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The Gospel Changes You -- a Study of Philemon

Updated: Nov 24, 2021

What's more important: your rights, or someone else's eternal soul?


Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Philemon

In this tremendous letter, Paul reveals the extent to which the gospel should transform a person, suggesting not that Philemon should free his slave, but he should free and forgive and accept his slave who stole a great deal of money from him and ran away. Paul asks this as a sign of mercy (with the reminder that Paul shared the gospel with both men).

12 I am sending him back to you—I am sending my very own heart.

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Thanksgiving!

You're covering the entire letter to Philemon in one go, so I recommend saving as much time as possible for the study itself.


As far as an uplifting opening discussion, perhaps think about a time when either (1) a new person was integrated into your family Thanksgiving, or (2) someone who had been ostracized from your family was finally accepted back to your family Thanksgiving. What were those first meals like? What were the feelings? Did some of your family members have a hard time letting go of the past?


In our passage this week, we learn of a slave who wronged his master and fled, only to meet Paul and become a Christian. Paul sent him back, telling him to make things right. But he also told the slave owner, who was a Christian, that he played a big role in making this reunion work -- bigger than he could have ever guessed.


This letter makes a lot more sense if you understand how slavery worked in the Roman Empire. So, I'm going to start with the context, and then we will get to the letter.


This Week's Big Idea: Fugitive Slaves in the Roman Empire

This seemed like the obvious topic to investigate this week, but there's surprisingly not a lot to go on. Here's some highlights from a dissertation I found from the University of Denver (as long as it's from a reputable university, you can count on dissertations to have solid sources).


Fugitive slaves were common in the Roman Empire (because slavery was not racial, slaves generally looked just like any free poor person). Here were the most common reasons for running away:

  • Desire for freedom

  • Missing home

  • Abuse by masters

  • Fear of torture (this astounded me, but apparently slaves could only give testimony in a trial if they were tortured)

  • Fear of being sold (this would be about separation from loved ones and also the unknown of a new, potentially cruel, master)

Here's a note from a slave to a master: "Of the irksome things having labored, carrying wood and piling it up and not wanting to flee from you, just as the rest of the maidservants do when wronged, but I at least knowing your ways, that you hate evil, do not do it. Farewell." I'm assuming that the translation isn't great (no original Greek included), but that illustrates why some slaves ran away.


Life on the run for a fugitive slave was usually perilous. Slaves could travel by themselves in the empire -- slaves were often sent on long-distance errands by their masters -- and a well-thought-out story could carry a fugitive a long way. But masters would quickly put out notices (like "wanted" posters but without the picture) and maybe hire the equivalent of a bounty hunter. Here's an example:

"A slave of Aristogenes, son of Chrysippos from Alabanda, envoy, fled in Alexandria by the name of Hermon, also called Neilos, a Syrian by birth from Babyke, about 18 years of age, medium height, beardless, with strong calfs, dimple in chin, mole on nose on the left, scar above corner of mouth on the left, tattooed on right wrist with two foreign letters, having of coined gold 3 minae, 10 pearls, an iron ring on which an oil-bottle and strigils, having about his body a cloak and loin-cloth. Whoever brings this (slave) back will receive 3 bronze talents, showing (him) at the temple, 2 talents, with a man of substance and legally actionable 5 talents."

That description is just detailed enough to be dangerous for the fugitive. The biggest danger to the fugitive was the reward. They couldn't trust anybody around them. Slaves often fled in groups of two or three for support.


If they had a homeland, slaves would often try to get there. Otherwise, they would look for a population center where they could "blend in". This could be extremely hard! Depending on where they have been kept, what they had been doing, and for how long, it could be very difficult for a fugitive slave to act like a free person.

Scars or brands would often be given to a slave to make them easy to identify (Emperor Constantine outlawed the practice of branding a slave on his/her forehead in 316 AD). More humane masters used collars or tags like this one (the caption reads "Hold me, lest I flee, and return me to my master Viventius on the estate of Callistus"). Another more famous example reads "I have fled, hold me; when you have recovered me you receive a solidus [gold coin] from my master Zoninus." Eventually, the abbreviation TMQF became the simple identifying mark (tene me quia fugio "hold on to me since I flee").


The legal obligation of anyone in the Roman empire who came across a fugitive slave was to turn him/her in, making it doubly dangerous for them. That wouldn't stop the fugitive from bribing the person who found them, a practice so common that emperors passed laws declaring harsh punishment for such behavior. But fugitives rarely had enough money to evade capture for long, keeping them "on the run" indefinitely.


