds the “our”.

No greater comfort could be given to our spirit than to be reminded about the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Grace is one of the most important words in Scripture. The Greek word translated that way is “charis” (χάρις). We generally say that “grace” is the “unmerited favor of God”. It appears in the New Testament more than 170 times. It has a range of common uses. Particularly, we speak of “saving grace” which is directed only toward the elect. It redeems them and maintains them spiritually.

Here Paul pronounces it upon those already redeemed. It is that same unearned kindness of God that strengthens, comforts, convicts, forgives, and assures us. We don’t do anything to qualify for it. This was all accomplished for us by the life and death of our Savior.

When Paul says “Your spirit” he is desiring that this Grace would be with the spirit part of those receiving the letter. It’s that non-physical part of our human nature that needs this Grace of our Savior. That’s where we need that strength, comfort, conviction, forgiveness, and assurance. In most ancient copies of this letter, Paul uses the plural here so he is not just pronouncing this blessing upon Philemon.

The great majority of ancient copies of this letter add the word “Amen”. Some believe it was added at a fairly early time by copyists. That’s why it isn’t included in the ESV translation. The same is true of the Amen at the end of some other letters of Paul. But it certainly is a fitting closing word used many times in other places in well documented copies of the Bible.

the word “amen” is based on the Hebrew word “ahmaen” (אםן). It means “to confirm, to support, to be firm, to be sure, to be true.” The Greek New Testament writings used this same Hebrew word but written in the Greek alphabet, “ahmaen” (αμην). We have even brought this Hebrew word directly into English unchanged except for the alphabet and pronunciation. People have Anglicized it to “aymen” or “ahmen”. As with our prayers, Paul uses it at the end of his letter as if to say, “truth” — “let it be so”

Some manuscripts tag on another sentence:

“Written from Rome to Philemon, by Onesimus a servant.”

This subscription says that Paul wrote it in Rome, and that it was sent to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus, a servant. This sentence is only found in some of the first printed Greek texts, based primarily upon one Alexandrian text (1908) and one Byzantine text (K). It was probably a note added by the copyist. Several different subscriptions are found at the end of this letter in isolated copies.

Note: Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

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