Philippians – Colossians – Philemon Lesson 13

Philemon 8-21

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INTRODUCTION:  HAVE YOU EVER EXPERIENCED A SITUATION IN YOUR LIFE WHERE SOMEONE WRONGED YOU AND REALLY HURT YOU?  There is no need to respond but it’s likely that all of us have experienced a degree of rejection by someone that hurt us deeply.  Maybe they betrayed you!  Perhaps they took advantage of you and never cared how it affected your life.  Possibly they left you alone and abandoned you when you needed them very much.  Sometimes those fractured relationships seem irreconcilable.  The offender is unlikely to ever admit their wrong-doing and it’s a safe bet they will never make the first move to apologize.  But on those rare occasions, the one who caused all of the hurt recognizes their sinful behavior and moves to seek forgiveness.  Almost always, it’s because someone has experienced a work of transformation that can only come from Jesus!




       In our lesson last week, we discussed how our relationships will be forever changed because of our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.  Today, we will examine a story of a real example of a remarkable transformation that resulted in two Christians being reconciled to each other.  This account is about Christianity in action.  This morning we will look at a story recorded in the shortest of the New Testament letters, which was written to an individual by the name of Philemon.  There were other Christians also addressed in this letter, including the group of believers who gathered in Philemon’s house in Colosse.  Paul commends Philemon and the other faithful people of this house church.  But Paul’s main purpose for writing was to share a remarkable testimony of a transformed life that Paul had led to the Lord during his imprisonment in Rome.  Paul had been refreshed by the ministry of Philemon and Paul wanted him to do yet another loving act that would inspire others (vs. 4-7).  It is estimated that over half of the population of the Roman Empire were slaves.  So many of those slaves were coming to Jesus Christ for salvation that it actually started worrying the Emperor and the military leaders.  Just the sheer number of Christians posed a threat to the status quo of Rome.  Paul’s ministry was to every person and he regularly mentioned that in Christ, “there was neither bond nor free.”  One of Paul’s converts was actually a runaway slave from Colosse, and a former servant of Philemon, (who Paul had also led to the Lord.)  In today’s lesson, Paul is going to intercede on behalf of this converted slave, Onesimus, who had become a believer and was now “profitable” both to Paul and to Philemon.  They were all BROTHERS together in Jesus!


Objective Statement:  Every Christian should Practice Intercession for other Believers because of 3 Motives to Assist Others.


Verses 8-12

Wherefore, though I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee that which is convenient, Yet for love’s sake I rather beseech thee, being such an one as Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ.  10 I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds: 11 Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me: 12 Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels:

       Before Paul actually explains his purpose for writing to Philemon, he declares his apostolic authority and points out that he could “enjoin” or command Philemon to do what was “convenient” (or obviously the right thing to do) (vs. 8).  But instead of ordering Philemon to respond, Paul says, “Yet for love’s sake I rather beseech thee” (vs. 9).  In other words, Paul reminded Philemon that he could insist that Philemon respond, but instead, he BEGS him to act because of love.  To add a little additional coercion to Philemon’s thinking, Paul appeals to his age and the fact that he’s a “prisoner of Jesus Christ” (vs. 9b).  Now Paul gets to the real purpose of his letter (vs. 10).  He, once again, BEGS Philemon to accept his son in the faith, Onesimus, “whom I have begotten in my bonds” (vs. 10b).  Paul’s approach gave Philemon the opportunity to react with a genuinely Christian choice that accorded with his own faith and love.  Even though Paul had learned all about Onesimus’ failures and sinful acts, he now considered this AWOL servant as a spiritual “son” whom he had fathered while himself being a prisoner.  When Paul said, “I beseech thee FOR my son, Onesimus,” he begins his appeal to intercede for Onesimus to Philemon. 

