Bible Study on the book of Philemon
Onesimus and You: From Slavery to Sonship
by I Gordon
This study comes from a book in the Bible that you may not have spent
much time in.
No, not the Song of Solomon. Have you read the book of Philemon lately? Have you ever read the book
of Philemon? If so, do you know what it is about? And did you get
anything out of it? I must say that for a long time, I wasn't greatly
enriched by this little letter. In fact, to be a little more honest, I
once said to my brother that there is nothing in the book of Philemon!
I had never heard a sermon from the book of Philemon, nor had I ever
heard any preacher say 'now please turn with me in your Bibles to the
book of... Philemon.' Not once. I read it a few times but always seemed
to struggle with what I could take out of it for my life.
And then I read the life story of H.A Ironside. What an amazing man he was... but that's another topic! At one
stage in the book, two questions were posed to him which caught my
attention - He was asked 'On what passages of scripture have you preached most?' and
'What is your best loved sermon.' His reply to the first question was
Exodus 12, Psalm 32, Romans 1:16-20 and (now I thought I must be going
slightly mad...) Philemon! In reply to the second question he said that
it was very hard to say, but probably his favourite sermon was
'Charge that to my account' from, of course, the book of Philemon! I
was beginning to feel rather small at this point for the book of
Philemon, which I had nearly written off, seemed to be the favourite of
this great bible teacher and leader!
What had I missed? Apparently quite a lot as we shall soon see! But to
begin with, let me just say that the message of Philemon 'clicked' for me
when I saw the title of Ironsides sermon - 'Charge that to my account.'
But more on that later! Let's start with the text and read the whole
letter seeing it is but one chapter.
1:1-25 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To
Philemon our beloved brother and fellow worker, (2) and to Apphia our
sister, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your
house: (3) Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus
Christ. (4) I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers,
(5) because I hear of your love and of the faith which you have toward
the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints; (6) 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. (7) For I have come
to have much joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the
saints have been refreshed through you, brother. (8) Therefore, though I
have enough confidence in Christ to order you to do what is proper, (9)
yet for love's sake I rather appeal to you--since I am such a person as
Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus-- (10) I appeal
to you for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment,
(11) who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and
to me. (12) I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my
very heart, (13) whom I wished to keep with me, so that on your behalf
he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel; (14) but
without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your
goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free
will. (15) For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a
while, that you would have him back forever, (16) no longer as a slave,
but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much
more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. (17) If then you regard
me a partner, accept him as you would me. (18) But if he has wronged you
in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account; (19) I,
Paul, am writing this with my own hand, I will repay it (not to mention
to you that you owe to me even your own self as well). (20) Yes,
brother, let me benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in
Christ. (21) Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, since
I know that you will do even more than what I say. (22) At the same time
also prepare me a lodging, for I hope that through your prayers I will
be given to you. (23) Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus,
greets you, (24) as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow
workers. (25) The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
Background to the book
So there's the letter but what's the background? What caused the Apostle
Paul to write this letter to Philemon?
The background to the book of Philemon is the story of a slave... a
slave by the name of Onesimus. The Bible Knowledge Commentary says
'Onesimus, a slave of Philemon, had run away, having evidently
robbed his master (Phile. 18). His travels somehow brought him to
where, in the providence of God, he came in contact with Paul.
Through this contact Paul led Onesimus to know the Savior. Then
Onesimus in some way became useful to Paul (vv. 12-13). But Paul
realized that Onesimus had a responsibility to Philemon and should
make restitution for his thievery. Thus Paul deemed it right to
return Onesimus to Philemon. Tychicus was given the responsibility
of carrying Paul's letter from Rome to the Colossians, and Onesimus
evidently traveled back with him (Col. 4:7-9).'
From the map above you can see where Colossae is (where the slave
Onesimus ran from which is located in modern day Turkey) and where Rome
is on the left (where Onesimus ended up and met Paul).
Reconciliation - The horizontal human aspect
So let's start with the human reconciliation aspect to this book. As we
have seen, the
story revolves around three main characters - Onesimus (the offender),
Philemon (the offended), and the Apostle Paul (the mediator in the
middle). It can be useful to put yourself in each of their shoes.
