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Philemon: A Letter of Forgiveness and Reconciliation

I am a Christian pastor who wishes to bring glory to God in all that I do, and to help people through my writing to know Him better.


Introduction: Forgiveness and Restoration the Hallmark of Christianity

On the Website Michael Williams leaves this touching story. He states:

"In his book. Lee: The Last Years, Charles Bracelen Flood reports that after the Civil War, Robert E. Lee visited a Kentucky lady who took him to the remains of a grand old tree in front of her house. There she bitterly cried that its limbs and trunk had been destroyed by Federal artillery fire. She looked to Lee for a word condemning the North or at least sympathizing with her loss. After a brief silence, Lee said, "Cut it down, my dear Madam, and forget it." It is better to forgive the injustices of the past than to allow them to remain, let bitterness take root and poison the rest of our life."

Forgiveness and restoration of relationships is a hallmark of the Christian faith. It was the apostle Paul who tells us in Ephesians:

"Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you." (Ephesian 4:32).

In the book of Philemon, written by Paul as well, we have this great apostle talking to one of his friends named Philemon and asking him to practice these very same principles in an actual situation that had occurred with a runaway slave named Onesimus. It is a short epistle, one chapter and 25 verses long. Yet it's message to us who live in the 21st century is powerful and needs to be heeded by all who call themselves Christians today.

Let's begin our study of this epistle by giving some background on the book.

I. Background of the Book

The epistle to Philemon was written by the Apostle Paul around 60-62 A.D. It is one of his prison epistles which also includes, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians. This epistle is very closely connected with Colossians which Paul wrote at the same time.

Philemon, who received the letter, was a prominent member of the Church at Colossae. Apparently the church met in his house. The letter is addressed to him, his family and the church. This is what verses 1-3 say:

"Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved brother and fellow worker, and to Apphia our sister, and to 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 had been saved under the ministry of the Apostle Paul several years earlier, most likely at Ephesus.

We see from the text that Philemon was wealthy enough to own a large house and at least one slave, Onesimus. The name Onesimus actually means "useful" and was a common name for slaves in those days. Onesimus wasn't a believer at the time that he stole some money from Philemon and ran away. And he fled to Rome where he thought that he could lose himself among the many slaves of the time in that city. Somehow, Onesimus met Paul there and became a Christian.

Paul got to love Onesimus and desired to keep him in Rome with him. Onesimus was beginning to live up to his name by becoming useful to the imprisoned apostle. However, by stealing from Philemon and running away, he had broken Roman law and had defrauded his master. So Paul decided to send him back to Colossae in order to make things right.

Due to the ever-present, slave-catchers, however, it was dangerous for him to make the trip alone. So Paul sent Tychichus, who was on his way to Colossae with the epistle to the Colossians, to go with Onesimus. And, of course, Paul sent along this very personal letter as well, urging Philemon to forgive Onesimus and take him back as a brother in Christ.

Now before we get into what we can learn from this small book of Scripture, it might be good to look at slavery in the ancient Roman world and see if we can understand the response to it by Paul and the other Apostles.

II. Slavery in the Roman Empire

First of all, slavery was widespread in the ancient world and in the Roman empire. Some scholars estimate that slaves constituted one third or more of the population. By the time of Paul, slavery virtually eclipsed free labor.

Slaves were not legally considered persons but thought of as being the property of their masters. So they could be bought and sold as well as inherited, exchanged or seized to pay their master's debts. Their masters had virtually unlimited power over them and they sometimes punished them severely for the smallest infractions. However, by the time of the New Testament, slavery was beginning to change. The slave owners found that their property were more productive if the master treated them more leniently. And it was not uncommon for the master and slave to become close friends.

While still not being considered as persons, the Roman Senate, in A.D. 20, allowed slaves to be granted freedom or to be able to purchase it themselves. And some slaves enjoyed a lot of things under their masters and were better off than many freemen because they were assured of being cared for and having all their needs provided.

