Philemon 1

Sunday Morning Bible Study

December 31, 2000


This small letter to a man in Colosse named Philemon is closely related to Paul’s letter to the Colossians. It was written at the same time as Colossians, when Paul was in Rome awaiting his first trial before Caesar. It was carried to Colosse along with the letter to the Colossians by Tychicus and Onesimus.

This letter is all about a slave, Onesimus, who ran away from his master in Colosse. It is probable that Onesimus even stole something from his master when he ran away (Phile 1:18). He ended up in Rome, where he met Paul, and ended up becoming a Christian. Paul then sends Onesimus back to his master, along with this letter.

:1 Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and Timothy our brother, unto Philemon our dearly beloved, and fellowlabourer,

prisonerdesmios – bound, in bonds, a captive, a prisoner

PhilemonPhilemon – “one who kisses”; an apparently wealthy resident of Colosse, converted to Christianity by Paul, and the recipient of the letter bearing his name

dearly belovedagapetos – beloved, esteemed, dear, favourite, worthy of love

fellowlabourersunergos – a companion in work, fellow worker

:2 And to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellowsoldier, and to the church in thy house:

ApphiaApphia – “fruitful”; Apphia was the wife of Philemon.

belovedagapetos – beloved, esteemed, dear, favourite, worthy of love

ArchippusArchippos – “master of the horse”; Archippus was possibly the son of Philemon, but also possibly the pastor at Colosse. (Col. 4:17)

Col 4:17  And say to Archippus, Take heed to the ministry which thou hast received in the Lord, that thou fulfil it.

fellowsoldiersustratiotes – a fellow soldier; an associate in labours and conflicts for the cause of Christ

church in thy house

The early church seemed to usually meet in houses, perhaps meeting in several homes in the larger cities.

Jerusalem – Mary’s house –
Ac 12:12  And when he had considered [the thing], he came to the house of Mary the mother of John, whose surname was Mark; where many were gathered together praying.
Ephesus – Aquila and Priscilla –
1Co 16:19 The churches of Asia salute you. Aquila and Priscilla salute you much in the Lord, with the church that is in their house.
Rome – Aquila and Priscilla –
(Rom 16:3-5 KJV)  Greet Priscilla and Aquila my helpers in Christ Jesus: {4} Who have for my life laid down their own necks: unto whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. {5} Likewise greet the church that is in their house. Salute my wellbeloved Epaenetus, who is the firstfruits of Achaia unto Christ.
Laodicea – house of Nymphas –
Col 4:15  Salute the brethren which are in Laodicea, and Nymphas, and the church which is in his house.

:3 Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

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

mentionmneia – remembrance, memory, mention

prayersproseuche – prayer addressed to God

:5 Hearing of thy love and faith, which thou hast toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all saints;

loveagape – brotherly love, affection, good will, love, benevolence

:6 That the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.

This continues with Paul’s prayer for Philemon (1:4)

communicationkoinonia – fellowship, association, communion; sharing

(Phil 1:4-6 KJV)  Always in every prayer of mine for you all making request with joy, {5} For your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now; {6} Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ:

(Phil 4:14-15 KJV)  Notwithstanding ye have well done, that ye did communicate with my affliction. {15} Now ye Philippians know also, that in the beginning of the gospel, when I departed from Macedonia, no church communicated with me as concerning giving and receiving, but ye only.

Heb 13:16  But to do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.

effectualenerges – active

the acknowledgingepignosis – precise and correct knowledge; used in the NT of the knowledge of things ethical and divine

goodagathos – of good constitution or nature; useful, salutary; good, pleasant, agreeable, joyful, happy; excellent, distinguished; upright, honourable

in Christ Jesus – better translation, “unto Christ Jesus”. Philemon is to be sharing what God has given him for the glory of Jesus, for the praise of Jesus.


Growing and sharing

The idea is that the more you become aware of the good things that Jesus has put inside you, the more active you should become in sharing the good things that God has done in you.
Sometimes that involves witnessing, telling others the things that God has done in your life.
Sometimes that involves doing things for others, using the abilities, gifts, and talents that God has given you.

