Paul’s Epistle to Philemon

by Shawn Brasseaux

Sandwiched between the books of Titus and Hebrews is the Apostle Paul’s brief epistle to Philemon. In the canon of Scripture, this 25-verse long epistle is the last of Paul’s letters to Gentiles (chronologically, the last book Paul wrote was 2 Timothy). The epistle to Philemon is Paul’s shortest book, so it may seem insignificant at first glance. However, this is just as God-breathed as the rest of the Holy Scriptures, so Philemon serves a purpose.

Because Philemon is so short, we have reproduced it here in its entirety. Please read Philemon now, and then we will discuss why God Almighty placed Paul’s little epistle to Philemon in His Word.

THE EPISTLE OF PAUL TO PHILEMON
(KING JAMES BIBLE)

“1 Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother, unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellowlabourer,
2 And to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellowsoldier, and to the church in thy house:
3 Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 I thank my God, making mention of thee always in my prayers,
5 Hearing of thy love and faith, which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all saints;
6 That the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.
7 For we have great joy and consolation in thy love, because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother.
8 Wherefore, though I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee that which is convenient,
9 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:
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?
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.
22 But withal prepare me also a lodging: for I trust that through your prayers I shall be given unto you.
23 There salute thee Epaphras, my fellowprisoner in Christ Jesus;
24 Marcus, Aristarchus, Demas, Lucas, my fellowlabourers.
25 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.”

In verse 9, Paul refers to himself as “Paul the aged;” he is in the last decade of his ministry and life. Actually, Paul is writing to Philemon from a Roman prison in approximately A.D. 64-65. Philemon—as well as Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians—were all written about the same time, so they are all aptly referred to as “Paul’s prison epistles.”

Philemon is a slave-owner and a Christian. Now, here, we need to stop and clarify the definition of “slave.” Slavery during these times was nothing like the slavery that our world has seen these past few centuries. Keep in mind that slavery was a social status for those who were uneducated and needed shelter. Slaves were to be treated humanely, given quarters to sleep, and they were to be paid their wages (in other words, slavery at this time was a job; a slave-owner was the employer, and slaves were the employees).

We learn that Philemon’s house was  home to a church, a small assembly of Christian believers (verses 1,2). Philemon had a slave (servant, employer) named Onesimus who stole from him and escaped. We first see Onesimus in Colossians 4:9, and from this verse we conclude that Philemon and Onesimus live in Colosse.

After Onesimus escaped, he encountered the Apostle Paul, who is in prison (verses 9,10). Onesimus has now trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ, and the whole thrust of Paul’s epistle to Philemon is to plead with Philemon to accept Onesimus again, this time as a Christian brother rather than a mere servant.

“15 For perhaps he [Onesimus] 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?”

Receive Onesimus in brotherly love, Philemon! Verse 12 is indicative that Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon with this very epistle, and evidently Philemon gave Onesimus a second chance.

Verse 11 says that Onesimus was “unprofitable” to Philemon—after all, Onesimus stole from Philemon! Interestingly, the name “Onesimus” means “profitable, useful.” Paul is now sending Onesimus back to Philemon, as someone who is helpful to both he and Philemon: “which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me:” Paul wants Philemon to receive Onesimus “for ever.”

Three verses in particular seem to “jump out” in the book of Philemon, so it behooves us to pay close attention to them.

“17 If thou [Philemon] count me [Paul] therefore a partner, receive him [Onesimus] as myself.
18 If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee aught [anything], 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 them how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides.”

(By the way, did you notice what Paul told Philemon in that last verse? “Philemon, need I remind you of what you owe me?”)

“If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee aught, put that on mine account!” Can you think of anyone else who said those words? Is that not a reference to Jesus Christ going to Calvary’s cross? We were in God’s debt because of our sin. We were destitute of wealth, so we could not pay God back for all the wrong things we did.

Remember what the Bible says in Romans 3:25 KJV: “God hath set forth [Christ] to be a propitiation….” This word “propitiation” is a “fully-sufficient payment,” a “substitute,” a “satisfaction.” The Lord Jesus Christ paid off our debt with His shed blood! Can you just imagine God the Son crying out on behalf of mankind, “Whatever they did, Father, I will take the blame! Punish me for their sin! Let me be their Mercy Seat and their Redeemer and I will take the punishment they deserve! Let me suffer their second death! I love them and I love you; I want to die for them!” “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21 KJV). What an awesome parallel, no doubt that this was one reason why God placed the epistle to Philemon in the Bible.

We can even draw a few other points from that small epistle. How it must have encouraged the poor Apostle Paul to see Onesimus saved! Had God not allowed Paul to become imprisoned, he would have never met Onesimus. Just before Paul closes the letter, he writes in verse 22 that he was anxious to one day see Philemon again. We are not sure if he ever did… in this life anyway….

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