Christian discipleship has never been an easy task, often calling believers to be faithful when Providence places them ‘between a rock and a hard place.’  Philemon knew this well.  As a business owner and an owner of slaves, Philemon’s financial success was dependent upon loyalty amongst his laborers.  Restless slaves could prove costly—if even one escaped successfully many might follow suit; that is why crucifixion was thought the suitable punishment for such a crime.  If a slave owner did not severely punish a slave who attempted to escape, it might cause slaves of neighboring businesses to revolt.  The crime was severe, and for the sake of stability in the business and broader socioeconomic circles, runaway slaves needed to be crucified.  When Paul therefore asked Philemon to free Onesimus—and charge any wrong to Paul’s own account (v. 18)—he was asking Philemon to risk both the stability of his business and his reputation in the guild; Paul put him between a rock and a hard place.  To all of this Paul set forth the proposition that while Philemon was a man of financial and social standing, he was yet a debtor to Christ, and to himself.  As a member of the church in Colossae (v. 2, cf. Col 4.9, 17), Philemon understood that his true wealth awaited him in heaven (cf. Col 1.5, 12-14).  It may be that the Epistle to Philemon not only answers questions about forgiveness, but also provides an example of what it means to submit to the Lordship of Christ in one’s business affairs.  From beginning to end, Paul was convinced that Philemon had done so—and he expected him to act accordingly, and forgive at great personal expense.  The drama of the Epistle to Philemon has at least four movements:

  1. Paul greeted Philemon as a member of the church in Colossae (vv. 1-3).  It is noteworthy that Paul wrote of such personal matters in an ‘open letter’ to the church.  While this might lead some to speculate that the apostle was arm-twisting from the outset, it is more likely that—given the favorable tone toward Philemon—Paul’s address to the church was actually a way of commending Onesimus’ owner; as Philemon maintained his gospel commitments, and granted Paul’s request, the whole church would be edified and Philemon himself would be honored
  2. Paul expressed thanks for Philemon’s partnership in the gospel (vv. 4-7).  Paul’s gratitude for Philemon was in light of the latter’s “love and faith toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints” (v. 4), and because the church had been “refreshed” by him (v. 7).  Paul’s hope was that Philemon would recognize afresh his high calling as a participant in the advance of the gospel—even through forgiving Onesimus’ wrong (vv. 5-6)
  3. Paul tactfully asked Philemon to release the former slave of any debt and free him to minister with Paul (8-20).  While Paul could have commanded Philemon to act according to the gospel, he appealed with great diplomacy for the one who had come under his care.  In no small display of Providence, Onesimus had run away from Philemon’s home in Colossae and traveled over 1,000 miles to Rome—where he met Paul and was converted (v. 10; cf. Acts 28.30-31)!  It is unlikely that Onesimus was on a trek to meet the apostle, but God had other plans.  When Onesimus—whose name means “useful” in Greek—fled from his owner, he was anything but to Philemon; but now that he was in Christ, the former slave had value to both Paul and Philemon (v. 11).  Paul found Onesimus so useful that he was tempted to keep him by his side in Rome, but knew that he needed to be reconciled to his owner if he would be of any lasting value (vv. 12-16)—especially given the fact that Paul had such a heart for the church in Colossae (cf. Col 2.1-3).  Paul wished for Philemon to deal with the former slave as he would the apostle himself (vv. 17-18), and to keep in mind that he owed Paul no small debt in the gospel as well (v. 19)
  4. Paul expressed confidence in Philemon’s decision (21-25).  He asked Him to “refresh my heart in Christ” (v. 20), and prepare a guest room where he could stay in Colossae when he was released (v. 22; cf. Phil 1.21-26)

Paul’s injunction to Philemon rested squarely on his understanding of the gospel, the preeminence of Christ in the storyline of Scripture.  Paul did not appeal for Onesimus on the basis of an Old Testament law, but love (vv. 9, 16; cf. John 13.34-35; Rom 13.8-10; Gal 5.13-15).  The Epistle to Philemon demonstrates that in the Christian era it became increasingly necessary for believers—in light of their ethnic and cultural diversity, and dispersion throughout the Roman Empire—to act as a community of slaves, serving one another regardless of the social structure of the day (cf. Gal 5.13-14; 1 Tim 6.1-2).  Christians living in somewhat isolated communities within the Roman Empire did not have the luxury of selfishness; mutual love was necessary for their survival.  Paul’s request to Philemon points up the fact that in Christ even the owner is a slave.

*For a complete list of references, please see

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