New Testament Postcards: Philemon

Philemon 1-25

August 3, 1997 | Ray Pritchard

Today we are beginning a new sermon series on called New Testament Postcards based on the four1-chapter books in the New Testament. Before I go further, do you know the names of those four books? Here they are:


2 John

3 John


These books have two things in common: They all have one chapters and they are among the least-read books in the New Testament. Perhaps because of their length, and because we tend to flip right past them when we are thumbing through the Bible, we often assume that they don’t have anything important to say to us today. (In a similar way, many people bypass the “minor” prophets because they think, How important can they be if they’re “minor”? But the name refers to their length, not the relative importance of their message.)

We begin today with Philemon—a short book of only 25 verses tucked between Titus and Hebrews. It’s so short that you’ll never find it by accident. You have to be looking for it or else you’ll never even see it.

He Sends a Baby … And Then He Waits

For the last three weeks I’ve been on the road—first in Atlanta for the Christian booksellers convention, then with my family in Virginia where we visited 15 Civil War battlefields in 9 days, and finally in Door County where Marlene and I spent a few quiet days this week. We had a wonderful time in Door County and found it exactly as advertised—quaint, friendly, slow-paced, all in all an excellent place to unwind. In fact, I slowed down enough that I actually went shopping with my wife—something that she will tell you doesn’t happen very often. On the first day I more or less stayed in the car while she visited the shops. That night she informed me that it wasn’t really shopping if you didn’t get out of the car, so the next day I went with her as we stopped in Egg Harbor, Ephraim and Sister Bay. In a little shop in Sister Bay I found the following quotation that reminded me of my sermon today. Listen to these words:

What a wonderful thought. When God wants to do something amazing, he sends a baby … and then he waits. God’s ways and our ways tend to be quite different. He is patient where we tend to be demanding. We want change now. God says, “Trust me.”

“God sends a baby and then … He waits!” How true. And how appropriate as we approach this little letter to a man named Philemon.

I. Three Names to Remember

I think we can sum up what this book is all about by mentioning three names to remember.

Paul—He is an apostle and the author of this letter. When it is written, he is in prison in Rome.

Philemon—He is a Christian slave owner who lives in the city of Colosse in Asia Minor (present day Turkey). He is clearly a close friend of Paul. Perhaps Paul personally led him to Christ. We do know that the church met in his house, which means he was certainly a respected Christian leader.

Onesimus—He is a runaway slave who came to Rome, where he met Paul who led him to Christ. It is possible—though again we cannot certain—that he met Paul through his friendship with Philemon and that’s why he sought him out in Rome. In any case we know that after Paul led Onesimus to Christ, he stayed in Rome, serving Paul with deep gratitude.

That brings us to the central issue of this short letter. Paul now has a converted slave on his hands. What should he do? He decides to send Onesimus back to Philemon his master. But Onesimus is now a believer in Christ–he left a rebel and now returns as a brother. Paul wants to make sure Philemon understands what has happened. That’s why he writes this letter.

An Empire Built on Slavery

Before we go on, we need to know something about slavery in the first Century. Although slavery was occasionally practiced in Israel, it was never widespread and was carefully regulated by the Old Testament law. By contrast, the Roman Empire was built on slave labor. Every time the Romans conquered a new province, they added new slaves to the empire. Scholars tell us that in the days of Paul there were far more slaves than Roman citizens. It would not have been unusual for a rich man to own as many as 10,000 or even 20,000 slaves. In short, slavery was so commonplace and so accepted that no one thought seriously to oppose it.

Furthermore, Roman law provided little protection for slaves because they were regarded as property, not as people. Owners could mistreat their slaves and even kill them with little or no legal retaliation. The law specifically provided that owners could put runaway slaves to death—presumably as a warning to others.

Yet Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon. Why? This is the central question of the book. How could he do that? Didn’t Paul know that slavery is wrong in the eyes of God? If he knew that, why didn’t he say that? These are questions that have troubled thoughtful Christians across the centuries. As we begin to delve into these issues, we will discover that the message of this book has amazing relevance for the problems of our own day.

II. Paul’s Plea to Philemon

This little letter is a masterpiece of persuasion. If you want to know how to write a letter to someone you need to convince, study the way Paul approached Philemon. In the end, his appeal is irresistible. He begins by reminding Philemon of his prayers on his behalf. He also says, “I know how much you love all of God’s children.” This puts a positive face on what he has to say later.

