Philemon - Showing Christ in Awkward Situations
January 21, 2018 version


Why did God put the prison letter of Philemon in the Bible? We can see great value in this brief book. While many other books discuss doctrine and practice, Philemon gives us a good example of one way to relate to fellow Christians on sensitive issues.
Paul states that this slave, who formerly had been useless to Philemon, had since become useful both to Philemon and to Paul. The key factor behind this change from uselessness to usefulness was the spiritual transformation that had occurred when Onesimus accepted Christ as Savior.
The book of Philemon also shows that while God tolerated slavery back then, that was not His perfect will.
Finally, Philemon can be called the book of forgiveness. Philemon suffered financial loss in freeing Onesimus, and Onesimus was not partially, or conditionally forgiven, but completely forgiven. Paul urged but did not command Philemon to forgive; forgiveness must be voluntary.

Date:
There are two likely times when Paul, as a prisoner wrote Philemon: 58-60 A.D. when Paul was a prisoner at Rome, or 56 A.D. when Paul was imprisoned in Ephesus.
A less likely possibility is when Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea.

There are some similarities between Philemon and Colossians. Scholars disagree on whether the two books were written at the same time or a few years apart. But one was a letter to a church, and the other a letter to an individual, as well as to a church (Phm 2). Here are the similarities.
1) Colossae, Hierapolis, and Laodicea were cities in Phrygia, and Apphia was a Phrygian name.
2) "Grace and peace to you from God our Father" Phm 3 and Col 1:2b
3) Both are said to be by Paul and Timothy, though the content of Philemon is obviously just Paul. Timothy could have been a scribe for Paul though.
4) Both refer to Archippus (Col 4:17 Phm 2)
5) "faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints" (Col 1:4) and "faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints" (Phm 5)
6) "I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand." (Col 4:18a) "I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand." (Phm 19)
7) They end with "Grace be with you" (Col 4:18b) and "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your Spirit" (Phm 25)

Pre-Nicene and Post-Nicene writers who refer to Philemon
Muratorian Canon (180-210 A.D.) Synopsis Scripturae Sacrae (350-370 A.D. or 5th cent.)
Tertullian (198-220 A.D.) Cheltenham Canon (ca.360-370 A.D.)
Origen (225-253/254 A.D.) Ephraim the Syrian (350-378 A.D.)
Hilary of Poitiers (355-367/8 A.D.) Cyril of Jerusalem (c.349-386 A.D.)
Athanasius (367 A.D.) Synod of Laodicea (in Phrygia) (343-381 A.D.)

The earliest fragment of Philemon is p87 (c.125 A.D.) of Phm 13-15, 24 (partial), 25b with gaps.

Here is an outline of Philemon.
Phm 1-3 Greetings from Paul
Phm 4-7 Thanking and praying for Philemon
Phm 8-17 Appeal for the runaway slave
Phm 18-22 Relationship trumps awkwardness
Phm 23-25 Closing greetings and blessing

Philemon 1-16 - Paul Making His Appeal



1. In Phm 1, what is so unusual about Paul's greeting here?




2. In Phm 1 and 2 Tim 1:8, how did the Lord take Paul as a prisoner?



3. In Phm 4, why is Paul addressing Philemon this way?



4. In Phm 10, is there any extra-Biblical evidence for Onesimus?




5. In Phm 10-15, why does Paul tolerate slavery?




6. In Phm 11, why is Paul calling Onesimus formerly unprofitable?




7. In Phm 12, why is Paul confident in Philemon's obedience, since Paul did not actually command Philemon to do anything?




8. In Phm 12-15, what is Paul basically saying?



9. In Phm 16, what does "in the flesh" mean?

Philemon 17-25 - Relationship Trumps Awkwardness



1. In Phm 17, what is significant about the word "partner" here?



2. In Phm 17-18, is this an example of the doctrine of imputed righteousness?




3. In Phm 17-19, wouldn't Philemon or other Christians be concerned that their slaves might ask Paul when they could run away to Paul? In other words, what about the "slippery slope" of the encouragement of other slaves to run away, and the precedent of the masters not punishing them?