       In Verse 11, Paul acknowledges that Onesimus had confessed all of his former failures and sinful behaviors.  Paul made an interesting play on the meaning of the name Onesimus when he states to Philemon that Onesimus had become “unprofitable” to his owner after he ran away.  Onesimus apparently was a common slave name in the Roman Empire.  It meant “useful” or “profitable,” expressing the value of faithful and trusted servants to their owners.  Onesimus had failed to live up to his name, but now he had the opportunity to return to Philemon, and if the elder Christian accepted him back, Onesimus could live out his life proving his value and worth to his owner.  But it would not be so much a slave/owner relationship, as a “Brother in Christ” union!  Verse 12, further examines Paul’s intercession on behalf of Onesimus, when he carefully appeals to Philemon to “receive him.”  WHY?  Because Paul loved this younger man who was “now profitable to thee (Philemon) and to me” (vs. 11).  Also, Paul confirms his love for Onesimus when he said, “mine own bowels” (vs. 12b), which is a colloquial way of that time to mean he had a deep-seated love for this former runaway slave.  In summary, Paul was saying because Onesimus has been completely changed by the amazing grace of Jesus which transformed his life, he deserved another chance to make restitution and reconciliation with his former owner.  Paul begs Philemon to receive Onesimus as a brother and give him a second chance.  As we shall see, Philemon will carefully consider forgiving his former servant.


Verses 13-16

13 Whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel: 14 But without thy mind would I do nothing; that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly. 15 For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever; 16 Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord?

       In Verses 13-14, Paul continues to lobby for his son in the faith.  In fact, he acknowledged that he would have liked to keep Onesimus with him.  Since Philemon had apparently ministered to Paul in the past, Paul said he considered allowing Onesimus to stay with him, “that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel” (vs. 13).  Paul did not want to deal improperly with Philemon without knowing Philemon’s mind on the issue.  He did not want to be presumptuous and keep Onesimus in Rome until Philemon “willingly” consented to his participation with Paul (vs. 14).  For Paul to declare that the converted slave could actually serve him in the stead of Philemon amounted to implying exalted confidence in the genuineness of Onesimus as a believer and as one gifted for serving others effectively.  The expression of this confidence served to put Onesimus and Philemon on the same level in demonstrating a servant’s heart, as well as viewing them as BROTHERS in the Lord.  But Paul clearly did not want to demand Philemon to respond out of “necessity” to his appeal.  Rather he wanted his friend in Colosse to make decisions “willingly” when it came to how he should proceed with Onesimus’ future ministry.  At some point in this process, you know that Paul and Onesimus had a serious talk about why the new Christian should return to Colosse and deal with his past indiscretionsWHAT DO YOU THINK WERE SOME OF THE ARGUMENTS THEY ARRIVED AT ON WHY ONESIMUS SHOULD GO BACK AND FACE PHILEMON?   Paul would have used this discussion as an ongoing discipleship opportunity.  No doubt, they would have talked about how Onesimus’ salvation had forever changed his life, his direction, and his eternity.  He was a new man because of what Jesus had done for him.  They would have rehearsed Onesimus’ previous decisions to deal harshly and unfairly with Philemon.  Yes, he was still an unbeliever at that time, but now his new life demanded accountability and reconciliation because of his past sinful behaviors.  They probably talked about Paul’s desire for Onesimus to stay with him in Rome for the sake of the Gospel (vs. 13-14).  Ultimately, both of them had arrived at the same conclusion.  The only Christian thing to do was to have Onesimus return to his former master and seek forgiveness.  He knew that would have meant returning to his servanthood and submission to his owner.  Onesimus would have, no doubt, offered to make restitution for his past sins and submitted to Philemon’s discretion on how their relationship would be going forward.  But Onesimus, with the help of Paul, would have been led by the Spirit of God to do the right thing which involved confession, seeking forgiveness, and doing his best service, not just for Philemon but for the Lord (Col. 3:22-24). 

       In Verses 15-16, Paul raised the possibility that the hand of God was at work in Philemon’s loss of his servant.  He drew a contrast between “for a season” and “for ever” (vs. 15).   In a very tactful way, Paul put the emphasis on Onesimus’ failure as a temporary separation from Philemon that was just a prelude to a permanent reunion with him.  Everything had changed because of Onesimus’ salvation!  So Paul inspires Philemon to receive Onesimus back into service when he encourages him to accept Onesimus, “Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved” (vs. 16).  Because of what Jesus had done in both of their lives, Onesimus and Philemon were forever linked as brothers.  Paul then presses the issue with Philemon when he declares his special relationship with Onesimus as “a brother beloved, specially to me” (vs. 16b).  Paul was validating the genuine transformation that had taken place in Onesimus’ life and how intertwined his life had become with this new believer.  Now Paul was encouraging Philemon to accept Onesimus back because not only was he a “brother beloved” to Paul, “but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord?” (vs. 16c).  Most commentators agree that this statement of brotherhood was a subtle appeal for Philemon to emancipate Onesimus because of their changed relationship.  These actions and attitudes should remind all believers today that we are to view other Christians as part of the family of God and thus treat each other with love and acceptance.  The example of the welcoming father in Jesus’ parable about the return of the prodigal son serves to remind us that loving forgiveness is the pathway to restored relationships.


