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The Essence of Christian Grace (2)

Malcolm C Davis, Leeds

Paul’s Letter to Philemon

Introductory Greetings

Paul does not state his apostleship here, but refers to his sufferings as a prisoner of Rome because of his witness to Christ. This reminder of Paul’s severe hardship was calculated to influence Philemon’s willingness to do the comparatively easy task of receiving back Onesimus. The whole introduction breathes love, grace, and Christian fellowship in preparation for Paul’s plea for Onesimus.

The mention of the local church in Philemon’s house indicates that this letter was to be made public to the whole church, probably with a view to Onesimus’ reception to their fellowship as well as back into Philemon’s household, for the outstanding problems preventing that event were being dealt with here in a godly manner.

Paul’s Prayer of Appreciation for Philemon

Paul expresses his deep appreciation of Philemon’s fellowship thus far, with a view to preparing him for the request which he is about to make to him. Paul has been praying earnestly about the future of Onesimus in relation to his true master, Philemon. Much of that prayer has been thanksgiving for the very good reports of Philemon’s generous and loving fellowship shown to all the saints in the Colossian local church. His further prayer for Philemon in v.6 is that the latter might extend his fellowship in practical ways to send a powerful message to the local church about the importance of forgiveness. Paul realises that what he is about to ask Philemon to do will require all the spirituality and Christian grace that Philemon has. He wishes that Philemon’s practical liberality regarding Onesimus might result in a greater appreciation by all saints of the sum total of our blessings in Christ. Acquiescence in this matter would lead all believers into a greater appreciation of the fullness of Christian grace received through Christ in the gospel.

Paul’s Plea that Philemon Forgive and Receive Onesimus

Paul bases his plea for Onesimus on many different grounds.

1. If Paul did not receive Onesimus, he would be acting in a way inconsistent with his previous loving and generous conduct shown to all other saints, as indicated in v.5.

2. Although, as an apostle with all authority, Paul could have commanded Philemon to do the befitting thing in this matter, he preferred to use the strong persuasion of love instead, and not to insist that Philemon comply with his request.

3. Paul used the fact that he was now an old man, and therefore worthy of greater respect, as an argument that Philemon should listen to him.

4. Paul also appealed to the fact that he was a prisoner for the sake of Christ as an argument; he had suffered the loss of all things for Christ, not just a little money or property like Philemon.

5. In v.10 Paul mentions Onesimus by name for the first time in the letter, saying that the latter was his spiritual child, that is, he had been the means of Onesimus’ conversion while he had been in Rome with the apostle.

6. Using plays on words in v.11, Paul states that the one-time "unprofitable" Onesimus had, since his conversion, become eminently "profitable" to the apostle, and so, potentially, to Philemon. Thus is evidenced the transforming power of the gospel of the grace of God. So the situation had now changed dramatically for the better.

7. For Paul to send Onesimus back to Philemon was in fact a sacrifice for the apostle; he would have been quite willing to keep him with him in the prison to help him. But Paul did not wish to do anything without Philemon’s consent, since Philemon had first claim on Onesimus’ loyalty.

8. In vv.15-17 Paul sets out the divine logic of the wonderful way in which God had providentially overruled Onesimus’ crime to accomplish his conversion in Rome. Now Philemon could look forward, not only to having his slave back as a useful member of the household, but also to welcoming Onesimus to the fellowship of the local church at Colosse as a brother in Christ.

For all these reasons Paul urges Philemon in love to receive Onesimus back and forgive his crime. Let us never forget that in a similar, but greater, way Christ has forgiven and received us, rebel sinners of the Gentiles as we once were.

Paul’s Promise of the Payment of all Debts Outstanding

Now Paul turns to the question of Onesimus’ wrongdoing. Christian honesty and righteousness demand that matters be put right according to the law of the land as far as possible. Perhaps Onesimus had lost, or squandered, all Philemon’s stolen property, and so could not make amends. We do not know the precise situation. But here in vv.18-19 Paul offers to make restitution himself to Philemon for all he had lost, using a common form of IOU promise at the time of writing. However, Paul significantly adds that Philemon actually owed Paul the far greater debt of his own conversion earlier. Perhaps Philemon had heard the gospel preached by Paul while the latter was living in Ephesus, since Paul had never yet been to Colosse. This was a powerful lever intended to encourage Philemon to accede to his plea for Onesimus. In a similar way, because Christ has paid all our debt on the cross for us, we are to forgive those who are in our debt as Christ has forgiven us.

Now in vv.20-22 Paul appeals again to Philemon’s spiritual and loving character which was usually so evident in all his dealings. Paul addresses Philemon as a brother in Christ, asks to receive some joy, or "profit", from him in the Lord, and to be the beneficiary of some of his compassionate dealings, as others had been. Paul thus fully identifies himself with Onesimus, his newly-found brother in Christ. He further expresses full confidence that Philemon will comply with this plea in a way far beyond that which Paul is asking for. His final lever is a request that Philemon prepare him a lodging in his house, because he hopes, when released from prison in answer to the prayers of the Colossian believers, to be granted an opportunity to visit them all there. When he did come, he would of course be able to present his plea even more strongly, although that is only implied. So we see that, while grace does obey the law’s demands whenever that is practicable, it works chiefly by establishing righteousness in the hearts and lives of all true children of God, and, on that basis, pleads for the forgiveness and acceptance of all who have been born again, despite their past sins. There is no vindictiveness in God’s love, and He Himself has paid the price for all our sins in the Person of His Son on the cross.

Final Greetings

The final greetings again breathe the heavenly atmosphere of true loving Christian fellowship. All five of these named fellow-brethren were fully aware of what Paul had written, and were in agreement with it. All five were trusted brethren, including Mark, a once failed servant himself, but now forgiven and received by Paul. Philemon would certainly need all the grace that was available to him in Christ to receive this letter, so Paul prayed that he and all the local church at Colosse might receive grace to do so. Note that the three permanent graces, faith, hope, and love, are all mentioned in the letter; but love is pre-eminent.


It is instructive to note seven aspects of Christian fellowship referred to in some way in this letter.

1. Family fellowship in the Lord: Philemon’s own family circle.

2. Local church fellowship in Philemon’s house.

3. Practical fellowship/communication of material benefits (v.6).

4. Fellowship born of courtesy and consideration for others (v.14).

5. Fellowship in the service of the Lord (vv.1,24).

6. Fellowship in the warfare of the gospel: Archippus (v.2).

7. Fellowship in suffering for Christ: Epaphras (v.23).

So ends the story of a rebel’s repentance, restitution, and wonderful reception to a new and undeserved relationship. It is an illustration of the story of all our lives as believers. May we be eternally grateful to God who in Christ made it all possible and real in our own individual experiences, and may we show the same essential spirit of grace towards all who truly repent and believe the gospel of that same sovereign redeeming grace of God.



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