:7 For we have great joy and consolation in thy love, because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother.

joycharis – grace; that which affords joy, pleasure, delight, sweetness, charm, loveliness: grace of speech

consolationparaklesis – a calling near, summons, (esp. for help); importation, supplication, entreaty; exhortation, admonition, encouragement; consolation, comfort, solace; that which affords comfort or refreshment

loveagape – brotherly love, affection, good will, love, benevolence

bowelssplagchnon – bowels, intestines. People in ancient days thought that the passions came out of the “guts” (we think of the “heart”).

refreshedanapauo – to cause or permit one to cease from any movement or labour in order to recover and collect his strength; to give rest, refresh, to give one’s self rest, take rest; to keep quiet, of calm and patient expectation. The verb is a perfect tense, the action taking place in the past but the results carry on into the present.


Refresh the saints

Philemon was a man who refreshed the hearts of those around him.
He was an encourager. He was a lover of God’s people.
More examples:
Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus came to Paul and helped him out

(1 Cor 16:17-18 KJV) I am glad of the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus: for that which was lacking on your part they have supplied. {18} For they have refreshed my spirit and yours: therefore acknowledge ye them that are such.

The Corinthians church “refreshed” Titus when he visited them.

(2 Cor 7:13 KJV) Therefore we were comforted in your comfort: yea, and exceedingly the more joyed we for the joy of Titus, because his spirit was refreshed by you all.

Jesus said,
(Mat 25:37-40 KJV) Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? {38} When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? {39} Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? {40} And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

Refresh those in need. Refresh those around you.

:8 Wherefore, though I might be much bold in Christ to enjoin thee that which is convenient,

boldparrhesia – freedom in speaking, unreservedness in speech; free and fearless confidence, cheerful courage, boldness, assurance

to enjoinepitasso – to enjoin upon, order, command, charge

convenientaneko – to have come up to, arrived at, to reach to; to pertain to what is due, duty, as was fitting

Paul has the authority to order Philemon to do a proper, fitting thing …

:9 Yet for love's sake I rather beseech thee, being such an one as Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ.

love’sagape – brotherly love, affection, good will, love, benevolence

I … beseechparakaleo – to call to one’s side; exhortation, entreaty, comfort, encourage

the agedpresbutes – an old man, an aged man

prisonerdesmios – bound, in bonds, a captive, a prisoner


God can use prisoners too.

As we’ll see, Paul apparently led this man Onesimus to the Lord while he was a prisoner.
Paul wasn’t just sitting in prison moping around because his life had been so terrible.
God can use us even in our most difficult circumstances.

:10 I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds:

I beseechparakaleo – to call to one’s side; exhortation, entreaty, comfort, encourage

sonteknon – offspring, children; “child”

I have begottengennao – of men who fathered children

bondsdesmon – a band or bond

OnesimusOnesimos – “profitable or useful”; a Christian slave of Philemon. Paul mentions Onesimus in the letter to the Colossians, calling him a “faithful and beloved brother”. (Col. 4:9)

(Col 4:9 KJV)  With Onesimus, a faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you…

Paul is kind of careful how he writes this, putting Onesimus’ name at the end of the sentence, after describing him in a positive light first. The NAS puts it best:

(Phile 1:10 NASB) I appeal to you for my child, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, Onesimus,

How did Paul lead Onesimus to the Lord while in prison?

We really don’t know. Paul knew Philemon, but we don’t know if he also knew Onesimus as a slave to Philemon.

Here’s this slave, running from Colosse, running to the “big city”, and he ends up running into Paul.

It reminds me of my friend Steve Santos, who was running from the Lord and ran to Hawaii to be a surf bum. He ended up finding Jesus in Hawaii, and now is a pastor on the island of Maui.

:11 Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me:

unprofitableachrestos (“not” + “useful”) – useless, unprofitable; not virtuous, not good; not manageable; not pleasant.

profitableeuchrestos (“well” + “useful”) – easy to make use of, useful; well virtuous, well manageable; well pleasant

Paul is making a play on words with the name. Onesimus’ name means “profitable”.


Jesus makes us what we ought to be

Onesimus’ own name said it all. But he didn’t live up to his name, he had been an unprofitable servant. But after coming to Jesus, he had changed, and now was very useful.
(Eph 2:10 KJV) For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.
God has good “works” already planned out for us to do.


My sons and I have been playing a new computer game called “Roller Coaster Tycoon”. In the game you build and manage your own simulated Theme Parks, like miniature Disneylands. You learn all about planning, budgeting, managing people, and building really cool roller coasters.

