Forward thinking from Philemon

Chapter 1
(Philemon 1:1-5) - Grace, Peace, Love, and Faith
(Philemon 1:6-7) - Fellowship of Your Faith
(Philemon 1:8-11) - Paulís Appeal
(Philemon 1:11) - Begotten in my Imprisonment
(Philemon 1:11-14) - A Changed Man
(Philemon 1:15-16) - More Than a Slave
(Philemon 1:15) - Perhaps
(Philemon 1:17-20) - Regarded as a Partner
(Philemon 1:21-25) - Thanks and Closing Remarks

Grace, Peace, Love, and Faith

Paulís epistle to his disciple and friend in Christ, Philemon, is short but contains the Holy Spiritís revolutionary teaching on one of the most important issues in Christianity for all time ó slavery! The central individual in this short book included in the writings of the New Testament is one Onesimus, a slave run away from his Christian master, a leader in the church at Colossae. Sometimes commentators think that the apostle Paul had never been to Colossae, basing their conclusion on Paulís statement in that epistle that the Colossian brethren had heard the gospel from Epaphras, and that Paul had heard of their faith rather than personally witnessing it. The fact that the initial work was done by Epaphras does not exclude Paul from having been there, and his hearing of their faith would come from his continued monitoring of their progress through his information network. In fact, the internal things in the book of Philemon clearly indicate that Paul had been to Colossae; Philemon owed Paul his soul, Paul knew Philemonís family, and Onesimus, when he ran away, ran to Paul in prison in Rome. What follows is interesting and of signal importance for the churches for all time!

Paul rightly praises the man to whom this letter is addressed. But there are no idle words emanating from the apostle. After listing these fine qualities, the apostle is going to appeal to Philemon for Onesimus, making his entreaty based on his assurance that Philemon will continue to exhibit those qualities as he makes his decision concerning the run away slave.

Fellowship of Your Faith

Christianity is designed to move from the concept to the appropriate action. For example, God so loved the world [concept] that He gave His only begotten Son [action]. Paul thus was very complimentary toward Philemon, noting that "I hear of your love, and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all the saints." There must have been action on Philemonís part, or there would have been nothing for Paul to hear about. His direct action, both love and faith, was directed toward the saints in Colossae, and thus an exhibition of his love and faith toward the Lord Jesus Christ.

All motivation at some point must come from within the individual. The great motivators of this earth have always had the ability to empower and encourage their teams, their troops, or their associates. How much greater, then, would it be to be involved in motivating the spiritually resurrected army of God, the mighty marching tide that is the only grouping that can carry the gospel to the ends of the earth! It is worthy of note, therefore, that Paul would say of Philemon that "the hearts of the saints" had been refreshed through him, and that the apostle would at that point significantly add the appellation, "brother."

These statements by the apostle are not flattery; they are honest and straightforward expositions of the character of this Philemon. Paul has a purpose, however, for bringing forth the characterizations of his fellow worker for the kingdom; he has an appeal that he wants to make, and he is hopeful that his positive comments will elicit a similarly positive response from this honorable brother in Christ.

Paulís Appeal

Interaction with other people is often complicated and challenging. They, regardless of how tough an exterior they present, must be considered as somewhat fragile, and therefore handled with care. The scriptures thus are replete with exhortations on how to have positive interactions with others. Love for the other person is paramount in all communication, as Paul noted in his epistle to the Ephesian brethren, exhorting them to be "speaking the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15). Words such as kind and patient come to mind, as well as "look out for the interests of others" (Philippians 2:4). Hence the apostle Paul, as he has a somewhat sensitive point he wants to discuss with his friend and fellow saint Philemon, will make his appeal very carefully, with every due consideration for the predicament and position of this leader in the church in Colossae.

The apostle Paul is the one who, inspired by the Holy Spirit, stated, "Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come" (2 Corinthians 5:17). In effect, Onesimus was a new person as a Christian; it was someone else ó now dead ó who ran away. So the apostle is appealing to his Christian friend to consider Onesimus in that regard, Onesimus having proven that he really was a changed man. There are certainly some lessons for modern Christians in that point alone!

Begotten in my Imprisonment

The great challenge in Christianity is where the "theory" meets the "reality" of daily living. In the case of Philemon, the custom of the culture was pitted against the principles passed on by Christ. Onesimus, the run away slave, should have been executed or severely punished, but Philemon is now facing an appeal by the apostle Paul for clemency for the slave based on foundations of the faith of Christ. The appeal is both personal and principled. Paul pleads on the basis of his personal friendship with Philemon, and the fact that Paul is now an aged prisoner. But he also petitions on the basis of scripture; he describes Onesimus as his child "whom I have begotten," bringing all the precepts of the concept of what is embodied in the new creation to the fore.

So when Paul states, "I appeal to you for my child, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment," it is to be hoped that Philemon would recognize the power and personal interest in that appeal. And may saints today recognize the power connected with begotten, be actively involved in helping others experience the true new birth, and be mindful and appreciative of the spiritual connection between those who are taught the gospel and those who teach it.

A Changed Man

Does the message of the gospel really work? Is there any reference in the inspired record that would give credence to the idea that when people turn from darkness to light, there is actual change? There is an account of such a man in the sacred scriptures, a man who in human terms was a lowly slave, and a runaway at that. As testimony of the reality of that change, the apostle Paul was willing to put himself on the line, and the Holy Spirit furthermore was willing to have it recorded for all eternity. That man was Onesimus, of whom Paul wrote in addressing the Christian slave master Philemon, "I appeal to you for my child, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, Onesimus."

