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Renewing Your Mind


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New Testament Survey




Key Verse(s):

Key Word(s) or Concept(s)


            What is the picture of Christ in this letter?

            Why is such a short letter included in the Holy Scriptures?

            Does this letter argue against slavery?


This is the last of the Prison Epistles and is unique in its nature. It is also full of practical application of all that Paul teaches and clearly deserves to sit in the position it occupies as the last of the clearly Pauline epistles in the Bible. Paul’s authorship is not questioned. The people in this letter bear a close resemblance to the people of Colossians (1,10,22-24 with those in Colossians 4:7-17) and seems to fall into the same time period as that letter, being written from Rome in A.D. 61.


This is one of the shortest books in the New Testament. There are five books in the Bible which are only one chapter long. Can you name them?

Theme, Purpose and Outline

Death was the normal punishment for a runaway slave. Onesimus stole from his master, Philemon, then ran for his life – right into the waiting arms of Paul who immediately led him to Christ (v10). Paul writes this letter of intercession for Onesimus to Philemon so that each of them may learn what it means to “live in Christ.” The letter becomes a picture of the conversion process and how this dramatic change should be reflected in our lives. If we were living in the unsaved, pagan world, we would view the theme of this letter as “put that on my tab.” Paul’s point to Philemon is exactly that, put Onesimus on my account.


This letter is about the results of forgiveness. In simple terms, forgiveness means forgetting something bad that has occurred. In the New Testament, two Greek words are translated as forgiveness. One bears the thought of dealing graciously with someone. The other bears the thought of letting loose of something, of sending the “thing” away. It is a remission or release of a wrong. In theological terms, forgiveness is the act of a gracious and loving God releasing our sins. It is a concept deeply tied to the price Christ paid on the Cross (Mark 1:4, Luke :24:47; Acts 2:38; 10:43; James 5:15; 1 John 1:9).

I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it: albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides.
Philemon 19


In verses 1-3 Paul sends his greetings to Philemon and his family, who live in Colosse. Paul’s description of Philemon as “our dearly beloved, and fellowlabourer” (v1) makes it clear that Philemon is part of the household of God.


All of Paul’s letters start with “grace and peace.” Have you noticed that as we have reviewed the epistles?


Grace – God’s free and undeserved kindness toward sinners.

Peace - A state of well being or wholeness as in a restored relationship, potentially with God and with fellow humans.

Some of the other epistles (1 Timothy 1:2; 2 Timothy 1:2; and Titus 1:4) add mercy to the equation. Mercy is compassion for the miserable. It is God viewing sinful man as being miserable and allowing Christ to offer Himself as our atoning sacrifice.

Thanksgiving and Prayer

Our attitude for prayer is reflected in Paul’s attitude toward his fellow brother in Christ.

I thank my God, making mention of thee always in my prayers,
Philemon 4

Is this the way you pray?

Verses 4-7 set forth Paul’s praise for the letters recipient. Paul commends Philemon’s efforts.

Appeal for Onesimus

Paul now turns to the reason for this particular letter. He remains ever the diplomat (v8), appealing to “love,” his eldership (“Paul the aged”), and to his being a “prisoner of Jesus Christ” (v9). Paul then issues his intercession for Onesimus. Paul calls him “my son . . . begotten in my bonds” (v10). Onesimus has been redeemed. Onesimus has become a brother in Christ just like Philemon. This conversion now makes Onesimus profitable to both Paul and Philemon, so Paul is sending the slave back to his master (v11-12). While Paul would have preferred having Onesimus stay and help the Apostle in Rome, since Philemon is the master, Onesimus’ fate is in the hands of Philemon (v13-14).

The last two verses of this section emphasize the fact that Onesimus returns to Philemon a new creation, a brother in Christ. This changes the relationship between the two. Paul teaches in Ephesians that we all should be submissive one to the other.


Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.

Ephesians 5:21

This is the new relationship to which Paul speaks.

The Apostle’s Assurance and Pledge

It is not enough in Paul’s mind to recommend to Philemon the changed relationship between master and servant. Paul now describes the concepts of imputation and substitution in terms of the personal relationship of Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus.


The idea behind imputation is simple. Someone has done something and the result, good or bad, is counted to your account. Romans 5:12-21 is the great discourse on this doctrine. Adam sinned and the whole world became sinful. Christ gave Himself on the Cross so that all who would accept Him are counted as righteous. Thus, Christ became our substitute for the punishment for our sins so that we could be counted as righteous (having a right standing with God) because Christ is righteous.

This is the argument of Paul in the concluding verses. Only, instead of relying upon Christ and the less earthly concepts of forgiveness and imputation, Paul demands that Philemon use Paul as Onesimus’ substitution for the debt owed by slave to master (v17-19). Paul’s argument is the argument of universal forgiveness of one Christian brother to another. In fact, Paul anticipates the joy of celebrating with them both, because the Apostle expects Philemon to be more generous than this (v20-21).

Having confidence in thy obedience I wrote unto thee, knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say.
Philemon 21

The letter closes with an assumption on the part of Paul that Philemon will receive Onesimus and the letter in the same spirit with which Paul has written. Paul sends his greetings and expects Philemon to lodge him when the Apostle is freed from his bonds and returns to Colosse (v22-25).


Notice that Paul calls on Philemon to make a choice. God has provided man with a free will, the ability to make choices between good and evil. God does not force choices upon us, but every choice we make is a choice for or against God.

Special Considerations

Please note that Paul’s assumption is that the love of Christ will correct and cure social issues. Paul does not legislate a result nor does he ever address the issue of slavery. What Paul teaches is the value of a person and the value we should hold one-to-another as brothers and sisters in Christ. This letter provides an example of the transformation of society into Christ’s image. The example deals with masters and slaves. There is a firm example of what sacrificial love and forgiveness look like in real life. If Christ can forgive each of us after we caused Him to die on the Cross, why can we not be loving and forgiving as Paul has asked Philemon to be?

Using portions of the epistles of Paul, we all need to be mindful of the fact that:

Review these Scriptures and see if you can identify the above points:



Would this letter and its argument have been effective if Philemon were not saved?




Onesimus’s name means “useful” or “profitable” in the Greek. Was he useful?

Could your name be Onesimus?


Ignatius, one of the early church fathers, refers to Onesimus as the bishop of Ephesus. If this is true, what a fitting tribute to Paul, Philemon, Onesimus, and the power of God, which can change anyone into a new creature in Christ!


The five one chapter books of the Bible are:

        From the Old Testament, Obadiah

        From the New Testament, Philemon, 2 & 3 John, and Jude




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