4. In Phm 18, what theological principle is taught here?



5. In Phm 18, when should we pay restitution for others?



6. In Phm 19, just how much would a person lose by freeing a slave?



7. In Phm 19, why is Paul reminding Philemon that he owes Paul his own soul?



8. In Phm 19, was it wrong for Paul to be so assertive and heavy-handed?



9. In Phm 24 and Col 4:14, why is Paul with Demas, since Demas turned away because Demas loved this world in 2 Tim 4:10?



10. In Phm, did Philemon do what Paul asked?

Philemon 1-16 - Paul Making His Appeal - some brief answers



1. In Phm 1, what is so unusual about Paul's greeting here?

A: In his other letters Paul typically mentions his authority, as an apostle, a slave of Christ, etc., but Paul is not saying any of that in this personal, but public letter to Philemon. Rather Paul is simply saying he is a prisoner. Paul knows what it is like to have somebody over him.
But who is Paul a prisoner of? He was imprisoned because of the charges of the Jewish leaders. He is taken to Rome by Roman soldiers and put in a Roman prison. But Paul does not see it this way. Paul instead says he is a prisoner of Christ Jesus. The one responsible for imprisoning him, and freeing him (or not), is Christ Jesus, and Jesus deliberately wanted Paul to suffer being a prisoner as a witness to others. And Paul is OK with that.
As a side note, Roman letter writing was somewhat standardized by Cicero in the first century B.C. It gives the name of the writer, then the addressee, then a greeting and thanks then the main body, and then a closing benediction. See the Evangelical Commentary on the Bible p.1120 for more info. Every letter of Paul's includes thanksgiving in the opening except for Galatians.


2. In Phm 1 and 2 Tim 1:8, how did the Lord take Paul as a prisoner?

A: Paul was not imprisoned by Jesus; Paul was imprisoned on account of Jesus, as 2 Timothy 1:12 shows.

3. In Phm 4, why is Paul addressing Philemon this way?

A: Paul is commending Philemon, not for his love for the saints (believers in Christ), but rather for his love for all the saints, which Philemon will find out, also now includes Onesimus.
Philemon had a reputation as a loving and godly man, and Paul is first reminding him of that and commending him for that, before asking him to live up to his reputation and do a favor for Paul.

4. In Phm 10, is there any extra-Biblical evidence for Onesimus?

A: There may be, actually. Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History 3:36, mentions letter of Ignatius to the Ephesians (ch.1). Ignatius mentions Onesimus as the pastor there. It does not explicitly say it was the same Onesimus though.

5. In Phm 10-15, why does Paul tolerate slavery?

A: Paul talked about slavery in 1 Corinthians 7:20-23. Paul is indirectly telling Philemon to free Onesimus. As to why Paul did not prohibit slavery altogether, see the discussion on Ephesians 6:5-8 and Ephesians 6:9. See When Critics Ask p.509-510, When Cultists Ask p.281-282, and Hard Sayings of the Bible p.642-644 for more info.

6. In Phm 11, why is Paul calling Onesimus formerly unprofitable?

A: In Greek, the name Onesimus means "useful". Paul is making a pun here, as Onesimus was Philemon's runaway slave. A slave that ran away is not very profitable.

7. In Phm 12, why is Paul confident in Philemon's obedience, since Paul did not actually command Philemon to do anything?

A: Paul told Philemon that while he had the right as an apostle to command him, Paul instead was just urging Philemon to free Onesimus. So what Paul was confident of was Philemon's obedience to God. If Philemon recognized that he should receive, forgive, and free his Christian brother, Paul was confident that Philemon would do what pleased God. James 4:17 says, "Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin." (NKJV)

8. In Phm 12-15, what is Paul basically saying?

A: There are four things.
1.
Paul is asking something of Philemon, which he will explain. (Philemon 8)
2.
Onesimus became Paul's son in faith, a Christian. (Philemon 10)
3.
Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon. (Philemon 12)
4.
Paul is asking Philemon to free Onesimus, his runaway slave Paul sent back to Philemon.