When you start the game, you find that there are a number of pre-planned “scenarios” to complete. The people who designed the game came up with various types of situations, and you are to take an existing piece of land, with certain conditions, some are already working theme parks, and you are to develop these parks. You are given a job to do. It’s already been planned out.

When you “beat” a level, all you’re doing is doing the very things that the software designers planned for you to do.

God has His own “scenarios” for us to work out. They are things He wants us to accomplish, things that are specifically designed for our own unique gifts, talents, strengths, and weaknesses.

But you’ll never find out what God’s incredible “scenarios” are for you until you submit your life to Him. Until you choose to live your life for Him. And when you choose to follow Him, He begins to make you what you were designed to be.

:12 Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels:

have sent againanapempo – to send up; to send back

bowelssplagchnon – bowels, intestines, (the heart, lungs, liver, etc.); the bowels were regarded as the seat of the more violent passions, such as anger and love; but by the Hebrews as the seat of the tenderer affections, esp. kindness, benevolence, compassion; hence our heart (tender mercies, affections, etc.)

(Phile 1:12 NLT) I am sending him back to you, and with him comes my own heart.

Onesimus is a runaway slave. Paul is sending him back.

The usual penalty for an escaped slave was death or branding with a hot iron to mark him with the letter “F” for fugitivus, a fugitive. Paul is not expecting Philemon to do any of this.

Paul is not taking on the system of slavery here. He is not chastising Philemon for having slaves. He’s simply sending Onesimus back. Don’t get me wrong. Paul is not in favor of slavery. Check out 1Cor. 7:21-24 for homework.

(1 Cor 7:21-24 NLT)  Are you a slave? Don't let that worry you--but if you get a chance to be free, take it. {22} And remember, if you were a slave when the Lord called you, the Lord has now set you free from the awful power of sin. And if you were free when the Lord called you, you are now a slave of Christ. {23} God purchased you at a high price. Don't be enslaved by the world. {24} So, dear brothers and sisters, whatever situation you were in when you became a believer, stay there in your new relationship with God.

:13 Whom I would have retained with me, that in thy stead he might have ministered unto me in the bonds of the gospel:

I wouldboulomai – to will deliberately, have a purpose, be minded

retainedkatecho – to hold back, detain, retain

might have ministereddiakoneo – to be a servant, attendant, domestic, to serve

bondsdesmon – a band or bond

gospeleuaggelion – a reward for good tidings; good tidings; the glad tidings of salvation through Christ; the gospel

Paul isn’t wanting Onesimus to become his own personal slave, but to become a slave of the gospel like Paul is. If Onesimus were to serve the Lord, that would have “ministered” to Paul.

:14 But without thy mind would I do nothing; that thy benefit should not be as it were of necessity, but willingly.

mindgnome – the faculty of knowledge, reason; that which is thought or known, one’s mind; mind concerning what ought to be done

would Ithelo – to will, have in mind, intend; to be resolved or determined, to purpose; to desire, to wish

dopoieo – to make; to do

without your decision on this matter, I want to do nothing

necessityanagke – necessity, imposed either by the circumstances, or by law of duty regarding to one’s advantage, custom, argument

benefitagathos – of good constitution or nature; useful, salutary; good, pleasant, agreeable, joyful, happy; excellent, distinguished; upright, honourable

willinglyhekousion – voluntary; from hekon – unforced, voluntary, willing; of one’s own will; of one’s own accord

Paul wants Philemon to know everything that has happened. He wants Philemon to be able to make his own mind up concerning what to do with Onesimus.

Paul is actually making it easier for Philemon to keep Onesimus as a servant by sending him back.

Colosse is 900 miles from Rome (if you were to fly straight). It would be much easier for Onesimus to stay at Colosse once he’s sent back.


Don’t take advantage of people.

