Philemon’s Story

A Bible Study by Jack Kelley

My name is Philemon and this is my story. It’s been described as the application of the highest principles to the most common affairs, but at the time it happened it was just two people at odds with each other being reconciled by a common love for the Lord.

I’m a wealthy resident of Colosse, a little town in the Roman province of Asia not far from its more famous neighbors Hierapolis and Laodicea. Hierapolis was named for the hot springs located there and even in your day it’s still one of the premier spa resorts in Eastern Europe, though it’s now called Pamukkale, and of course you refer to the Roman province of Asia as Turkey. Laodicea is one of the seven churches mentioned in Revelation 2 and 3, and is a growing attraction for tourists come to view the archaeological features there.

In the past Colosse had been a leading city in the province, an important stop on the east-west trade route leading from the Aegean seaport of Ephesus to the Euphrates River. Merchandise of every description from all over the Mediterranean floated through Colosse on the Lycus River to the great Euphrates where it continued all the way to Babylon and even beyond. But by 60 AD, the time of my story, both Laodicea and Hierapolis had surpassed it and Colosse was past its prime.

Still my wife Apphia and I like it here, and when my friend Epaphrus returned from Ephesus to start a Christian church, it added an exciting new dimension to our already pleasant life. Epaphrus had been converted to Christianity by the Apostle Paul and had studied under him for some time while both were in Ephesus. He in turn converted us, and our little church family had really begun to grow.

As it did, traveling preachers introduced some false teaching into our community. It would come to be known as the Gnostic Error, which in your time has become the basis for New Age thinking. This so concerned Epaphrus that he traveled all the way to Rome to see Paul, who was imprisoned there, to get some advice and direction on how to combat this heresy. Paul’s response was to write his Epistle to the Colossians, the Bible’s most succinct statement on the pre-eminency of Jesus Christ.

Much to his surprise, when Epaphrus arrived in Rome he found Onesimus, a run away slave of mine, living there and helping Paul. It turns out that when Onesimus had decided to run, he had stolen some money from me and headed for Rome, thinking to lose himself there. More serious than the theft, running away was an offense punishable by death for a slave, and he didn’t want to be caught. Rome was a large and sprawling city with a huge slum district where many criminals and other fugitives found refuge from the long arm of Roman law.

But God’s arms are even longer and wanting reconciliation instead of retribution, He had scooped Onesimus up and deposited him on Paul’s doorstep. After much discussion with Paul, Onesimus had accepted the Lord as his Savior and agreed to return to Colosse to throw himself on my mercy.

Not wanting to have Onesimus show up unannounced at my house, Paul wrote a letter of introduction for him, taking the view that as a Christian brother Onesimus was a new creation, a man I had to become acquainted with as if for the first time.

I, of course, was unaware that all of this had happened, and was therefore astonished when my friend Tychicus, who had accompanied Onesimus on his return, came to my door and handed me Paul’s letter, asking me to read it immediately. Paul was a learned man, a scholar in the finest traditions of both Hebrew and Greek cultures. He’s been called the towering intellect of New Testament writers, and here he was writing me, using all the tact and skill at his command.

He had composed his letter in the classical style, seeking first to build rapport before attempting to persuade the mind. He closed with a remarkable emotional appeal that as we’ll see was most persuasive.

After opening greetings he launched straight into his task of building rapport with me.

I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints. (Philemon 1:4-7)

As I read this part of his letter my heart was opened to him. I didn’t know what he wanted yet and had never met him, but the fact that this great man, already famous among Christians, would have taken the time to find out about me, compliment me on my faith, and even call me brother was impressive to say the least.

Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I then, as Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. (Philemon 1:8-11)

Now the purpose of Paul’s letter was clear. For the first time he mentioned Onesimus, and in doing so turned his name into a clever play on words. You see, in our language Onesimus means useful. In effect Paul was saying that while as a pagan slave Onesimus hadn’t lived up to his name for me, as a brother in Christ he was now doing so for both of us.

I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord. (Philemon 1:12-16)

Paul was sending Onesimus back to me, but not as a slave. He expected me to receive Onesimus as an equal, a brother in the Lord. He even implied that maybe God had orchestrated the whole incident just for this purpose. Onesimus did get saved in the process, and was now helping Paul in ways that perhaps I should have been doing. But even so, this great man would never dream of just keeping him, at least not without my permission. I was beginning to feel some pressure.

So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.

And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.(Philemon 1:17-22)

Now he was asking me to receive Onesimus as if it was Paul himself standing at my door. And what’s more he was offering to personally make restitution for my financial loss, and agreeing to take the blame for my slave’s behavior. As if I would ever ask him to! And here’s another one of Paul’s plays on words. When said he wished that he would have some benefit from me (Philemon 1:20), he used a form of my slave’s name, in effect asking me to be his Onesimus. Finally he hinted that he’ll come around someday to see if I’ve followed through on his request.

I’m sure my mouth was hanging open and my face turning all shades of red as I read and re-read Paul’s letter. What an audacious request to make! Onesimus was a thief and a runaway slave. He needed to pay the penalty for such behavior. If I were to forgive him just like that, without any punishment, what kind of example would that be setting for my other slaves? Why the whole system could break down and slaves could be running away all over the place. Besides, what had Onesimus ever done to deserve such a favor, and most of all what made Paul think he could ask this of me? The nerve!

And then it dawned on me, just like Paul knew it would, and when it did it knocked the breath right out of me. With tears flowing down my cheeks I suddenly realized that Paul was only asking me to do for Onesimus what our Lord Jesus had asked His Father to do for me! I too was a thief and a runaway and much more. I too deserved to pay the penalty for my behavior. I too deserved to die. But God had forgiven me without prejudice and now called me “son” just because Jesus asked Him to, having paid all my debts and taken all the blame due me. And now I was being given the incredible privilege of returning the unmerited favor that God had shown me.

I turned to Onesimus who’d been standing timidly behind Tychicus and welcomed him into my arms and into my family, begging him to forgive me just as I had been forgiven.

Onesimus was restored and Paul’s prayer was answered. My faith had manifested itself in action, (Philemon 1:6) and this simple letter, written from one man to another nearly 2000 years ago became part of God’s Holy Word to serve as an example to countless millions. It truly was the application of the highest principles to the most common affairs. May the Name of the Lord be forever praised. 10-15-05