More than a slave

Chatswood Baptist Church


A personal letter

In my possession I have a letter and I sometimes wonder how it came to be preserved and passed down from generation to generation to me. The letter is dated 27 February 1878 and it is letter that was written by a father to his son about an extremely personal and sensitive matter. It wasn’t the sort of letter that they would have wanted anyone else to read. It was a private letter. From what I can piece together of the letter it looks like the son had fathered a child whose mother he perhaps wasn’t married to and the mother wasn’t prepared to take care of the child. The letter I have is the one that the father wrote to the son giving him advice about how the son needed to take responsibility for the child. What amazes me is that such a personal and private letter, dealing with what was must have been regarded as a very sensitive and delicate matter came to be the one piece of correspondence that was persevered and kept and that was passed down from one generation to the next.

  • Philemon – a personal letter

I feel the same way about the letter to Philemon that we are looking at today. How did this letter which seems to have been much more of personal private nature come to be preserved and included in the canon of Scripture so that we are still reading it today? I’m not suggesting that it shouldn’t have been included. It was included in the canon of Scripture because it was clearly a letter written by the apostle Paul. I also believe that it was the Holy Spirit who oversaw things so that it was persevered and passed on and included in the NT for in it there is much for us and every generation to learn from it. However, this letter is unlike all the other letters that we have of the apostle Paul and so it stands out a little from the others.

  • A very different letter

All of Paul’s other letters are written are written largely to churches or to those who were leading churches with instructions for them and the churches that they were leading. This letter to Philemon is different. It is not only the shortest of Paul’s letters it is of a more personal nature between Paul and an individual.

Although several people are mentioned in the greeting the letter is clearly intended for just one of them, Philemon, who Paul described as fellow worker and a dear friend. I says this for, although Paul was conscious of the other members of Philemon’s household (Apphia and Archippus) and the church that met in his home, the main body of the letter, from verse 4 to 21 is not directed to these others. Rather it is directed to Philemon as an individual. Every time you see a “you” in these verses it is in Greek singular and not the plural. The plural only appears again towards the end in verse 22 when Paul mentioned his hope of being restored to them in answer to their prayers. In verses 4-7 Paul talks about his prayer for Philemon and verses 8 to 21 Paul has made an appeal to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus before he brings the letter to a close in the remaining 4 verses of the letter.

  • A letter about one thing

Just as that family letter of mine that I mentioned at the start was mostly just about one thing, this letter is mainly just about one thing. Paul wrote this letter to appeal to Philemon to welcome back Onesimus, a slave that had run away from the household of Philemon who might have even taken some money or in some incurred some loss for Philemon by his absence. The letter is all about the reconciliation of Onesimus and Philemon. Paul wanted Philemon to welcome back Onesimus no longer just as a slave, but as he would have welcome Paul himself (17) as a dearly loved brother in the Lord (16). For Paul Philemon was to do this as outworking of the gospel in his life. This appeal isn’t made directly until verses 17 but much of the letter before this is spent preparing for it to be made.


So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me[1].

What is interesting is the route by which Paul goes to make this appeal which we want to look at before we think about what the Lord might be teaching us through reading it together today.

  • The greetings (1-3)

It was normal for letters to begin with a greeting and Paul followed this standard ancient letter writing convention in most of his letters. He usually introduced himself and to whom the letter was written in the first couple of verses. This letter is no different in that respect.

However, unlike many of Paul’s other letters Paul, in this letter Paul didn’t refer to himself as an apostle of Christ but as a prisoner of Christ Jesus (v1,9). This is the only letter where he did this. Later he will refer to himself as an old man (9). Here at the start and throughout this letter Paul seems to be at pains not to invoke his authority as the apostle to the Gentiles even though he could have done so because he didn’t want to “command or coerce” Philemon to welcome Onesimus back. Instead he wanted Philemon to welcome him back as brother in the Lord, of his own volition, doing because it is was what he ought to do as believer (v8), doing out of love (v9) and for the sake of Christ (6).

But what about the other names in the greetings? Who are they and why are they there?

Apphia and Archippus seem to have been members of Philemon’s household. And as I suggested before although they get a mention in the opening verses, the mention of Appia and Acrhippus (who some like to think of Philemon’s wife and son) and even the church seem to be an act of courtesy. Once the greeting is over and the letter gets going all these others all fade away and the conversation is one that purely between Paul and Philemon.

Philemon 20-21

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

Paul wanted Philemon to do what he was asking of him and he was confident that he would even go further that what he was asking.

