Dr. Richard L. Strauss
June 23, 1974
The events that form that background for the book of Philemon (pronounced fy-LEE-mun) are not crystal clear. But as we go through the book and see little references in it, we can reconstruct the story that led to the writing of the book of Philemon.
I would imagine that one Sunday morning, the folks at the church at Colossae came to gather where the church was: in a house of a man by the name of Philemon. There was probably a rumor going around that day and the people were saying, "Do you know what that scoundrel Onesimus (pronounced o-NESS-i-mus) did? He broke into his master Philemon's safe and he took a generous portion of money and absconded with it. Now he's gone and we have no idea where he is."
Philemon was a rather wealthy man. But even though he had a lot of money, he knew Jesus Christ as his Savior. The people at the church at Colossae respected him greatly and they would have been concerned and interested in his problem.
I don't know how Philemon came to know Christ as his Savior. However, we do know that Paul led him to the Lord, because down in verse 19, Paul says:
"I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay--not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides" (Philemon 19).
I don't know where Philemon got saved. It wasn't in Colossae because Paul hadn't visited Colossae yet. It was probably at Ephesus, where Paul spent three years teaching at a school. Maybe Philemon took a business trip to Ephesus, and while he was there he came across this unusual man preaching this new message. Philemon met Jesus Christ as his Savior.
When he got back to Colossae he found there were other people there who knew the Lord Jesus. And when the church at Colossae got going, Philemon immediately offered his home as the meeting place. We know that a fellow named Epaphras was instrumental in getting that church moving. We saw that in our study of the book of Colossians.
The church was there in Philemon's house. It grew, I'm sure. Many people came to know Christ as Savior. He was up to his eyeballs in the ministry of the church at Colossae. His wife Apphia (pronounced AP-fee-a) and his son Archippas (pronounced ar-KIP-us) was involved. As a matter of fact, the implication both in Colossians and in Philemon is that Archippas may have been the pastor of the church--the man who was responsible for preaching the Word on a continual basis. People were growing in the Lord and people were getting saved at the church at Colossae in the home of Philemon.
But there was one man in Philemon's household who cared little or nothing for the things of Jesus Christ. I imagine they had prayed for him--prayed for his salvation. But things went from bad to worse. Onesimus was an unprofitable servant and I'm sure Philemon was tremendously concerned about him. But this was the last straw: robbing him and fleeing with the money. I don't know how Philemon took it. I don't know whether he thought to himself, "Good riddance to an unprofitable slave; I'm glad he's gone." I don't know whether he was bitter and resentful about it or whether he said, "Lord, I don't know why this happened but I thank You for it because I know You'll work it out for good, as You promised to do in the life of every believer." I'd like to think that was the way Philemon accepted his trial.
No matter how Philemon felt about it, the church must have prayed for Onesimus that day with renewed vigor. "God, save this young man! Bring him across somebody who will tell him about Jesus Christ and lead him to a saving knowledge of Him."
Time passed. They heard nothing. They must have been wondering whether God would answer their prayers. But all the time God was at work. He always is in the lives of believers to accomplish what is absolutely best. We don't know exactly how it happened but we can pretty well piece it together: Onesimus ended up in the city of Rome. Probably he had squandered all of his master's money, so he was flat broke. Maybe he was picked up on a vagrancy or petty larceny charge and thrown into jail. Right next to--guess who?! The greatest soul-winner of all time: the Apostle Paul.
I'm sure Onesimus was lonely and frightened and overwhelmed with the guilt over what he had done. But while in jail next to the Apostle Paul, he heard the message of forgiveness and salvation through Jesus Christ the Son of God. I'm sure that he was convicted of his sin and in that jail cell, he turned his life over to Jesus. He trusted the Savior as the only one who could forgive him and assure him of eternal salvation.
