Route 66 / Stop 57: Philemon

Audio File: 
Dr. Rich McCarrell
Sunday, October 21, 2018


The Apostle Paul (1:1, 1:19). This is the fourth of Paul’s Prison Epistles. It was written at the same time as his letter to the Colossians. In the four prison epistles, it is possible to see the Apostle Paul as: the theologian (Ephesians), the saint (Philippians), the apologist (Colossians) and as the gentleman (Philemon).



About AD 62 while Paul was in his first imprisonment at Rome.



Philemon, whose name means “affectionate” in Greek, and in a secondary way to Onesimus, whose name means “profitable”. He was an unprofitable slave (v. 18) who became a profitable servant for the Lord and profitable brother in the Lord (Col. 4:9).


Theme:            The Apostle Paul interceding for a runaway slave.


Key Verses:     Verses 17-19



I. Paul’s Greeting (vv. 1-7)

II. Paul’s Request (vv. 8-20)

III. Paul’s confidence and benediction (vv. 21-25)



The purpose for this letter is very simple. Philemon, a wealthy Christian living in Colosse, has apparently been wronged, possibly robbed, by one of his slaves / servants, who then ran away. The servant’s name was Onesimus (vv. 10, 11, 16, 18). This put the death sentence automatically on Onesimus’ head. He fled from Colosse to Rome and there came in contact with the Apostle Paul, who led him to saving faith in Jesus Christ. Paul deals with him concerning the principles of restoration, restitution and then sends him back to Philemon (vv. 12, 15 & 16) with a personal letter requesting Philemon’s care and receptivity of Onesimus -- not as a runaway, but now as a brother in the Lord. This is a beautiful display of Christian grace.

                        I want to share three statements with you concerning the purpose, practical application, and theological application of this most personal of all Paul’s letters.

1. Purpose – (Spiros Zodhiates). “Paul gives Onesimus shelter in his own house. He does not betray him or deliver him up into the power of his master as a fugitive. He does not send word to Philemon to come to Rome to prove that he was his slave and to take him. Paul kindly protects, instructs and leads Onesimus to Christ. He sends Onesimus back with his own consent as a trusted and honored messenger and brother, bearing a request to Philemon concerning his freedom. Paul does not accuse Onesimus of running away wrongly, but on the contrary, we have Paul stating that it was by the merciful providence of God that Onesimus had departed from Philemon for a season that he might be received back, no more as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved! Paul beseeches Philemon to receive Onesimus as he would Paul himself -- whatever wrong Onesimus may have done to Philemon, even though he may have been unprofitable to him, Paul takes on himself. Paul takes all Onesimus’s debts on himself and becomes security for him.”

2. Practical Application – (Charles Ryrie). “Onesimus, one of the missions of slaves in the Roman Empire, had stolen from his master, Philemon, and had run away. Eventually, he made his way to Rome, where he crossed the path of the apostle Paul, who led him to faith in Christ (v. 10). Now Onesimus was faced with doing his Christian duty toward his master by returning to him. Since death would normally have been his punishment, Paul wrote this wonderful letter of intercession on Onesimus’ behalf.

Philemon was not the only slaveholder in the Colossian church (see Col 4:1), so this letter gave guidelines for other Christian masters in their relationships to their slave-brothers. Paul did not deny the rights of Philemon over his slave, but he asked Philemon to relate the principle of Christian brotherhood to the situation with Onesimus (v. 16). At the same time, Paul offered to pay personally whatever Onesimus owed. This letter is not an attack against slavery as such, but a suggestion as to how Christian masters and slaves could live their faith within that evil system. It is possible that Philemon did free Onesimus and send him back to Paul (v. 14). It has also been suggested that Onesimus became a minister and later bishop of the church at Ephesus (Ignatius, To the Ephesians, 1).”


3. Theological Application – (John Cawood). “This small letter is also a beautiful example of what Christ has done for the believer. Onesimus had the death sentence over his head, and he needed someone to plead his cause. This person had to know both Philemon and Onesimus.  Further, the only way Onesimus could be justly restored would be for the debt to be paid. All of this, Paul did and more. Paul knew Onesimus; he knew Philemon; he was willing to pay any debt Onesimus had, and Paul was willing to have all his own credit transferred to this slave. This is the gospel story of the real substitution made by Christ for the sinner. We needed someone to plead our cause with God, and this one had to be equal with God and with us. This one is Jesus. To be just, we needed someone to pay our debt, and this Jesus did when He died on the cross. Further, we need to have God’s righteousness to enter heaven, and this is provided by Christ for us. Thus, the simple story of the book of Philemon is a good way to tell the story of redemption in every-day language.”