Study Notes

Philemon 1:1-25


Near the end of the book of Colossians, Paul wrote,

Col. 4:7-9 As to all my affairs, Too-khee-KOS, our beloved brother and faithful servant and fellow bond-servant in the Lord, will bring you information. For I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know {about} our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts; and with him Onesimus, {our} faithful and beloved brother, who is one of your {number.} They will inform you about the whole situation here.

Too-khee-KOS and Onesimus were sent from Paul to Colosse with the letter to the Colossian church in hand. But they were also carrying another letter - a personal one - a letter which probably made Onesimus very nervous. You see, Onesimus was a runaway slave, and they were delivering the letter to Philemon - the master from whom Onesimus had run away.

Slavery was an unfortunate fact of life in the Roman empire. There were at one point 60 million of them. The fear of their possible revolt made the owners crush any signs of rebellion or opposition with severe punishments or death. Runaways were either killed when caught, or branded with an "F" on their foreheads (meaning "Fugitivus").

Slavery was so ingrained in their culture, that the thought of it being wrong or "unchristian" was never even an issue. Many wealthy Christians owned slaves in that day. What will Philemon do when he receives this letter from Paul, handed to him by his runaway slave? Let's read the letter...

1:1-2 A Prisoner Of Christ Jesus

Paul and Timothy are writing from prison. Remember that at the end of the book of Acts, Paul is in Rome under house arrest, waiting for his appointment to see Caesar himself, because of the many false charges he was facing.

But even though he is guarded by a soldier, and incarcerated by the authority of the Roman empire, he says, "I'm a prisoner of Christ Jesus." He expounded on this idea to the Philippian church, writing,

Phil. 1:12-14 Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, so that my imprisonment in Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else, and that most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear.

The things that we think are terrible are actually to the glory of God! The worst situation we find ourselves in can be a wonderful blessing if we simply look for the opportunity.

Some years ago, I was taking a trip to Southern California from Oregon with three friends. We encountered some serious car trouble, and ended up breaking down at a service station in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. What rotten luck! What terrible circumstances! Or so we thought. You see, there was a young woman who was working at the gas station that day who was into speed metal music and struggling with addiction to drugs. It "just so happened" that I had recently been saved out of the speed metal lifestyle and one of the people I was traveling with had overcome her addiction to drugs through Christ. As the hours progressed, the two of us witnessed to this woman. Immediately after we prayed with her to receive Christ, the car was fixed!

You can be a prisoner of your circumstances, or you can be a prisoner of Christ. You can say, "I can't believe this rotten situation," or you can look around for the opportunity that Christ has opened up for you.

The Church In Your House

This letter is addressed to Philemon, and to Ap-FEE-a and AR-khip-pos, who we assume are Philemon's wife and son. AR-khip-os was also in ministry, here being called, "our fellow soldier" and in the book of Colossians, Paul tells the church,

Col. 4:17 And say to AR-khip-pos, "Take heed to the ministry which you have received in the Lord, that you may fulfill it."

These are strong Christian people, who even have a church meeting in their house.

1:3 Grace And Peace

Paul's regular greeting in his letters was "grace and peace to you." Grace is of course God's unmerited favor to us.

Eph. 2:8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, {it is} the gift of God

Grace tells us that it's not our works that saved us, it's God's work, finished at the cross. There is nothing we can do to earn salvation, nothing that we need to somehow finish before we're REALLY saved. We're saved by grace. And when that begins to really sink in, then we have peace in our hearts. That's why grace and peace are always in that order: when grace is realized, peace is materialized.

1:4-5 I Thank My God Always, Praying For You

Paul tells them that he's always thanking God for them when he's praying for them. Much of Paul's prayer life was spent giving thanks to God for people.

Eph. 1:16 do not cease giving thanks for you, while making mention {of you} in my prayers

Col. 1:3 We give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you

1Ths. 1:2 We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention {of you} in our prayers

If we were to make a pie chart of subjects covered in prayer, how big a slice would thanksgiving for others occupy? There's a big chunk representing praying for food. Most of the rest of the pie is taken up by our constant requests for blessing, material things, and money. But how much is honestly just thanksgiving for the Christians that you know?

In ministry, I find that most attacks come from other Christians, not from the world outside. That's a shame. And when those attacks come, I know one thing: the person judging me, condemning me, looking down on me, hasn't been praying thanksgiving for me. Oh, they might be praying ABOUT me, but they're not praying and giving thanks FOR me.

I Hear Of Your Love And Faith

Paul had heard from people about Philemon's love and faith. Love and faith that wasn't just directed towards God, but also to God's people. Our love for God is shown for all to see by our love for His people. Jesus said,

John 13:35 "By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another."

If you don't love people, you don't love God. John wrote in his first epistle,

1John 3:18-19 Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth. We shall know by this that we are of the truth, and shall assure our heart before Him

Our love for God is demonstrated by our love for each other.

1:6 Effective Fellowship Of Your Faith Through Knowledge Of Good That Is In You

This is a tough sentence to comprehend.

Phlm. 6 (NAS) {and I pray} that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for Christ's sake.

The NIV renders it,

Phlm. 6 (NIV) I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.

And the King James says,

Phlm. 6 (KJV) That the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.

The International standard version renders it,

Phlm. 6 (ISV) I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective as you fully acknowledge every blessing that is ours in Christ.

And the Amplified Bible says,

Phlm. 6 (AMP) And I pray that the participation in and sharing of your faith may produce and promote full recognition and appreciation and understanding and precise knowledge of every good thing that is ours in (our identification with) Christ Jesus - and unto His glory.