I would imagine that under the private tutelage of a man like the Apostle Paul, Onesimus grew rapidly and matured in the things of Jesus Christ. I'm sure that as time went on, the thoughts of what he had done to his Christian master bothered him, so he told Paul the whole story.
Now Paul could have kept Onesimus with him there. After all, he was a runaway slave. He was out of Philemon's jurisdiction. Paul could have used him there in Rome to great advantage as a personal helper to him. But Paul's heart was too big for that. He could have sent Onesimus back to his master to face the music. But Paul's heart was too big for that, too.
Paul sat down and wrote a letter to his friend Philemon in the city of Colossae. And God has seen fit to preserve that letter and make it a part of His word. We have it with us today to study.
I imagine many months had passed since Onesimus had run away. I'm sure Philemon had given up hope of ever seeing him again when one day, he looked down the road and there was the travel-worn form of his runaway slave coming toward him. I'm sure there were mixed emotions as Philemon looked at Onesimus, watching him come down the road toward him. And when he got there, he probably said the same kind of thing you would have said, "Well, I see you've come back."
And Onesimus probably said, "Master Philemon, I have a letter."
"I guess you know, Onesimus, you're going to have to be punished for this."
"But, sir, I have a letter."
"Have you decided to go straight now?"
"Sir, I have a letter here from the Apostle Paul."
"A letter from Paul?"
And I'm sure Philemon cried out to his wife, "Apphia! Apphia! Come quickly. Here is Onesimus and he has a letter from the Apostle Paul!"
Here comes Apphia. One look at Onesimus and you can imagine daggers, you know. I've been married 20 years and in that time, I've learned about the intuitions and suspicions of a woman! I bet that Apphia wasn't too happy about the sight of Onesimus.
The letter from Paul, that was something different. Philemon opens the letter and Apphia looks over his shoulder and together they began to read.
This is a little letter about a big message about a big heart. There are four different sections in the letter that are quite obviously distinguished. The first section is a greeting (verses 1-3). And then there is praise that Paul offers for Philemon (verses 4-7). Then there is Paul's plea for Onesimus, which is the heart of the book (verses 8-21). The book concludes with a personal salutation (verses 22-25).
1. The Greeting to Philemon and the Church
Paul begins, as most letters in the ancient world began, with the writer:
"Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved friend and fellow laborer, to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (Philemon 1-3).
This is a personal letter from Paul but Timothy was there with him, so he includes him. He sends greeting to Philemon and to his wife and son, and to the whole church that met in their house. And then he gives the normal greeting, "Grace to you."
Let's look first at what he calls Philemon. "Our beloved friend and fellow laborer." That's quite a title, isn't it? Philemon might have had a lot of money. He was rich enough to have servants in his household. But Philemon was a man who was involved in the work of Jesus Christ. He had learned how to invest his time and his money in the things of the Lord. He was a fellow laborer. He was working for the Savior. Philemon wasn't along for the ride. He wasn't a hanger-on like a lot of people who profess to know Jesus Christ today. He was a fellow worker in the things of Jesus Christ. Thank God for people like Philemon who are willing to get involved.
After naming Philemon and his wife and son, and the people of the church, Paul gives a greeting. "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (Philemon 3).
If there was anything Philemon needed right then, it was grace. Grace to accept their runaway slave back and receive him as a Christian brother in the love of the Lord Jesus. That was going to take a lot of grace. And they would need peace in that moment--it was a tense moment to be sure, given what he had done. But the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and His peace were available to Philemon and Apphia if their hearts were open to Him, and if they were willing to surrender control to the Holy Spirit, who ministers grace and peace to our lives. That grace and peace is available to us today to help us face whatever need or experience we have.
2. The Praise for Philemon
Let's move on from the greeting to the praise.
"I thank my God, making mention of you always in my prayers" (Philemon 4).
Paul is going to tell us why he thanks God in verse 5, and he's going to tell us what he prays for in verse 6. He was thankful for Philemon's love and faith toward Christ and toward others.
