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Becoming Closer

An Old Man's Appeal


Not until the 19th century was the canonicity of this book challenged - and only on the grounds that it seems to be a personal letter, with no spiritual application to the church. The letter speaks better of itself:

(Phile NIV) Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker, {2} to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home: {3} Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. {4} I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, {5} because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. {6} I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. {7} Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints. {8} Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, {9} yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I then, as Paul--an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus-- {10} I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. {11} Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. {12} I am sending him--who is my very heart--back to you. {13} 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. {14} But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. {15} Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good-- {16} 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 man and as a brother in the Lord. {17} So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. {18} If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. {19} I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back--not to mention that you owe me your very self. {20} I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. {21} Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask. {22} And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers. {23} Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. {24} And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers. {25} The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.


The letter is clearly from Paul, not just from the statements in it. The Greek is very characteristic of his other writings; it is his style of writing. The early church - both those who were orthodox and the heretics - universally listed it as sacred Scripture. By the internal evidence - the fact that Paul was in prison for Christ, and the list of those who were with him - we know that it was most likely written by Paul about A. D. 61-63, most probably while he was under house arrest in Rome. It concerns itself with a runaway slave named Onesimus - the name means "profitable" or "helpful", and Paul makes a pun on it in the Greek - and his return to his master, Philemon. We must review the cast of characters to understand it.

Dramatis Personae

What do we know about this list of characters? A fair amount is left to us in the records of the early church. Philemon lived in Colosse, a city in what is now Turkey. By traditional accounts he became the Bishop of Colosse. Appia, mentioned in the salutation, is most likely his wife. Archippus is believed to be his son, probably a grown one.

We also know that Onesimus eventually became the Bishop of Berea - a town noted for its Biblical scholarship. One other thing: all four of these people were martyred under Nero. Each one died for the faith - which tells us something about how strongly they believed in the Lord Jesus Christ.

The character of Philemon

We know little of Philemon in this letter (except that he was likely enough to be wealthy), but some comments can be made about his character

All of his household were Christians. From this we may conclude that he was a fine example of Christian character to all around him, and most likely he spoke frequently for the faith.

He was generous to the saints; he therefore was a model of the Christian rich man.

Paul asks him to prepare a lodging for him, hoping to be released and return to them. From this we can conclude that Philemon was a man given to hospitality.

We can also conclude from that remark that Philemon was a man of prayer, for Paul was hoping he would be released in answer to their prayers.

Paul pays him a great compliment: he calls Philemon his "fellow worker." The word in the Greek is synergos, from which we get our word "synergy."

The character of Onesimus

Onesimus is a character quite foreign to us, for we live in a time which does not really know slavery. The attitude of the Romans towards slavery was quite different from our own. We see slavery in terms of black slavery in America; we see Simon Legree chasing Little Liza. They did not view it that way.

Onesimus is, by the common consent of the time (slave and free) a man who is of awful character. Their view would have been that he was a traitor to his master (who was responsible for his food, clothing and housing); a thief who had stolen from his benefactor.

How serious the crime was can be seen from the punishment that would be inflicted upon a runaway slave who was returned to his master:

He would most certainly have been branded on the forehead with a mark that would tell all who saw him, for the rest of his life, that this man was a runaway, a thief and a traitor. Other slaves would despise him. (Remember Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter?)

In almost all instances he would have been immediately castrated - to prevent him from having children of like rebellious attitude.

It is also likely that he would have been forced to fight a wild animal - a bear or lion, perhaps - to prove that he was still worthy to live.

All this would have been seen as justice - by slave and free alike. This would have been emphasized by the character of Philemon; to run away and steal from such a noble man would have been a despicable act.

The reaction of Paul

All that evil surrounding the character of Onesimus and the nobility of Philemon might have weighed heavily upon most men. Paul saw Onesimus and Philemon in the light of the Gospel of Christ:

The fact that Onesimus was by common consent a criminal scumbag mattered not at all to Paul (who had persecuted the church). Social status should be no barrier to the faith.

Your current economic or social status is irrelevant to the faith. Paul in his other writings tells slaves to be content where they are and serve their masters wholeheartedly. The issue is not one of slavery; the issue is one of what you will do for Christ with what you have.

There is another point in here: no human being is so low or evil that he or she is insignificant to God. Christ died for all.

Great Themes

This is a drama, and a dramatic work must have its themes. This one has three:


Christian love

The Power of Conversion.


By any standard of the time, Paul had the right to command Philemon in this matter. He is, after all, the man who has brought Philemon to know Jesus Christ, the greatest gift that can be given. Philemon is under deep obligation to Paul. But Paul's appeal is not based upon that obligation. He does not command; he asks. Does he ask on the basis of this obligation? No; he raises three points for his request:

Christian love between brothers

Paul's age

Paul's imprisonment.

You see the point? Instead of Philemon's obligation, Paul bases his appeal upon the love of Christ and Paul's own needs.

Remember too that Onesimus has become a different person after his conversion- and become very valuable to Paul. The temptation is to hang on to the man. Paul could, after all, have just sent the letter - but he didn't. He parted with someone he loved and needed so that his friend would not feel in any way forced to oblige him. He wanted his "whole-hearted" cooperation; thus he gave Philemon every chance to say no. He sent Onesimus back with the letter.

Even in the letter we see the tact of Paul. In verse 10, in the Greek, the word "Onesimus" is at the end of the sentence. Paul is writing in a very tactful style in the original, which does not come over very well into the English. But in the original the subject is brought up very gracefully and tactfully.

Christian Love

Christian love is, by definition, the love that Christ showed for us (at the Cross) as we exemplify it in our lives. Look at how Paul models that love for us:

He asks Philemon to receive Onesimus back - not as slave, but as brother. Philemon has every right to be extremely angry and judgmental. Paul says, take him back as a brother.

Does Onesimus owe Philemon anything? Certainly. He stole from him before he ran away. Can Onesimus pay? Probably not. So Paul says "Charge it to me." Just like Christ took upon himself the penalty for our sins, Paul models that behavior here and puts the debts of Onesimus on his own credit card. It is a very pragmatic display of Christian love.

It is a particular display of what Paul has elsewhere commanded of the rich: to be generous. It is not for the poor to presume upon the generosity of the Christian rich; it is for the minister of God to admonish the rich to be generous, as God was generous and merciful to us at the Cross.

The Power of Conversion

The Gospel of Jesus Christ changes lives - radically. There is great evidence for this in the letter:

First, Onesimus went back. My own reaction is that I'd take the letter and head for parts unknown rather than trust to Christian love. But Onesimus had met the Master, and now he understood. Whatever fate awaited him, he must do what is right - in obedience to his Lord. Stand still, Onesimus, and see the power of God.

From the practical Roman's point of view, the power of conversion was greatly displayed. Onesimus - remember the meaning of his name? - is now indeed "profitable." God has taken an evil thing and turned it into good, by the power of the Cross.

Consider too Paul's confidence in Philemon! Would you send a man back to branding and castration? But Paul knows this man, and knows that he is strong in the faith of Jesus Christ. He has seen this power of the Gospel at work in him, and he is confident of a good reply.

We see at work here the power of the reconciliation of God. Jesus Christ reconciled us to God at the Cross, at his own expense. Paul has reconciled Onesimus to Philemon, at his own expense - losing a dearly beloved helper and comfort while he is in chains. Reconciliation is always costly - to the reconciler. The challenge to us is this: are we willing to pay the price to reconcile others - to God and to each other?

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