Thanksgiving prayer and petition (4-7)

Paul was confident that Philemon would do what he had asked because he had heard about Philemon’s love for all God’s holy people and his faith in the Lord Jesus. This is what Paul thanked the Lord for when he prayed for him. In verses 4 to 6 we have Paul’s report of what he’d been thanking and praying about when it came to Philemon. In verse 7 he further elaborated on how the love of Philemon for the Lord’s people had given Paul great joy and encouragement.

Philemon 4-7

4 I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. 6 I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. 7 Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.

  • Philemon had refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people

Paul’s hope and confidence that Philemon would voluntarily do what he was asking him to do and refresh his own heart wasn’t without good reason or cause. Paul had heard reports about how Philemon had refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people and it had given him great joy and encouragement (v7). Paul had been thanking the Lord for this and in some ways, it was the answer to his prayers for Philemon. Paul had been asking the Lord to make their partnership (or fellowship) effective.

  • Effective partnership or fellowship?

But what does it mean for fellowship or partnership to be effective?

Verse 6 is one of those verses in the NT that is a little difficult to translate. The way that the 2011 edition of the NIV has translated suggests that what Paul is asking for is that their fellowship with one another might be effective so that Philemon might understand all the good things that are ours on account of us belonging to Christ. And this is what it could mean. However, as one commentator has suggested “the good” that Paul is talking about in this verse might not be all “the good things” that are ours in Christ but all the “good” that we are called to do for the sake of Christ[2]. What adds weight to this suggestion is that later in verse 14 when Paul talks about “the favour” that he wanted Philemon to do, the words are literally “the good of you” which the CSB translates “your good deed”. I think Paul was praying that the Lord might make their fellowship in the faith effective so that Philemon might understand all the good things that we have been called to do for the sake of Christ. Paul’s confidence that Philemon would voluntarily do this good deed came from the fact that he knew that God had already been working in him and he was sure that the Lord would finish his work in Philemon answering his prayers.

  • We ought to want our fellowship to be effective

One thing this prayer highlights to me is that our fellowship with one another ought to result in us better understanding the good work that God has for us to do in Christ. We ought to want our partnership or fellowship with one another to be effective in this way. It has an outworking. Paul wanted their fellowship to be effective deepening their understanding of who God has called us to be as his holy people and the good that he has called us to do.

We ought to pray. Like the apostle Paul we need to be praying that our fellowship with one another might be effective and bare this sort of fruit. Like Philemon you and are called to refresh the hearts of our brothers and sisters – to encourage them.

Paul’s plea

Having mentioned the joy and encouragement that hearing of Philemon’s love for the saints had brought the apostle the apostle starts to outline his plea that he is making to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus. Paul begins in verses 8 to 12 by first describing the situation.

  • A plea based on love

In verses 8-9 Paul explained that he was making this appeal asking Philemon to do what he ought to do based on love.

Philemon 8-9

8 Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9 yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love.

Rather than the apostle appealing to his own authority and just commanding Philemon to welcome Onesimus, Paul asked him to show the love of Christ towards Onesimus and welcome him home. Paul was making a loving appeal to man who was a dear friend of Paul.

  • A plea for his son, Onesimus

Paul writes that he is now and old man and prisoner of Christ Jesus and while he had been in chains Onesimus had become his son.

        Philemon 10

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

Somehow Onesimus had found his way to the apostle Paul while he had been in prison (most likely) in Rome. Rome was a place where a slave might have been able to hide away among the people that that poured into the city. However, while there somehow, he’d meet the apostle Paul. We don’t know how this come about. He might have heard something about Paul while at home working for Philemon and sought him out. However, whatever it was that lead him to the apostle, it was while he was there that Paul had shared the gospel and Onesimus had become a believer. Paul refers to him a son for through sharing the good news of the gospel he had become his spiritual father.

  • Onesimus had changed

Having become a believer Onesimus had dramatically changed. ‘Onesimus’ was a name that meant useful and Paul wrote that formerly, he hadn’t been useful to Philemon at all. He’d been anything but what his name meant. but now, he had become useful to both of them.

Just how useful Onesimus had become is highlighted by Paul in verses 12-14. Paul wrote that he was sending him back but that he would have like to have kept him around while he was in prison to assist him in the work of the gospel. But he didn’t do this because he didn’t want to do anything without Philemon’s consent. Paul wanted any favour Philemon did (literally any good deed) to not be something that the apostle had forced upon him but something he had done voluntary.

