Foundations for an Appeal – Philemon 1-9

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Pastor Scott L. Harris

Grace Bible Church, NY

July 10, 2011

Foundations for an Appeal

Philemon 1-9


The Salutation – verse 1-3

As a follow-up to our study of Paul’s letter to the Colossians I want to examine his letter to Philemon. This is a personal letter written at the same time as the epistle to the Colossians. Let us begin by meeting the author and the recipients in the salutation.

1:1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved [brother] and fellow worker, 2 and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Author & Timing – It is clear that Paul is the author mentioning himself by name in verses 1, 9 and 19. It is also clear this personal letter to Philemon is written at the same time that Paul writes his letter to the Colossians. Paul mentions many of the same specific people in both. Paul includes Timothy in the salutation of both letters calling him “our brother.” Paul also mentions Archippus, Onesimus, Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke in both letters. Paul is a prisoner at this time mentioning it in verses 1, 9, 10, 13 and 23. He calls himself “a prisoner of Christ Jesus” twice (vs. 1 & 9) and specifically states that he is imprisoned for the gospel (vs. 13). This then would be toward the end of his first Roman imprisonment about A.D. 61 or 62.

Though Paul does not mention Tychicus in this letter, he is the one that carried Paul’s letters to the Ephesians and to the Colossians with Onesimus traveling with him (Colossians 4:7-9) (See: Beloved Brothers). It is unclear whether Tychicus or Onesimus carried this particular letter, though it would be more probable that Tychicus would have it in order to present it to Philemon as Paul’s representative in his plea for Onesimus.

Recipients – Paul is specifically writing to Philemon whom he addresses as the beloved and our fellow worker. This is the first indication that Paul knew Philemon well and that he had become beloved (agaphtoV / agapetos) to Paul. The rest of the letter continues to confirm this close relationship. Since Paul had not previously been to Colossae, it is most likely that the two of them had met in Ephesus during the two years that Paul was teaching there at the school of Tyrannus. This would also be the reason that others such as Timothy, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke were also known to Philemon since they also had been with Paul in Ephesus.

Paul also refers to Philemon as his “fellow worker” (sunergoV/ sunergos). This is a term he often used to describe those working with him or on his behalf in evangelism or pastoral ministry. This does not mean that Philemon was necessarily the pastor of the church in Colossae, but the next verse tells us that his home was the meeting place for the church there, so at minimum he was very involved in ministry.

Paul next mentions the sister Apphia. The reference is regarding her relationship to Paul in the same way as he refers to Philemon as his brother. Since the reference to the church in “your house” occurs after this, she would be the matron of the house and most likely Philemon’s wife.

Archippus is mentioned next. We met him last week as we concluded our study of Colossians. (See: Greetings & Final Instructions) Paul sought to encourage him telling him, “take heed to the ministry which you have received in the Lord, that you may fulfill it.” We are not told what specific ministry Archippus had received from the Lord, but Paul reminds him that it came from the Lord and that he needed to take heed to fulfill it. This is not a rebuke, but rather an encouragement to continued action.

He may have been Philemon’s son, but Paul’s designation for him here is a “fellow soldier” (sustratiwthV / sustratiôtes). The only other time this particular term is used is in regard to Epaphroditus in Philippians 2:25. This title brings out the common struggles that are shared in serving in God’s army against the common enemy. Good soldiers look out for each other and suffer the same hardships together (2 Timothy 2:3). Whatever Archippus’ particular ministry may have been, Paul recognizes it and identifies with it. If he was a leader in the church there he would have responsibility in shepherding a flock that was struggling against false teachers as described in Colossians 3. That would have been a difficult task and the military term used here would be very appropriate.

Paul also includes the whole church that meets at Philemon’s house. It may seem a little strange to include the whole church in what is otherwise a personal letter, but the whole church will be very aware of the circumstances that have prompted the letter and Paul’s plea to Philemon to respond in a certain way will be the model for them to follow as well.