This letter has been called “the polite epistle” because of the way Paul handles the situation between Philemon and Onesimus. It gives us a great example of how we ought to be dealing with people in difficult circumstances.
Paul could have assumed that he could have encouraged Onesimus to stay with him. He could have said, “I know my buddy Philemon, and he’d want Onesimus to stay with me, so I’ll let him stay”. And then he could have written the letter to Philemon telling him this, but never really giving Philemon the freedom to make the decision without extreme manipulation.
Instead he did what was right. He allowed Philemon the space to make the decision about what to do with Onesimus. The choice of what to do with Onesimus is really Philemon’s to make. Paul sees that and lets him make the choice.
He did what was proper.
Farmer Jones got out of his car and while heading for his friend’s door, noticed a pig with a wooden leg. His curiosity roused, he ask, “Fred, how’d that pig get him a wooden leg?” “Well Michael, that’s a mighty special pig! A while back a wild boar attacked me while I was walking in the woods. That pig there came a runnin’, went after that boar and chased him away. Saved my life!” “And the boar tore up his leg?” “No he was fine after that. But a bit later we had that fire. Started in the shed up against the barn. Well, that ole pig started squealin’ like he was stuck, woke us up, and ‘fore we got out here, the darn thing had herded the other animals out of the barn and saved ‘em all!” “So that’s when he hurt his leg, huh, Fred?” “No, Michael. He was a might winded, though. When my tractor hit a rock and rolled down the hill into the pond I was knocked clean out. When I came to, that pig had dove into the pond and dragged me out ‘fore I drowned. Sure did save my life.” “And that was when he hurt his leg?” “Oh no, he was fine. Cleaned him up, too.” “OK, Fred. So just tell me. How did he get the wooden leg?” “Well”, the farmer tells him, “A pig like that, you don’t want to eat all at once!”
Don’t treat people like pigs. Treat them with respect.

:15 For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever;

he … departedchorizo – to separate, divide, part, put asunder, to separate one’s self from, to depart; to leave a husband or wife; of divorce; to depart, go away

Paul uses a word that is used for divorce. In a way, Philemon had been through a divorce, a separation from Onesimus.

seasonhora (“hour”) – a certain definite time or season fixed by natural law and returning with the revolving year; the daytime (bounded by the rising and setting of the sun), a day; a twelfth part of the day-time, an hour, (the twelve hours of the day are reckoned from the rising to the setting of the sun); any definite time, point of time, moment

for everaionios – without beginning and end, that which always has been and always will be; without beginning; without end, never to cease, everlasting

receiveapecho – have; to have wholly or in full, to have received


God turns bad things good.

Philemon had been through a “bad relationship”. He had been deserted by Onesimus.
Yet God was working on Onesimus, and though he was running from Philemon, he couldn’t outrun God.
(Rom 8:28 KJV) And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.
Joseph and his brothers
Joseph got a bad deal from his brothers. They not only didn’t like him and would let him hang around with them, but they ended up selling him as a slave, and he ended up in Egypt, separated from his home and family.
At first, life as a slave wasn’t too bad because God was blessing Joseph so much. Joseph kept getting promotions until the day that his boss’ wife accused him of “sexual harassment” and he ended up in prison. Two years in prison.
But the time came when Joseph got his break and after he interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams, he ended up with the top job in Egypt, assistant to Pharaoh.
In the meantime, a worldwide famine hit, and Joseph found himself in the place of feeding the world. And the day came when a group of brothers showed up, looking for help, and the pieces all began to fall in place in Joseph’s head. He began to realize that all the hardship and pain he had been through had been for a purpose.
He told his brothers,

(Gen 50:20 KJV) But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.

God can turn bad things to good. It may not be the same way in every situation, but God can do it. He can change the other person. He can change you.

:16 Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord?

servantdoulos – a slave, bondman, man of servile condition

brotheradelphos – a brother, whether born of the same two parents or only of the same father or mother; a fellow believer, united to another by the bond of affection

fleshsarx – flesh (the soft substance of the living body, which covers the bones and is permeated with blood) of both man and beasts; the body; the flesh, denotes mere human nature, the earthly nature of man apart from divine influence, and therefore prone to sin and opposed to God

Onesimus wasn’t just a slave now, he was a Christian brother to Philemon.

:17 If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself.

countecho – to have, i.e. to hold; to have i.e. own, possess; to hold one’s self or find one’s self so and so, to be in such or such a condition

partnerkoinonos – a partner, associate, comrade, companion; a partner, sharer, in anything

receiveproslambano – to take to, take in addition, to take to one’s self

:18 If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account;

wrongedadikeo – to act unjustly or wickedly, to sin,; to be a criminal, to have violated the laws in some way; to do wrong; to do hurt

owethopheilo – to owe; to owe money, be in debt for. 

It is thought that Onesimus may have stolen something from Philemon when he ran away.

put that on … accountellogeo – to reckon in, set to one’s account, lay to one’s charge, impute


The example of Jesus.