Onesimus, a run away slave, was such a changed man ó as a result of his desire to be obedient to Christ, as a result of his hearing the word of God, and as a result of the Holy Spirit at work in him ó that Paul wanted to keep him. But he was also so much of a new creation in Christ that Paul could trust him to do what he really needed to do as a Christian, to return to his slave master. That is a changed man!

More Than a Slave

The human race as a whole always seems to have some sort of a "caste system." Because the inhabitants of earth as a whole really lack confidence and a sense of self worth, they tend to fill that void by putting others down as a twisted means of attempting to elevate themselves. Sometimes this false elevation is through the use of destructive verbiage, but when people have political or economic power, they generally use that power to drive others into a position of subjection or slavery. "What do you mean by crushing My people," was the illustrative query of the Almighty to the nobility of Israel, "and grinding the face of the poor?" (Isaiah 3:15). The Lord, by contrast, has always put equal value on each person, whether it be Pharaoh or the slave girl who has to sleep behind the millstones, recognizing the intrinsic value of each eternal soul.

Part of Paulís communication to Philemon was that Philemon would have Onesimus back "forever." Forever puts everything else into focus; the slave/free relationship is only for an earthly lifeís duration, and is therefore comparatively insignificant. Saints, of course, are to have an eternal perspective. Since Christians are brothers and sisters in Christís family, with Jesus being the older brother, it is imperative that those saints be in the process of building those relationships which last for eternity. Philemon was going have Onesimus back, "no longer as slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother." The lesson is clear!!


There are many events and circumstances in the lives of people and Christians. While these events often seem random or even destructive, one of the overall portrayals that the scripture gives is that God is aware of, and ó while allowing the free will of mankind to be executed ó orchestrating the history of man so that His will is accomplished. As God spoke through the prophet Isaiah, He declared, "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:8-9). While this statement of the All Wise is true as a general statement, it is specifically directed at the idea that God orchestrates the affairs of men in such a way that His word which goes forth from His mouth will not return to Him empty, and without accomplishing the purpose for which He sent it. "Seek from the book of the Lord, and read," enjoins the Most High, referring to those whose names have been written in the Lambís book of life from the foundation of the world, "Not one of these will be missing; none will lack its mate. For His mouth has commanded, and His Spirit has gathered them" (Isaiah 34:16). There is a God who governs the affairs of men, and is working in the details as well as managing the big picture.

Even the apostle Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, could not definitely say what the connection between the circumstances connected with an unruly slaveís rebellious departure, and the eventual conversion of the slave; the strongest word he could use was perhaps. If that is the strongest word the apostle could use, no one in future circumstances could use one stronger. For modern day saints, the lesson is that God is orchestrating, using people of all kinds in their strengths and weaknesses, in their obedience or rebellion, to accomplish His plan. Every Christian, then, needs to give thanks to God for all things, knowing that all things work together for good to those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose.

Regarded as a Partner

For an appeal to be effective and honest, the proper groundwork has to be laid. A simple, non-costly appeal does not require much groundwork because of its simplicity; asking a co-worker to reach and hand over a tool does not require much of a working relationship, and does not require much preparation before the request is made. But if the request is complicated, costly, time-consuming, or requiring the other person to step out of a comfort zone, then the proper points have to be put into place and enumerated before the appeal can legitimately be made. Paul, in preparation for making his plea to Philemon, had laid down the following points:† 1) Philemon was a beloved brother and fellow worker.† 2) Paul complimented Philemon on his reputation for loving the Lord Jesus, and for all the saints.† 3) Paul personally was comforted by Philemonís love, because the hearts of the saints had been refreshed by Philemon.† 4) Paul had dealt honorably with Onesimus, the runaway slave.† 5) Paul had "begotten" Onesimus while Paul was imprisoned, and had trained the slave in the ways of Christ. 6) Paulís work had been effective, for Onesimus was truly a changed man and obedient Christian.† 7) When Onesimus was sufficiently on the right spiritual track, Paul sent him back to Philemon.

Paul then pointed out that Onesimus was not merely a returned slave, but a beloved brother in Christ to Philemon, and that the two would be in fellowship forever.

As Paul closed off his importuning, he appealed, knowing the character of Philemon. "Yes, brother, let me benefit from you in the Lord," is his plea, regarding basically the cancellation of any physical debt connected with Onesimus, "refresh my heart in Christ" (Philemon 1:20). With everyone forgiven both physical and spiritual debt, there is a great lifting of burdens, a great refreshing!

Thanks and Closing Remarks

In order to work properly and positively with people, including Christians, there are certain important factors in beginning conversations, and certain factors in ending conversations that are critical. To be effective in leading personal Bible studies, for example, the Bible teacher has to be able to segue [pronounced seg-way] into the Bible study from the important initial personal conversations. Similarly, telephone conversations need to be opened carefully, and those who have good people skills know how to do this. And when the dialogue is over, it is important to finish the call adroitly. This is true of all interaction with people, whether in face-to-face communication, or whether by letter. The apostle Paul used all these skills in his letter to Philemon.

In this small book of Philemon, the personal nature of Christianity stands out. Here the intimate connection between Paul and Philemon is manifest, as well as the connection between Paul and Onesimus. Here the barrier between slave and free is clearly torn down, and the slave owner now has a "beloved brother" in the man who is in earthly bondage. Here the personal interactions between various workers in various congregations show, as well as the teamwork between autonomous but sister congregations. Praise God who through His Holy Spirit orchestrated the circumstances between Onesimus, Paul, and Philemon, and who saw fit to have this epistle included in the eternal record!