Possible Exceptions. Although these weren't universally recognized, some places allowed a fugitive slave to seek sanctuary at a religious site or with a religious leader. Another, called Amicus Domini, said a slave could seek a mediator for a dispute with his master and not be considered a fugitive. One Roman jurist in Paul's day wrote, "A slave who takes refuge with a friend of his master, in order to obtain his intercession with the latter, is not a fugitive; not even if he has the intention of not returning home if he does not obtain pardon." Some Bible scholars have tried to apply both of those exceptions to the situation with Onesimus and Paul, though I don't think either apply.


What This Means for Onesimus

We will do some speculating when we get into the text, but for the time being, we can say that as a fugitive slave, Onesimus would have been rather paranoid. Whatever reason he was on the run, he was in extreme danger of capture and return. The fact that Paul was able to convert him under such circumstances is nothing short of miraculous. And what Paul is able to convince this fugitive slave to do is even more miraculous. It is all quite visible proof of the transforming power of the gospel.


An Introduction to Philemon

Here is the traditional understanding of the letter:

  • Onesimus was a slave of Philemon, a wealthy citizen of Colossae; the church of Colossae met in Philemon's home.

  • Onesimus stole from Philemon and ran away, eventually coming to Rome and crossing paths with Paul who was under house arrest there.

  • Paul led Onesimus to the Lord, and Onesimus became a valued helper, taking care of Paul's needs.

  • Paul eventually convinced Onesimus to return to Philemon.

  • Paul sent Onesimus and Tychicus with both the letter to Philemon and to the church of Colossae.

The letter to Philemon doesn't say a lot of that, so here's how we gather it:

Col 4: 7 Tychicus, our dearly loved brother, faithful minister, and fellow servant in the Lord, will tell you all the news about me. ... 9 He is coming with Onesimus, a faithful and dearly loved brother, who is one of you. ... 10 Aristarchus, my fellow prisoner, sends you greetings, as does Mark, Barnabas’s cousin ..., 11 and so does Jesus who is called Justus. ... 12 Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. ... 14 Luke, the dearly loved physician, and Demas send you greetings. 15 Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters in Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her home. 16 After this letter has been read at your gathering, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea. 17 And tell Archippus, “Pay attention to the ministry you have received in the Lord, so that you can accomplish it.”

Compare with:

Phlm 1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother: To Philemon our dear friend and coworker, 2 to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church that meets in your home. ... 23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings, and so do 24 Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my coworkers.

Lots of repeated names! There is no reason to conclude anything other than Philemon owned the house where the Colossian church met.

  • Apphia would have been his wife who would have been responsible for the household slaves (explaining why she was mentioned).

  • Archippus was either Philemon's son or the pastor of the church (or both).


But let me submit an alternate theory based on Philemon 22:

22 Meanwhile, also prepare a guest room for me, since I hope that through your prayers I will be restored to you.
  • Epaphras (who helped plant the church in Philemon's home) discovered the fugitive Onesimus hiding in Rome, but instead of turning him in brought him to Paul, who was early in his Roman imprisonment.

  • Paul led Onesimus to the Lord and after a short but fruitful time of discipleship sent him back to Colossae only with the letter to Philemon.

  • Back in Colossae, Philemon did indeed free Onesimus.

  • Onesimus eventually returned to Paul, probably because Philemon sent him back in response to Paul's implied request.

  • During that time, Epaphras filled Paul in on the happenings in the church at Colossae, so when Onesimus got to Rome (probably bringing more details), Paul composed the letter of Colossians.

  • Onesimus and Tychicus together delivered the letter of Colossians.

This theory is based on:

  • No one is mentioned as delivering the letter to Philemon. This implies that Onesimus was on his own. (Paul was already in prison, so what else could they do to Paul?)

  • In Colossians, Onesimus is prominently mentioned as "one of you", unlikely if he were a fugitive slave (as that would endanger everyone traveling with him) who no one in the church even knew was a Christian yet.

That theory doesn't really change anything except to conclude that Philemon did indeed listen to Paul and do everything Paul asked regarding Onesimus (which is the likely outcome).