Greeting – Paul extends to them his common greeting that occurs in almost every one of his letters – “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” It is a simple, yet profound expression that
God would bless them and grant them peace. The wish that they would receive undeserved blessings and be at peace is relatively simple, but the expression of their source is profound. The grammar joins God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ as the single source of divine grace and peace while also distinguishing them as separate persons. The deity of Jesus is thus affirmed since no mere human can be said to be the source of such spiritual blessings with God the Father.

The Purpose of the Letter – Overview

Before I continue in looking at the particular sections of this letter, I think it is important to understand the overall purpose of the letter and the context in which it is written. Please follow along as I read through of the rest of this short letter

4 I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers, 5 because I hear of your love, and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all the saints; 6 [and I pray] that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for Christ’s sake. 7 For I have come to have much joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother.

8 Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to order you [to do] that which is proper, 9 yet for love’s sake I rather appeal [to you]– since I am such a person as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus– 10 I appeal to you for my child, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, Onesimus, 11 who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me. 12 And I have sent him back to you in person, that is, [sending] my very heart, 13 whom I wished to keep with me, that in your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel; 14 but without your consent I did not want to do anything, that your goodness should not be as it were by compulsion, but of your own free will. 15 For perhaps he was for this reason parted [from you] for a while, that you should have him back forever, 16 no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. 17 If then you regard me a partner, accept him as [you would] me. 18 But if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account; 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand, I will repay it (lest I should mention to you that you owe to me even your own self as well). 20 Yes, brother, let me benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ.

 21 Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, since I know that you will do even more than what I say. 22 And at the same time also prepare me a lodging; for I hope that through your prayers I shall be given to you.

23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you, 24 [as do] Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow workers.

25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

In reading through the text it is clear enough that Paul is making an appeal to Philemon to accept back Onesimus, his runaway slave.

Flight & Conversion. From what is said it is evident that Onesimus had fled from his master with verse 18 indicating a strong possibility that he may have even stolen from his master. It was not uncommon for slaves to pilfer from their masters, and one that is running away would need a means to finance his journey.

By some means, Onesimus had made it to Rome where he met Paul. How or why he met Paul is not explained. There are several possibilities. Since Paul and Philemon were friends, Onesimus would have certainly heard about him while he was still with his master and perhaps when he found out Paul was in Rome he went to meet Paul for himself for whatever reason. Or perhaps Epaphras saw him and brought him to Paul. Since Epaphrus was from Colossae and knew Philemon, he would most likely have known Onesimus as well.

Onesimus heard the gospel from Paul and was converted (vs. 10). Over the course of meeting together, Onesimus had become dear to Paul and very useful (vs. 10-11). He was now voluntarily going back to his master. That brings up all sorts of questions in our minds from a twenty-first century American perspective, but we must be careful not to read the values of our own culture into this. We must understand it from the perspective of that time and society. In understanding Roman slavery at that time we will also learn the dangers Onesimus was facing and the reason Paul was so careful in writing this letter.

Roman Slavery. Slavery was so common in the ancient world that it was taken for granted and especially so in the Roman world. Slavery changed over the course of the empire, so my comments here are going to focus on just the first century, the time period when Paul wrote to Philemon. Slavery had become crucial to the economy of the empire and was part of normal social life as well. The aristocrats had vast numbers of slaves that ran their farms and businesses. The wealthy had house slaves to do the chores. The expansion of the Roman empire had brought in so many slaves that by the first century even common people might have a house slave. In Rome during this time there were probably as many if not more slaves than non-citizen free men with estimates ranging from 25 to 40% of the total population. About one third of the population of Pergamum were slaves. The percentage of slaves would vary depending on specific time period and area of the empire, but it is obvious that slavery was common.

There were several sources of slaves and there was not an ethnic component in Roman slavery. All ethnic groups were subject to slavery, and there was no ethnic exclusion in becoming a Roman citizen, the only status that was truly important throughout the empire. The largest source had been from the areas conquered by Rome. The people of an area conquered by a Roman Legion were subject to being sold into slavery. For example, it is estimated Julius Caesar enslaved up to 500,000 people when he conquered Gaul (France).