I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. 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. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints. (vv. 4-7)

He then reminds Philemon that he could have “pulled rank” and order him to receive Onesimus as a Christian brother. But he chose to approach him as a friend and not as a boss.

Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I then, as Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus (vv 8-9)

Now he comes to the first bit of good news. Onesimus is in Rome, he is with Paul, and he has become a Christian. Paul himself led Onesimus to Christ. That’s why he call him “my son.”

I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. (vv. 10-11)

Now comes some more news. Paul has decided to send Onesimus back to Philemon. This he does even though he would have preferred to keep him in Rome. But Paul respected the laws of the day, and also trusted in Philemon’s Christian character to do the right thing. (Would have Paul have sent him back if he had had doubts about what would happen? We simply do not know the answer to that question.)

I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. (vv. 12-13)

Then he adds a nice touch, one certain to reach Philemon’s heart. Paul held Philemon in such high respect that he appealed to his heart of love—both for Paul and ultimately for God.

But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. (v. 14)

Then there is a wonderful statement about God’s providence. Paul suggests that God allowed Onesimus to run away so that he would find Paul in Rome and be led to Christ and thus be sent back to Philemon—not as a slave but as a Christian brother. In these verses Paul does not explicitly tell Philemon to release Onesimus but he comes very close. In any case, we see here Paul’s amazing faith in the “invisible hand” of God moving through every part of human history.

Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good—no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord. (vv 15-16)

Then an even more personal appeal:

So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. (v. 17)

But what about anything Onesimus may have stolen before he left Colosse? Who will pay those debts—and any others Onesimus has incurred? Paul even has an answer for that. He will pay those debts—thus erasing any final objections Philemon may have.

If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. (vv. 18-19)

Having made his appeal, Paul closes with some very positive words of affirmation. He knows that Philemon will welcome Onesimus back and will treat him as a Christian brother.

I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask. (vv. 20-21)

Then there is one final sentence that makes me smile when I read it. Paul intends to visit Philemon in person. This would normally be a great honor. To think that the great apostle is himself coming to visit. But that also would serve as a not-so-subtle motivation to welcome Onesimus kindly.

And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers. (v. 22)

And that’s what the little letter of Philemon is all about. Paul pulls out all the stops in just 25 verses. He touches every positive motivation he can use—appealing all the while to love and not to duty. What is it that Paul wants Philemon to do with his returned slave?

1. Forgive him

2. Restore him

3. Receive him as a brother

No other slave owner would ever have done something like that. Paul is asking Philemon to bring Christian principles into the evil system of slavery. Without attempting to overturn the whole system, he injects Christian grace where previously human selfishness and greed had reigned.

We don’t know what happened when Philemon read the letter. The New Testament never tells us the rest of the story. However, tradition suggests that he freed Onesimus who later became the bishop of Ephesus.

III. Christian Living in a Pagan Culture

As I read this letter it seems to speak directly to the modern problem of living as a believing minority in an overwhelmingly pagan culture. Today we wrestle with abortion … gay rights … moral decline … violence … racism … family breakdown … relativism … the exclusion of Christian values from the public square, the public schools, the national media, and our leading universities. We may add to that the rising tide of intolerance toward those who believe in absolute right and wrong.

The little letter to Philemon reminds us that none of these things are new. In one form or another, Christians have struggled with these issues for 2000 years.

How should we then live? I would like to suggest five qualities that will serve us well as we operate from a minority position.

1. Patience

I find it instructive that Paul nowhere condemns slavery. While he introduced Christian principles into the slave-master relationship, he nowhere ordered Christians to free all their slaves. To us this may seem lacking in courage. But it is all too easy to judge others without understanding the larger context. Paul was no revolutionary. I’ve often wondered how he would approach the problem of abortion in the late 20th century. Would he picket an a hospital that performs abortions—as I have done? I’m not sure. I do not doubt for a moment that he would condemn the wanton destruction of the unborn, but would he also concern himself with changing the laws of the land? Or would he support those who did work toward that end?

These questions cannot be answered definitely. However, we may say that Paul saw himself as a preacher of the gospel. He knew that the gospel was the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16). He believed it could transform the most hardened heart. His letter to Philemon suggests that as the gospel penetrates society, it changes hearts—and that ultimately changes behavior. In the end, slavery and the gospel are antithetical. They cannot coexist together forever. Where the gospel is preached and men are liberated from the chains of sin, they must eventually also be liberated from the chains of slavery as well.

