Philemon 1–25


Since last September, we’ve been studying what are known as the Pastoral Epistles. That is, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. These are letters written by the Apostle Paul to two of his colleagues in the ministry. Timothy was overseeing the church in Ephesus; and Titus was overseeing the church on the island of Crete. And in those letters Paul gave them instructions on what they were to do and what they were to teach and he also wrote to encourage them in their work.

We finished Titus just before Easter and I hope next week to begin to a new series of sermons on the book Ruth in the Old Testament. But before we get to Ruth I thought we may as well study the book of Philemon this morning, since it’s there in our Bibles, right after Titus. As you can see it’s a short book: only 25 verses. And since it’s so short, it’s easy to forget about it. And since it’s so short, we may be tempted to think it’s not very important. But, as we read in 2 Timothy, all Scripture is breathed-out by God. All of Scripture is God’s word to us; and therefore all of it is important and we ought to receive, believe and obey all of it, including the small books like Philemon.

The book of Philemon is another of Paul’s letters and it was written to this man named Philemon who is mentioned in verse 1. You’ll see from verse 2 that Paul also addressed the letter to ‘Apphia our sister’ and ‘Archippus our fellow-worker’ and to the church ‘that meets in your home’. However, it’s clear that Philemon was the main recipient. We don’t know must about Philemon, except what we can pick up from this letter. He was clearly a believer since Paul refers to him as ‘a fellow worker’ and he refers in verse 5 to his faith and love. And it’s likely that he was converted to faith in Christ through Paul’s ministry. We get that from what Paul says in verse 19 that Philemon owes his very self to Paul. It seems Philemon had a slave named Onesiumus, who is first mentioned in verse 10. Now the name Onesimus means ‘useful’, but it seems that Onesimus was pretty useless as a slave; and he had run away from Philemon.

Now, since we don’t approve of slavery today, we maybe think to ourselves, ‘Well done, Onesiumus. We’re glad you escaped.’ However, while we may not approve of slavery today, it was very much a feature of life in the ancient world. So, Philemon was entitled by law to keep slaves; and it was against the law for Onesiumus to run away. And, as I’ve said before, while some slaves were mistreated in those days, many of them were well-treated and many slaves were given important work to do. In some ways, they weren’t much different from those of us who work for a living.

In any case, whatever we think of slavery, Onesiumus had run away from Philemon. And it’s possible that Onesimus also stole some money from Philemon to help him on his journey. That’s the implication of verse 19 where Paul says that if Onesimus has done Philemon any wrong or owes you any thing, charge it to me. Paul was offering to pay back whatever Onesiumus had taken.

Now, we don’t know how it happened, but it seems that he ended up visiting Paul, who was in prison at the time. We know Paul was in prison, because in verse 9 he says he’s a prisoner and he refers to his chains in verses 10 and 13 and he refers to Epaphras in verse 23 as his fellow-prisoner. Though he was in prison, Paul could receive visitors. And it seems that Paul led Onesimus to faith in Christ so that this runaway slave became a believer. We get that from verse 10 where Paul says Onesimus has become his son. That is, he became his son in the faith. And in verse 16 Paul refers to Onesimus as a ‘brother in the Lord’. And it seems too that Onesimus can become a great help to Paul and that Paul loved him. So, according to verse 11, he had become very useful to Paul; and in verse 12, Paul says that he has become his ‘very heart’, which is a term of affection. According to verse 16, he has become very dear to Paul. Nevertheless, Paul was now sending Onesiumus back to Philemon. That’s in verse 12. After all, he couldn’t keep Onesimus with him; that was against the law. He had to send him back.

But Onesimus had run away and he had stolen some money. So neither Paul nor Onesimus could be very certain how Philemon would react. Would he be angry? Would he be furious? Would he punish Onesimus? He had the right to do that. So Paul writes this letter which he sends with Onesimus; and in it he asks Philemon to welcome Onesimus back; in fact, to welcome Onesimus, the runway slave, as he would welcome Paul himself. That’s in verse 17. And in verse 21, Paul says that he knows that Philemon will do even more than I ask. It’s not clear what Paul means, though some commentators think Paul means he wants Philemon to let Onesimus return to Paul to help him with his ministry. However, other commentators think Paul means he wants Philemon to release Onesimus from slavery. However, it’s not clear what Paul is asking. In any case, in the course of these 25 verses Paul sets us an example of how to stop fights and he demonstrates seven ways to bring together two Christians who have fallen out.