The NAS renders it most accurately, for the word is "koy-nohn-EE-ah," that intimate fellowship and communion that we have with believers. Paul's not saying, "As you are actively witnessing, you'll become effective." He's saying, "I'm praying that as you fellowship, as you share that koy-nohn-EE-ah with the saints, the result is going to be an understanding of every good thing we have in Christ."

And this is so true - fellowshipping with believers is so vital to growing in Christ, and fully understanding the Christian life. The church has never been more powerful than it was in Acts 2. And there are four things that we see them doing that we must imitate if we are to move in power again.

Acts 2:42 And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

Again, the word for fellowship is koy-nohn-EE-ah. They were devoted to the teaching of the Word of God, to koy-nohn-EE-ah, communion, and prayer. If a church or an individual doesn't have these four things regularly, they cannot move in power, they are not living in victory.

1:7 Refreshing The Hearts Of The Saints

Paul says, "I've experienced that joy and comfort from your love, because you've been showing it to all the saints."

Now he's about to get to the point: "It's time to show love to one more saint, brother..."

1:8-11 The Plea

Now the cat's out of the bag: "Your runaway slave Onesimus is now a Christian. And I'm sending him home to you, to give you a chance to demonstrate that love and share that koy-nohn-EE-ah with him the same as you've shown the other saints."

A Begotten Son

When Paul says that Onesimus was his son, begotten in prison, he wasn't saying that he was his biological offspring, but his spiritual offspring. When we lead someone to Christ, they become born again. In that way, they become your child in the faith. That's why we read several times that Paul refers to Timothy as his own son (1Tim 1:18; 2Tim 1:2, 2:1).

Formerly Useless, Now Useful

Paul also uses a play on words here. The word Onesimus in Greek literally means "profitable or useful." He says, "Philemon, Onesimus

Phlm. 11 '''formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me.

The guy whose name was "Profitable" had proven to be unprofitable, but now he was truly profitable to both Paul and Philemon.

1:12-16 No Longer As A Slave, But A Beloved Brother

This is strange that Paul was sending Onesimus back. The law of God said in Deuteronomy,

Deut. 23:15-16 "You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall live with you in your midst, in the place which he shall choose in one of your towns where it pleases him; you shall not mistreat him."

Paul had every legal right to keep Onesimus with him. But instead, he wanted to see these two restored, to give Onesimus a chance to grow in faith, and to give Philemon a chance to grow in love.

And I believe Paul thought that by sending Onesimus back, it would result in his being set free from slavery. Notice that he tells Philemon,

Phlm. 16 no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother...

Paul hoped to see Philemon say, "Onesimus, welcome to the family of God. I grant you your freedom, and I hope you'll serve in ministry together with me."

But knowing that even a Christian has his own flesh to deal with, Paul emphasizes some things...

1:17-19 You Owe Me Your Own Self

Philemon had every legal right to kill Onesimus or brand his forehead when he returned with this letter. So Paul says, "Accept him as you would me."

Philemon could have been bitter over money that was stolen, angry at Onesimus' past treachery. So Paul says,

Phlm. 18 But if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account

Then he throws in a real zinger, "Just in case you do charge any of Onesimus' debts to my account, remember that you'd be going to hell if it weren't for me! Before you start saying, 'you owe me this and that,' remember that you owe me everything!"

This is a card I have never played, but there's been plenty of times I would have liked to. There are so many people that I've led to Christ, so many people whose marriages I've saved, so many people who I've pulled back from the edge of suicide, so many people that I've counseled in the middle of the night, so many people I've prayed for and laid hands on, so many people I've taught the Word to, so many people I've given my very life for. And yet in return, many have badmouthed me, spoken evil of my family, left the church, dropped back into the world. And I want to shout, "Hey, you ingrates! Don't you realize that I've laid down my life to serve you and minster to you? Don't you realize that some of you owe me your marriage, your family, your eternal lives?"

But I don't.

Paul did. At least in this case.

And I think the reason is that because Onesimus' very life was in Philemon's hands. Paul had to play every card he was holding, to insure that this turned out right.

1:20-22 Refresh My Heart In Christ

Paul wrote that he had confidence that Philemon would do the right thing, and that hopefully one day soon, Paul himself would arrive at Philemon's door, and be welcomed in.

1:23-24 Greetings

As he signs off the letter, Paul mentions greeting from Ep-af-RAS, MAR-kos, Ar-IS-tar-khos, Day-MAS, and Loo-KAS

1:25 The Grace Of Jesus With Your Spirit

Well, what happened when Onesimus delivered this letter to Philemon? Did Philemon open his arms in greeting? Did he grant Onesimus his freedom? Or did he have him put to death or branded as he was legally entitled to?

I'd like to say that this story resulted in a "happily ever after" ending. But the fact is, we're not told what Philemon's reaction was. We don't know how he responded. We'll never know this side of heaven.

Why aren't we told? I believe that this is like the thousands of confrontations that happen between Christians every day. Situations in which one Christian appeals to another to do the right thing. Situations in which one Christian is guilty, and the other one is angry.

What is the outcome? The outcome is up to us individually. We can be led by the Spirit, or maintain our "rights" in the flesh.

May our decisions be based on the final words of Paul:

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

You have received grace from Jesus Christ. You got the blessing and salvation and love that you did not deserve. Now, or in the near future, you will have an opportunity to do the same for someone else who doesn't deserve it. What will you do?

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