Philemon Study: Onesimus and You - From Slavery to Sonship

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Bible Study on the book of Philemon

Onesimus and You: From Slavery to Sonship

by I Gordon

   Book of Philemon, Onesimus and You: From Slavery to SonshipIntroduction

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! Nothing!  [1]  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.

Phm 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 Rome  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 others?

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 to!   [2]  

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 St. Paul  does for Onesimus with Philemon... We are all His Onesimi, to my thinking.' 

Philemon Onesimus and Paul Bible studySo 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.

1. 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)  [3]  

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 anything!  [4]) 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.  [5]  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 purposes!

2. 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 ways.

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 forever!  [6]  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 return '  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. 

3. 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 that  '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. Amazing!  [7] 

4. 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 Paul wrote  '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  [8]  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 in Jesus.'

And the Lord Jesus, for His part, said 'whatever debt of sin that is owed to you Father, charge that to my account.'  [9]  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!

5. 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!  [10]

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 Onesimus 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 useless thieving slave, had become useful, an accepted beloved brother and someone that served His God and Saviour!

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 home.

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 horizontal reconciliation!

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!       


[1] Actually, to be even more honest, and to show that God always has the last say, not long after my brother and I were joking over the fact that there was nothing in the book of Philemon, another friend got up at church (we have a time of 'open church' in our meetings where anyone can share) and said 'I just wanted to share on this awesome verse in Philemon that I read during the week...' Anyway, we had to laugh because it was the first time I had heard anyone share, even something small, from the book of Philemon and it was straight after our discussion that it couldn't be done! The bible, I continually find, is like an orange. The more you squeeze, the more juice comes out! And my stupid comments that there is nothing in Philemon just showed my own laziness and failure to squeeze hard enough!

[2] I had a little example of this while preparing this message. I received an email from someone saying they enjoyed my messages and left a link to their website. So I had a look at it and saw that they had just posted several messages on a new series. As I had written on that series myself I thought I'd have a look at what this person had to say. Well, I found that what they had to say was what I had to say! They had copied and pasted my entire series but presented it as their own! My initial thought was Grrr! To cut a long story short we exchanged a few emails and I felt like saying 'please take it down and don't post anything from or about my website ever again!' That was just my earthly, yes fleshly, first internal response. But I didn't... God and grace prevailed and they were very repentant and humble. If I had held onto 'my rights' and told them to take it down they would have... and we both would have left with a bitter taste in our mouth and never would have spoken again. Instead, God did a work and I gained a friend! : ) And to be honest I felt so pleased afterwards what God had done. Yet we little earthlings have to give Him the opportunity for if we always get bitter, resentful and hold onto our rights that have been hurt, where is the room for the grace and reconciliation of God?  

[3] For other scriptures about slavery see Romans 6:19, 7:14-25, 8:15, Gal 4:3,7,30, Heb 2:15, 2 Pet 2:19. You will see that people, before they are saved, are slaves to sin, fear, and all manner of 'religions' and false gods. In fact, as 2 Pet 2:19 says,' a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him.' ↩ 

[4] I switched the old TV on this morning and there was a program about Feng Shui on. You may know the stuff... you know, logical stuff like your business isn't successful because the door is in the wrong place and all the chi energy is escaping! Or if you want to find a partner make sure the water in your aquarium doesn't flow towards the north-east. It will cause the ying and yang to go bing and bang! Read any woman's magazine and see all the fears and superstition that people allow to rule their lives now. It is crazy what happens to society once they remove faith in a creator God.  ↩ 

[5] According to Psalm 96:7-9 all nations are called to give glory, sacrifice, and worship to the Lord. He is their maker, He is the only true God. In this sense, all those who have not come to know the Lord still rob from their master like Onesimus did so long ago. ↩ 

[6] And, if I were to jump back up on my soapbox again, this certainly speaks of eternal security. A son is in the family forever. How could you ever have confidence if you believed in the only alternative - eternal insecurity? ↩ 

[7] I once read a small illustration that said if you look through red coloured glass, then everything is red. If you look through blue coloured glass, then everything is blue. Well, when God looks at His children, He does so through the pure white purity of His Son Jesus... and everything is white!  ↩ 

[8] It has been said that after the fall, God's love would have forgiven mankind of their sins, but God's righteousness prevented the forgiveness. God's righteousness would have judged mankind, but God's love prevented the judgement. A catch 22? Not for God. In sending Jesus to the cross for our sins, God showed both his love and righteousness. He is now perfectly just to forgive the believing sinner for the price has been paid by another! ↩ 

[9] And, when Satan tries to accuse the brethren before God, the Lord Jesus still stands for us, saying 'that has been charged to my account'! Game, set and match! ↩ 

[10] For an in-depth study on what God has done and your position now in Christ please click here

Character images in this study used with permission from Phillip Martin - Website: