A Brother's Request

Philemon  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  24:20
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A study in the book of Philemon revealing our need to communicate salvation to those around us and to forgive others because we have been forgiven by Christ our Master.


Philemon 8-12


​Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary Slave, Servant

A person could become a slave as a result of capture in war, default on a debt, inability to support and “voluntarily” selling oneself, being sold as a child by destitute parents, birth to slave parents, conviction of a crime, or kidnapping and piracy. Slavery cut across races and nationalities.

Manumission or freeing of slaves was possible and common in Roman times. Masters in their wills often freed their slaves, and sometimes they did so during their lifetimes. Industrious slaves could make and save money and purchase their own freedom.

The New American Commentary: Philippians, Colossians, Philemon 6. Slavery in the First Century

Many slaves took every opportunity to run from their masters. They normally fled to large cities, eating whatever they could and hiding from the authorities who might recognize them. Thus, freedom brought a worse life than they had had with their masters. In addition, the penalty for runaway slaves was severe. Although officially the government recognized the value of human life, many masters treated their slaves harshly. No doubt that was a fear in Onesimus’s heart. Further, in Onesimus’s case the matter was public, perhaps even common knowledge in the church. A major social upheaval could have occurred, depending on how Philemon handled Onesimus. He would be a test case for the rest of the masters and slaves.

Philemon 8 KJV 1900

Wherefore, though I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee that which is convenient,

Philemon 9 KJV 1900

yet for love’s sake I rather beseech thee, being such an one as Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ.

The Attitude of the Request - Appeal

Paul possessed authority over Philemon

He was an apostle and clearly appealed to that on occasion

Ephesians 4:11–12 KJV 1900

And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:

In fact, in the companion letter to the Colossian church, Paul makes mention of his apostleship

Colossians 1:1 KJV 1900

Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timotheus our brother,

Yet, here Paul speaks peer to peer - on an equal footing with Philemon

He could have directed Philemon to forgive since forgiveness is commanded of Christians and Paul could have told the church to discipline Philemon if he refused.

Yet, ...

Paul appealed from love for Philemon

The object of this love is Philemon - not Philemon’s love for others. This is the love Paul has for Philemon - Paul is not appealing to a general love for mankind.

Colossians and Philemon: A New Covenant Commentary The Pathos and Persuasion of the Apostle (8–22)

Paul does not issue a command, but rather prefers to make an appeal on the basis of love. Paul willingly forfeits the demand of obedience that his apostolic authority could rightly claim and instead appeals to Philemon’s sense of goodness and kind affection.

Paul uses a term that does not signify authority, but rather a forthrightness, a boldness.

Any Christian has the right and responsibility to speak to another Christian about acting biblically. It does not matter their station in life — even their age!

We are to confront one another using the words of Scripture and encouraging one another to live out our faith in action.

It is interesting that Paul refers to himself here as the aged one - this is a term that might be used for an ambassador, but most likely simply means he is older than Philemon. Probably Paul is about 50 years old at this time. (which was old for that time period).

He also reminds Philemon that he is in prison - but again uses the phrase that he is the prisoner of Christ Jesus.

Colossians and Philemon Explanation of the Text

While being an “old man” is the natural stage in one’s life journey, being a “prisoner of Christ Jesus” reflects an obedient will that has responded to the divine call. Here, Paul is likewise calling Philemon to submit to the divine will in giving up his own sense of autonomy and superiority.

As a result, he contrasts the potential authority that he has as an apostle with his current weakness and dependence on others. For these reasons he has faith that Philemon will do the right thing.

Philemon 10 KJV 1900

I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds:

The Object of the Request - Onesimus

Paul states that he has birthed Onesimus while a prisoner.

In other words, Onesimus was led to the Lord while Paul was in bondage.

Colossians & Philemon: Verse by Verse Paul Appeals to Philemon regarding His “Son,” Onesimus (10)

So it was a transformed Onesimus who returned to Colossae—no longer a pagan slave but now a brother in Christ.

Paul uses this same language to refer to Timothy:

1 Corinthians 4:17 KJV 1900

For this cause have I sent unto you Timotheus, who is my beloved son, and faithful in the Lord, who shall bring you into remembrance of my ways which be in Christ, as I teach every where in every church.

Philemon 11 KJV 1900

which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me:

Here Paul makes a play on the name Onesimus - which does mean useful. It is a sad fact that slavery existed and this name would probably have been given to Onesimus by either a slave trader or his master. This name is a name that was more appropriate for a beast of burden than for a man.

Yet, Paul creates this pun and there are a number of possible nuances to this pun.

Commentator Grant Osborne states:

Colossians & Philemon: Verse by Verse Paul Conveys the Reason for Onesimus’ Return to Colossae (11–12)

If Onesimus is to remain a slave, he has been transformed into a model servant. Paul also may be hinting that, if Onesimus were to be returned to him, he would be greatly valuable in assisting Paul’s ministry. In an overarching sense Onesimus is useful to the Lord in proclaiming Christ to the world. The emphasis on “both to you and to me” suggests all of these nuances. For a further possibility, consider that the Greek term for “useful,” euchrēstos, sounds similar to the word for “Christ,” christos—especially in that the letter “ē” was pronounced like “i” in the Hellenistic world. So it is possible, as some interpreters say, that Paul’s statement highlights the transformation of Onesimus from being “non-Christ” (achrēston, “useless”) to being a Christ-follower (euchrēstos).

So, what is Paul asking Philemon for?

Philemon 12 KJV 1900

whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels:

The Nature of the Request - Receive/Forgive

Paul again states that Onesimus is like his son - his very heart.

That is a very difficult request - Philemon would have lost standing in the community as one who could not control his own slaves. The temptation would be to punish Onesimus severely to show the world (and the church) that Philemon was not one to be trifled with. In addition, it would send a message to Philemon’s other slaves.

Fugitive slaves were many times tattoed on the face and whipped. A more lenient punishment developed in the fourth/fifth centuries of welding a collar on their neck. Many of these even had Christian wording and symbols.

This example states: I have run away; hold me.

When you have brought me back to my master Zoninus,

you will receive a gold coin

Yet, Paul is asking Philemon to forgive Onesimus!

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