Another source was slave traders who would include in their stock those gained by man capture. This was not as a result of a war of conquest of one nation by another, but of small groups that would capture those in a country or a village for the purpose of enslaving them for a profit. (This is a practice that continues to this day and especially in the Islamic world). A third source of slaves were the children born to mothers who were slaves. This may have been the largest source of slaves through much of the first century. Abandoned children were also subject to slavery. And a fourth source was those who sold themselves or their relative into slavery in order to pay off debt or even to better themselves.

This last source may seem especially strange to Americans since we have prized freedom so highly, but it was not uncommon then. A poor freeman might not be much better off than the average urban slave, and could be much worse off – especially in difficult economic times. A slave would often receive a small allowance of 5 denarii per month but would have his food, shelter and clothing provided. The average free man might earn 313 denarii per year working a six day week, but spend 279 denarii on those same basic necessities which may not have been as high a quality as what the slave received. In addition, a slave might also receive an education and be trained in a trade such as a clerk, accountant, teacher, doctor, nurse, musician or artist. And since a slave could earn his freedom or have it granted, there could be an advantage to someone who was poor in selling themselves into slavery as long as they had a good master.

The greatest danger to a slave was having a cruel master followed by the particular physical nature and danger of the work they were assigned. Most masters treated their slaves well simply because that was better economically and many masters considered their slaves as part of their household. It was very common for wills to provide for a slave’s freedom upon the master’s death. Slaves were considered chattel property, much like a horse, but a good slave was not cheap so it was wise to treat them well so that full value could be gained from them. However, there always have been and always will be those who are so self centered and wicked they do not even treat their possessions with common decency. If the price of slaves dropped, which could happen when large numbers became available due to a new conquest, marginal masters lost the economic incentive and would treat their slaves poorly.

By the first century slaves were being given some legal rights nearly equal to a free man such as trial when accused of a crime, but these were far less than a Roman citizen. Slaves were still not legally recognized as persons, but were allowed to testify in legal proceedings. Their wills might be recognized as valid. They were often permitted to own property. However, they were still subject to the whims of their master for whatever work was required and all their living conditions including marriage or co-habitation and their children belonged to their master. A slave could be sold, exchanged, given away or seized as payment for debt. Slaves could be beaten or scourged without reason or recourse. The worst physical abuses such as maiming and murder were made illegal, but such restrictions could often easily be ignored.

Runaway Slaves. A runaway slave was in a precarious position. If caught they were at minimum branded on the forehead with an “F” or “FUR” for “fugitivus,” meaning “runaway.” It was also common that some of their joints or bones would be broken – which would make it harder to runaway in the future. As a warning to other slaves they were subject to severe beatings or even execution.

Roman law assisted masters who were Roman citizens in regaining their runaway slaves by enacting severe penalties on those who would harbor them. Not only was there a large monetary fine of 50,000 sesterces (12,500 denarii – a denarius was the average wage for a day’s work), but the wages or services owed during the slave’s absences were also required of the one who hid the slave. In addition there were professional slave catchers – the Fugitivarii – on the prowl. It would not be easy to hide as a new person in a small village, but one could get lost in the teeming masses of Rome which is why Onesimus would have gone there.

There was an exception that offered some protection to a fugitive slave. A Roman citizen such as Paul was not legally obligated to return a fugitive slave if the master was not a citizen. Perhaps this may have had something to do with the reasons Onesimus had gone to Paul. As Onesimus matured in his walk with the Lord it became clear to him that he needed to return to his master in Colossae and make things right. But that meant facing two great dangers – slave catchers and his master’s wrath. By sending Onesimus along as a companion to Tychicus he would be protected from any slave catchers they encountered along the way. Paul then wrote this letter as Onesimus’ advocate persuading Philemon to forgive his past crimes and accept him back as something more than a slave, a fellow brother in Christ.

Next week I will tackle the issue of why it was right for Paul to send Onesimus back to his master and for him to go, but for the rest of this morning I want us to consider the character of Philemon as expressed in the beginning of Paul’s letter of persuasion. He is a man worth emulating, and Paul’s approach to him is a good example of how to make an appeal to someone.

