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The Essence of Christian Grace (1)

Malcolm C Davis, Leeds

Paul’s Letter to Philemon

Authorship and Date

This letter was written by the Apostle Paul during his first Roman imprisonment, probably about AD 60-62, to Philemon, a wealthy Christian at Colosse (his name means "Affectionate"), at the same time as the main letter to the Colossians, and probably sent with the latter by the hand of Tychicus.

Canonical Setting

In the overall Pentateuchal structure of the New Testament the signed letters of Paul can be seen to form the second major section, coming after the foundational five historical Books, the four Gospels and Acts, the "Genesis" section, and before the anonymous letter to the Hebrews, which is the "Leviticus" section. They thus form the "Exodus" section, clearly presenting the fullest truth in Scripture concerning God’s sovereign redeeming grace towards members of His heavenly people, the Church, and His practical principles for our daily lives and testimonies in local churches. The little letter to Philemon stands as the thirteenth and last of these letters, and can perhaps be understood to epitomise the spirit of Christian grace expounded and exhorted in all of them. If we are to understand "thirteen" as the number of rebellion in Scripture, then in Philemon we see exemplified the truth that sovereign grace can redeem and transform even rebel sinners like Onesimus. There does thus appear to be a clear design in God’s providential overruling of the traditional ordering of the Canon of Scripture.

Reason for Writing

One of Philemon’s slaves, a man called Onesimus (which means "Useful"), had run away from his master and, in so doing, had stolen some of his money or goods. Onesimus had made his way to Rome to escape detection in the large city, but there he had met the Apostle Paul and had been soundly converted to Christ. His life and behaviour had radically changed, so that Paul now found that he lived up to the meaning of his name. But because Onesimus had done wrong against his master Philemon, Christian honesty demanded that the matter be put right. According to Roman slave law, Onesimus could have been put to death. But Paul was allowed to act as a mediator between Onesimus and Philemon to save his life. So in this letter Paul pleads with Philemon to forgive his slave in view of his conversion and changed life, and to receive him back both to his household, and probably also to the fellowship of the church which met in his house.

Paul offered to repay any debt that Onesimus owed Philemon, should the latter insist on this, but pointed out that Philemon was in Paul’s debt to no less an extent than Onesimus was to Philemon, because Philemon had himself also been converted through the apostle’s preaching. We do not know the outcome of the story, but probably Philemon did forgive and receive back Onesimus to both his household and the local church in response to Paul’s letter to him.

Value for Christians today

The whole letter of just twenty-five verses breathes the essential spirit of Christian grace towards converted sinners, a term which applies to all of us, although we may never have committed any criminal act like Onesimus did against his master Philemon. It is a letter written with great tact and courtesy, and not a little literary skill. It shows how Christians should act towards new converts who come to us with various problems arising from their former manner of life. Certainly, matters should be put right as far as they can be, but, when all that can be done has been done, we are to forgive them and receive them to our fellowship. None of us can undo our past sins, and Christ died to save all of us from them. So there must come a point when we freely forgive one another as Christ has forgiven us. Sometimes the law of the land may have to be involved; in which case we must let it take its course. But here, in the circumstances surrounding this epistle, only Philemon’s household was really involved in the matter, so, as a Christian, Philemon was free to act in fullest grace towards Onesimus, recognising the total transformation of his life from the time of his conversion.

It has been pointed out that this letter is the tale of three debtors. Paul was a debtor to preach the gospel to Jew and Gentile alike. Philemon was a debtor who had been delivered from the power of darkness and translated into the kingdom of Christ. Onesimus was probably a much lesser debtor than his master Philemon. Also, the letter is a tale of three slaves. Paul had been the slave of Judaism. Philemon had been the slave of idolatry. Onesimus was a literal slave.

Again, the letter illustrates the wonderful ways of God in providence which led to the complete transformation of a difficult issue in a slave-owner’s household and the forwarding of the gospel both in Rome and Colosse with benefits for all concerned, including the upbuilding and encouragement of the local church in Colosse. We see in this letter just how grace reigns through righteousness (Rom 5.21) in a practical situation in daily life. Concerning the institution of slavery in the Roman world, we see here that Paul does not seek to overturn it by any political or social means, but rather to transform it from within by the spiritual application of the gospel of the grace of God to a particular problem. This would eventually lead to the abandonment of the institution altogether by entirely peaceful means.

Careful Literary Structure

Philemon can probably be best divided into five sections (although commentators are not agreed about where the third section runs into the fourth section), as follows:-

1. Verses 1-3: Introductory Greetings

2. Verses 4-7: Prayer of Appreciation for Philemon

3. Verses 8-17: Plea that Philemon Forgive and Receive Onesimus

4. Verses 18-22: Promise of Payment of all Debts

5. Verses 23-25: Final Greetings.

Observe the introversion or chiasmic construction of the letter as a whole, and of some of the verses, notably v.5 and vv.8-9. There is a correspondence between the introductory greetings and the final greetings, in the references to fellow-workers and to grace. Then notice the balancing prayers of v.4 and v.22, the joy of v.7 and that of v.20, the profit that Philemon would derive from Onesimus in v.11 and the profit that Paul desired from Philemon in v.20. Compare also Philemon’s debt in v.13 and Onesimus’ debt in v.19. Verses 15-17 concerning the delicate matter of the reception of Onesimus by Philemon form the heart of the letter both in terms of its real purpose and also of its literary structure.


Receive: vv.12,15,17

Prisoner, bonds: vv.1,9,10,13,23

Fellow, fellowship/communication, partner: vv.1,2,6,17,23,24

Love, beloved: vv.1,2,4,6,9,16

Grace: vv.3,25

Joy: vv.7,20

Bowels: vv.7,12,20

Brother: vv.1,7,16,20

Onesimus, profit, unprofitable: vv.10,11,20

Prayers, beseech: vv.4,9,10,22.

To be continued.


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