And that’s what we’re going to be thinking about today. We’ll look at this brief book to see what we can learn from Paul about making peace between believers who have fallen out with each other. It happens all the time. We might be Christians, but we’re still sinners. And since we’re sinners, we’ll offend one another from time to time and we’ll do things to one another which we shouldn’t. And when it happens, when believers fall out, what should the rest of us do? That’s what we can learn from this book.


And the first way to stop fights is to pray for God’s grace. Paul begins his letter in verse 3 and he ends it in verse 25 by referring to God’s grace. ‘Grace to you’ he says in verse 3. ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit’ he says in verse 25. And when he mentions God’s grace, he’s referring to God’s kindness to sinners and his willingness to pardon our sins for the sake of Christ who died for us. And by his grace, he changes us. God graciously works in the hearts of his people to change them.

We all know people who can be difficult and stubborn and hard to get along with. We know people who are headstrong. We know people who like to hold on to grudges. We know people who are always ready for an argument and whatever you say, they will disagree with you. We all know people like that. Maybe that’s the way you are. And sometimes it seems that such people will never change. God, we say, is unchangeable; he’s the same, yesterday, today and forever. And it’s good that God does not change, because he’s always good and kindness and full of steadfast love. But unfortunately we all know people who also seem to be unchangeable. And that’s not so good, because they’re always difficult.

And yet people do change. They do change. It’s not so much that they can change themselves, but that God changes them. He does that with all of us, because he graciously works in our hearts by his Spirit; and slowly over time the Lord changes us. In fact, Paul referred to this in his letter to Titus. Do you remember what he said at the beginning of chapter 3? He said: ‘At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved to all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.’ That’s the way we were at one time; but then the kindness and love of God appeared and he saved us. So, what we deserved was the wrath and curse of God, because of the way we used to be. But instead of experiencing the wrath and curse of God, we experienced God’s kindness and his love. And so, he saved us from his wrath. But he also saved us from that kind of life by changing us and by making us people who are devoted to doing good. That’s what Paul wrote to Titus. And in another part of his letter to Titus, Paul wrote that Christ gave himself for us — that is, he gave up his life for us — to deliver us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people who are eager to do good. So, people change, because God changes them by his Spirit.

And so, when disputes and divisions occur between believers, and when people are being difficult, we don’t need to despair and think they will never change. Instead we can rely on the grace of God; and pray for God to work in us to change us by his Spirit.

So Paul reminds us right at the beginning of this letter of God’s grace which is his kindness to us in Christ Jesus and how he’s able to work in our lives to change us. ‘The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men’, Paul wrote to Titus. And it teaches us to say ‘no’ to ungodliness and worldly passions and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives. And so, we can always rely on God and his gracious help.


The second way to end fights and to be a peacemaker is to be positive and to praise the people involved. And that isn’t easy. You know what it’s like. There are two people who have fallen out. Maybe it’s over something really silly, like a bad joke or a misunderstanding or something really trival. But the trouble between them has just escalated and now the knives are out. And you think they’re just being ejits. And you want to knock their heads together and knock some sense into them, because they’ve fallen out over something so minor. And you’re so frustrated with them and you’re tempted to complain about them.

However, Paul begins the letter by praising Philemon and thanking God for him. He’s saying to Philemon in verse 4 ‘I’ve heard so many good things about you. I’ve heard about your faith in Jesus Christ. And you’re a man known for your love towards God’s people. You’re well known for your love and your kindness and your generosity.’ And people love to hear good things about themselves, don’t they? Who doesn’t like to be praised? And Paul goes on in verse 7 to say: ‘Your love for other Christians has brought me great joy. So, here I am in prison, but I’ve heard good reports about you and it’s been such an encouragement to me to hear how you have refreshed the hearts of so many people by your many acts of love and kindness. Well done.’ And, of course, this will put Philemon in a good frame of mind, won’t it? Rather than beginning his letter with: ‘You dummy. Wise up, won’t you?’, Paul begins with ‘Well done’.

