Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved fellow worker 2 and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Both Paul and Timothy are mentioned as writers (Philemon 1). The letter was written to three individuals and the whole church in Colossae. The first individual mentioned is Philemon. Philemon was a wealthy member of the church in Colossae. He is described as a “fellow worker” i.e., an active member of the church. Apphia is his wife and is described by Paul as “our sister.” Archippus is a “fellow soldier” who is probably an evangelist in the city. Finally, “the church in your house” is addressed. Evidently the church in Colossae, or at least a part of it met in the home of Philemon and Apphia. Some have considered that the letter to Philemon was a private one and thus not too important. The fact that it is mentioned as being to the church adds weight that it is an important document of the church. Philemon is just as inspired as any other writing in the New or Old Testaments (see II Timothy 3:16-17 and II Peter 3:15-16). See the introduction lesson to find out more about the writers and the church at Colossae. Paul’s greeting (Philemon 3) includes the normal greeting of both the Greek, (“grace,”) and the Jew (“peace,”).
I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and all the saints, 6 and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. 7 For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.
Paul is writing to an old friend. He is one that Paul remembers in his prayers. Part of the reason that Paul gives thanks for Philemon is that he has heard about the love and faith that Philemon has “toward the Lord Jesus and the saints” (Philemon 5). A preacher named Epaphras had come to Rome from Colossae and reported about the good work being done there (Colossians 1:7-8). Evidently, he had reported specifically about Philemon. As a part of Paul’s prayer for Philemon, he prayed “that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ” (Philemon 6). Paul had asked for the Colossians to pray for him and his preaching (Colossians 4:3-4). He was returning the favor by praying for Philemon to be effective in sharing his faith in Colossae. Just as Paul had been comforted by Christian brothers being with him in Rome (Colossians 4:11), he was comforted by Philemon’s faithfulness even though they were separated.
Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, 9 yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— 10 I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. 11 (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) 12 I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart.
The concern at hand needed to be dealt with and Paul gets right to the point. As an apostle and a worker for the Lord, Paul could have made a demand upon Philemon regarding Onesimus. He was certainly bold enough to do that (Philemon 8). However, he preferred to appeal to him out of Christian love (Philemon 9). His appeal was for Onesimus who is referred to as “my child” (Philemon 10). Paul points out that he had become Onesimus’ father during his imprisonment. That is, Paul had become Onesimus’ spiritual father because he taught him about Christ and Onesimus had become a Christian. At this point Paul uses a play-on-words to make a point. The name “Onesimus” means “useful.” Paul says that Onesimus used to be useless but is now useful to both of them (Philemon 11). With this being the case, Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon. He says that he is “sending my very heart” (Philemon 12).
I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will. 15 For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
There were some considerations that Paul made as he was making the decision to send Onesimus back to Philemon. The first of these is that Paul would have been happy to keep Onesimus with him because he would have been useful to him while Paul was imprisoned (Philemon 13). Paul could have gotten away with it because Philemon did not know where Onesimus was and if he did find out that he was with Paul, it would be hard for him to get too upset at an old friend. However, Paul wanted Philemon to have a choice in the matter and to allow the help, not out of compulsion but of his own free will (Philemon 14). The second consideration that Paul made was that there was a reason that Onesimus had escaped and that he had come to Rome where he was converted. Philemon had lost a slave for a while but had gained a brother both in the flesh and in the Lord (Philemon 15-16). Paul and we can call God’s working in the lives of individuals the providence of God.
So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. 18 If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.
At this point Paul gets specific about his appeal: he asks Philemon to accept Onesimus “as you would receive me” (Philemon 17) thus leaving no doubt in Philemon’s mind as to how Paul wanted Onesimus treated. In what might be considered a little “arm twisting” Paul says that Philemon will do this “if you consider me your partner.” Paul had all ready stated that he thought of Philemon as a “beloved fellow worker” (Philemon 1). To further clarify that Paul wanted Onesimus charged with nothing, he states, “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge it to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it” (Philemon 18-19a). “Don’t hold it against Onesimus, charge it to me” was Paul’s attitude. Being a slave, Onesimus was totally at the mercy of Philemon and could have been punished up to and including death. Paul wanted to assure Philemon that this was not the way he should be treating Onesimus. After a gentle reminder that Philemon owed “even your own self” to Paul, he clearly states that he is calling in a favor by saying, “Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord” (Philemon 20).
Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. 22 At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.
In his closing comments on the subject, Paul expresses his confidence in Philemon to do what is right and “even more than I say” (Philemon 21). In an upbeat mood, Paul asks Philemon to also prepare a guest room for him because he believed that he would be released from prison soon and be able to come to Colossae and spend some time there (Philemon 22). This would happen “through your prayers.” Paul had asked many to pray for him. He believed that the prayers would be successful in causing his release. The student is encouraged to go back and read Philippians 1:19-26 to better understand Paul’s attitude about living and dying as well as being released or remaining in prison. To Paul, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, 24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.
25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
The last verses of Philemon offer greetings from Paul’s fellow workers in Rome. Epaphras is described in Colossians as “one of you” (Colossians 4:12) because he had evangelized the cities of Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis (see also Colossians 1:7). Epaphras probably evangelized them while Paul was preaching in Ephesus (see Acts 19). Other things we know about Epaphras include that he “worked hard” (Colossians 4:13), that he was a man of prayer (Colossians 4:12), Paul considered him a “faithful minister of Christ” (Colossians 1:7) and that he had been a fellow prisoner with Paul (Philemon 23). Mark, the cousin of Barnabas (Colossians 4:10), was also known as John Mark (Acts 15:37). It was to his mother’s house that Peter went after being released from prison (Acts 12:12), thus we know that he was from a family of believers who was well-to-do. Paul had taken him along with Barnabas on his first missionary journey. Part way through the journey, he had returned home to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13) and Paul and Barnabas continued on. When Paul and Barnabas got ready to leave on a second missionary journey, they had a major disagreement about whether or not Mark should be allowed to go. This turned into such a dispute that Paul and Barnabas parted company and went separate ways (see Acts 15:36-41). This may explain Paul’s statement “concerning whom you have received instructions – if he comes to you, welcome him” (Colossians 4:10) since they may have still been under the impression that there was friction between Paul and Mark. It turns out that Barnabas was correct in this case. Later Paul accepted Mark as a fellow worker (Philemon 24) and described him as being “very useful to me for ministry” (II Timothy 4:11). Mark is also the writer of the New Testament gospel of Mark.
Aristarchus is described as a “fellow prisoner” with Paul (Colossians 4:10). This would indicate that he had been imprisoned too for some reason. Aristarchus was from Thessalonica (Acts 20:4) and was a traveling partner and preacher with Paul (Acts 19:29). He was no stranger to suffering for Christ. In the city of Ephesus, he had, during a riot, been dragged before the ones defending Artemis (Latin= Diana), the goddess of the Ephesians (Acts 19:29). Demas is an interesting study. He is mentioned in Colossians 4:14 and Philemon 24 as a worker with Paul. However, he must have left him later because in II timothy 4:10 Paul says that Demas was in love with the present world and had deserted him. Paul describes Luke as “the beloved physician” (Colossians 4:14). Luke is the writer of the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. We know that he traveled with Paul on most of his mission efforts. Some feel that he was with Paul to take care of his physical aliments (see II Corinthians 12:7-10 and Galatians 4:13-15) while others see him as a preacher. Perhaps he was both. Paul saw him as a “fellow worker” (Philemon 24). We know that he stayed with Paul to the very end of his life (II Timothy 4:11 cf. II Timothy 4:6-8).
The book of Philemon offers two interesting principles for those who are Christians. First, even though it seems clear that Paul believed slavery to be unacceptable, he did not spend his time trying to influence Roman law but rather spent his time dealing with the people who had accepted Christ and worked to change their attitudes and behaviors. He clearly felt that the attitude of Philemon should be significantly different than the attitude of those who were not Christians. Secondly, a study of Philemon is a study of exactly what Paul meant when he stated, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). To those who are Christians, all of mankind is equal and to be accepted as such, no matter what the race, sex, position in life or any other distinguishing characteristic is. This is because all are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). This gives all human beings stature because of the fact they were created by God and made in His image.
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