Paul’s Thankfulness – vs. 4-5

Paul’s task of persuading Philemon to forgive and accept back Onesimus was made easy because Paul already knew Philemon and his character well. He begins by expressing his thankfulness for Philemon before going on to express his prayers for him and joy because of him. These become the basis on which Paul will make his appeal on behalf of Onesimus.

4 I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers, 5 because I hear of your love, and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all the saints;

Paul gave thanks because he had heard how well Philemon was doing in his walk with the Lord. We can safely assume that this information came from Epaphras who had informed Paul about all that was occurring in Colossae (Colossians 1:7). How thankful Paul must have been after hearing about the problems that were arising there to also hear how well Philemon was doing.

These are not platitudes but genuine expressions of Paul’s gratefulness to God to hear about someone doing well. I can attest myself that there are times I am told about so many problems that there is great joy and thankfulness to God when you hear about someone doing well. You then pray for the person giving thanks to the Lord for what He is doing in their life and then requesting that He will continue to do so – which is what Paul does here.

The basis of the thanksgiving is Philemon’s love and faith. While we are not told the details of how this was being expressed, we can be sure that Epaphras had explained it and Paul was letting Philemon know his response to the good news. These are two qualities that are foundational to being a mature Christian.

The sentence structure here is interesting for it presents what is referred to as a chiasmus. In English we usually express thoughts in a linear fashion with point A followed immediately by subpoint a and point B by subpoint b. In this case, point A is followed by point B, then subpoint b, then subpoint a. Paul mentions Philemon’s love first, but then separates it from its expression toward all the saints by interjecting in between its cause in ha
ving faith in the Lord Jesus. Or perhaps we could express it this way. Paul gives thanks because Philemon’s love, which arises out of his faith in the Lord Jesus, is toward all the saints.

A love with this foundation is both deep and wide. It is deep because it is founded in trust of the Lord so that it can extend itself in the same sacrificial manner that Jesus did for us. It is wide because it is not limited to the safety of well known individuals but extends to all that share the same faith. People easily make professions of love, but the reality of it is revealed when they must sacrifice of themselves for the other person or risk rejection doing what is right and best. As an old spiritual song put it, “I am loved so I can risk loving you.” Faith in Christ is the foundation of security that allows the risk that comes with loving others deeply.

Paul’s Prayer – vs 6

Paul expresses his particular prayer for Philemon in verse 6. “[and I pray] that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for Christ’s sake.”

This is both a general and specific prayer. The idea of a mature saint continuing on with that maturity and even growing in it is common in Paul’s prayers. We saw this in our study of his prayer for the Colossians. Paul gave thanks and praise for the maturity they were already exhibiting in Colossians 1:3-6, but he continued on in verse 9-11 to pray for the things that mark spiritual maturity such as “knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding,” “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord,” “bearing fruit in every good work,” and “increasing in the knowledge of God.”

Paul’s specific request in this is related to the plea he will make later in the letter for Philemon to forgive and accept Onesimus as “more than a slave, a beloved brother.” It will take the application of his faith in the Lord Jesus to apply his love to this man that had wronged him and to accept him in the fellowship of faith as a brother, but such could and should be done for Christ’s sake in recognition of all the Lord has done for him. The full knowledge of what Jesus has done should stimulate him to extend the same sort of grace to Onesimus.

Paul’s Joy – vs. 7

Paul could have confidence that his prayers would be answered in the affirmative for he not only trusted the Lord in this matter, but he also had confidence in Philemon’s character which brought him joy

7 For I have come to have much joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother.

Again, we are not privileged to have the details of all that Philemon had done for the saints that Epaphrus had reported to Paul, but we do have this general statement about it. Philemon had brought refreshment or rest (ajnapauvw / anapauô) to the hearts of the saints. Or more literally, to the bowels (splagcnon / splagchnon) of the saints. The Greeks and the Hebrews considered the intestines to be the seat of emotion. Whatever ministry Philemon had been doing had brought emotional refreshment to the saints. This is why Paul had great joy in him and been comforted or encouraged (paravklhsi”/ parakl sis) by the love he was showing.