Pronunciations

  • Philemon - [fil ay' mon]

  • Onesimus - [o nay' sih muhs]

  • Epaphras - [eh' pah frahs]

  • Aristarchus - [ah rih' star kus]


Who's to Blame, Onesimus or Philemon?

Paul doesn't give us any details about the dispute. There are two broad categories: Philemon did something bad to Onesimus that caused Onesimus to run away (the amicus domini crowd lines up here). -Or- Onesimus stole something from Philemon and ran away. The class warfare narrative in our culture today would put all of the blame on Philemon, "the oppressor", regardless of what happened. I get that -- no matter how you try to slice it, Philemon owned Onesimus as a slave. No excuses. Here's my take:

  • Paul speaks highly of Philemon as a church member, and Paul wasn't in the habit of flattering Christians (amiright?). This implies that Philemon was truly a Christian who wanted to follow Jesus. That sort of person would treat the people around him decently.

  • But Onesimus was still a slave and wanted to be free. But in order to escape and travel any real distance (see below), he would have to have money, meaning he would have to steal money from Philemon.

So, I'm going to conclude that Onesimus stole from Philemon and fled, and that's the immediate context. But that doesn't excuse the fact that Philemon kept Onesimus as a slave! That latter fact is what Paul actually deals with in this letter.


But again, Paul doesn't give us any details! Certainly, that's intentional (just like in Philippians and Colossians). Paul intended this letter to be read out loud to the whole church, and Paul did not want to distract from the heart of the matter with embarrassing details.


And also remember -- Onesimus wasn't a Christian when he fled! Paul led Onesimus to salvation. Whatever Onesimus did as a lost sinner was part of the sinful flesh that Jesus has transformed (see Colossians 2).


[Important aside: if Philemon was such a great church member, how could he justify owning slaves? I'm not going to try to excuse any of this. In that world, slave ownership for wealthy people was "the norm". Philemon likely owned slaves long before he became a Christian. When he became a Christian, his focus would have been on treating his slaves "well" (thinking that was sufficient). In this letter, Paul strongly hints that Philemon should go much further and set this particular slave free, and I believe that Philemon did just that.


When you became a Christian, did you immediately become perfect? What sins or wrong ideas did you carry with you? How many of them do you still struggle with today? Certainly, I don't need to remind you that church leaders aren't always right. Philemon had to be brought along in Christian growth just like the rest of us. Make a point of this sometime during the lesson -- it's important to see that we can learn to be better.]


Why Amicus Domini Doesn't Apply

The amicus domini exception means that the slave traveled at his own expense to obtain the assistance of a mediator, and the slave owner would wait for his return. But frankly, there's no way Onesimus could afford to travel from Colossae to Rome, and there's no reason to believe that Philemon would subsidize that trip (not when Paul had representatives as close as Ephesus!). No, Onesimus was fleeing to Rome in order to "disappear".

By land, Colossae to Rome was more than 1,700 miles, a trip of more than 3 months. By land and sea, Colossae to Rome was a journey of about 3 weeks. Either way was fraught with pitfalls:

  • The overland route would have required 6 months of food and lodging, an incredible expense.

  • The sea route, while much shorter, would have required going through the port city of Ephesus, a slave-trade hub where Onesimus would have been at high risk of being noticed. Booking passage on a ship required tolls, port fees, and exit fees. Still very expensive.

  • Both routes were at steady risk of pirates and thieves.

  • Both routes would have required some kind of documentation.

  • (Note: this implies that Onesimus stole quite a bit of money from Philemon.)

To think that Onesimus (a non-Christian) would have taken on that expense, time, and risk for any reason other than escape is a stretch.

 

Part 1: Sent (Philemon 8-12)

8 For this reason, although I have great boldness in Christ to command you to do what is right, 9 I appeal to you, instead, on the basis of love. I, Paul, as an elderly man and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus, 10 appeal to you for my son, Onesimus. I became his father while I was in chains. 11 Once he was useless to you, but now he is useful both to you and to me. 12 I am sending him back to you—I am sending my very own heart.

[Reminder: when books of the Bible only have one chapter, it is customary only to list the verses, i.e. not 1:8-12.]


While we might say that Paul is laying it on thick here, he's not wrong. With all of the background info in mind, you should be able to answer these questions:

  • What was Philemon's legal right to do to Onesimus for stealing from him and running away?

  • What would Philemon's social peers in Colossae have expected him to do to his fugitive slave?

  • What was Paul saying was the right (Christian) thing to do?