What does this teach us? We must be patient when working for social change. Do what you can when you can when you can but don’t lose heart. Recently the ChicagoCare Pregnancy Centers asked me to write an article for their newsletter. When Nancy Good called, she suggested that I write about how so many Christians seem to have lost their enthusiasm for the pro-life cause. I’m sure that true. Many of us worked to save the unborn for years, but now that the battle has dragged on and on, it’s easy to become discouraged or apathetic or to feel like simply walking away and giving up.

We must remember the words of Galatians 6:9, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” God’s timetable and ours are not necessarily the same.

2. Tact

The second trait we need is tact. Paul could have commanded Philemon to obey, but he didn’t. He appealed to the higher motive of love. Some one has said that tact is like a girdle. It helps us organize the awkward truth more attractively.

Sometimes in our zeal for God we lose our sense of balance—saying and do things in anger and frustration that we later regret. And sometimes we talk about “persecution” when we are really suffering because of an uncontrolled temper.

Proverbs 25:15 reminds us that “through patience a ruler can be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone.” This verse spells out two strategies you can use. The first is patience. That means waiting till the right moment to speak your mind. Timing is everything. If you embarrass someone publicly, they aren’t likely to respond favorably. Likewise, if you ambush them the moment they walk through the door, they will regard your words as a personal attack. So before you speak, take your time. Think. Pray. Ask God to give you an open door. When it comes, then you are ready for the second strategy.

Second, use a gentle tongue. Just as a gentle answer turns away wrath (cf. 15:1), even so a gentle tongue can break a bone. Here is the picture of a hardened bone being softened bit by bit by the touch of a gentle tongue. It won’t happen quickly, but in most cases gentleness accomplishes far more than threats or intimidation.

In making a plea for tact, I am asking for nothing more than that we “speak the truth in love” (see Ephesians 4:15). Jesus did it, and is remembered today as the supreme embodiment of love. Yet no one ever spoke the truth like he did. He wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power, to challenge the rulers of his day. And when necessary he didn’t hesitate to take a whip and clean out the temple—which doesn’t sound like a very tactful thing to do. But he did it, and since he was the Son of God it must have been the right thing to do.

So what exactly is this gentle tongue that can break a bone? It is the ability to say the right thing at the right time in the right way without saying anything you didn’t want to say and that didn’t need to be said. A tactful person seeks to find a private place and a fitting moment. It means you refuse to dump all your frustrations on another person. You say what needs to be said in the quickest, kindest, most direct way possible. Then you move on.

3. Personal Appeal

Sometimes we give up too soon. Or we prefer the bombastic approach when something much more low-key is need. I’m thinking of a letter, a phone call, lunch together, a brief word of encouragement, a challenge to the downhearted, going out of our way to intercede for those in need. That’s what Paul did for Onesimus. He got involved, he took a chance, and he made a personal appeal to Philemon.

We have so many excuses for non-involvement:

*We say, “I don’t want to get involved.” That’s why things get worse and not better.

*We say, “Things will never change.” Maybe not, but they sure won’t change as long as you sit on your Blessed Assurance and make excuses.

*We say, “The world is going to the devil.” No, it’s already gone to the devil a long time ago, but Jesus defeated the devil when he rose from the dead. What’s your problem?

*We say, “I’ll lose my reputation if I get involved. People may misunderstand. I might lose my promotion or even my job. What will my friends think?” The only thing that matters is, What does God think?

*We say, “I don’t have time to get involved. I’m too busy already.” If you’re too busy to lend a helping hand to hurting people, then something is badly wrong with your priorities.

*We say, “What if I get involved and fail anyway?” That might happen. Just be faithful and leave the results up to God.

Paul was in prison, chained to Roman guards, on trial for his life. But he found the time and the energy and the strength to help a young man in need.

That’s the power of a personal appeal.

4. Individual Example

Then there is an enormous lesson about the power of individual example. Consider what Paul the prisoner did:

*He led Onesimus to Christ—You can do that

*He risked a friendship to help a new believer–You can do that.

*He took a stand in a small way—You can do that.

*He applied the gospel to a personal need—You can do that.

*He saw God’s hand at work and gave God all the credit—You can do that.

