A Bible Study

During his two year imprisonment in Rome the apostle Paul "welcomed all who came to him." (Acts 28:30) Among the many who sought out Paul was one character whom Paul "welcomed" a slave by the name of Onesimus. Onesimus had run away from his master Philemon of Colossae, lining his pockets for the journey with his master's goods, as was the usual practice with runaway slaves (Philemon 18).

Somehow he reached Rome, and somehow he had come into contact with Paul. Paul's welcome for poor Onesimus must have been a warm one, for he converted the young runaway and became very fond of him. Paul would gladly have kept Onesimus with him, for he was now living up to his name which means "useful."

Since the slave's master Philemon was also a convert of Paul's, they too had a profound relationship. They had a bond which was a sacred and enduring trust. Paul could have used that relationship to gain the upper hand and keep Onesimus for himself.

Paul however honored all human ties, including the tie which bound slave to master, as hallowed in Christ. (Ephesians 6:5ff Colossians 3:22 ff) He therefore sent Onesimus back to Colossae with Tuchicus, the bearer of his Letter to the Colossians (Colossians 4:7-9) and wrote a letter to his master in which he spoke for the runaway in a kindly and forgiving tone.

We can measure the strength of the bond between the apostle and his converts by the confidence with which Paul makes his request to Philemon. This request is all the more remarkable in the light of the fact that captured runaways were usually very harshly dealt with. Paul goes ever farther. He hints that he would like to have Onesimus back for his own service (13,14, 20,21)

In this brief letter we find the personal quality of a man such as Paul. He is a changed man. He asks Philemon to take the Gospel message personally. A man such as Paul who believes and knows that he has come back to God as God's runaway slave and has been welcomed back by God as a son, such a man can write the Gospel into life's fabric as naturally and gracefully as Paul does in this letter.

This letter also addressed the Christian attitude toward social problems. Paul does not plead for Onesimus' liberation. There is nothing like a movement to free slaves, even Christian slaves of Christian masters, either here or elsewhere in the New Testament. However, a Gospel which can say to the master of a runaway slave that he is to receive him back has overcome the evil of slavery from within and has therefore already rung the knell of slavery.

1-3 Greetings

verses 1-3 Timothy has been with Paul during his three year ministry on Ephesus and no doubt was acquainted with many Christians of the province of Asia, such as Philemon, his wife, Apphia, and his son Archippus, who had a special ministry at Colossae (Colossians 14:17) and so is singled out as a "fellow soldier'' of the apostle.

4-7 Thanksgiving and prayer

verses 4-7 Paul gives thanks for Philemon's faith and love and prays that they may continue their effectual witness. Philemon seems to have recently distinguished himself by a work of love which ''refreshed the hearts of the saints". Paul is about to request another such refreshment of heart for
himself (verse 20)

verse 6 The "knowledge" which Philemon's love born of faith is to promote may be the knowledge which his witness produces or increases in others. The thought might, however, also be that Philemon's own knowledge is deepened as his faith is demonstrated and exercised in love.

8-20 Paul's Plea For His Child Onesimus

verses 8-20 Paul appeals to Philemon to receive Onesimus again, now more than a slave to him, a beloved brother forever. Paul lets Philemon know how greatly he cherishes this child of his imprisonment and hints pretty broadly that he would like to have him back in his own service. After all, Paul argues, Philemon owes him more than the gift of a slave could repay-as Paul's convert he owes his very life and self to Paul. (verse 19)

verse 10 see 1 Corinthians 4:15 "I became your father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel."

verse 14 "Your goodness" here means the generous action of making Paul a gift of the ''useful" Onesimus.

verse 16 Onesimus has become a ''beloved brother" to his master ''both in the flesh'' that is, in his legal-human position as a slave, and "in the Lord' as a fellow member or the church, the body of Christ. These words a concrete application of what Paul taught the churches. (see Colossians 3:11; 3:22; 4:1; Ephesians 6:5-9)

verse 17 Philemon is Paul's ''beloved fellow worker" (verse l) "his brother" (verse 7) and his "partner" (verse 17)

verse 19 Paul speaks of him as owning his very existence to Paul. So strong is the bond created by the Gospel. As one pastor has so noted "last names cease when you enter the church door. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ!"

The language of this verse here is that of a formal IOU. This is probably a touch of humor. Paul hardly had the means to compensate Philemon for the loss which he had sustained through Onesimus. But the second half of the verse is serious truth clothed in the language of familiar friendship; since Philemon was once "dead in trespasses" (Colossians 2:13) and came "to fullness of life" in Christ (Colossians 2:10) through Paul's proclamation of the Gospel, he owes himself, the true self that will live forever, to Paul.

21-25 Concluding Greetings

verses 21-25 Paul speaks of Philemon's hospitality for the time or his release and return to Colossae, transmits the greetings of his visitors and fellow workers at Rome, and closes with a benediction.

verse 22 "To be granted to you" that is, by being released from imprisonment and so becoming free to revisit the churches of Asia.

verses 22-24 The names mentioned here all occur in Colossians 4:10-14. The term "fellow prisoner" means literally ''fellow prisoner-of-war." It is used figuratively to indicate that Epaphras is voluntarily sharing his hardships as a soldier of Christ.


Concordia Self Study Bible New International Version, Robert G. Hoerber Editor Concordia Publishing House St. Louis, MO. 1986 pp. 1870

Concordia Self Study Commentary Martin H. Franzmann, Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, MO. 1979 pp.231-232