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Explanation of Paul's Letter to Philemon

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Also available:

Introduction 1: Philemon Explanation (1:1-25)

The greeting and benediction (v1-3)

Paul introduces himself as a prisoner (v1). It is only in this letter that he introduces himself in that way. Paul knows what it means to have lost his freedom, like a slave, so is identifying with the life of Onesimus, while still fulfilling a powerful ministry. In this book, Paul a prisoner appeals to an individual, Philemon. This is compared to the greeting in Colossians (1:1), where Paul describes himself as an apostle, addressing the church as a whole. Paul refers to himself as a prisoner five times in this letter (vs 1,9,10,13 & 23).

Timothy was probably acting as Paul's secretary as Paul dictated the letter, which was common practice in the first century. He is also named in Colossians (1:1). Paul himself only wrote v19, while Timothy wrote the rest of the book. Timothy was probably not in prison. In Rome, Paul was in a type of house arrest, and able to receive visitors (Acts 28:30).

Philemon was from Colossae, and was probably a wealthy land owner, with slaves to work the land. He was probably converted under Paul's ministry on a visit to Ephesus (v19), and the Colossian church met in his house (v2). Philemon's name means ‘beloved’. Apphia and Archippus are probably Philemon's wife and son, which would suggest that this is a family united in Christian service. The issue of a returning slave would affect the whole household, and the decision over whether to receive Onesimus would need to be made by all the family.

Archippus was probably Philemon's son. He is also named in Colossians, where he is exhorted by Paul "See that you fulfil the ministry which you have received in the Lord" (Col 4:17). It is likely that he had a challenging task in his ministry, perhaps in Laodicea, which was a town close to Colossae. Paul describes him as a ‘fellow soldier’. The only other person to be called this by Paul was Epaphroditus (Phil 2:25), who had been sent by the church in Philippi to minister to Paul in prison.

The Colossian church meets in Philemon's house. The ‘your’ house is singular in Greek. Paul had never been to Colossae (Col 2:1). Philemon has a personal decision to make, whether to take Onesimus back. However, his decision will also affect the whole church, so Paul addresses his letter to the whole church as well.

Paul then gives his usual blessing of grace and peace as at the start of most of his letters. Grace is God’s unmerited favour available through the Gospel. Peace has the same meaning as the Hebrew Shalom, peace with God, peace with men, peace with self. Both of these are a gift from God, and both will be needed by Philemon to do what Paul requests.

The prayer of thanksgiving (v4-7)

Paul prays for and praises Philemon, affirming him on his walk as a Christian and his character, which forms the basis of his appeal. Several key words are used in the prayer and echoed later in the letter, including love (v5,9), fellowship (v6,17), heart (v7,12,20), refresh (v7,20) and brother (v7,20). Paul is praying and thanking God for Philemon (v4), as he frequently does for all the churches.

Paul has heard about Philemon's love and faith (v5), probably from Epaphras, which is the reason for Paul’s thanksgiving. Faith toward Jesus and love for the saints is the essence of the gospel, in obedience to the two greatest commandments to love God and love your neighbour (Mk 12:29-31). The love for the saints springs out of the love for God. Philemon will need to demonstrate that love toward Onesimus. Saints are forgiven sinners, so Onesimus is now a saint along with Philemon.

The content of the prayer (v6) is difficult to translate, but it is important to identify what exactly Paul is praying for. “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good we may do for Christ”. Sharing of faith in this context is probably not about evangelism, as the word for sharing used here is the well-known word ‘koinonia’, which means fellowship between believers. Paul is praying that Philemon will extend fellowship to his runaway slave Onesimus. Receiving and forgiving Onesimus would be an example of all the good we may do for Christ.

Refreshed (v7) is a military term, describing a rest for refreshment while on the march to renew the soldiers for warfare. The meaning includes the meeting of physical needs. Philemon has a ministry of hospitality, as the church meets in his house (v2), and Paul asks for guest room to be prepared for him (v22). Paul has great joy at other people being blessed, showing his real awareness of the body of Christ. Paul thanks God and rejoices that Philemon refreshes the hearts of the saints, then later asks Philemon to refresh his heart also (v20).