  • God’s providence

Before making his plea in verse 17 Paul offered Philemon a way that he might want to look at all that happened.


15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever—16 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 fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.

Paul suggests that God might have providentially been working behind the scenes in all these events so that through them Philemon might have Onesimus back forever no longer just as a slave but as dear (beloved) brother who Philemon will share eternity with. While Paul wasn’t demanding that Philemon free Onesimus the implication is that the Onesimus was now to be regarded as a dear (beloved) brother in the Lord.

  • Paul’s request (17-21)

This brings us back to Paul’s request in verse 17 which is the whole point of this letter.

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

Paul wanted Philemon to welcome Onesimus back as he would have welcomed him – as a dear brother in the Lord, with same sort of respect and honour he would have welcomed the apostle Paul. In verses 18 to 19 Paul assured Philemon that if there had been any outstanding cost or losses that Philemon had incurred on account of Onesimus that Paul would have paid. In verse 20 he wrote that he hoped to have his heart refreshed in Christ by Philemon and in verse 21 he wrote of his confidence that Philemon would not only do what he had asked but even more than that.

Paul has not specified exactly what “the even more” would be, but he had spoken of his desire to have Onesimus with him to assist him while he was in chains for the gospel. Paul was possibly hinting that Philemon might have released Onesimus and sent him back to serve in the work of the gospel alongside Paul. But we don’t know for sure and we aren’t told how it all worked out. Although I think the fact that we have the letter suggests that it all did work out.

Philemon – what it teaches

But why do we have the letter to Philemon and what does it teach us.

  • The gospel changes people and relationships

What it highlights is how the gospel changes people and relationships. Paul didn’t try to dismantle the institution of slavery, but he preached the gospel so that people might be transformed and relate to one another differently and eventual societal change would happen

Onesimus changed. Paul wrote that formerly he was useless to Philemon, but now he had become someone useful to both him and Philemon. He had become a real blessing to Paul while he had been in prison. He was also now heading back to be reconciled to Philemon not sure of what that meant but trusting in the Lord for whatever it did. Onesimus wanted to be reconciled to Philemon and was prepared for whatever that took.

Philemon also had to change. He was no longer to see Onesimus as slave, but as dear brother in the Lord. Onesimus was someone that he was called to love and forgive for the sake of Christ. He wasn’t to look down on him, but he was to accept and welcome him back in the same way that he might have welcomed the apostle Paul, as dearly loved brother in the Lord.

I think what the book of Philemon does is it illustrates how the gospel transformed and changed the world. It did so by redeeming and changing the hearts of people one by one. And as they were changed so too were the relationship that they were part of. People were reconciled to one another and prejudices were to be put aside.

Masters like Philemon could no longer just see their servants as slaves, but they were to regard them as more than just slaves, they were dearly loved brothers and sisters in the Lord who they would share eternity with. We can’t look at people in the same way – they become dear to us. Onesimus became dear to Paul and he was to become dear brother to Philemon.

In this letter we see how the gospel reaches in and transforms things for a Christian master and his runaway slave so that they might be reconciled to one another and honour Jesus together as brothers in the Lord.

I think this is the reason why have this very personal letter here for this it is illustrative of how real change happens, one person at a time as people learning to love and accept and be reconciled to one another as brothers in the Lord. We ought to accept the gospel to impact our lives like this.

  • Hearts can be encouraged but not coerced

This letter also highlights the fact that hearts can encouraged but they can’t be coerced. Paul says that he could have order Philemon to do what he ought to do, but he preferred for these things to be voluntary and not forced but done for the sake of love (v9) and for the sake of Christ (v6). For real change to happens our hearts must change. Real change happens when people hearts through work of the gospel and they learn to they live by faith in the Lord Jesus and love the saints. This is what the Lord Jesus is doing through the message of the gospel. In Christ we are new creation – the old is gone the new has come (see 2 Cor 5:17). We are to give ourselves to proclaiming it and living it out if we want to see real change in our world.

  • We ought to pray for change

We ought to pray for change. We are to be working to make our fellowship, our partnership effective and praying for one another, that our hearts might embrace the good that the Lord has called us to do. Like the apostle Paul were to keep on praying and encouraging one another. We are to refresh (encourage) one another’s hearts by speaking and living out the gospel together. And like the apostle Paul we are to praise the Lord and thank him when we see this happening for it is his good work in us in Christ Jesus.

[1] Unless otherwise indicated all Scripture references are quoted from from The New International Version. (2011). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[2] David E Garland, The NIV Application Commentary.