Frankly, this is incredible. Not only did Paul want Philemon not to punish Onesimus but to receive him back and (as we will shortly read) forgive him, reconcile with him, and free him from his bondage in slavery.


If you want to know what Jesus means by turning the other cheek, this is a good start.


Paul suggests that he could "force" Philemon to do what Paul asks. Why?


Instead, Paul appeals on the basis of love. (And also that Paul is an old man. And also that Paul is in prison. Laying it on thick-thick.) While in prison, Paul led Onesimus to salvation, and now Onesimus was Philemon's "spiritual equal" (a quote I attribute to Billy Graham: "the ground is level at the foot of the cross").


[Aside, and potential rabbit trail: would it have been "the right thing" to do if Onesimus had not become a Christian? Would Paul have still asked this of Philemon?


I say "absolutely yes" to both questions. But I think the idea is that if Paul had not led Onesimus to the Lord, there's no way Onesimus would have been willing to go back to Colossae, and so the question is academic.]


The word "onesimus" literally means "useful", so verse 11 is a play on words. It's not that Onesimus was a "bad slave"/"unproductive worker"; it's that after what Onesimus did, Philemon could have had no further use for him. But now, that part of the equation had changed. Onesimus had become Paul's "son" in Jesus. And further, he was now (probably literally) useful to Paul, helping to take care of his needs while he was in prison. Both of those changes were materially important to the situation:

  • Paul cared about Onesimus as he would his physical child.

  • Onesimus's behavior demonstrated an inward transformation.

Anyway, this first section simply sets the stage.

 

Part 2: As a Brother (Philemon 13-16)

13 I wanted to keep him with me, so that in my imprisonment for the gospel he might serve me in your place. 14 But I didn’t want to do anything without your consent, so that your good deed might not be out of obligation, but of your own free will. 15 For perhaps this is why he was separated from you for a brief time, so that you might get him back permanently, 16 no longer as a slave, but more than a slave—as a dearly loved brother. He is especially so to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

Paul is serving up a thick sandwich with a side of thick sauce. This is thick. And what could Philemon possibly say? Paul is absolutely right on all counts!


Now it's helpful for some additional context. It is quite likely that Philemon became a Christian during the same missionary journey that Epaphras did, and the two worked together to plant the church in Colossae (which met at Philemon's house; after Epaphras left, Archippus may have become the pastor). At least, that's how I take "not to mention that you owe me your very self" (19).


To me, Paul is simply applying what Jesus said in Mark 8:

34 Calling the crowd along with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me and the gospel will save it. 36 For what does it benefit someone to gain the whole world and yet lose his life? 37 What can anyone give in exchange for his life? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Philemon has experienced the priceless transaction of salvation. Is he now going to insist on an earthly payment? Would that not be turning his back on Paul, and by extension the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ? There's is only one way this situation should play out. Paul knows it, and Paul wants to make sure that Philemon knows it.


In verse 15, Paul brings up the great thought experiment -- perhaps God allowed Onesimus to run away so that he would find Paul and hear the gospel. Would that not be God working all things together for the good?


We have to be careful with pushing that too hard. If God can bring good out of even our worst actions, someone will try to find a way to excuse our worst actions. No -- read Romans. We cannot escape accountability, even if we receive forgiveness (note that Paul will offer to repay Philemon for any damages caused by Onesimus). Paul asks Philemon to be merciful to Onesimus as God was merciful to him.


Note also that Paul does not explicitly ask Philemon to free Onesimus. It remains implied. I think there are two reasons for that. (1) He's giving Philemon a chance to do the right thing on his own in such a way that the church can see his spiritual growth in action. (2) Equally importantly: it doesn't matter if Onesimus is socially free or a slave; as a Christian, Onesimus is now Philemon's brother. Nothing can change that. This very scenario might have informed Paul's powerful words in Colossians 3:

11 In Christ there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all.

We will never be in this exact situation, so let's look for some analogous ones. What other scenarios can you think of that might be similar to this?

  • Someone steals from you and then later becomes a Christian and asks for your forgiveness.

  • Someone wrongs you and then later becomes a Christian and asks for your forgiveness.

  • Something else like those?

There's another way to approach this scenario: when have you done something as a Christian that surprised you (in a good way)? Something that you would say, "Years ago, I would have never done that." Maybe in the way you chose to spend your time. Or were generous with your resources. Or were forgiving to somebody. I'm guessing that choosing to free his slave was a huge step in spiritual growth for Philemon, proof that the gospel was causing him to see the world differently. What are big changes in your life you've observed from growing in your Christian maturity?

