Philemon: Appeal for Forgiveness and Acceptance
Based on the Bible Study Guide on Philemon and Hebrews
Published by True Jesus Church
Around 58 to 61 AD, while imprisoned in Rome, Paul wrote a letter to Philemon, a wealthy Greek believer who lived within the vicinity of Colosse (in present-day Turkey). The letter concerns Onesimus, Philemon’s slave who has left his master.
The epistle is silent on the reason behind Onesimus’ departure from Philemon. The traditional belief is that Onesimus is a runaway slave, and that, according to Roman law, is an offence punishable by flogging or even death. But recent investigations on slavery during Roman times present a different picture; one where racial, religious, or cultural factors play no role; and where many slaves are educated (with some even better educated than their owners). Slaves also perform social functions; they can own properties and assemble in public, and, above all, the majority of urban and domestic slaves can legitimately be free by the age of thirty.
Onesimus has believed in Jesus during his stay with Paul. Now Paul, intending to send him back to Philemon, decides to also make an appeal on his behalf. Thus Paul writes to Philemon, urging him to forgive and receive Onesimus, and to consider this former slave as a dear brother in the Lord. His letter of tactful persuasion follows the conventional structure found in the genre of Greek rhetoric: commendation, appeal to reason, and appeal to emotion. And in this letter, Paul uses more terms of endearment than in all his other epistles, to strengthen his appeal “for love’s sake.”
UNDERSTANDING GOD’S GRACE AND GOODNESS
I thank my God, making mention of you always in my prayers, hearing of your love and faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints, that the sharing of your faith may become effective by the acknowledgment of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus. (Phm 4–6)
Paul begins his letter with a salutation, followed by a prayer. Having heard of Philemon’s exemplary love and faith (Phm 5), Paul prays for Philemon, that the sharing of his faith may become effective through his good deeds. Paul’s salutation, with the emphasis on “all the saints” remind us, the modern-day reader, of the need to love every brother and sister, without any bias or prejudice. Paul also reminds us to share our faith by testifying of God’s goodness (cf. Phm 6). Therefore, we need to truly know God and personally experience His grace. Our life of faith needs to be dynamic and vibrant, a testimony of His goodness.
CHOOSE THE WAY OF LOVE
Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting, yet for love's sake I rather appeal to you--being such a one as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ—(Phm 8–9)
Although Paul has the authority in Christ to command Philemon (Phm 8) and expect his obedience (cf. Phm 21), he opts to appeal instead. He asks Philemon to receive Onesimus as he would receive Paul. In taking this step, Paul relinquishes his apostolic authority and humbly identifies himself as “aged” and as a “prisoner.” Given their close rapport, Paul just has to make a personal request, and he trusts that Philemon will accede. And because Philemon is an exemplary believer who loves all the saints, Paul does not need to command him to display the same level of love to Onesimus. Instead of making Philemon act out of compulsion, Paul wants him to accept Onesimus out of freewill.
While a command or instruction may temporarily force someone to act superficially and grudgingly, an appeal can touch the heart of a person and enable him to gladly and willingly do what is right. Such approach is most effective when we know that the person has always acted with love and faith and only needs a simple reminder to continue to do what is right.
As fellow servants of Christ, we may sometimes argue over who is right and who should have the final say. Worse, we may insist on our views and expect others to follow. But this approach usually results in disunity, and even when others give in to our demands, these are not done willingly. A preferred approach is to choose the way of love and gently share our views with others, believing that they will have the wisdom and willingness to do what is right.
Choosing appeal over command teaches us that the motivation behind our actions ought to be love. Like Paul, we encourage others out of love. And like Philemon, we discharge our duty out of love.
LOVE WITHOUT BIAS
I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me. I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart …. (Phm 10–12)
Paul’s appeal to Philemon is not merely an appeal to receive Onesimus back as a slave—he hopes that Philemon will receive Onesimus the same way he receives Paul, as a beloved brother in Christ. Before, Onesimus was valuable to Philemon for economic reasons. But now, he is valuable to him in a spiritual sense, having become a dear brother in Christ. Paul asks Philemon to look beyond Onesimus’ social status and to regard his spiritual status to be of greater worth. Now, not only has Philemon gained a profitable employee, he has gained a beloved brother in the Lord (Phm 16).
Similarly, as we relate to our fellow brethren, we ought not assess them based on their social standing or economic worth. Instead, we ought to regard them as our beloved brethren and love them simply because they are members of Christ’s family. As the Bible states, “for you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:26–28).
FORGIVE AS GOD FORGAVE YOU
If then you count me as a partner, receive him as you would me. But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account. I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay--not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides. (Phm 17–19)
Here, Paul reiterates his appeal. In verse 17, Paul identifies himself with Onesimus. In verse 18, he volunteers to settle the wrongs and debts of Onesimus. At the same time, he reminds Philemon of his own indebtedness to Paul. As Philemon is probably converted by Paul, Paul reminds him that if he, Paul, does not expect repayment from Philemon, Philemon should, likewise, forgive Onesimus over a debt which is of much less worth.
Our Lord Jesus Christ has also identified
Himself with us (Heb 2:11–18, 4:15). He took our sins upon Himself and paid for
them with His own life (Isa 53:4–6;
Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. (Phm 21)
Before Paul concludes, he appeals to Philemon’s good Christian character once again by highlighting Philemon’s obedience, love, and willingness to serve and please God (Phm 20–22). He trusts that Philemon would obey and do beyond what was asked. Trust is essential in our interactions within the family of Christ. At times, we may be too quick to correct and admonish our brethren, without trusting that they will do the right thing. But if we learn to trust, we may only need to gently encourage rather than sharply rebuke.
It would seem that Philemon is someone who will do more than what is asked of him. We are likely go the extra mile willingly for someone we love. Love is a strong motivating force. In our service to the Lord, the same principle applies. If we serve out of love, this love will motivate us to do the best for Him. Our service will be one of constant joy, discharged with a willingness that is without prompting and without complaint.
GOD’S GRACE EMPOWERS US
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen. (Phm 25)
Apostle Paul ends his letter to
Philemon with a benediction and prayer for God’s grace to be with Philemon.
Through His grace, we have received God’s generous provision of salvation and
heavenly blessings. And through His grace, we are able to fulfill His will in
our lives (1 Cor 15:10; Eph 2:10; Phil 2:13, 4:13;
For the modern reader, Paul’s letter to Philemon continues to serve as an appeal to Christian love. The “players” in this epistle are themselves a symbol of our unity in Christ. Slavery may no longer be around, but we may still assess and receive others based on their social standing. We know that we are of one body in Christ, but do we look down on someone because of his social status, physical appearance, income, or intellect? Or do we consider every believer a dear brother or sister?
Paul’s letter also teaches the spirit of reconciliation. Is anyone indebted to us? Or has he wronged us in some way? Do we continue to bear grudges or do we forgive and overlook these wrongs? If two members of Christ’s body are at odds, will we be the mediator to reconcile them?
… and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness. ... Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.