9. In Phm 16, what does "in the flesh" mean?

A: The literal words are "in flesh" as Jay P. Green's Literal Translation says. "In the flesh" is what the KJV, NKJV, NASB, uNASB, and NRSV translate. There are three interpretations.
Friend:
"in the flesh and in the Lord" means that Onesimus would serve him in a physical way, and give him fellowship as a believer. This is probably why the NIV translates this "as a man". (The Believer's Bible Commentary p.215) The NET Bible says, "humanly speaking".
Perhaps still a slave:
"in the flesh" refers to a person-to-person relationship, but that it could also mean retaining the master-slave relationship. (The Bible Knowledge Commentary : New Testament p.773)
Biological brother:
Philemon and Onesimus were physically brothers. In other words, Philemon had enslaved his own brother. 1001 Bible Questions Answered p.314 has this view, but this view is rarely believed though.
In common
with all interpretations, is that there is the restoring of some kind of natural relationship
Williams translation has paraphrased here: "both as a servant and as a Christian"

Philemon 17-25 - Relationship Trumps Awkwardness - some brief answers



1. In Phm 17, what is significant about the word "partner" here?
A: This just does not generically mean partner, but more specifically a business partner, or co-worker. See The Expositor's Bible Commentary vol.11 p.460 for more info.

2. In Phm 17-18, is this an example of the doctrine of imputed righteousness?

A: 1001 Bible Questions Answered p.67-68 says yes. Just as our sins were charged to Christ's "account" Paul offered to pay everything Onesimus owed Philemon.
There are three similarities between this and Christ's atonement.
1.
It is not unjust for Paul to pay Onesimus' bills. Paul volunteered to do it for him, just as Christ volunteered for us.
2.
There is no record of whether Paul paid this, or Onesimus paid it, or Philemon forgave any debts. Likewise Christ's offer is for all, but the payment is not transacted for those who do not wish to accept Christ.
Differences:
Most analogies are not perfect, and neither is this one. It was up to Philemon whether to take Paul up on his offer. Onesimus did not have a lot of say here. In contrast, we are saved by grace "through faith", and as Hebrews 4:2 shows, the gospel message was of no value to some, because it was not combined with faith.

3. In Phm 17-19, wouldn't Philemon or other Christians be concerned that their slaves might ask Paul when they could run away to Paul? In other words, what about the "slippery slope" of the encouragement of other slaves to run away, and the precedent of the masters not punishing them?

A: It is estimated that at least half of the people living in the Roman Empire were slaves. In the past the Romans had to contend with a couple of slave revolts, and they took runaway slaves very seriously. Nevertheless, Philemon was not to be concerned about the "slippery slope"; he was not supposed to do what was wrong for the sake of not establishing a troublesome precedent, and neither are we. This would actually set a precedent, not for slaves, but for Christian masters to be kind to their slaves and the virtue of freeing them.

4. In Phm 18, what theological principle is taught here?

A: This is the principle of restitution. If a person stole something or did wrong, and they are forgiven, they should still pay back what they stole. To the extent possible, they should correct the wrong that they did.

5. In Phm 18, when should we pay restitution for others?

A: If Onesimus had stolen money, whether to travel to Rome or in general, he should pay it back. One could also say that Onesimus "stole" from Philemon the price is one slave. But people should make restitution, and Onesimus probably was not in a position where he could pay it back. So Paul offered to pay it back for him. There might be times today when God wants us to pay restitution to or for others, even though we have no legal or moral responsibility to do so. As Christ died for us, when the guilt was ours, we might consider paying the debt of another.
But there is a balance here. God does not want us to be "enablers" of people who are addicts or spendthrifts. Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 3:10b "If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat." (NKJV). We are not just to give money, but we are to give wisely. Of course, we can avoid the problem of not giving wisely by just never giving at all. But that is too simplistic a solution; and God does not want that.
Some people are poor, working as hard as they can, maybe even with three jobs, and they still are not making ends meet. Others are poor because of costs for health conditions, either for themselves or their family. Imagine how much of an insult it is to those people to say "they are poor, they must be lazy." We need to be wise, but we need to be generous too.
Sometimes someone might ask us to pay restitution because we are obligated to in their minds, when we really don't think we are responsible for that; we are not obligated in our own mind. Should we just pay restitution anyway? Sometimes the answer is yes; to be a good witness and a light in the world.

6. In Phm 19, just how much would a person lose by freeing a slave?

A: At that time a young, healthy, untrained, male slave cost about 500 denarii, and a denarius was the wage of a common laborer for one day. In other words, this is about one and a half years of wages. But we don't know what kind of slave Onesimus was. Many slaves were highly skilled, and worked as accountants, teachers, tutors, and government officials. So Onesimus might have been worth more than that. The Roman writer Cicero in Q. Rosc.28 mentions one slave, bought for 3,000 denarii, had been trained and was now worth 50,000 denarii. (See The Expositor's Bible Commentary vol.11 p.463 for more info.) In addition, we don't know if Onesimus stole from Philemon when he ran away; he had to get the money to travel to Rome from somewhere.
What else do we know about runaway slaves? About 60 years after Philemon, the pagan governor Pliny the Younger wrote a letter to Sabinianus on behalf of a fugitive slave belonging to Sabinianus. The Expositor's Bible Commentary vol.11 p.456 mentions this. The Roman writer Cicero mentions three runaway slaves in his writings. One was held in a prison. Sometimes they were blindfolded and forced to walk in a circle all day long to turn a millstone, like animals would. The Expositor's Bible Commentary vol.11 p.460 has more info.
Also, there was one time of year where all slaves would be freed, temporarily for eight days. This was during the Roman festival of Saturnalia, which started December 17th to 24th.
Finally, when a slave as freed, they customarily would be "bought" by a Roman god. If the slave or someone else purchased the salves freedom, the money would typically be given to the temple of a god for this purpose, the money would be given to the owner, and the slave would now be "owned" by the god. Of course the slave could leave and do whatever he or she wanted after that. As Christians, we are bought by Christ.

7. In Phm 19, why is Paul reminding Philemon that he owes Paul his own soul?

A: For Onesimus' sake, Paul is being heavy-handed here. Paul is in effect saying, "if you, Philemon are grateful to me for sharing the Gospel with you to save your soul, show your gratitude by freeing Onesimus from slavery."

8. In Phm 19, was it wrong for Paul to be so assertive and heavy-handed?

A: No. Paul loved both Philemon and Onesimus. Paul knew freeing a slave was a financial sacrifice, and though difficult, Philemon should do it. Sometimes Christians should be more assertive about good things, for the sake of others.
You want friends who are kind, gracious, and fun to be around. But if you are in trouble, you want a friend who will fight hard for you too. Paul was fighting hard for Onesimus.
Paul was sending this new Christian to an uncertain fate, back to a master who was within his legal rights to have him flogged, imprisoned, or worse if things did not go well. But Paul was confident that is friend, and partner in the ministry, Philemon, would be generous.
But was it right that Onesimus was a slave in the first place? Why did people become slaves? People typically became slaves because of being conquered, or that their parts were slaves, or that they and their parents could not pay debts. In older times they had no concept of a debtor's prison like they did in later England. Instead, in the book of Exodus someone could be sold into slavery to pay unpaid debts, but they would be permanently freed on the year of Jubilee, which happened once every seven years. The only exception is that if a slave voluntarily chose to work for his or her master forever. However, in the Gentile world, and even among Jews in Jeremiah's time, they were not freed after seven years.
So it might have been unjust that Onesimus was a slave in the first place. But Paul would rather send Onesimus back to a difficult situation, doing right in the eyes of all involved, than just telling Onesimus that he should not have been a slave anyway, so just hide the rest of your life.

9. In Phm 24 and Col 4:14, why is Paul with Demas, since Demas turned away because Demas loved this world in 2 Tim 4:10?

A: Like others, Demas first helped in the ministry and then later turned away. Did Demas ever come back and was Demas saved? We can hope so, but we have no record either way.

10. In Phm, did Philemon do what Paul asked?

A: The book of Philemon does not say. Perhaps it is left open-ended because there will be times in our lives when, like Philemon, we know God wants us to do something that goes directly against our culture or our natural impulses and desires.
On the other hand, Philemon did not tear up the letter (since we have it preserved), so that is some indication that he did what Paul asked. There is an Onesimus who was the bishop of Ephesus during the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian 81-96 A.D. He was later imprisoned and martyred. We are not certain if it was the same person or not.
Assuming that Philemon was Paul asked, both Onesimus and Philemon were freed in a way. Onesimus not only got his freedom officially, but he would not have to worry about being caught. Philemon would be freed of all unforgiveness or bitterness towards Onesimus. Forgiveness frees the one who does the forgiving as much as the one who is forgiven.

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by Steven M. Morrison, PhD.