"Hearing of your love and faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints" (Philemon 5).
Philemon demonstrated unselfish Christlike love in his life. And that's not all. He had faith, not only in Jesus but in other people. I would imagine that that's the only way Onesimus could have robbed him, because he was a trusting soul.
We don't find many Christians who combine these two things like Philemon did: love and faith, toward the Lord and toward all saints. He was quite a fellow.
But look at what Paul prays in verse 6:
"That the sharing of your faith may become effective by the acknowledgment of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus" (Philemon 6).
I pored over that verse for a little while because it is a difficult verse to understand. The idea is, "I pray that an understanding of all that you have in Christ--all the good things that God has done for you in Jesus--will increase the effectiveness of your witness, that the sharing of your faith may become more effective as you grow in an understanding of what God has done for you in Christ."
That's the way it works. When I find untaught believers who do not know what they have and what they are in Jesus Christ, their testimony is not very vibrant or effective. That's why the teaching of the Word is so important to a powerful witness. We've got to understand what we have and what we are--that our iniquity is forgiven, that we've been purchased or redeemed out of our slavery to sin, that we've been reconciled to God, that we've been made priests and have access into the very presence of God, that we have life in the Lord, that we've been regenerated and given eternal life. And on and on it could go. All of these things are ours when we trust in Jesus as our Savior.
The more we come to understand those riches that are ours in Christ Jesus, the more powerful our personal testimony becomes. And that's what Paul is praying for for Philemon. That's a good prayer to pray for us, isn't it? "That the sharing of your faith may become more effective by the understanding of everything that is in you through Christ Jesus."
This praise is amplified in verse 7.
"For we have great joy and consolation in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you, brother" (Philemon 7).
That's something to thank God for. Here's a man who, when he comes in contact with other believers, is an encouragement and a blessing to them. They feel refreshed and built up in the things of Christ when they've been around Philemon. "The hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you, brother."
I wonder whether people leave our presence and feel good for having been with us, thinking, "He so lets Jesus live through him that it's just a pleasure to be in his presence." Philemon was one of those that refreshed other people. What a tremendous example he is for believers today.
Having read that, Philemon must have felt good all over. The great Apostle Paul, who had done so much more for Jesus than Philemon could ever have done, and who put into practice these truths from the Scriptures to a greater degree than Philemon could ever have done, would pay such a high compliment to him. That was likely a good thing that Philemon felt so good because in verse 8 we get down to the heart of the letter: Paul's plea for the servant Onesimus.
3. The Plea for Onesimus
"Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting..." (Philemon 8).
"I could command you to do what I'm going to ask you to do," Paul says, "but I'm not going to."
"...yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you--being such a one as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ" (Philemon 9).
When Paul opened this letter, he said "Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ." He didn't say, "Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ, not of the will of men but of the will of God" to establish his apostolic authority so that he must be obeyed. No. Paul says he could command Philemon to do it, but he's just going to ask him for Paul's sake.
So what's he going to ask? Was Philemon wondering, "Uh oh. What is coming?"
"I appeal to you for my son Onesimus" (Philemon 10a).
"Ah-ha! I thought so."
"Whom I have begotten while in my chains" (Philemon 10b).
"Begotten while in your chains?" Somehow or other, the Apostle Paul has come across the prisoner Onesimus in Rome and led him to the Savior, and now Onesimus is born again. "Could God have really answered our prayers for Onesimus?" He reads on.
"Who once was unprofitable to you" (Philemon 11a).
"I wonder whether Paul really knows how unprofitable he really was? I wonder whether Paul knows what Onesimus did to me."
"Who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me. I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart" (Philemon 11-12).
How can Philemon turn down a request like that? Paul is saying to Philemon, "I have this young man in my heart. I know he was a no-good, runaway slave. But he's born again now; he's become a brother in Christ and he's heavy on my heart. When you receive him, Philemon, it's like receiving my very own heart."