Paul’s plea (v8-14)

This is the main body of the letter, which includes Paul’s appeal to Philemon for Onesimus, which is based on Philemon's character of love and faith (v9). Paul has the authority as apostle to command Philemon to do the right thing, but chooses not to use it. He wants Philemon to respond out of love, not out of compulsion.

Paul calls himself as both an ambassador and a prisoner (v9), as he also does in Ephesians (Eph 6:20), which is a paradox. Ambassador is the word presbuteros, meaning elder. It could be translated ‘old man’, but ambassador is more likely in this context. Elsewhere Paul describes believers as ambassadors for Christ, with a ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:20). Paul is exercising this ministry of reconciliation in being the go-between in the restoration of the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus.

Onesimus’ name means ‘useful’ (v10). This would be a typical name for a slave, which would suggest that he was probably born a slave. Paul had become his father, meaning his spiritual father, because Paul had led Onesimus to the Lord while he was in prison. Onesimus probably had heard of Paul from Philemon or the church in Colossae and took refuge with him in Rome. The power of the gospel is shown here, that Paul, the Jewish Pharisee can now love a Gentile slave like a father loving a son.

Paul uses a word play on the name Onesimus (v11). Onesimus is now is what his name means. He was useless when he ran away, and was probably a bad worker before that. Now he is converted, he will now work with a new dedication for his new master, Jesus, and prove himself useful to Philemon, just as he is also useful to Paul in prison (v20).

Paul is sending back his very heart (v12). This shows Paul's great personal affection for Onesimus. Paul uses the word ‘heart’ three times in the letter. Philemon refreshes the hearts of the saints (v7), Paul calls Onesimus his heart (v12), then calls Philemon to refresh his heart (v20). The way to refresh the heart of Paul is for Philemon to welcome Onesimus.

Onesimus was being sent back to Colossae with Tychicus, who is carrying the letters to Colossae (Col 4:7) and to Philemon, as well as the letter to Ephesus (Eph 6:21). Tychicus would have to serve as the mediator on arrival at Colossae, to bring Onesimus into the presence of Philemon, as well as ensuring that Onesimus definitely arrives back there.

Paul would have liked to have kept Onesimus working on his ministry team (v13-14), but wanted to have Philemon's blessing on that, as the lawful owner of Onesimus, so sent him back. Paul is not directly challenging the social institution of slavery, but the message of the Gospel he preached ultimately showed people that the continuation of slavery was an abomination. It would have been illegal for Paul to have kept a runaway slave, and would have caused a breach of fellowship between them. How could Paul have ever visited Philemon if he had kept Onesimus in Rome?

Brother in the Lord (v15-16)

Paul makes a tactful suggestion, using the word ‘perhaps’ (v15), that God had brought good out of a bad situation. The escape of Onesimus lead to his conversion to Christ. This is similar to Joseph (Gen 50:20), who also recognised God's hand in events, His brothers meant it for evil, but God meant it for good. God is in control over human sinful activity. He will and does bring good out of bad events.

Onesimus is now a brother in the Lord, so spiritually he will never be parted again from Philemon. They are eternally brothers in Christ, although he was parted for a while in the flesh.

Onesimus is now to be treated as a brother (v16), a fellow believer in the Lord. Both slave and master are now united in Christ, so Onesimus is now “more than a slave". He is no longer merely a possession of Philemon. Paul is calling Philemon to love his runaway slave Onesimus as a beloved brother, the same way he would love Paul.

Structure

A key to understanding the book is to look at the relationship words, such as brother, child, sister, father, and fellow worker. Paul first reminds Philemon of the relationship between himself and Paul, as brothers in Christ (v1-7), then shows the new relationship between Onesimus and Paul, also as brothers in Christ (v8-16). Finally, he joins them together, showing that Philemon and Onesimus are now also brothers in the Lord (v17-22). The climax is when the final link is made, “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother - especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (v16).

Paul describes Philemon as a beloved fellow worker (v2), a brother (v7), and a partner (v17). He describes Onesimus as his child (v10), his own heart (v12), and a beloved brother (16). He says that Onesimus was serving Paul in prison on Philemon’s behalf (v13)

He calls Philemon to welcome Onesimus in the same way as he would welcome Paul (v17), and Paul is willing to pay any debt owed to Philemon by Onesimus (v18). Paul performing a ministry of reconciliation, as described in 2 Corinthians (2 Cor 5:17-21), reconciling Philemon and Onesimus, who are now brothers in Christ.