It is interesting that when people talk about how the Bible sees slavery, we tend to compare it that of Great Britain or to the United States South before the Civil war. There is really no good comparison. Here is what pastor Randy Faulkner has to say about it on his website He writes:

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To compare the shame of the North American and British slave trade with first-century Roman slavery is a case of false equivalency. Brian J. Dodd has pointed out that slavery in the Mediterranean world of Paul was vastly different. (1) Slaves could and did earn their freedom. (2) They were not distinguished on the basis of race or color. In fact, it would have been difficult to tell, on the basis of appearance, the difference between a slave and a free person.

(3) Unlike the slaves in the American South, those in the Roman world had legal rights, including the right to appeal in the case of unfair treatment. (4) In some cases slavery was an opportunity for social and economic advancement. Some people sold themselves into slavery in search of a better life. (Paul discouraged this practice in 1 Corinthians 7:22-23.)

(5) Slaves in Roman society were often well educated and highly skilled. They occupied such trades as tutors, scribes, clerks, bookkeepers, civil servants, physicians, and household managers. (Slaves who worked in the mines, as gladiators and as galley-slaves on Roman ships were mostly prisoners of war or criminals.)

(6) Slaves could own property and save money. This allowed many to purchase their own freedom and eventual Roman citizenship.

(7) Sometimes slaves in prominent households preferred to remain in this position rather than to seek emancipation because it was advantageous to them to be treated well under a kindly master."

Some people criticize Paul and the other biblical writers for not denouncing slavery altogether and advocating its abolition. What they are failing to understand is that there was never a society in the ancient world that even considered such a thing. Slavery was completely ingrained into the fabric of all societies until the modern world, which only changed due to its exposure to the good news of Christ over centuries of time.

Slavery was an economic institution in the Roman world upon which their society depended. So to just drop it altogether and all at once would have meant the need to totally destroy and rearrange Roman civilization.

Further, we read all of our modern-day legal freedoms of speech, rights to vote and our ability to address grievances back into a world that knew nothing of them. For the Apostles to directly attack slavery would have resulted in slave insurrections that were brutally suppressed by the Romans who would have seen it as treason and sedition. And the message of the gospel would have gotten hopelessly confused with social reform rather than bringing the good news of salvation and reconciliation with God to the whole world.

The mission of Paul and others was to change the hearts of all individuals, both slave and master alike, thus bringing all of them together as brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul taught some radical things for his time when he said:

"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).

Indeed, Paul was preaching a new humanity, headed by Jesus Christ Himself. So if we are to understand the book of Philemon, or the other New Testament writings about slavery in general, we first need to see them from the perspective of an ancient world that had yet to be fully touched with the effects of the good news of Jesus Christ.

And we cannot read back into them our understanding about slavery which comes from our 21st century Western culture that has benefitted from literally centuries of preaching the gospel and having its reforming power to change hearts and ultimately whole societies, including our own.

Further, we have to realize that it was the writings of Paul and others in the New Testament, that have have lead to this understanding that we have of all men and women being equal regardless of race, color or creed.

With that in mind let us look at a quick outline of this small book.

III. Outline of Philemon

From, here is a simple outline of Philemon:

I. Introduction vs. 1-3

II. Thankfulness for Philemon vs. 4-7

  1. love for Jesus and all the saints
  2. faith in Jesus and in all the saints
  3. sharing of faith
  4. you are refreshing to the saints

III. Paul’s Appeal for Onesimus vs. 8-22

  1. I could command what is right
  2. But I’ll appeal for love’s sake
  3. Receive Onesimus (he is my own heart)
  4. I wanted to keep him, but I would not do so without your consent
  5. he is a beloved brother, especially to me
  6. Receive him as you would me
  7. Place any of his wrongs on my account
  8. Please, give me this joy and refreshment
  9. I know you will, and you’ll do even more
  10. prepare a guest room

IV. Closing vs. 23-25

A summary of this book can be found if we put together verses 10-11 and 15-17. Verses 10 and 11 say this:

"I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me." (10-11)

Then after saying that he would like to keep Onesimus with him but didn't want to do it without Philemon's consent Paul says:

"For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would receive him back forever, 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 you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me." (15-17).