That's a pretty big heart, isn't it? To think that Paul could love this young runaway slave that much. He has a heart of love, not only for the Lord Jesus but for others. We're exhorted in the first epistle of John to "love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God" (1 John 4:7). That ought to be the characterizing mark of a Christian.
Paul said to the Romans, "Owe no one anything except to love one another" (Romans 13:8a).
Philemon and Paul were those kinds of Christians that love so much, they would show kindness to others even when it hurt. They would be hospitable to others even when it cost. They could forgive others even when they themselves had to pay the penalty for that forgiveness. That's the kind of love God wants us to have.
Paul tells Philemon he could have kept Onesimus and used him:
"...Whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel. But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary" (Philemon 13-14).
Now I don't think Paul is hinting that he should free Onesimus and send him back to Rome to minister to Paul. Verse 22 would certainly contradict that because Paul is expecting to get released from prison and come to Colossae. He even says to get a room ready for him:
"Prepare a guest room for me, for I trust that through your prayers I shall be granted to you" (Philemon 22).
If he wanted to keep Onesimus, he could have just kept him. There was another fellow coming from Rome to Colossae who carried the Colossian letter and probably accompanied Onesimus--his name was Tychicus (pronounced TICK-i-kus). Paul could have sent this letter with Tychicus and just explained to Philemon why he was keeping Onesimus. Verse 15 is the heart of it all:
"For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever" (Philemon 15).
That is a beautiful, beautiful thought. You know, some of you have been struggling with unsaved loved ones, praying that God would bring them to Christ, wondering why you're enduring all this agony and turmoil in heart and mind and soul. Maybe God even takes somebody away from you and you don't understand why. Maybe it's because God wants to use those circumstances to bring some unbeliever to faith in Jesus Christ.
Maybe you lost Onesimus for a little while, Philemon, and you lost that money with him. Now Paul wants him to receive him as a Christian brother. You see, God was in this. God was at work. Sometimes we wonder how in the world can God be in this mess? But if we love Him and know Him as our Savior, He's working all things together for good.
Paul asks Philemon to receive Onesimus as a brother:
"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. If then you count me as a partner, receive him as you would me" (Philemon 16-17).
All the bigness of Paul's heart is nowhere more revealed than in verses 18 and 19:
"But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account. I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay " (Philemon 18-19a).
Now how in the world was Paul ever going to repay Onesimus' debt? He was an old man, likely far beyond 60 years of age and his life trials and persecutions made him much older than that, I would imagine. His fingers were not as nimble as they used to be to practice his trade of tent making. How could he possibly repay the debt that Onesimus incurred when he robbed his master?
Yet Paul says, "I'll pay it, whatever sacrifices I have to make. If he owes you anything--and he does--put that on my account."
Dr. H. A. Ironside--one of the greatest Bible teachers from the past generation, the pastor of Moody Memorial Church for many years--preached a great message on the book of Philemon which has never been forgotten. The title was, "Charge That to My Account." Dr. Ironside used the book of Philemon as a beautiful illustration of the work that God accomplished when He sent His Son to the cross. You see, here we are: guilty, vile, rebellious sinners who have turned our backs on God and gone our own way, but God loved us so much that He sent His Son to that cross to pay for our sins. And now the Lord Jesus looks down from heaven today and He says, "Father, You see that Strauss character? He's a wretched, no-good, vile sinner. He doesn't deserve Your favor and he doesn't deserve entrance into Our heaven. But Father, I've paid for his sins. And he's put his trust and his confidence in that payment. So Father, since his sin is already paid for and it's on My account, let him in. After all, he's trusted Me and identified himself with Me, so receive him as You would receive Me."
That's the positive part in verse 17, you see? "Receive him as you would me" (Philemon 17b). Paul told Philemon to receive Onesimus just as he would receive Paul, and whatever Onesimus owes, put that on Paul's account. What a transaction! Paul assumes responsibility for Onesimus' crimes and attributes to him his own good reputation. That's exactly what Jesus Christ did for us.