Onesimus - He's robbed and run from his master and made
it all the way to Rome. This is a long 1500 km journey. While there,
he meets the Apostle Paul, hears the gospel, and is saved! But then
comes the dilemma... what now? He would like to stay and help Paul, but
wonders if should he go back and seek forgiveness and reconciliation
with his master Philemon? Let me ask you - did you have to go to anyone
and put things right when you became a Christian? What about now? When I was considering
this for my own life I thought of an important one that I didn't do...
and that was with my Dad. I have spoken briefly of some of the
'interesting' times we had growing up before so I won't go into that again,
but very briefly as a family we had a lot of times with Dad that started
with mental battles, led to verbal battles, and ended in physical
fighting. And while Dad was very difficult to live with and generally
started them, it still takes two to tango! As I prepared this message I
thought again of those days and things that I said and did in the heat of the moment
that I'm not proud of. When I
became a Christian I certainly tried to show Dad that I was different
but I didn't go and say sorry... and now that he has died I am sorry
that I didn't. It's not always an easy thing to say you are sorry and
ask for forgiveness. Sometimes it can be harder to go a few meters to a
family member, friend or workmate than it is to travel 1500 kilometers.
Paul - He's in the middle of this. Not the easiest
position. Have you been in his shoes trying to help two parties come
back together? In verse 13 he says that he wanted Onesimus to stay with
him... yet he didn't let his own personal desires stop him from telling
Onesimus the truth and giving godly counsel. It wasn't what Paul wanted
personally and it probably wasn't what Onesimus wanted to hear but it
was the right thing to do. As scripture says 'Faithful are the wounds of a friend, But the kisses of an
enemy are deceitful.' (Pro 27:6 ) So, with Paul's advice and
his own conscience speaking loudly, Onesimus agrees to do a
180 degree turnaround and get on board a ship for the long trip back
to his old, now possibly disgruntled, master.
Philemon - Philemon was a believer so what is it like being in his shoes?
You try treat your slaves well and try to be a fair and
good master. Yet this one slave repays your kindness by robbing you and
running off. You could feel offended. Hurt even. There's the potential
for bitterness rising towards this thieving slave. But maybe you weren't
completely innocent in the matter either? And then you hear he
is coming back. How are you going to treat him? Are you going to impose
your rights to seek justice? How do you react when someone offends you?
By the law or by grace? How did Jesus react when despised, mocked and treated unfairly by
Human history, even within the church, is littered with stories of
conflict, bitterness and people falling out. Satan loves it! It has been
his way from the beginning to turn one against another as he did at the
initial fall convincing 1/3 of the angels to follow him and defy God.
It doesn't matter if it is a church family or a human family... He always
seeks to divide. Yet God is always the opposite, seeking men to reconcile firstly with Him
and then with one another. So we need to be careful who we are listening
Reconciliation - The vertical human-divine aspect
Now where does this come from? Where does the ability to treat people
correctly originate? It comes from how God has treated us and that's
where this little book has tremendous value for us today. You see it is
not just a story of Onesimus and Philemon being reconciled 2000 years
ago. It is the story of our lives as well. It is not just the story of
human reconciliation but of what God has done for us in Christ Jesus. The great reformer Martin
Luther clearly saw this and wrote:
'Here we see how St. Paul
lays himself out for poor Onesimus, and with all his means pleads
his cause with his master: and so sets himself as if he were
Onesimus, and had himself done wrong to Philemon. Even as Christ
did for us with God the Father, thus also
does for Onesimus with Philemon... We are all His Onesimi, to my
as we work through the divine reconciliation aspect of this book, I write in the hope that you can see something of your own
life in this story. I hope you will see what God has done for you 'in
Christ Jesus' and then allow that to work it's way out through your
human relationships. As we move on we need to see that the three main
characters in this book stand as an allegory. You are Onesimus. Philemon
is a picture of God the Father. And the mediator between them, the
Apostle Paul, stands as a type of Jesus Christ. This will hopefully become
clearer as we go on! There are five main points that we will
discuss from this great book.
The unprofitable slave... from useless to useful!
Phm 1:10-11 I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten
in my imprisonment, (11) who formerly was useless to you, but now is
useful both to you and to me.