Now is Paul lying? Is this merely flattery? Are we to butter people up by flattering them? That doesn’t sound like Paul, does it? I think what he’s saying about Philemon is true. It seems to me that Paul had heard good reports about Philemon. Maybe he’s heard bad things too. After all, all of us are a mixture of good and bad. But if he’s heard bad things about Philemon, Paul chooses not to mention those bad things. Instead he focuses on the things that are praiseworthy in Philemon.

So, there’s that person you know who is locked in a dispute with someone else. You think they’re being stupid. And you’re frustrated with them. So what do you do? Say, ‘You dummy, wise up.’? Or do we begin with praise? Paul’s method is to begin with praise.


Next Paul uses prayer. I’m looking now at verse 6 which is a difficult verse to translate and most of the commentators tell us that the NIV and the ESV have got it wrong. The NIV translates Paul’s words as follows: ‘I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith….’ The ESV translates Pauls words like this: ‘I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective….’ However, the Greek words translated ‘sharing your faith’ don’t really mean that. They mean something like ‘sharing in the faith’. We’ll come across the word for ‘share’ this evening in Hebrews 2 where the writer refers to how the Son of God shared in our humanity when he became one of us. So, Paul is not referring to sharing our faith with unbelievers, but to how we share in the faith with our fellow believers. We participate in the same faith. We have it in common. Paul is referring to the way Philemon shared in the faith. That is, he’s a believer along with Paul. They have their faith in common. They share the same faith in Christ.

And Paul is praying that Philemon will come to have a full understanding of every good thing believers have in Christ. And I think what he’s referring to is what the theologians call ‘the communion of the saints’. Since we’re all united to Christ by faith, then we’re all united to one another. We have communion or fellowship, not only with Christ, but with one another. And that means we have an obligation to one another. We’re not strangers, who are indifferent to one another, because we’re united together in Christ and we’re obligated to love and serve one another for the sake of Christ. We’re to do what we can to help one another so that we build one another up in the faith and we help one another in practical ways.

And so, Paul prays for Philemon, asking God to help him to come to a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. In other words, he’s asking God to help Philemon understand and to put into practice the fellowship believers have with one another. And he’s asking God to help Philemon understand what that means for his relationship with Onesiumus who has now become a believer too and who now shares the same faith. He’s no longer just a slave, but he’s your brother in the Lord. And therefore you have an obligation to love him and to forgive him, just as God in Christ has forgiven you.

And there’s something we can pray for when believers fall out. They may have fallen out, but they’re still united together under Christ. They still share the same faith in Christ. And they still have an obligation to love and serve one another and to build one another up spiritually and to help one another practically. So, pray for believers when they’re in dispute, asking that God will help them to have a full understanding and appreciation of every good thing we have in Christ and how we’re united together under him.

Avoid the heavy hand

So, Paul is relying on God’s grace to change Philemon. And he’s begun with praise. And he’s prayed for Philemon and the situation with Onesimus. In verses 8 and 9 we learn the fourth way to stop fights. And it’s this: avoid using a heavy hand.

Paul was an apostle. So, he had a special authority in the church. And he could easily have made use of his apostolic authority and issued an order to Philemon to welcome Onesimus back and to pardon him. He could have used a heavy hand and issued an order. But he doesn’t do that, does he? He says in verses 8 and 9: I could order you. I could remind you of your duty as a Christian. But I’m not going to. Instead, I’m appealing to you. I’m not demanding you, but I’m asking you. If this is something you’re going to do, then I want you to do it because you want to do it and not because you were forced into it. If you’re forced, you’re just going to make life really difficult for Onesimus. And I want you to welcome him back properly. So I’m not demanding anything. I’m asking.

Isn’t that a better approach? Not demanding, but asking. Not laying down what is our duty, but making an appeal. You can’t order someone to be loving. You can’t order someone to forgive a wrong. You can’t order that sort of thing. In fact, since we’re all sinners, when someone makes a demand on us, very often it just provokes our sinful nature and we dig in our heals more firmly. When someone tries to push us around, we resist. But when someone makes an appeal, when someone asks us, very often we’re moved to do what’s right. So Paul did not force Philemon to love Onesimus. He invited him to love Onesimus. And he avoided using a heavy hand.

Speaks highly of the other person

Paul’s fifth approach is to speak highly to Philemon of Onesimus. Verse 11: Onesimus used to be useless, but now he’s become extremely helpful. Verse 12: he’s become my very heart. Verse 13: I’d love to keep him here, because he’s such a help. Verse 16: he’s very dear to me.

So, after church on a Sunday morning, you’re talking to Bill and he begins to criticise Bob. What’s your response? You might say nothing. Or you might kind of nod and say: ‘Yeah I know what you mean.’ Or you might join in: ‘Yeah, I know what you mean. Let me tell you what he did to me….’ Well, Paul would not nod in agreement. And he would not add fuel to the fire. Instead he praised Onesimus, saying how much Onesimus means to him. And that’s the approach we should take. Bill criticises Bob. And in response, we can say: ‘Really? I’ve always found him to be alright.’ Of course, the accusation against Bob may be accurate. But instead of talking about what he’s done wrong, talk about what he’s done well. Disregard the things that were wrong; and point out the things that are praiseworthy. Isn’t that the way you like to be treated? You don’t like it when someone talks about what you’ve done wrong. So if you don’t like it, don’t do it to others.

God’s purposes

Paul’s sixth approach is to suggest tentatively that God may have had some hidden purpose or secret design in planning these things. Paul writes in verse 15: ‘Perhaps the reason Onesimus was separated from you for a little while by God was that you might have him back permanently and have him back, not simply as a slave, but as a dear Christian brother.’

Now Paul has to be tentative and begin with ‘perhaps’ because we cannot presume to know God’s secret purposes. However, we believe everything happens according to God’s will and he has planned everything that happens. And we believe he’s able to work all things together for good. And we believe he’s able to use our sins for his own good purposes, so that he’s able to bring good out of evil. That’s what the story of Joseph in the Old Testament teaches us. Joseph’s brothers hated him and sold him into slavery. He ended up as a slave in Potiphar’s house where he was falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife. So he was thrown into prison. But God meant all these bad things for good, because God ensured that Joseph was in the right place at the right time to save his people from famine. So, when it’s appropriate, let’s remind the offended person that God’s will for them remains good and pleasing and perfect. Yes, they may have had to put up with lots of trouble. But God knows all about it. He knows the pain they’ve suffered. He knows the trouble they’ve been put through. He knows about the sleepless nights. But he’s able to bring good out of it. And so, despite the trouble this other person has caused you, trust in the Lord to work all things together for good.

Pay the cost

Finally, Paul’s seventh approach is the most difficult. If we want to stop people fighting, if we want to make peace between two Christians who have fallen out, then be prepared to pay the cost that’s involved. Paul says to Philemon in verse 18: ‘If Onesimus owes you anything, then I’ll pay it. This is my IOU to you: whatever he owes you, now I owe it to you.’

Well, which one of us wants to dig into our own pockets in order to stop Christians fighting? Not many of us, but that is the approach Paul takes. If the dispute is over money or damaged property and we have the means to do so, then we will need to think about paying the cost ourselves.

Of course, Paul is following the example of Christ, because didn’t the Lord Jesus pay for our sins when he gave up his life on the cross? Didn’t he give up his life on the cross as the ransom to pay for all that we have done wrong? And by giving up his life for us, he has made peace for us with God. Though we are the guilty ones who have done wrong, Christ paid the cost on our behalf and in our place; and he did for us what was necessary to reconcile God and sinners.

And so, Paul is following the example of our Saviour. He offered to pay Onesimus’s debt in order to make peace between Philemon and Onesimus. Have two Christians fallen out because of money? Or property? Is there some cost involved? Do we care deeply about this dispute? How deeply? Deeply enough to pay the cost ourselves? That’s the example that Paul sets us. And it’s the example the Lord Jesus has left us.


And so, there you are. Seven ways to stop a fight between believers. Rely on God’s grace to change us. Begin with praise. Pray. Avoid the heavy hand. Speak highly of the people involved. Remember God’s purposes. And pay the cost.