*He personally intervened to help someone in need-You can do that.

*He offered to pay the debt Onesimus owed—You can do that.

*He didn’t complain about an unjust system and about how he unfairly imprisoned and he didn’t focus on anything but the problem at hand—you can do that.

*He didn’t try to be a hero and change the world. He just tried to help out wherever he could—You can do that.

Paul didn’t do anything unusual, strange or extraordinary. He simply did what any Christian should do—and could do. That’s the power of individual example.

5. Initiative

It strikes me that someone might criticize Paul along these lines. “Paul, there are hundreds of millions of slaves in the Roman empire and Onesimus is only one. Why bother with him? Let him live with you in Rome and don’t worry about Philemon. It won’t make a difference anyway.”

In some ways, that does sound persuasive—especially when we live in a world where evil abounds and there are days when goodness seems in exceedingly short supply.

But you have start somewhere. Perhaps you’ve read this little poem:

I am only one man.

But I am one.

I cannot do everything.

It strikes me that someone might criticize Paul along these lines. “Paul, there are hundreds of millions of slaves in the Roman empire and Onesimus is only one. Why bother with him? Let him live with you in Rome and don’t worry about Philemon. It won’t make a difference anyway.”

In some ways, that does sound persuasive—especially when we live in a world where evil abounds and there are days when goodness seems in exceedingly short supply.

But you have start somewhere. Perhaps you’ve read this little poem:

I am only one man.

But I am one.

I cannot do everything.

But I can do something.

What I can do, I ought to do.

What I ought to do,

By the grace of God,

I will do.

But I can do something.

What I can do, I ought to do.

What I ought to do,

By the grace of God,

I will do.

Love God and the Person in Front of You

When you feel overwhelmed by the problems around you, remember what Paul did in Rome. Start where you are and make a difference there. A scene from the movie “Schindler’s List” comes to mind. At the end of the film, Oskar Schindler is filled with remorse that he saved so few people. But you saved 1100, he is reminded. Yet I could have saved more, he cries. Knowing his pain, the Jewish survivors present him with a gold ring inscribed with a saying from the Talmud: “He who saves one life saves the whole world.”

If you can’t save the whole world, then start with the person you can save. Help him, and then move on from there.

Recently former president Jimmy Carter released a book about his Christian faith. I think all of us—regardless of our political opinions—respect the man for the many hours he has spent working with Habitat For Humanity to build low-cost housing for the poor. His example has stirred thousands of people to join him in his noble effort. Often he is asked how he started doing this kind of work. In his new book he tells of hearing a sermon at a small Southern Baptist church in Georgia many years ago. The preacher summed up the whole Christian message in this one sentence: “Love God and the person in front of you.”

That’s good, isn’t it? If you don’t know where to begin applying this sermon, that’s a fine place to start. Love God … and then love the person in front of you. That’s what Paul did for Onesimus when he wrote Philemon. That’s what all of us are called to do.

Put That On My Account

By the way, did you see the gospel in Philemon? It’s there because Paul never wrote anything without the gospel. You can find it in several places, but most prominently in verse 18 when Paul tells Philemon that if Onesimus owes him anything, “put that on my account.” In all the New Testament, you will not find a better illustration of substitutionary atonement. What Onesimus owed, Paul volunteered to pay. When Paul paid the debt, Philemon would be satisfied and Onesimus would be free of any obligation.

This is the gospel in human terms. All of us were God’s Onesimus. We were slaves to sin, chained to evil, continually running away from God. But Jesus went to the Cross, paid the price for our sins, so that God’s justice was satisfied once and for all.

All that is left for us is to accept the work of Christ on our behalf. To say it another way, either you can pay for your sins by spending eternity in hell or you can trust completely in the fact that Jesus has already paid the debt on your behalf.

Here is a wonderful word for Christians to remember. When the devil rises us to accuse us, Jesus says, “Put that on my account.” When the world points out our faults, Jesus says, “Put that on my account.” When our friends point out our many failures and our enemies gloat over our mistakes, and when our own conscience condemns us, when in short we feel like the biggest sinners in the world, Jesus stands before the Father, raises his pierced hands and declares, “Put that on my account.”

In putting it this way we can see how the gospel touches every situation of life. We were once slaves but through Jesus Christ we have been set free. What do we do now? Love God and the person in front of you. That’s an excellent for all of us to begin.










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