The Marvel of Christian Brotherhood

This letter was sent to Philemon, probably carried by Onesimus, along with the letter to the church at Colossae and probably with the letter entitled “To the Ephesians” both carried and presented by Tychicus (Ephesians 6:21, 22; Colossians 4:70. Paul writes as an apostle who has the right to give orders to these Christians but prefers to speak simply as a brother asking for a response based on love (Philemon 8, 9). This book should be read along with Colossians 3:22-25. We see Paul maintaining, by divine inspiration, an integration between equality in Christian brotherhood (Philemon 16) and order in existing social relations. In Colossians, Paul required masters to treat their slaves justly; here he asks that Onesimus be received with mercy, grace, fraternity, and generosity.


I. Paul begins with greetings to several friends. He identified himself as a “prisoner of Jesus Christ,” probably with a double meaning, that he is bound to Christ with unbreakable chains of love and service but also literally, he is in bonds specifically because of his proclamation of Christ as Lord and Savior. Again, his friend, brother, fellow minister, and son in the faith, Timothy, is with him. Perhaps the presence of Timothy and his approval of the letter communicates a broad unity o judgment concerning Onesimus. Since he pleads for a slave, Paul reminds Philemon that Paul is a prisoner.

A. Notice how many people Paul knows personally. This is evident in all his letters. In Romans 16, Paul mentions 27 people with some fitting remark about most of them concerning their relation to him and their value for the church and the extension of gospel truth.

  1. The recipient most clearly in view in his letter is Philemon, the master of the slave Onesimus. Note that he addresses him as “beloved” and “fellow-worker.” Paul pleads for a servant and recognizes Philemon as a valuable servant of the church. Perhaps he shares pastoral labors with Archippus to some extent.
  2. Paul addresses Apphia as our “sister;” she probably is the wife of Philemon. She would have a stake in the requested reception of Onesimus. It had to be great comfort to these early Christians, who found themselves under siege in a pagan society and usually on the verge of some uprising against them, to have the apostle express by his nomenclature his confidence in their true standing before the Lord.
  3. As in Colossians he had given a strong reminder to Archippus of the calling the Lord had given him (Colossians 4:17), so now he expresses his recognition of the fidelity he has shown in his gospel deployment by the Lord (2 Timothy 2:3, 4). He is a “fellow soldier,” willing to engage in the spiritual battle for the gospel and to suffer for Christ.
  4. Though the letter is addressed to Philemon primarily in light of the nature of the concern, he does not intend it to be private, but as instructive for the entire congregation on a matter that requires such delicate balance and gracious attitudes between brothers in Christ. The church meets in his house at least on some occasions but probably, in light of the possible danger of predictability in their gatherings, had other venues for corporate worship. Not only here, but throughout this letter we see something of the hospitable spirit that Apphia and Philemon had toward the saints.


B. Notice how often he has some word to characterize the usefulness of each person addressed. The presence of Christian encouragement and commendation (Romans 16:1; 1 Corinthians 11:1; Philippians 4:14) in the letters of Paul, alongside his clear and strong reprimands 1 Corinthians 5:1, 2), startling disappointments (Galatians 3:1; 5:7), and doctrinal embattlements (2 Corinthians 10:4-6; 11:4-6) is evidence of his transparency in ministry that flows from his apostolic calling. He is not after personal popularity but the conformity of the churches to the truth of gospel revelation. He shows his awareness of gracious works of the Spirit as well as the lingering effects of the flesh; he wants to encourage the one and defeat the other. When he sees genuine discipleship and self-effacing labor for the cause of Christ, he aptly encourages its continuance.

C. Paul issues his greeting of grace and peace. His ordering of this in terms of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ possibly is founded in the grace of the Father in his election of the saints and his sending the Son to execute the means that would effect this election. The Lord Jesus Christ has done this in being the Prince of Peace, bringing peace by his work of reconciliation through his death on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:17-21). “Grace . . . and peace.”


