After reading this short epistle it would be well to read the last
twelve verses of the Epistle to the Colossians, especially noting the
various names that are mentioned by Paul. No less than eight of those
mentioned in Philemon are found in Colossians, and several of them in a
way that throws light upon their history.
Philemon, a much loved friend and fellow-servant of the apostle,
evidently lived at Colosse. Apphia would appear to have been his wife,
and Archippus his son, who was also a gifted man with a very definite
service committed to him from the Lord. Philemon's house was a meeting
place for God's people, so that Paul could write of "the church in thy
Onesimus, with whom the Epistle is mainly concerned, had formerly
been a servant or bond-slave of Philemon, as verse 16 shows. He had
wronged his Christian master and then had run away (verses 15, 18). In
God's great mercy however the runaway slave had been thrown into
contact with Paul at Rome during his imprisonment and through his
instrumentality converted (verse 10): converted so soundly that Paul
could speak of him not long after as "a faithful and beloved brother"
(Col. 4: 9).
Tychicus was at that time leaving Rome for Colosse, bearing Paul's
letter to that assembly and the Apostle seized this favourable occasion
to send off Onesimus in his company back to his own people, so that
again he might meet the master, whom once he had so wronged. It was no
light matter for Onesimus to once more stand in the presence of
Philemon, even though the grace of God had wrought in his conversion
since the time of his wrong-doing, and Paul thoughtfully wrote an
explanatory and intercessory letter to Philemon, making Onesimus the
bearer of it. That short letter-the Epistle before us-God has seen fit
to enshrine, as an inspired production, in His word. It fills its own
niche in the scheme of truth, revealed to us in Scripture.
In the first place it shows us how the converted sinner has his feet
turned into paths of practical righteousness. When Onesimus wronged his
master, Philemon, he was an unconverted man. Now he has become a
brother beloved, but this does not relieve him of obligations incurred
by his former sin. As regards God that sin was forgiven amongst all his
other sins, for he stood "justified from all things" (Acts 13: 39); but
as regards Philemon confession and some kind of restitution was
needful. How restitution was made in this case the Epistle shows. Here
at once there meets us an important lesson. If we have done some
palpable wrong to another, no more effectual proof of our repentance
can be given than that of confession and restitution, as far as that
may be within our power. It is ever a trying process, but it is
practical righteousness, most effective as a testimony and most
glorifying to God.
Again, the Epistle endorses and emphasizes courtesy as being a grace
that befits Christianity. It is very evident that the Christian is to
be marked by an honesty, a candour, a transparency which is the very
opposite of that hypocrisy and flattery which so greatly marks the
world. Yet he is not to allow candour to degenerate into an unfeeling
rudeness. He is to consider and acknowledge the rights of others and
express himself with refinement of feeling and courtesy. Notice the
happy way in which Paul expresses in verse 7 his approbation of the
grace and kindness that characterized Philemon.
Notice too the tactful and delicate way in which he introduces the
subject of Onesimus, in verses 8 to 10; beseeching where he might have
used apostolic authority and commanded; presenting Onesimus as his
spiritual son, given to him during the time of his trial in his
captivity-a consideration well calculated to move the heart of
Philemon. Divinely given tact and courtesy is also seen in the verses
from 13, and onwards. Paul would have liked to retain Onesimus as a
helper in his time of trial, but to have done so without consulting
Philemon would have been, he felt, an unwarranted liberty. His old
master had certain rights which Paul scrupulously observed;
acknowledging that for him to have the advantage of Onesimus' help
would have been a "benefit" conferred by Philemon. This benefit he
would not first appropriate leaving Philemon to learn of it afterwards
when he could not do otherwise than acquiesce "of necessity." No: he
sends Onesimus back, content to have the benefit, if ever, as the fruit
of Philemon's action "willingly."
Perhaps however Onesimus was resuming to the place where once he had
served sin and to the master whom he had wronged that he might more
fully and for ever be at his service-the New Translation renders the
end of verse 15, "that thou mightest possess him fully for ever." But
in any event all was now to be on a new footing. Notice again the
courteous and tactful way in which the Apostle conveyed this fact to
Philemon, pointing out that he is now to possess him not as a mere
bondman but as a brother beloved. Under these new circumstances
Philemon would get service of a far finer quality out of Onesimus, even
if it were less in quantity or if he willingly yielded him up to go
back to Rome to help the Apostle, or to go elsewhere in the service of
But apparently Onesimus had wronged Philemon in those earlier days
when as yet he was unconverted. His old master had suffered loss
through his unfaithful service or defalcations. Knowing or suspecting
this, Paul assumes full responsibility for making proper restitution.
The damage done is to be put down to Paul's account and he writes with
his own hand a promissory note-"I will repay it." But what a
master-stroke are the succeeding words, "albeit I do not say to thee
how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides"!
So Philemon himself had been converted through Paul; and if he
opened in his ledger an account with Paul's name at the head and
debited him with the pecuniary loss suffered through Onesimus, he would
have to credit him with the value of that devoted service, which had
brought to him, through terrific opposition and suffering, life and
salvation unto eternal days.