 

Part 3: So Welcome Him (Philemon 17-21)

17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would me. 18 And if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—not to mention to you that you owe me even your very self. 20 Yes, brother, may I benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Since I am confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

Thickety McThick.


Paul has already hinted to this end with verses 4-6:

4 I always thank my God when I mention you in my prayers, 5 because I hear of your love for all the saints and the faith that you have in the Lord Jesus. 6 I pray that your participation in the faith may become effective through knowing every good thing that is in us for the glory of Christ. 7 For I have great joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother.

The root for "participation" is the same as for "partner". Paul uses a very common formula (for him):

  • I thank God for your faith ...

  • Which is demonstrated in your love for Christians ...

  • And want to partner with you to help your faith grow.

By reminding Philemon that he wants to partner with him, Paul is also reminding him that his faith is demonstrated by his love. "This is your chance to show your church what you believe."


And to really hammer this home, Paul says that he will repay Philemon anything that Onesimus stole from him. As I noted earlier, Onesimus probably stole a lot. Or at least, he stole enough that Paul felt it necessary to write "I will repay it" with his own hand -- very serious indeed. This is Paul acknowledging to Philemon that sin has a cost, and there must be a consequence. But rather than take it out of Onesimus (who probably doesn't have any more money), Paul will pay it (possibly out of the money that Epaphroditus brought from the church in Philippi to take care of him in prison). Of course, the very strong insinuation is that Philemon can simply forgive the debt, rather than take it out of old, imprisoned Paul.


It's time for Philemon to decide what's really important (just like we studied in Philippians: "1: 9 And I pray this: that your love will keep on growing in knowledge and every kind of discernment, 10 so that you may approve the things that are superior and may be pure and blameless in the day of Christ." So, what's most important:

  • getting your money back

  • or demonstrating your faith in Jesus Christ?

Not to mention the huge impact this choice is going to have on every member of the troubled church in Colossae.


What a powerful letter! So many lessons to choose from.

  • You never know what could happen when you share the gospel.

  • As a Christian, be prepared to put your money where your mouth is.

  • Every human being is equal in the gospel.

  • Becoming a Christian is supposed to change us significantly.

  • In Christianity, it's not about us; it's always about others.

Take your pick. And Happy Thanksgiving!

 

Closing Thoughts: When Restoration Is Possible

I've brought this up before, and I will bring it up again. Your Lifeway material paints restoration as the Christian goal (which is true -- for two Christians), and I want to make it clear that restoration isn't always possible. Here's a graphic I used a while back:

Forgiveness is step one. All Christians are required to forgive in all circumstances (just as God forgave us).


Reconciliation is step two. This is an acknowledgment on both sides that we need to move on (but we may have to do it separately).


Restoration is a possible step three. This is a desire from both sides to bring a broken relationship back to where it was. It sounds great because it is -- it's a picture of what Jesus made possible with our relationship with God.


Some Christians are quick to rush to restoration. Let me make some things clear.

  • In forgiveness, that's your choice alone. You can forgive even if the other person doesn't want it.

  • In reconciliation and restoration, it takes two. Both parties have to want it.

  • Reconciliation can happen even if the relationship is still broken. You no longer count one another as enemies, though you realize things won't be the same.

  • Restoration should be pursued only after the offending party "has changed". Otherwise, you will be putting yourself into the same broken situation.

In the case of Onesimus, restoration is a possibility because Onesimus has changed. When he became a Christian, he became a new person. Paul was not putting Philemon in a dangerous spot by asking him to take Onesimus back into his life "as a brother".


The key difference between reconciliation and restoration is healthy boundaries. Some Christians seem to believe that boundaries are a failure to forgive, but that's not true. Sometimes in our rush to restore, we can simply enable the bad behavior that caused the breakdown in the first place. Boundaries protect not only us, but the other people in our lives from the fallout of a broken relationship. And then, as the other person demonstrates that inward change, those boundaries can be shifted.


Having boundaries is not a failure -- it's appropriate. God established the law to be a boundary (a "nursemaid") for the Jews until they could prove that they had changed (they didn't), and even now, God still tells us as Christians that we will be accountable for those times we misbehave in our relationship with Him.

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