II. Unless Philemon had been converted under the immediate ministry of Paul, Paul’s knowledge of Philemon’s faith came by way of report from Epaphras and also Onesimus—“Hearing of your love and faith.” Having confidence of the accuracy of their evaluation of Philemon’s experience of grace, and assuming, therefore, the comprehensive Christian character of Philemon, Paul prays for the increase of his usefulness through an increase of grace and knowledge. The Centenary translation paraphrases “always” as “I am ever mentioning you in my prayers.” Matthew Henry observed, “In this lies no little part of the communion of the saints. Paul, in his private thanksgivings and prayers, was often particular in remembering his friends. This is a means of exercising love, and obtaining good for others.”

A. Paul writes of Philemon’s faith and love and seems to make both words relate to both Christ and the saints. There are three possibilities here. One is that we see a Paul whose exuberance in dictating made him conflate words and ideas that we are to divide and apply appropriately—love and faith you exhibit toward Christ which issues n a love toward the saints. Second, Paul could intend that both love and faith are to be understood as relating both to Christ and to the saints, “faith” toward the saints, not a saving faith, but a healthy confidence in the integrity of his fellow believers in Christ. Third, and most likely, the construction could be a simple chiasm—love toward the saints and faith toward the Lord Jesus. (5-7). In any of these, we observe a spiritual life toward God and toward other believers.

  1. Life toward God
  • Philemon has faith in Christ. As a Spirit-induced response to the gospel, Philemon has laid aside, like Paul, any trust in his status or his riches and has counted all things as loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus. He has received the message as true and has gloried in the cross as his only hope of forgiveness and in the resurrection as the surety of eternal life. Christ is his life.
  • Not only has Philemon received eternal life through faith, he receives “all good things” within the power of that same saving faith. Paul’s special appeal in this letter depends on the knowledge that Philemon has of this reality. His request concerning Onesimus will find its strength in the depth of insight that Philemon has concerning the unity of believers and their partaking of the same grace together. Faith has a power of universal fellowship (“fellowship of your faith”) toward the saints in every place, of every class, every status in society, and every ethnicity. Paul wanted the fellowship established by faith to bear observable fruit (“may become effective (or effectual)” for the glory of Christ (“unto Christ’). When Philemon really grasps that he has nothing that he did not receive (1 Corinthians 4:6, 7), that none of the good things in him could be attributed to any intrinsic strength, merit, and certainly not superiority, but come to him by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-10), he will exercise the spirit of loving brotherhood toward even a now-converted runaway slave. Faith communicates (koinonia) itself to men all the more as they discern the “good” in them placed there for Christ’s glory (6).
  1. Having looked at faith from the standpoint of its direction toward Christ and its effect within Philemon, Paul now looks at its impact toward man.
  • This expands the content of Paul’s confidence in Philemon’s “love . . . toward all the Saints (5).
  • The verb indicates that Paul himself “has come to have” an abundant and overflowing joy and comfort upon learning of the benevolent activities of Philemon. The report given by Epaphras, even Onesimus, has caused Paul to relive the transforming power of God’s grace to him as he hears about the same in the church leader at Colossae.
  • Paul s joyful because the saints are refreshed by a true encourager. “The hearts (bowels) of the saints have been abundantly refreshed by you, brother” (7). Paul used the word used by Jesus when he invited the weary and heavy laden to come to him for rest (Matthew 11:28). Again he used it when he told the disciples who had returned from a heavy assignment of ministry to “rest a while” (Mark 6:31).


B. Paul makes an appeal rather than issue a command (8,9).

  1. Even though Paul does not know Philemon personally, as an apostle set apart by Christ himself, he could use his authority to order him to do what is fitting. Paul used the word he used in Colossians 3:18 when he exhorted wives to submit to their husbands “as is fitting in the Lord.” Paul could not use apostolic authority to command anything that was not fitting, that is, thoroughly consistent with gospel order and fellowship.
  2. The evidence of Philemon’s life gives Paul confidence to appeal for Onesimus on the basis of love. He has in mind the reciprocal effect of love. He wants to engage Philemon with love on his part–“for love’s sake”– instead of pure authority and at the same time appeal to Philemon’s sense of love for all the saints, now including Onesimus.
  3. He also appeals to Christian witness and experience more than apostolicity. He is speaking as Paul the “aged” and a prisoner for the sake of Christ. Surely Philemon will be easily swayed to listen and respond to such a person even apart from the duty of obeying Paul as an apostle. Now Paul moves to the request.


