An appreciation of Paul’s letter to Philemon

POST OVERVIEW. A commentary on Paul’s letter to Philemon pointing out the evident and intentional grace shown from one believer to another.

Paul is best known for his towering theological masterpieces, for works like Romans and Galatians and Ephesians which lay the doctrinal foundations for the Christian faith. In the company of such profound writings, the little letter from Paul to Philemon about a runaway slave who comes to Christ and whose life is completely transformed can be forgotten as insignificant. But “Philemon” is profound in its own right as it provides for us a model of how believers are to treat one another within the body of Christ and gives us a practical example of what it means to love one another.

OCCASION OF THE LETTER. The contents of the letter are better understood when we understand the context of the letter. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, the man who has preached the gospel from Jerusalem to Illyricum (Romans 15:19), is in prison for his faith. While in prison, Paul has had the opportunity to evangelize a runaway slave named Onesimus and has won him to the Lord, and now the apostle is writing to Philemon, the master of Onesimus and a fellow believer in the town of Colosse, so that the slave can return to his master. Oh, and Paul is also the man who led Philemon to Christ (v. 19). That is the basic context and those three are the main characters. Below are my comments on this epistle. The purpose for this article is to show how dramatically different the interaction of believers with one another is from that of those who are still in the world.

A PRISONER OF CHRIST JESUS, V. 1. Notice how Paul introduces himself at the start of the letter. He and Philemon obviously know one another. Philemon is “a beloved brother and fellow worker” with Paul (v. 1). We will see that Paul is familiar with Philemon’s ministry (vv. 4-7) and that it is likely that Paul was the one who led Philemon to faith in Christ (v. 19). It is significant , therefore, that Paul introduces himself as “a prisoner of Christ Jesus.”

Due to centuries of worldly thinking, believers today tend to think of Paul as one who garnered respect and attention wherever he went. After all, he was an apostle of Jesus Christ and was perhaps the most effective preacher ever. But those who know their Bibles better know that apostles were treated with contempt by those outside the church (1 Cor. 4:9-13) and by the false teachers within the church (2 Cor. 10:10). Even as he writes this letter with his own hand (v. 19), he is “a prisoner of Christ Jesus.” Perhaps for emphasis, Paul mentions his bonds again in verse 9 and he and Epaphras are “fellow prisoners” in verse 23. Paul does not present himself as he usually does in his epistles, as “an apostle of Christ Jesus,” but instead presents himself as a prisoner.

It is evident, therefore that Paul does not see himself as of superior rank to Philemon. Even though he is a chosen instrument of the risen Lord Jesus sent to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15), Paul’s relationship to Philemon is that of “fellow worker,” of a fellow disciple of Jesus who has, like Philemon, been saved by grace. In the world, the famous lord it over others (Mark 10:42) and use their position to elevate their ego and to crush others down. But with disciples of Jesus there is no pecking order, no hierarchy. Paul models for us that all believers, from the aged apostle (v. 9) to the newly converted runaway slave, are on equal ground at the foot of the cross. He displays that we are “to be of the same mind toward one another, not haughty in mind but associating with the lowly” (Romans 12:16).

COMMENDED BY THE APOSTLE. Paul spends verses 4-7 encouraging Philemon and commending his ministry to the saints there in Colosse. His loving words to his brother and fellow worker express Paul’s genuine joy that Philemon is refreshing the hearts of the saints (v. 7). And this is not a false flattery from Paul to more easily persuade Philemon to do what Paul desires. Paul’s commendation is sincere and carries no hint that he is “buttering up” Philemon.

In terms of ministry impact, Paul’s missionary journeys and apostolic writing far outstrips Philemon’s small house church ministry, but there is no sense of rivalry here. Each is given his talents according to his own ability (Matt. 25:15), so it is faithfulness with the ministry that has been entrusted to you that is the issue. Philemon’s place in the body is not as prominent as Paul’s, but each part of the body is vital to the body’s functioning (1 Cor 12).

AN APPEAL TO PHILEMON. Although Paul is an apostle, he refuses to use his apostleship “to order what is proper” (v. 8), but instead he “appeals” to Philemon twice “for love’s sake.” Paul is confident that he will make the right decision, but he allows Philemon the dignity and the respect to consent to receive Onesimus back as a useful brother, rather than forcing him to submit under apostolic compulsion. Paul is allowing Philemon to make whatever decision he is led by the Holy Spirit to make, including the possibility that he will make the “wrong” choice. This is what it means to love one another. Paul appeals to Philemon to consent, but also gives him complete freedom to choose.

THE POWER OF THE GOSPEL TO SAVE. Onesimus left Philemon as a disobedient, runaway slave, but through the ministry of the apostle Paul and the power of the gospel, he is now a brother in Christ. The runaway slave has repented of his sin and, even though he would prefer to stay with Paul and never return to Philemon, this new convert is convicted by the Holy Spirit to go back to Philemon and resume his service to him as a slave. He was useless, but now he is useful (v. 11). Onesimus is now a hard-working slave and a brother in Christ to Philemon. Now the slave Onesimus and the master Philemon and the apostle Paul are all brothers in Christ. The gospel is mighty to save!

AN APOSTLE PAYS THE DEBTS OF A SLAVE. Remarkably, Paul is not only willing to let Onesimus leave him in prison and go back to his master, but Paul also commits to pay any of the slave’s debts out of his own means. In the body of Christ, those who have much are to help those who have little (2 Cor. 8:14-15). As Paul expresses in another place, we most gladly spend for the needs of others (2 Cor. 12:15). So here Paul presents an example as he, the chosen instrument of the Lord and the apostle to the Gentiles, spends his money to satisfy the foolish debts of a runaway slave.

SUMMARY. The letter to Philemon is a masterpiece of “practical theology” as Paul shows us how to love and respect our fellow believers. Every believer is to be treated with grace and is to be encouraged equally. There is no rivalry or competition in ministry, but all good works are to be applauded as unto the Lord. Out of love, I will be inconvenienced to serve another brother. I will gladly spend my money and my time to help and edify another believer.

Most of all, the gospel is the power of God for salvation.

Soli Deo gloria            rmb                 2/13/2023                   #621