Onesimus, this slave, had stolen, betrayed and run
from his master, You may not have thought about it, but there is a very real sense in
which this speaks of humanity for we are all slaves until
we find the Lord Jesus Christ. We have stolen, betrayed and run from
God. Jesus was clear that in our fallen state we are all slaves:
Jesus said ''I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. (John 8:34)
Paul also wrote 'But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin.' (Gal 3:22)
Those who have not been saved and set free by the power of the Lord
Jesus are still in slavery to sin. They also become slaves to all sorts
of fears and superstitions
(because if you don't believe in something, then you will fall for
) And like Onesimus of old, many today are still running from their
master having stolen from Him the glory, praise, and sacrifice that is
due to His name.
So this is the story of us all at some stage of
our lives. While in that state of rebellion, we have, in the eyes of
God, this title: 'Useless'. Loved? Yes. But useless for our ultimate
purpose of knowing and glorifying God and making Him known. Useless.
Under this title lay many many sports starts, movie stars, businessmen
and women, lawyers, doctors, mayors, Prime Ministers... Yet from God's
perspective that are still useless while they remain, like Onesimus was,
as a slave running from its master. But that doesn't have to be the end
of the story!
We read above that while running from his master, Onesimus met up with
Paul and became a Christian! He literally was turned around by the power
of the gospel!! And Paul says he went from useless to useful. Useful to
the Lord and useful to one another. That, by the way, is what Onesimus
means - 'useful or profitable'. Are you useful to the Lord? Do you want
to be useful? Then listen to the Lord on a daily basis and walk in his
ways. Then you will be useful. It is not until you come back into a
relationship of dependence upon God that you become 'useful' once again.
And what a privilege it is to be used by Almighty God for His plans and
Unto Him who works all things together for good...
Phm 1:15-16 For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a
while, that you would have him back forever, (16) no longer as a slave,
but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much
more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
Do you know someone that is running from God? Know someone who looks
like they are going in the wrong direction? It is always important to
see, if we can, the bigger picture in what God can do. Paul says here
that perhaps Onesimus was separated from Philemon for a little while so
he could find the Lord and come back a brother forever. No doubt, in the
natural, Philemon was probably angry with his thieving
rebellious runaway slave, yet Paul says here that God has a way of turning these things around! Sometimes
things have to get worse before they get better. They say that it is
darkest just before the dawn, and saving grace often works in the same
manner. Are you praying for someone's salvation at the moment? If
things seem to be getting worse, or they seem to be running like Onesimus, don't let fear or unbelief slip in. God's ways are not our
Now notice also that Paul alluded to the fact that God has allowed this
separation so that 'you would have him back forever.' Paul
wasn't just speaking of this life. No way... He knew that Onesimus had
left as a slave, but he had returned a son of God and a brother to
Philemon. As Jesus said
'Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son
sets you free, you will be free indeed.' (John 8:35-36)
Isn't that fantastic? I think it is. A son belongs to the family
And that is the wonderful position believers find themselves in today...
no longer just a slave or a servant of God, but a member of the very
household of God. Paul also emphasised to Philemon that Onesimus would
no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother.
' So it is with us, for -
Gal 4:4-7 When the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a
woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.
Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our
hearts, the Spirit who calls out, 'Abba, Father.'
So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a
son, God has made you also an heir.
Accept him as you would me.
Phm 1:17 If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me.
Look also at the acceptance the Onesimus was to receive. Paul wrote
'if then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me.'
Now I'm sure that if Paul had turned up at Philemon's place (who was
apparently quite rich), Paul would have been given a wonderful welcome,
with all his needs looked after. The table would have been laid out with
all the trimmings. Nothing would have been spared! So at Paul's request, Onesimus, the
one time thieving runaway slave was to be accepted by Philemon as much
as Paul would be himself! I'm sure you understand the parallel but let
me spell it out anyway. The Bible says that we are 'accepted in the beloved (Ephesians 1:6)' In other words, God
the Father accepts us just as He would His own Son Jesus, even though,
in ourselves, we are little better than a thieving runaway slave.
Charge that to my account!
Phm 1:18 But if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything,
charge that to my account;
Now what is the basis of this acceptance? Because we or Onesimus
deserved it? No. Paul knew that there was still a debt that Onesimus owed Philemon
and justice demanded that this debt be paid. It is because of this that
'if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that
to my account.'
What fantastic words for Onesimus, who probably had no way of paying
his master back what he had stolen. And what fantastic words for us,
because we too had no way of paying the debt which we owed God. But God
is a God of justice
and for this reason we read -
Romans 3:25-26 'God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement,
through faith in his blood...
He did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time
, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith
And the Lord Jesus, for His part, said 'whatever debt of sin that is
owed to you Father, charge that to my account.'
Your debt of sin was not overlooked but was entirely paid for by the
once and for all sacrifice of our wonderful Saviour Jesus Christ!
Included in the 'even mores'
Phm 1:20-21 Yes, brother, let me benefit from you in the Lord; refresh
my heart in Christ. (21) Having confidence in your obedience, I write to
you, since I know that you will do even more than what I say.
Finally, look at what Paul says in verse 21 and 22. He has confidence
that Philemon will not only do what is right, and what Paul has
requested, but that he will do even more than was expected. God the
Father could have just forgiven our sin and left us as forgiven slaves
and sinners. He could have allowed us back home but just given us a spot on
the outskirts or cheaper suburbs of Heaven. But He didn't. He definitely
went far above and beyond what was expected so that we, once runaway
slaves like Onesimus, would in the ages to come, would be a living
visible witness to God's amazing grace!
Eph 2:4-7 But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with
which He loved us, (5) even when we were dead in our transgressions,
made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), (6)
and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places
in Christ Jesus, (7) so that in the ages to come He might show the
surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
Within this 'much more' that God has done are the following... The Bible
says we are justified, righteous, made perfect, accepted, forgiven and
complete. It says we are His gift, His bride, His inheritance and
possession. We are objects of His grace, love, power, faithfulness,
peace, encouragement and intercession. And we are heirs of both a
heavenly and earthly inheritance. Paul said to Philemon 'I know that you
will do even more than what I say'. Oh if only we could see how much
more our Heavenly Father has done!
So what became of this once thieving slave Onesimus?
Well, he made the long journey back to Philemon, his master, along with
Paul's letter that we have before us today. Under Roman law a runaway
slave could be punished severely, even with death. So how did Philemon
treat Onesimus? We don't know for sure but there is a church tradition that
found his freedom and served the church. One of the church fathers, Ignatius,
wrote in 110AD to a certain 'Onesimus' who was the Bishop in Ephesus. Is this the same Onesimus? We can't
be sure. But I like to think it was. Onesimus, the one time runaway
slave, had become useful, an accepted beloved brother and someone that served His God
We started with a horizontal earthly story of reconciliation between those that
had fallen out. But we've seen it is far more than that for it is the
vertical relationship and specifically what God has done for us, that
can truly change
the broken horizontal relationships. It is what God has done for us that
allows us to then forgive, help and serve others.
A personal conclusion
I mentioned above that growing up we had a lot of problems with our Dad.
My brother Fraser especially suffered a lot over many years. One day,
when I was 14, I came home to find Dad all messed up, bloody and
bruised. He and Fraser, who was 17 at the time, had had a full-on fight.
And Dad learnt the hard way that day that a 17 year old Fraser was not a
13 year old Fraser and that he could no longer get away with what he had
in the past. That day was a pivotal and potential ending point for their
relationship. The timeline of their Father-Son relationship included
many fractures and cracks in it up until then but it was totally smashed
that day. So my brother, at the ripe old age of 17, was forced to leave
And yet (to cut a long story short once again) God was not through with
either of them (nor me for that matter). Five years later, in 1990, with
my father, my brother and myself living in three different locations,
and not having anything to do with each other, we all came to know Jesus
Christ as our Lord and Saviour! The vertical relationship between God
and three runaway thieving useless slaves was restored through His grace
and mercy!. And if that is not wonderful enough, God then started to
repair the family relationships. The smashed father-son relationship was
put back together as the vertical reconciliation led to the important
So who would have thought that there was so much in the book of
Philemon? Certainly not me, but I'm pleased to be proven completely and
utterly wrong... once again! It is a wonderful book about both human and
divine reconciliation that we all need. May you see more of what God has
done for a once useless runaway slave like yourself and allow that to
extend grace and mercy to those around you!