This book demonstrates the power of the Gospel to overcome all social and religious barriers. In the first century context, the two greatest barriers were between Jews and Gentiles, and between the free and the slave. Paul was a Jew, while Philemon and Onesimus were Gentiles. Philemon was a free man, and Onesimus was a slave. All are now one in the body of Christ.

Paul's pledge (v17-22)

In this paragraph, Paul makes four requests. Firstly to welcome Onesimus (v17), secondly to charge any debts to Paul (v18), thirdly to refresh my heart (v20), and finally to prepare a guest room (v22).

Paul now makes his request quite firmly (v17). Philemon is called to welcome his disgraced runaway slave in the same way he would welcome the great apostle Paul. This is difficult to imagine. God had welcomed Onesimus into his family, so Philemon must also welcome him as a brother in Christ. The very least would be to allow Onesimus to stay in the guest room, as would be prepared for Paul (v22).

Onesimus would have stolen from Philemon when he ran away in order to travel from Colossae to Rome (v18). He would need money for food and for his means of transport. Paul uses the word ‘charge’, which is legal language, a similar concept as the word to ‘reckon’ (Rom 4:3). Paul is taking on the role of Christ, our sin is charged to Christ's account, we don't have to pay.

Paul wrote this IOU himself (v19). The rest of the letter was written by his secretary, Timothy. Paul was willing to pay what Onesimus owed to Philemon as restitution. However it is doubtful whether he actually had to pay anything. Paul was Philemon's spiritual father, as Paul had led Philemon to the Lord, so Paul saw that Philemon was in debt to him. Philemon had received God's grace when he was converted, so Paul is now expecting him to show grace to Onesimus.

Finally he makes a stronger request, “let me have this benefit from you in the Lord” (v20). Paul is asking for Onesimus back. The word ‘benefit’ is from the same root word as ‘Onesimus’ (useful). The way to refresh Paul’s heart (v20) was by welcoming Onesimus back (v7,12), as Onesimus was Paul’s very heart (v12).

Based on Philemon’s character, Paul is confident that he will respond positively to the Lord, and welcome Onesimus with love. However, Paul is confident that Philemon will do even more than he says (v21). This would suggest that Paul is asking for Onesimus to be set free from slavery and sent back to serve the Lord with Paul in Rome.

Paul knows that Philemon and the church at Colossae are praying for his release from prison. Paul would find it difficult to visit Philemon if he had kept Onesimus in Rome without Philemon knowing about it. Also for Paul to pay a visit to Philemon’s home would ensure that his request for Onesimus would be granted.

Closing greetings (v23-24)

All five of these people sending greetings are named at the end of the letter to the Colossians, which would imply that the two letters were written at same time. Epaphras was from Colossae (Col 4:12) and was the founder of the church there (Col 1:7). This would probably explain why he is separated out from the other four. He had probably led Philemon to the Lord and was now in prison with Paul on account of the gospel.

Paul also mentions his other fellow workers, who were with Paul in Rome. They were not in prison, but free to continue their ministry. Mark had now reconciled with Paul, after leaving the first missionary journey (13:13). Aristarchus was from Thessalonica (Acts 20:4) and had accompanied Paul on his journey to Rome. Demas later deserted Paul (2 Tim 4:10). Paul described Luke as the beloved physician (Col 4:14).

Benediction (v25)

Philemon would need grace to do what Paul asks, to resist social pressure to punish Onesimus. The penalty for runaway slaves was death. Also slaves were valuable property so it would cost Philemon to set Onesimus free. To act in forgiveness needs the grace of God, it is impossible in human strength.

Conclusion

This letter would not have survived if it had not worked. Early church tradition says that Onesimus succeeded John as presiding bishop of Ephesus. Ignatius, the bishop of Syrian Antioch, was taken to Rome for martyrdom around AD 110, at the time Onesimus was bishop of Ephesus. Ignatius wrote a letter to Ephesus alluding to the letter to Philemon alongside mention of Onesimus. The letters of Paul, known as the Pauline Corpus, were brought together in Ephesus towards the end of the first century. Bishop Onesimus would have been in charge of this process. He would have kept this letter as it had given him his freedom and included it with Paul's other letters.

Also available:

Introduction 1: Philemon Explanation (1:1-25)