The Latter Epistles -Philemon

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker — also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier — and to the church that meets in your home:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus.  I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ.  Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.
Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love.  It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus — that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains.  Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.
I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you.  I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel.  But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary.  Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever — no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.  He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.
So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.  If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.  I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self.  I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ.  Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.
And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings.  And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

  • Philemon 1-25

Noted Biblical Scholars, Teachers, and Preachers Comments

Background and Setting for Philemon: “Philemon had been saved under Paul’s ministry, probably at Ephesus (v. 19), several years earlier.  Wealthy enough to have a large house (cf. v. 2).  Philemon also owned at least one slave, a man named Onesimus (lit. ‘useful’; a common name for slaves).  Onesimus was not a believer at the time he stole some money (v. 18) from Philemon and ran away.  Like countless thousands of other runaway slaves, Onesimus fled to Rome, seeking to lose himself in the Imperial capital’s teeming and nondescript slave population.  Though circumstances not recorded in Scripture, Onesimus met Paul in Rome and became a Christian.”
On the salutation: “Following first century custom, the salutation contains the names of the letter’s author and its recipient.  This is a very personal letter and Philemon was one of only 3 individuals (Timothy and Titus are the others) to receive a divinely inspired letter from Paul.”
On ‘in your home’: “First century churches met in homes, and Paul wanted this personal letter read in the church that met at Philemon’s.  This reading would hold Philemon accountable, as well as instruct the church on the matter of forgiveness.”
On ‘bold and order’: “Because of his apostolic authority (see Rom. 1:1; 1 Thess. 2:6), Paul could have ordered Philemon to accept Onesimus.”
On ‘useless … useful’: “… this is the same Gr. root word from which ‘Onesimus’ comes.  Paul was making a play on words that basically said, ‘Useful formerly was useless, but now is useful’ – Paul’s point is that Onesimus had been radically transformed by God’s grace.”
On ‘voluntary’: “Or ‘of your own personal will.’  Paul wanted Onesimus to minister alongside him, but only if Philemon openly and gladly agreed to release him.”
On ‘better than a slave’: “Paul did not call for Onesimus’ freedom (cf. 1 Cor. 7:20-22), but that Philemon would receive his slave now as a fellow-believer in Christ (cf. Eph. 6:9; Col. 4:1; 1 Tim. 6:2).  Christianity never sought to abolish slavery, but rather to make the relationships within it just and kind.”
On ‘even more than I ask’: “The more than forgiveness that Paul was urging upon Philemon was either: 1) to welcome Onesimus back enthusiastically, not grudgingly (cf. Luke 15:22-24; 2) to permit Onesimus, in addition to his menial tasks, to minister spiritually with Philemon; or 3) to forgive anty others who might have wronged Philemon.  Whichever Paul intended, he was not subtly urging Philemon to grant Onesimus freedom (see Philem. 16).”

  • John MacArthur, One Faithful Life

Philemon 4-5 ‘thanking God regarding others’: “Paul recalls how much Philemon had done in the comforting of persecuted and poor saints.  And when you are about to ask a favor of anyone, it is well to show your gratitude for what you or others have already received from him.”

  • Charles H. Spurgeon, from his sermon notes

 Philemon 7 ‘saying encouraging words’: “’When you talk, do not say harmful things, but say what people need – words that will help others become stronger’ (Ephesians 4:29).  Before you speak, ask: Will what I’m about to say help others become stronger?  You have the ability, with your words, to make a person stronger.  Your words are to their soul what a vitamin is to their body.  If you had food and saw someone starving, would you not share it?  If you had water and saw someone dying of thirst, would you not give it?  Of course you would.  Then won’t you do the same for their hearts?  Your words are food and water!
“Do not withhold encouragement from the discouraged.
“Do not keep affirmation from the beaten down!
“Speak words that make people stronger.  Believe in them as God has believed in you.”