So much of this is a wonderful picture of how Jesus intercedes with the Father in heaven for us.
(1 John 2:1 KJV) My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous:
You see Paul following in the steps of Jesus, as Jesus would pray for us –
(Phile 1:10 KJV) I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds:

Jesus has begotten us, we are His children.

(Phile 1:11 KJV) Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me:

We used to be unprofitable to God, but now we are profitable.

 (Phile 1:15 KJV) For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever;

Jesus wants us to live with the Father forever.

(Phile 1:16 KJV) Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord?

We are no longer slaves to sin, but are now part of God’s family.

(Phile 1:17 KJV) If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself.

That the Father would receive us as He does Jesus.

(Phile 1:18 KJV) If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account;

If we owe God anything because of our sin, Jesus pays for it with His own death on the cross for us.


Be an intercessor

Pray for slaves to become brothers.
Do you love them enough to pick up the tab for them?

:19 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.

repayapotino – to pay off, repay

thou owest … besidesprosopheilo – to owe beside

Paul had led Philemon to the Lord.

:20 Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord: refresh my bowels in the Lord.

have joyoninemi – to be useful, to profit, help; to receive profit or advantage, be helped [or have joy]

refreshanapauo – to cause or permit one to cease from any movement or labour in order to recover and collect his strength; to give rest, refresh, to give one’s self rest, take rest; to keep quiet, of calm and patient expectation

bowelssplagchnon – bowels, intestines, (the heart, lungs, liver, etc.); the bowels were regarded as the seat of the more violent passions, such as anger and love; but by the Hebrews as the seat of the tenderer affections, esp. kindness, benevolence, compassion; hence our heart (tender mercies, affections, etc.)

refresh my heart

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

having confidencepeitho – persuade; be persuaded; to trust, have confidence, be confident

Paul isn’t just looking for making brownie points with Philemon by sending his slave back to him. He truly expects that Philemon will free this slave and allow him to serve the Lord.

What happened to Onesimus?

Church history records that Onesimus was set free as a slave by his master Philemon (Apostolical Canons [73]). The Apostolical Constitutions [7.46] state that he was consecrated by Paul to be bishop of Berea, in Macedonia, and that he was martyred at Rome.

:22 But withal prepare me also a lodging: for I trust that through your prayers I shall be given unto you.

preparehetoimazo – to make ready, prepare

lodgingxenia – hospitality, hospitable reception; a lodging place, lodgings

prayersproseuche – prayer addressed to God

I shall be givencharizomai – to do something pleasant or agreeable (to one), to do a favour to, gratify; to show one’s self gracious, kind, benevolent; to give graciously, give freely, bestow.  This is the verb form of the word “grace” (charis).

:23 There salute thee Epaphras, my fellowprisoner in Christ Jesus;

EpaphrasEpaphras – “lovely”; a Christian man mentioned in Paul’s epistles.  Epaphras was in prison with Paul, but had probably been the one who had first preached the gospel in Colosse (Col. 1:7).  He was a prayer warrior who prayed for the Colossians even while he was in prison (Col. 4:12-13).

Epaphras was from Colosse.  Perhaps he too knew Onesimus as the slave of Philemon.

fellowprisonersunaichmalotos – a fellow prisoner; “fellow captive”

:24 Marcus, Aristarchus, Demas, Lucas, my fellowlabourers.

These guys, along with Epaphras, were all with Paul during his first imprisonment in Rome:

MarcusMarkos – “a defense”; an evangelist, the author of the Gospel of Mark. Marcus was his Latin surname, his Jewish name was John. He was a cousin of Barnabas and a companion of Paul in some of his missionary journeys.  He was the reason Paul and Barnabas split up when Paul refused to take Mark on the second missionary journey because Mark had deserted them on the previous journey.  Later on, Paul would decide that Mark had grown up and was again profitable for ministry (Col. 4:10; 2Tim. 4:11)

AristarchusAristarchos – “the best ruler”; a certain Christian of Thessalonica, and accompanied Paul on his third missionary journey; he also sailed with Paul to Rome, where he is when Paul is writing.

DemasDemas – “governor of the people”; a companion of Paul, who deserted the apostle when he was a prisoner at Rome and returned to Thessalonica (2Tim. 4:10).

LucasLoukas – “light-giving”; a Gentile Christian, the companion of Paul in preaching the gospel and on his many journeys; he was a physician and author of the book of Luke and Acts in the NT

fellowlabourerssunergos – a companion in work, fellow worker

:25 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.