Verses 17-21

17 If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself. 18 If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account;     19 I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it: albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides.  20 Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord: refresh my bowels in the Lord.  21 Having confidence in thy obedience I wrote unto thee, knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say.

       Paul continued to stress his personal relationship with Philemon by using the term “partner” (vs. 17).  By incorporating that relationship, Paul is essentially saying, since I know you count me as a partner in the work of the Lord, please accept Onesimus as if you were receiving me personally.  The appeal that Paul makes reiterates his position that he holds both Philemon and Onesimus in the same level of partnership.  They are all brothers in Christ and now Onesimus is returning to Philemon to make everything right.  Paul takes the next step of support for his young disciple when he offers to be the guarantee of any losses that Philemon may have suffered when Onesimus first left his position and ran away (vs. 18).  In other words, if you were hurt or suffered loss because of Onesimus’ irresponsibility, “put that on mine account” (vs. 18b).  What a magnanimous offer on the part of the Apostle Paul.  Just by taking that stance with Philemon, Paul further validates his complete confidence in the transformation that had taken place in the life of his young protégé. 

       In Verses 19-21, Paul adds his promise to stand by Onesimus’ debt and further authenticates his commitment to that cause by noting he had, “written it with mine own hand, I will repay it” (vs. 19).  That was a very strong assurance to Philemon that Paul was prepared to guarantee Onesimus’ debt was repaid.  Then Paul employs a very cunning and subtle consideration for Philemon to think about (vs. 19b).  WHAT DID PAUL WANT PHILEMON TO CONSIDER AS HE PONDERED HOW TO PROCEED WITH ONESIMUS?  After reassuring Philemon of a good outcome, Paul invokes a clever reminder that “albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides” (vs. 19c).  It’s like Paul is saying, I don’t need to remind you that you owe me your life too?  If it weren’t for me you may never have heard about Jesus and gotten saved.  So, I’ll guarantee Onesimus’ debt he owes you, but don’t forget you owe me a great debt as well.  Paul judged that Philemon’s spiritual debt far outweighed the financial debt that Onesimus might have incurred.  Temporal or material indebtedness and spiritual or eternal indebtedness are beyond comparison.  Again, appealing to them being “Brothers,” Paul said, “let me have joy of thee in the Lord” (vs. 20).  Paul basically said to Philemon, it will give me great joy if you accept Onesimus back into your good graces and welcome him as a Christian brother.  It would “refresh my bowels in the Lord.”  In other words, Paul would receive great joy and he “would love it” if Philemon did the right thing related to Onesimus.  Paul concluded his letter with a strong statement of his confidence in Philemon as a man who would do what Paul requested and even more: “I wrote unto thee, knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say” (vs. 21).  What might have been included in Paul’s phrase, “more than I say?”  While we can only speculate, it may well have been a subtle suggestion for Philemon to free Onesimus from his slave status so that he might return on loan to Paul as a spiritual brother and co-worker in the Gospel.  Many modern critics might have judged Paul for not clearly condemning the practice of slavery in this letter.  But Paul was only dealing with the existing cultural situation here, not trying to transform the culture as much as he wanted to transform the souls of men.  Nowhere in Paul’s writings does he ever encourage the practice of slavery.  He just operates within the society of his day and seeks to introduce all people to The SAVIOR so they can experience FREEDOM whether they be “bond or free” Romans.  Just as Paul was motivated to practice INTERCESSION for other believers, we should be quick to do the same.  Pray for people who need assistance and let God use you to meet the needs of others!

Remember our Objective Statement: Every Christian should Practice Intercession for other Believers because of 3 Motives to Assist Others.