  • Max Lucado, A Love Worth Giving

Philemon 8-9 ‘not using his apostolic authority’: “He says in effect, ‘I am an apostle, and I am your spiritual father, so I might have spoken with authority to you and have said, “It is your duty to do this.”  But I am not going to do anything of the kind.  I am going to plead with you and beseech it of you as a kindness and a favor. Pay a loving tribute to my old age; and, besides that, I am a prisoner shut up in the dungeon for Christ’s sake.  Hear the clanking of my chains, and grant my request for love’s sake.’”

  • Charles H. Spurgeon, from his sermon notes

Philemon 15-16 ‘the Master’s love’: “Nature is selfish, but grace is loving.  People who boast that they care for nobody and nobody cares for them are the reverse of a Christian, for Jesus Christ enlarges the heart when he cleanses it.  None are so tender and sympathetic as our Master, and if we are truly his disciples, the same mind will be in us that was also in Christ Jesus.”

  • Charles H. Spurgeon, from his sermon notes

Philemon 17 ‘welcome him’: “How beautiful!  It reminds me of our Lord Jesus Christ, who seems to say to the divine Father, ‘This poor child is in fellowship with me.  Receive him, therefore, as myself.’  And this is just what God does in the case of repenting and believing sinners – he receives them just as if he could see Christ in them.”

  • Charles H. Spurgeon, from his sermon notes

General comment: “We make out that a revival is everybody running around falling on everybody else’s neck and saying, ‘Forgive me for thinking a bad thought about you.  Forgive me for that nickel that I forgot to pay back.’  Or we say a revival consists of people getting very loud and noisy.  Well, that might happen in a revival, but the only kind of revival that would be here when the worlds are on fire is the revival that begins by saying, ‘Oh, God, give me Thyself!  For nothing less than Thee will do.’”

  • A. W. Tozer, The Attributes of God

My Thoughts

Of all the names in the Bible, I have often wondered how to pronounce Philemon.  I grew up in the South and there were a lot of mispronounced names, but oddly enough, the audio Bibles pronounce his name the way the preachers of my youth did, maybe with less of the PhiLEEEEEEEEmon, but close enough.

But who is Philemon?  As MacArthur states, probably a wealthy man in that he had a large home and owned slaves, at least one.  But I seriously doubt if this book would have been included in the Bible if Philemon had not done as requested.  There was peer pressure there as the letter was written and read to the entire church.  “Okay, Philemon, can you put your Christian teaching into practice by forgiving a slave who stole from you?”  And it is quite possible that Philemon freed Onesimus.  There is an Onesimus who was martyred in the area of Asia Minor, a bishop in the church.  It could be the same Onesimus.  MacArthur also claims that “useful” or Onesimus was a common name among slaves, so there could have been two former slaves named Onesimus who were Christians in the area.  I just feel strongly that the one mentioned in this letter was the one who became a bishop.

And now onto the central theme, forgiveness.  I recently was put into an unwinnable situation and I did not handle it well.  The person that put me in the situation was angry with my ‘solution,’ with forgiveness coming after a great deal of initial resistance.  I can be bone headed.  Being bone headed will happen again, but I did not like being backed into a corner where any move would result in me apologizing to someone.  Satan must be worried, because the attacks of late have been vicious.

But putting myself in the other person’s shoes, I would have been hurt.  Can God deal with us not forgiving until the pain subsides a little?  And what of the source of all the Satanic attacks?  Satan is the true enemy.  The human that Satan uses is simply being used.  Willingly used?  Probably, but it might be that they do not even know how harmful their attacks are.  They might not even consider them attacks.  And I am sure that they do not believe that Satan exists.  Ahhh, that’s Satan’s favorite playground.  And yes, even though not repentant, you must forgive your enemies also.  I read a Billy Graham devotion the other day where he talked about how we must try to live a life so that we have no enemies at all, or at least we do not perceive the enemies around us.  I have not accomplished either of those, but I must forgive.  Avoid?  As much as possible.

