Christian Peers


Sunday School Lesson for October 19, 2003


Background Passage: Philemon 4-22


Focal Teaching Passage: Philemon 8-21


For an explanation of the background and purpose of this epistle and an introduction to the main characters please consult your Teachers’ Quarterly or Commentary


An Appeal on Behalf of Onesimus (8-16)


Verses 8-9

Having expressed his full confidence in the authenticity of the faith, love, and Christian commitment of Philemon (vv. 4-7), Paul set forth his appeal in order to encourage him to “do what is proper” in regard to “Onesimus,” his runaway slave. While the apostle Paul could have ordered Philemon to welcome this slave back into his home (v. 8), he chose to make his appeal on the basis of “love” as a “prisoner of Christ Jesus” (v. 8).  This fact stresses the special relationship that evidently existed between the apostle and Philemon. It is likely that Philemon was brought to Christ during Paul’s ministry in Ephesus and, consequently, the apostle could speak to him on more personal terms. The curious repetition of the reference to Paul’s imprisonment (vv. 1, 9) may have served to add weight to his plea to Philemon.  Herbert Carson suggests that Paul’s request of a measure of sacrifice on Philemon’s part comes from the heart of one who has “forfeited his freedom for Christ’s sake and so has a ground for appealing” [The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and Philemon, TNTC, 104].


Verses 10-11

Here Paul reminded Philemon that Onesimus was a brother in Christ. That is, while he was technically still a slave and the rightful property of Philemon, their relationship to one another had been radically transformed by the power of the cross.  The language of this verse makes it clear that while in Rome Onesimus had providentially come into contact with Paul who subsequently led him to faith in Christ—“my child, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment.” Having stayed with Paul for some time, perhaps ministering to him in prison, Onesimus soon determined to “return to Philemon to put his past life in order” [Richard Melick, Jr., Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, TNAC, 337]. Ironically, the very one who once hated all Gentiles and wanted by all means to destroy the church could now speak of a Gentile slave as “my child.” This certainly communicated to Philemon in a most powerful way that all social distinctions of race and class had no place in the body of Christ, not to mention that unconditional forgiveness was to be the rule for all relationships.


Another aspect of the transformation wrought in Onesimus’ life by God’s saving power is reflected in verse 11. Whereas Onesimus (whose names means “profitable”) was “formerly useless” to Philemon, he had been transformed by grace into a new man. Prior to meeting Paul and hearing the gospel Onesimus was most likely a slave who rendered begrudging service. In fact, Phrygian slaves were notorious for their laziness, and Onesimus was living proof [Melick, 361]. However, having been exposed to the message of Christ and saved by God’s grace, Onesimus was now living up to his name for the first time as one “useful” to both Philemon and Paul. 


Verses 12-14

Paul informed Philemon that the very thought of Onesimus’ return—“I have sent him back to you” (v. 12)—was emotionally difficult—“sending my very heart” (v. 12).  The aged apostle “wished to keep” Onesimus with him so that he might be an instrument of ministry “to me in my imprisonment for the gospel” (v. 13). Such strong feelings would be quite natural given the fact that Paul considered him to be his spiritual child. It is also possible that Philemon had hoped to visit Rome himself and this would have been Paul’s way of suggesting that Onesimus could serve in his stead. Yet Onesimus and Paul both recognized that, legally, Philemon owned Onesimus and was entitled to full restitution.  It is also apparent that Onesimus himself, now a new man in Christ, desired to return home to make things right with his master. In verse 14 Paul communicated the fact that he wanted Philemon to do what was right—receive Onesimus freely, forgivingly, and without a demand for restitution—not out of “compulsion” but from his own “free will.”  That is, as a new man in Christ himself—one whose “goodness” would serve the body of Christ to the glory and praise of God.


Verses 15-16

 In order to strengthen his appeal to Philemon, Paul called upon his friend to consider the hidden purposes of God that were at work in the situation. Clearly, the apostle saw the hand of God operating in the lives of both men.  While the actions of Onesimus were wrong, God was actively bringing about His will in the midst of the circumstances.  Richard Melick notes that as a result of this understanding of divine providence, Paul deliberately chose not to dwell upon the past but upon the “redemptive element” present in the experience [364]. He continues:


[Paul understood that] God constructed His plans in spite of, through, and above human events and circumstances. Paul knew that from personal experience, even as he awaited trial at Rome. Paul never condoned Onesimus’ actions, just as he never called evil good. Yet he saw how God could triumph over sin by grace [364].


This explains Paul’s statement to Philemon in verse 15 regarding the ultimate purpose for this whole episode—“that you should have him back forever.” Paul so believed in the providential working of God (cf. Rom. 8:28) that he would dare suggest that Onesimus’ departure was ultimately for the purpose of bringing the two men together on a level never before possible.  The fact is, “Onesimus with all his willfulness had been, unknown to himself, in the hand of the sovereign God” [Carson, 110].


In verse 16, Paul stressed the fact that, in Christ, Onesimus was no longer to be considered merely as a “slave,” but more so as a “beloved brother.” This did not mean that his obligations and responsibilities as a slave were removed, but only that Onesimus and Philemon now had a relationship that transcended all “earthly physical/economic situations” [Melick, 365].

An Exhortation to Philemon (17-21)


Verses 17-20

Next Paul addressed the matter of restitution for damages suffered by Philemon. This indicates that he was in no way ignoring the past or the harm done by Onesimus. Yet, he was appealing to Philemon to display mercy and forgiveness—the kind of mercy and forgiveness he had found so abundant and free in Christ.  In this way, Paul challenged his friend Philemon to “consider the impact of Christ on the institution of slavery, the worth of all people, and the necessity of acting like God in forgiving and restoring those who fail” [Melick, 335].


Note that in order to foster reconciliation between the two men Paul assumed full responsibility for any of Onesimus’ outstanding debts—“charge that to my account” (v. 18). However, he did not hesitate to remind Philemon of his own outstanding debt to Paul for bringing him the good news of the gospel—“you owe to me even your own self as well” (v. 19).  With this statement Paul implied that “Onesimus’ debt which he had taken over was more than cancelled” [Carson, 111].


Verse 21

Paul’s final challenge to Philemon reminded him not only of his personal “confidence” in him as an obedient disciple of Christ, but also his Christian obligation to display extravagant grace towards his brother, Onesimus—“I know that you will do even more than what I say.” Implied in Paul’s words was the assurance that the Holy Spirit would strengthen and empower Philemon to go the second and third mile for his brother, all for the glory of the gospel that had saved and freed them both. 



Major Themes for Reflection and Application


One: Blooming where you are planted—One remarkable feature of this passage is its depiction of Paul’s ministry while in prison (v. 10).  Because he trusted in God and considered himself to be the slave of Christ, he was able to turn his painful circumstances into opportunities for service and witness.  Isn’t odd that we often wait for things to “get better”—for our circumstances to “improve”—before we think about serving the Lord?



Two: Radically changed—This passage also highlights the radical changes that are made in the lives of those whom God saves by His grace.  Think for a moment about both Onesimus and Philemon. What are some of the major changes that had taken place in their lives?



Three: Trusting in God’s providence—It is one thing to give “lip service” to God’s sovereignty. It is quite another thing to actually live as if you believe it.  What are some of the evidences that one really believes in and trusts God’s providential actions and eternal purposes?  Hint: Think about worry, anxiety, fear, anger, complaining, panicking, etc.



Four: Forgiveness and reconciliation—Based upon this passage, see if you can construct a comprehensive definition of “forgiveness.”  That is, what does true forgiveness look like?  Is forgiveness required in cases where the offending party does not admit or confess their sin?