Christ bore in His own body the guilt and penalty of our sin on that cross so that He could put to our account His own infinite, eternal righteousness. That's the truth of 2 Corinthians 5:21--"For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." That's the transaction that Jesus offers to you today if you've never yet trusted Him as your Savior. Now He wants to attribute to your account His own righteousness if you will just acknowledge your need of Him. Confess your own vile sinfulness and trust His eternal grace. Receive Him as your Savior.
It's our desire and prayer that you would make that decision today as you hear the story of the big heart of the Apostle Paul and see in an illustration the great heart of God.
Paul concludes the plea in verses 20 and 21.
"Yes, brother, let me have joy from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in the Lord. Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say" (Philemon 20-21).
I have every confidence in my heart that Philemon did more than Paul even asked him to do. I imagine he took this young man back not only as his slave but as his own son, forgiving him of his crimes and beginning to nurture him as a child in the faith.
You know, there is something for believers here, too. I'd like to go back to it in verse 19 as we close. Remember, I just read the first half of that verse, but now let's read the whole thing.
"I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay--not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides" (Philemon 19).
There's a little leverage here, I think. Paul is putting some pressure on Philemon. "Philemon: this is really the least you can do, to forgive Onesimus and take him back. Remember, it was through my ministry that you came to know Jesus Christ as your Savior. You really owe your eternal life to my witness to you. Maybe you owe me a favor right now, Philemon."
Christian, think again to that payment that Jesus Christ made for you on that cross. He gave everything He had for you; He gave His life's blood. He was separated from His Father in heaven and bore the eternal agony of spiritual separation from the Father and those moments on the cross as an Eternal Being. It was infinite agony. He did that for you, and because He did it, you can be forgiven. Maybe you owe Him something now. He's forgiven you; He's given you His life; He's assured you of eternity in His presence. Maybe you owe Him something.
That's exactly what Paul wrote to the Romans:
"I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God"--by the big heart of God--"that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service" (Romans 12:1).
Listen, since He gave so much for you, how can you really do less than to turn your life over to Him and let Him control you, and live through you, and accomplish His purposes and His will? Maybe you owe Him that. Let's pray.
Heavenly Father, thank You for this story. Thank You for its application to our own lives. Father, we ask You to make us loving Christians and to trust other believers. Help us to understand the greater degrees the riches we have in Christ. Make our own testimonies more effective. Best of all, help us to yield our lives to You without reservation.
And Father, we pray that if there are some who know not the Lord Jesus as their Savior, this message from Philemon may be used by Your Spirit to convict them of sin and bring them to Christ.
As we continue in a spirit of prayer, may I give you an opportunity to make the decision God wants you to make now? Christian, have you been holding back? Why not commit your life to Jesus Christ right now? Why not say, "All right, Lord. I've been running my own life long enough and I've made a mess of it. I want to do Your will. I want the joy and peace that comes from living in the harmony of Your Word." Yield your life to Christ, will you?
If you're not absolutely certain that you're God's child and that your sins are forgiven, why not make sure right now? Why not face the reality of your sin? You're not any worse than the rest of us; I'm not insulting you. Please don't misunderstand me. We're all sinners, the Bible says. We all fall short of God's standard. Why not admit it right now? Acknowledge that Jesus Christ paid for your sins when he died on that cross and receive Him as your Savior. Personally trust Him as the only One who can forgive you and give you eternal life. Will you do it right now? Just talk to Him in the quiet of your heart:
"Jesus, I know You died for me. I'm trusting You now. Come into my life and forgive my sins."
He'll do it. He promises He will and He's a God of His word.
Father, bring some to new life in Christ right now. We pray that they would be translated from darkness into light, from death unto eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord. For it's in His name we pray. Amen.
Continue to LB-3A: 2 John: The Big Command