Scripture reading – Philemon
“The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to Philemon” is the second of Paul’s prison epistles in our study, and was written during his first imprisonment in Rome around AD 60-63. This was a personal letter from Paul to Philemon, who was apparently a man of wealth, and in the apostle’s words, “dearly beloved, and fellowlabourer” (1:1).
Though a prisoner of Rome, Paul’s salutation, challenges us to a different perspective regarding his confinement. He wrote, “Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ” (1:1a). While a prisoner of Nero, nonetheless, Paul saw his confinement as a divine appointment, and himself as “a prisoner of Jesus Christ” (1:1). Characteristic of his selfless style, the apostle acknowledged, “Timothy our brother,” as one in his company in Rome (1:1b).
Before Paul stated the subject and purpose of his letter, he greeted two others, “our beloved Apphia [a female and possibly Philemon’s wife], and Archippus our fellowsoldier” (1:2), They were part of the church that gathered in Philemon’s house (1:3). Then, Paul bid all who would read his letter, “Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:3).
Paul’s Praise of Philemon’s Character (1:4-9)
Paul had heard of Philemon’s testimony among believers, and the report had stirred him to not only thank God for him, but to make “mention of [him] always in [his] prayers” (1:4). What report had the apostle received concerning Philemon? He had heard of his “love and faith,” not only for the Lord, but for “all saints” (1:5). Paul’s heart was stirred when he heard that Philemon had offered words of faith and truth, as well as, demonstrated God’s love for them (1:6-7).
Now, all Paul had written concerning Philemon was true, and was the background for Paul to ask of him something extraordinary. Confessing his purpose and appeal in the letter would be bold and personal, so he therefore appealed to Philemon “for love’s sake,” as his elder (“Paul the aged”), and as “a prisoner of Jesus Christ” (1:9).
Onesimus, the Runaway
Coming to the heart of his letter, we observe a twofold purpose for Paul writing to Philemon. The first, to urge him to forgive and receive Onesimus, who was a runaway slave. In light of his testimony among believers, Paul challenged Philemon to receive his slave in the spirit of love that ought to be found between all believers, regardless of class, race, or economic status. In the case of Philemon, it was an opportunity to apply the principle of brotherly love to the relationship between a servant and his master. Paul had written to believers in Colosse, “3:22Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God…4:1Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal; knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven” (Colossians 3:22; 4:1).
Onesimus, the Redeemed (1:10-11)
Paul’s epistle introduced Onesimus as more than a disobedient, runaway slave. I wonder what thoughts raced through Philemon’s mind when he read, “10I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds” (1:10). We do not know what drove Onesimus to flee servitude, but he was now addressed by Paul as believer, a son in the faith, and the spiritual fruit of the ropes and chains that bound him. Paul acknowledged Onesimus’ failure (for he had been an “unprofitable” servant); however, as a believer he had been transformed and proven to be a “profitable” servant. Paul was confident Philemon would find Onesimus to be the same (1:11).
Onesimus, the Restored (1:12-16)
Though he had ministered and brought comfort to Paul in prison, the apostle understood Onesimus’ place was with his master (1:12a). Sending him home, Paul urged Philemon to receive and restore his slave, in the same manner he would receive Paul, should he come to his household (1:12b). Indeed, the apostle conveyed a perspective that he viewed Onesimus’ ministry to him in prison, to be as though Philemon had himself been his minister (1:13). While he would miss the comfort the slave had brought, Paul would not presume or take advantage of his service without the blessing of his master (1:14). Paul understood Onesimus’ flight had been “for a season,” but he urged Philemon to “receive him for ever; 16not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord?” (1:15-16).
A Picture of Imputation, and a Promise of Restitution (1:17-21)
In a moving illustration of the Doctrine of Imputation (the act of applying a credit or debit to another’s account, Romans 4:3-5), Paul appealed to Philemon to place any debt owed by Onesimus to his account (1:17-19). We are not told if the slave had taken his master’s property in his flight from servitude, but Paul assured Philemon he would take responsibility for repaying any debt (1:19). Paul, however, took liberty to remind Philemon that he too was a debtor to him for his sharing the Gospel as Christ’s minister (1:19b). Paul assured Philemon his spirit would rejoice if he received Onesimus; in fact, he was so bold as to confess he would go beyond his expectations, and “do more than I say” (1:21).
Closing thoughts (1:22-25) – Our devotional concludes with Paul expressing hope he might soon follow Onesimus, be released from prison, and renew his fellowship with Philemon in his household (1:22). As he mentioned Timothy in the salutation, Paul concluded his letter sending greetings from five believers who were with him in Rome (the same were named in Colossians 4:10-14; Philemon 1:23-24). With the possibility Paul and his ministry team would soon follow, I believe Philemon was motivated to fulfill Paul’s expectations, and receive his former slave as a fellow believer. To that end, Paul prayed, “the grace [favor and blessings] of our Lord Jesus Christ [would] be with your spirit. Amen” (1:25).
Challenge – In light of Paul’s challenge to Philemon regarding his relationship to his slave, Onesimus, take a moment, and reflect on your treatment of others.
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