We have but to ponder quietly to feel how irresistible must have
been the effect of these words. If Philemon up to this point had been
inclined to be righteous overmuch and harsh, what a melting must have
supervened. What was his loss after all! How paltry it must all have
seemed, even if it ran into thousands in the presence of the mighty
debt of love he owed to the Apostle. The effect upon Philemon must have
been simply overwhelming.
The Apostle was conscious that it would be so, as verses 20 and 21
disclose. Indeed such was his confidence in Philemon that he expected
him to even go beyond what he was enjoining as to his treatment of
Onesimus. A wonderful tribute to Philemon this! No wonder Paul
addressed him as "our dearly beloved"!
Knowing what fearful damage to the fair name of Christ is wrought
amongst God's people in connection with similar episodes we feel as if
we could not sufficiently stress this important Epistle. It inculcates:-
As to the
offending party, a return in all humility to the one offended with confession and an acknowledgement of his rights as to restitution.
As to the
offended party, the reception of the repentant
offender in grace with the fullest possible acknowledgement of all that
God has wrought in him; whether it be through conversion as in the case
of Onesimus, or through restoration as might be the case with many of
As to the
mediating party, an absence of anything
approaching a dictatorial spirit, coupled with ardent love for both the
offended and the offender, expressing itself in entreaties marked by
courtesy and tact.
We must not leave this epistle without noticing the striking way in
which the whole story illustrates what mediatorship means and involves;
illustrating really the statement, "There is one God, and one mediator
between God and men, the Man, Christ Jesus" (1 Tim. 2: 5). God is the
One offended by sin: man, the offender: the Man Christ Jesus, the
We can see ourselves depicted in Onesimus and his sad history. We
too were "unprofitable." We "wronged" God and consequently were His
debtors, owing what we could not pay. We too "departed" from Him, since
we feared Him and desired to be as far as possible removed from His
presence. Our alienation was the fruit of sin.
Paul's mediation between Philemon and Onesimus illustrates, though
only faintly, what Christ has done. Can we not almost hear the blessed
Saviour so speaking when upon the cross He charged Himself with our
iniquities and took up the judgment we deserved? Shall we not bless Him
for ever that in regard to all that was due to us on account of our
sins, He said to God, "Put that on Mine account."
There is this difference however, that whereas Paul had to write "I
will repay it" our risen Saviour does not use the future tense. His
word to us in the gospel as the fruit of His death and resurrection is,
"I have repaid it." He
has been delivered for our offences and
has been raised again for our justification. Hence it is that, justified by faith, we
have peace with God. In this point therefore the illustration falls far short of the reality illustrated.
Our illustration also fails in this, that God needs no such
persuasion to the full exercise of grace as was needed in the case of
Philemon. He is Himself the Source of grace. He does however need a
righteous groundwork whereon to display His grace even as Paul provided
Philemon with a righteous reason for grace in assuming all the
liabilities of Onesimus. Mediatorship involves the acceptance of such
liabilities if it is to be fully and effectively exercised, for only
then can grace reign through righteousness.
Praise be to God for the effective mediatorship of our Lord Jesus,
the results of which a" eternal. As to these our illustration again
In the first place, Paul's word as to Onesimus is,
(verse 12). He was not to be ignored and much less to be rejected, but
to be received. How fully and really has God received us who have
In the second place, the word was, "receive
him for ever." Formerly
the relations between Onesimus and his master were of a sort that could
be broken, and in fact were broken by the misconduct of Onesimus. Now
there were to be new relations of an order that could not be broken. It
is just thus in God's gracious dealings with us. As the fruit of
Christ's work we stand before Him in relations that are indefectible
In the third place we have Paul making a request of Philemon which
might seem utterly beyond his powers to comply with. "If thou count me
a partner," he says, "receive him
as myself." Philemon might
well have replied, "With all the good will in the world I simply cannot
do it. Receive him, I will. Receive him for ever, I will. But it would
be mere hypocrisy to pretend that I can bring myself to the point of
receiving him as, my beloved Paul, I would receive you."
That which Philemon could hardly have done, as we venture to think,
God has done. Every believer, from Paul himself down to ourselves, and
down to the weakest of us and those most recently converted, has no
other standing before God than "accepted in the Beloved" (Eph. 1: 63.
We have been received in all the acceptance and favour of Christ
Himself-a thing amazing beyond words, and utterly incredible were it
not so stated in the Word of God.
In this the illustration is entirely to the point, as also in regard
to the underlying facts which govern the whole. As before remarked, the
link between Paul, the mediator, and Onesimus, the offender, was
love. Between Paul and Philemon, the offended party, it
As we look up by faith to the glorified Man Christ Jesus, the one
Mediator, we adoringly acknowledge that His link with God is that of
PARTNERSHIP, for He is God. He is great enough therefore to "lay his
hand upon us both" (Job 9: 33). He can lay His hand upon God Himself,
being His "fellow" (Zech. 13: 7). Yet He has laid His hand upon us to
our eternal blessing. He has brought us into His own place and
relationship, linking us up in the strength of His eternal LOVE.
Yet here again we need to note how the illustration falls short, for
God the Father loves, equally with Christ the Son. The Father's love
and the love of Christ are sweetly intertwined. We rightly sing:-
"Father, Thy sovereign love has sought
Captives to sin, gone far from Thee.
The work which Thine own Son has wrought,
Has brought us back in peace and free."