As for a church meeting in someone’s home, I have done that on a couple of occasions.  Once while working with the NASA project, there was a plant church that was just getting organized.  We met at the home of the local dentist until we rented the small Catholic church at times when they did not have services.  Then when I came to Pittsburgh, I was invited to someone’s home for worship.  Everyone there had their own home church, but the fellowship at the home of an Indonesian couple was the best “church” experience that I think I have ever had.  As Christian persecution increases in the USA, I hope that we never have to go underground, but in adversity, the church has thrived in the past, and even grown.  Maybe the church can get out of its lukewarm attitude in adversity.

And to tie into Paul’s play with words about “useful” becoming “useful,” can a servant in a Christian home become completely useful without accepting Jesus into their heart?  Sure, a non-believing servant can be subservient and polite, but they can undermine the household in subtle ways, sometimes without meaning to do so.  And simply being someone easily influenced by Satan could lead to the type of personal story that I mentioned above – someone doing Satan’s bidding, affecting the mood in a Christian home.  Thus, Onesimus was much more than a mere returning slave; he was indeed a brother.

And often we read such stories as in this letter to Philemon and we dismiss it.  We no longer have slaves, and we skip over the story, missing the lessons learned.  But some studies show that slavery exists throughout the world, even in the USA.  It may not be legal, but it exists.  Even so, I had a boss get angry at me one day.  I had refused to meet his demand because his demand was not humanly possible.  He towered over me, gritted his teeth, and said through his clenched teeth, “I own you!  You will do as I say.”  Yes, I could have simply walked out the door, but my boss knew that putting food on my table depended on the next paycheck.  My boss knew that being an engineering training manager was extremely rare, and I might starve before I ever got another job in my career field.  I did not do what he demanded, but I came close enough to keep him from killing me – what everyone who worked for him thought he was capable of.  And yes, I have forgiven him too, but if I had the opportunity of working for him again…  Probably not.  I can forgive, but my knowledge says to not trust.

But I am thinking about getting a book by Candace Owens, Blackout: How Black America Can Make Its Second Escape from the Democrat Plantation.  Yes, she is a conservative black woman, but I have had the same type of thought.  While I was “enslaved” by a boss who knew I needed a paycheck, how many are trapped on government subsistence?  Yes, freedom comes in a variety of levels and stages.  We would not stretch the concept of slave too far to include employee, and even in families, the church, and any social gathering, there seems to be a pecking order.  And with that, we must be forgiving, in both directions, and we must consider being considerate toward one another.

And if we have any ill feelings that remain, remember what A. W. Tozer said about true revival – the point when we go down on our knees and beg for God to take over, realizing that we do not have the power within ourselves, not even to truly forgive.

Some Serendipitous Reflections

“1. Which of the qualities in Philemon (vv. 4-7) do you wish to develop in yourself?  How could doing so cause you to grow in new areas?
”2. Like Onesimus, do you have something you need to return to and make right?  Do you have someone like Paul who can help you do that?
“3. When do you feel obligated to forgive someone: When they confess their sin?  When they later change their behavior?  When someone else intercedes for the offending party?
“4. For whom might you serve as a ‘Paul’ in bringing about reconciliation?”

  • Lyman Coleman, et al, The NIV Serendipity Bible for Study Groups

Question 3 is one of those questions that could become a series of posts on forgiveness.  But the Serendipity folks left one option out – “None of the above?”  Can you truly forgive when there is no repentance, possibly no show of shame or guilt, maybe even offending you with full support of their conscience – abusing you for your own “good”?  There is the thought of moving away to avoid the constant onslaught of abuse, not continuing to be the victim.  But God does not alleviate our need to forgive when the other person feels no guilt with repeated offenses.  In this case in Philemon, it was a single offense and Onesimus wanted to make it right, at least he went with Tychicus willingly.  But there are those in our lives, at least in mine, who think forgiving and accepting forgiveness is a horrible thing, a sign of weakness.  Yet, we must forgive them anyway, even forgiving their unwillingness to forgive.  Don’t worry.  It is above our pay grade; God will sort it out; and that’s the point.

If you like these Thursday morning Bible studies, but you think you missed a few, you can use this LINK. I have set up a page off the home page for links to these Thursday morning posts. I will continue to modify the page as I add more.

Soli Deo Gloria.  Only to God be the Glory.

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