Series 27


by Francis Dixon
(Scripture Portion: Philemon 1 – 25)

The Letter to Philemon is the shortest of Paul’s letters. It consists of only 25 verses and is the only private letter of Paul’s that has been included in Scripture. It was written about AD 64 from Rome, where Paul was under ‘house-arrest’ – look up Acts 28:30-31. The letter was written to Philemon, a wealthy Christian who lived in Colosse, and who was a convert of Paul’s. Among his many slaves was one named Onesimus, who it would appear had robbed his master and run away to Rome – only to come into touch with Paul. The result of this meeting was that Onesimus became a Christian, confessed his sin and sought Paul’s help in bringing about a reconciliation with Philemon, his former master. Paul then wrote this letter to Philemon, pleading with him to forgive Onesimus and to receive him back. What do we learn from this letter?

1. It is a beautiful model in the art of letter writing

Notice Paul’s tact, grace, skill and appeal. Some letters should never be written, but this one is different. Imagine Philemon reading it and then handing it to his wife too! Look at verses 7-10, and see Paul’s appeal to Philemon:-

  1. To put into action again the love that he had so often shown to the saints (compare verses 7 and 8). “In the past, brother, you have so frequently ‘refreshed the hearts of the saints’ – now I want you to do it again.”
  2. To respond to his appeal rather than his command (verses 8-9). He would not command him, though as an apostle he had authority to do so. Rather he would earnestly desire him to do what was right.
  3. To do it for love’s sake (verse 9). What an appeal! Surely Philemon could not resist it!
  4. To do it for an old man (verse 9). Here was a powerful appeal to sentiment!
  5. To do it for a prisoner (verse 9). ‘Philemon you are free…I am not!’
  6. To do it for one who was now his son (verse 10). ‘He has been truly born again since you saw him last.’
  7. To do it for one who was saved through Paul’s affliction (verse 10).

Could he fail to respond to this touching appeal? This leads us to notice a second value in the letter:-

2. It gives us an insight into Paul’s character

It tells us the kind of man Paul was. For instance:-

  1. Paul, ‘a prisoner’ (verse 1). He was a man of conviction who was willing to suffer for the gospel.
  2. ‘A prisoner of Christ Jesus’ (verse 1). Although Paul was a prisoner of Nero, primarily he was a prisoner of Christ. He was His bondslave – look up Exodus 21:5-6.
  3. ‘And Timothy our brother’ (verse 1). It is a mark of true greatness that Paul mentions Timothy here – look up Romans 12:10.
  4. ‘To Philemon our dear friend…to Apphia, and Archippus’ (verses 1 and 2). Paul had a great affection for his friends.
  5. ‘I always thank my God…’ (verse 4). What a thankful man Paul was! – look up 1 Corinthians 1:4; Philippians 1:3; Colossians 1:3; 1 Thessalonians 1:2; 2 Thessalonians 1:3; 2 Timothy 1:3; and be sure to obey Philippians 4:6!
  6. ‘I remember you in my prayers’ (verse 4). Here is a significant reference to Paul’s prayer life and prayer-list.
  7. ‘Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope…’ (verse 22). Paul was a man who trusted God – look up Mark 11:22.

3. It illustrates the power of God at work

  1. We see His providential power at work. When Onesimus ran away from Philemon to Rome (a distance of over a thousand miles as the crow flies) he fell into the hands of Paul, of all people! Here is encouragement for some of us who may wonder whether our loved ones and friends can ever be brought under the sound of the gospel and brought to know the Lord.
  2. We see God’s power in answering prayer. Did Philemon pray for Onesimus? Does God answer prayer? He does – look up Mark 11:23-24.
  3. We see God’s power in the transformation of a life. Onesimus was completely changed when he became a believer. Notice that Paul speaks of him as: (1) ‘my son Onesimus’ (verse 10); (2) ‘useless, but now useful’ (verse 11); (3) ‘a dear brother’ (verse 16). Notice the power of the gospel to transform sinners into saints – compare Romans 1:16; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11.

4. It reminds us that no-one is beyond redemption

Do you believe that? Never give anyone up. In answer to prayer anyone, anywhere, may be brought to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ – look up 2 Peter 3:9.

5. It emphasises the necessity of right spiritual relationships

Onesimus got right with God – but he also got right with man (verse 12). It is important that we should not only repent of our sins (Isaiah 55:7) and confess them to God, where they are against Him (Proverbs 28:13; 1 John 1:9), and to men, where they are against them (James 5:16) – but that we should make restitution (Luke 19:8; Acts 16:33)! How do you stand in regard to this? We, who are forgiven, are to forgive – look up Matthew 18:21-35; Luke 7:36-50.

6. It vividly pictures the whole scheme of redemption

  1. ‘As Paul found Onesimus wandering from his master’s house, so the Lord Jesus found us wandering from God…’ (Isaiah 53:6; 1 Peter 2:25).
  2. ‘As Paul pleaded for the restoration of Onesimus, asking that what he owed might be placed to his account, so the Lord acts as our Advocate with the Father, having borne our sins’ (Isaiah 53:5-6; 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 John 2:1).
  3. ‘As Philemon received Onesimus on Paul’s account, so God receives us on account of what Christ is and of what He has done for us’ (Ephesians 1:6).

7. It gives us a lesson on the fruitfulness of affliction

Paul was in prison, and he might have said, ‘This is the end of my ministry!’ Was it? Look at verse 10, where Paul says Onesimus ‘became my son while I was in chains’. In other words, he (Paul) tells us that God made him fruitful in the furnace of affliction – look up Genesis 41:52; Philippians 1:12-13.