III. Paul gives specific intercession for Onesimus (10-16). Calvin draws the reader to seek Paul’s meekness in this request: “On behalf of a man of the lowest condition he condescends to such modesty and humility that hardly anywhere else do we have such a living picture of the meekness of his character.”

A. Paul appeals because he was instrumental in his conversion. Miraculously, Onesimus in his fugitive state made his way to the place where Paul was kept as a prisoner. Like Lydia by the riverside (Acts 16:14) the Lord opened his heart to believe Paul’s gospel. By the ordained means, Paul’s recitation of the “living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:22, 23) this dead sinner was “begotten,” and thus born again. Here we have another instance of God’s providential arrangement of events, seemingly unjustified in terms of pure goodness, but orchestrated in eternity by the God who works “all things after the counsel of his own will” (Ephesians 1:11). See also Paul’s testimony in Philippians 1:12 and that of Joseph in Genesis 50:19-21.

B. His conversion makes him useful, not useless (11). Not only was he a runaway slave, he was a thief (18). Onesimus comes from a word which mean to “profit or help.” Paul says that formerly he was anything but “Onesimus” but rather was “achreston,” worthless, useless. Paul then changed “achreston” into “euchreston,” useful, beneficial, profitable. Now, by God’s grace he is indeed what his name means, not just in worldly advantage but as a trophy of grace and spiritual witness. Paul has seen his usefulness and wants Philemon also to consent with enthusiasm to that.

C. Paul emphasizes that he is sending Onesimus back (12). Onesimus shows no reluctance, but Paul wants Philemon to know that he is not trying to wrench any favors from Philemon to which he would be hesitant. Not only in monetary things, but in personal favor, God loves a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:7).

D. Paul with great candor lets Philemon know how useful Onesimus would be to him in his highly straitened situation. It was probably an unknown possibility as whether Philemon was of a mind to receive the runaway thief without exacting some kind of retribution; Paul, therefore uses all the weapons of persuasion within the bounds of gospel grace to convince Philemon to show kindness and acceptance.

  1. He has so identified with this slave and the heart change that has occurred in his encounter with the gospel that Paul calls him “my very heart.” He has developed a strong bond of Christian affection for the runaway, probably both for the depth of his faith and that he is a present affirmation of the continued effectuality of Paul’s ministry (12). Paul looked for continuing confirmation that God had made him “competent to be [a] minister of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit.” The deep affection he felt toward those converted under his ministry we find in his statement to the church at Corinth, “You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all” (1 Corinthians 3 2, 6). To the Philippians he wrote, “Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved” (Philippians 4:1). To the Thessalonians he wrote, “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you” (1 Thessalonians 3:12).
  2. Paul writes frankly that he wished to keep Onesimus with him. The sincerity of his faith has convinced Paul that he would pose no hindrance to his ministry but would enhance opportunities for Paul to continue to do what he could even while greatly hindered in his freedom to move about. He appeals to Philemon’s propensity for service and sacrificial labors for the gospel by recognizing the service given by Onesimus would be “on your behalf” (13).
  3. Paul used a phrase for Onesimus (16) that he uses for those actively engaged in gospel ministry and that he has used for Philemon himself (1:1), “beloved brother” (Ephesians 6:21; Colossians 4:7, 9). Peter called Paul, “our beloved brother, Paul” (2 Peter 3:15).
  4. Paul gives a strong statement of perfect unity in Christ in verse 17. Based on a sense of being equal sharers of the gift of salvation through the work of Christ, Paul requests Philemon to “Accept him as you would me.” (17) It is as he were saying, “If you reject the one that I am returning to you, then you will reject me.” Paul was willing to have an inseparable identity with Philemon in the grace of God.
  5. “I give myself and my worth to you as collateral for his debt,” so Paul wrote, and reinforced it by writing with his own hand (18, 19).
  • If Philemon feels that he must regain anything stolen by Onesimus, Paul stands as guarantor for it: “Charge that to my account” (18).
  • Paul gives an absolute guarantee to Philemon of a return on his loss by putting the promise in his own writing: I am writing this with my own hand, I will repay it” (19).
  • Paul reminds Philemon of an infinite benefit that he has received from Paul, the reality of eternal life, forgiven sin, right standing before God—all arising from the completed work of Christ, the message of which was entrusted to Paul. Paul told the church at Thessalonica, “Just as we have been entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts” (1 Thessalonians 2:4). If Paul was immediately instrumental in Philemon’s conversion, then, of course, he knew him beforehand. If it came from Paul’s influence on the evangelist to Philemon, then the sense of debt should be the same.

E. Paul not only gave strong assurance of love for and confidence in Onesimus, he also continues to salt the letter with fraternal encouragement and expressions of confidence relative to Philemon.

  1. This phrase, “on your behalf he might minister to me” (13), expresses confidence that Philemon would want to be involved in showing respect and care for Paul as his imprisonment is for the cause of the gospel.
  2. Paul expressed confidence that Philemon would respond to spiritual persuasion apart from command (14). Whenever possible, Paul wanted to see the transforming power of the gospel at work in converts. To the Corinthians he wrote that he did not want to “be severe in my use of authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down.” Rather he said, “We do not lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy” (2 Corinthians 13:10, 1:24).”
  3. Paul appealed to Philemon’s recognition of brotherhood at more than one level. “In the flesh” means in civil and household relations. They lived together in the same city and shared the interests of the same household. Philemon was responsible for him as a member of his family. He was a “beloved brother” to Paul, but for Philemon, his slave and household responsibility now shared common interest in Christ (16). This, so Paul hoped, would give strong motivation to Philemon to act toward Onesimus with Christian tenderness, caring more for his progress as a fellow Christian than as a slave.
  4. Paul extends that sense of unity in Christ by linking Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon together in a single fellowship. If Philemon considered Paul as a “partner” that is, one who shares common faith and common salvation, then he must do the same for Onesimus. This appeal assumed that Philemon knew this kind of fellowship as the highest point of any human relationship, and Paul used the argument being convinced that, with one like Philemon, it would be persuasive. (17). This is an extension of the general principle Paul set forth in verse 6.
  5. Paul looked upon this matter as one of a personal favor to Paul. Reception of Onesimus amounted to a personal ministry to Paul—“refresh my heart in Christ” (20). Again, the success of this assumption depends on how genuine the sense of the fellowship and indebtedness was. Paul appeals to it for he had a sincere confidence—“having confidence in your obedience”—in Philemon as a man of deep piety and genuine love for the gospel. He expressed such confidence in Philemon that he believed “you will do even more than what I say” (20, 21).
  6. Paul assumes he will do all this by asking that he prepare lodging. He does not think that Philemon will be offended by Paul’s request or look upon him as acting in an oppressive and officious way. This letter probably was written before 2 Timothy for at the time of that writing, Paul was convinced that his death was near at hand. Perhaps Paul expects to be released in God’s providence for his journey to Spain, and that he would also make a visit to Colossae.

IV. Two large Lessons

A. This letter will give important lessons in the nature of Christian persuasion. Appeals should be made on the foundation of common ground in fellowship. Appeals should assume the superior excellence of relationships established by the gospel. Appeals should work on the assumption of the earnest desire of others to please the Lord.

B. We learn much about the nature of Christian brotherhood. While common faith in Christ does not render natural relations and cultural roles a nullity, it does transform each relationship. Christians will regard the progress of the gospel as a greater good and the manifestation of Christian character and obedience as the most compelling factor of the relationship.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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