So Paul is not just appealing for Philemon to forgive Onesimus and allow him to go back to business as usual but to accept him in a whole new way, as a fellow believer in Jesus Christ. So Christian forgiveness isn't just the act of not holding something against someone, it is a deliberate removal of all barriers that lay between you and accepting someone as you would a brother.

So, now that we've gotten a general understanding of Philemon, let us see what this New Testament epistle teaches us today.

IV. First Lesson: We Must Face the Consequences of Sin

The first thing that we might learn from Paul's smallest epistle is that sin has consequences and we must face up to the sins we have done. We need to go to the person or persons that we've wronged and ask for forgiveness, especially if that person is a fellow believer. We've got to do all within our power to make things right and bring back the fellowship that was lost by what we have done.

When Onesimus stole from Philemon and ran away, he wasn't a believer. However, he did become a follower of Christ under Paul's teaching and the apostle sent him back to Philemon to make amends. He said in verse 12-14a that:

"I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart, whom I wished to keep with me, so that on your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel, but without your consent, I did not want to do anything...."

And later in the epistle, Paul offers to make restitution himself for what Onesimus had done. He states:

"But if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account; I Paul am writing this with my own hand, I will repay it (not to mention to you that you owe to me even your own self as well)." (18-19).

The Apostle wanted Onesimus to clear up any outstanding debt that he had as a result of his sin against Philemon, even to the point of Paul making restitution himself.

V. Second Lesson: We Must Accept a Truly Repentant Believer

A second lesson that can be gleaned from these verses is that we must accept a genuinely repentant brother or sister in Christ who comes to us for forgiveness. Philemon could have done a lot of things to Onesimus. Under Roman law he could have executed a fleeing slave. He didn't legally have to accept his repentance and return.

Of course we don't know for sure that he did but if Paul knew Philemon's genuine Christian character as well as he thought that he did, then there is not much doubt.

The gospel is a message of second chances. And Philemon appeared to be a mature Christian who understood these things because of what Christ had done for him.

We all need to learn the lesson of forgiveness and acceptance taught to us by this epistle. After all, God accepts us for Jesus' sake.

That leads us to our final lesson that can be taken from this epistle.

VI. Third Lesson: We All are Like Onesimus

The reason that we must forgive and restore relationships with one another is that we are all like Onesimus. That is the lesson. We are all runaways. We've run from God. We all stand guilty of sin and must face the consequences before the Lord.

And just like Onesimus found refuge in his advocate, the apostle Paul, so we have an advocate before the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul took Onesimus' debt just like Jesus took our debt upon Himself on the cross of Calvary (II Corinthians 5:21).

And finally, just as Onesimus was no longer a slave, but a brother to Philemon, so we are heirs and joint heirs with Jesus Christ (Romans 8:16-17).

We are all just slaves that have been forgiven and shown mercy by our Master who is in Heaven.


In concluding this message, there is a story which the English Anglican theologian John Stott once told. It goes like this:

"Not long before she died in 1988, in a moment of surprising candor in television, Marghanita Laski, one of our best-known secular humanists and novelists, said, "What I envy most about you Christians is your forgiveness; I have nobody to forgive me."

My prayer today is that we all, as followers of Jesus Christ, become what Laski thought we were. People who forgive as God in Christ has forgiven us. Let us be the kind of people who, through our love and forgiveness of one another, become the reflected light by which the people that we meet may look at the true light of this universe, the Lord Jesus Christ. And by looking, I pray that they may be attracted to Him, fall at His feet and be saved. Then we will have accomplished our purpose on this earth.

© 2021 Jeff Shirley

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