Philemon was showing his spiritual maturity by the particular ministry that he was doing that was having such positive results among the saints. Paul was demonstrating spiritual maturity by finding joy and comfort in what Philemon was doing for other people. Like John would later state in 3 John 4, “I have no greater joy than this, to hear of my children walking in the truth.”

The Basis of Paul’s Appeal – vs. 8-9

It was on the basis of Philemon’s character that Paul would make his appeal as is expressed in verse 8-9. “Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to order you [to do] that which is proper, 9 yet for love’s sake I rather appeal [to you]– since I am such a person as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus.”

Paul understood his position and authority as an apostle and in his relationship with Philemon, but for such a matter as this Paul refuses to use that authority. That is why he does not use his customary salutation as “Paul, an apostle . . .”. Instead, he identifies himself with more humility as being “Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus.” While the designation will remind Philemon of Paul’s current suffering for the sake of the gospel which might have a positive effect on Philemon’s consideration of what Paul will request, it is also an admission that Paul was in a helpless position. Paul was in prison, and though he was hopeful that he would be released and even gives instructions at the end of the letter for Philemon to prepare in case he was able to come (vs. 22), the reality is that at present he could not go anywhere. Paul refers to himself as “the aged” (presbuthV / presbutes), though he was not actually all that old, perhaps only in his 50’s, but his body had aged greatly in his service for Lord. He lacked the vigor to enforce any command, but he did not want to force anything anyway. Paul made his appeal strictly on the basis of love – “. . . for love’s sake I rather appeal.”


Philemon had the kind of character that all of us should want in our own lives. He had proven himself to be a man of faith in the Lord Jesus. He had genuine love for all the saints, and he had the ability to refresh the weary spirits of other believers. Paul was able to confidently make an appeal to him because of his character. Could other people have confidence to appeal to you based on your proven character of faith and love? If not, then you have some more maturing to do in your walk with the Lord.

And while there were times that Paul did have to exercise his authority as an apostle (1 Corinthians 5), he only did so with those who were stubborn in their sin. Paul gives the model here of how mature believers should interact with each other. We appeal to one another on the basis of godly character. Paul knew when to be forceful and when to be gentle. We need the same kind of wisdom as we interact with one another and as we seek to help one another walk with and serve our precious Lord Jesus.

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


Parents, you are responsible to apply God’s Word to your children’s lives. Here is some help. Young Children – draw a picture about something you hear during the sermon. Explain your picture(s) to your parents at lunch. Older Children – Count how man times Philemon is mentioned by name. Discuss with your parents the nature of Roman slavery and / or what characteristics of Philemon you want in your life.



Questions to consider in discussing the sermon with others. How is Paul’s identification of himself in verse 1 different from his other letters? Who are the people that Paul addresses in Philemon? What is the significance of Paul’s salutation in verse 3? What is the overall purpose of Paul’s letter – what does he want to accomplish? Why had Onesimus done and why was he in Rome? How might he have met Paul – who was in prison? What was Onesimus’ relationship with Paul? What was the nature of Roman slavery? What were the sources of slaves? Why might someone sell themselves into slavery? What were the greatest dangers for a slave? What power did the master have over the slave? What dangers did a runaway slave face – what might happen if they were caught? How did Roman law assist masters regain their slaves? How was Paul helping Onesiums avoid the dangers of being a runaway slave? Why was Paul thankful to God for Philemon? What was the relationship between Philemon’s faith in the Lord Jesus and his love for all the saints? How was Paul’s prayer for Philemon both general and specific to the purpose of his letter? What made Paul joyful? How is that a mark of maturity? Why didn’t Paul exercise his authority as an apostle?


Sermon Notes – 7/10/2011 –

Foundations for an Appeal – Philemon 1-9


The Salutation – verse 1-3

    Author & Timing

    Written by Paul at the same time as Ephesians and Colossians ~ A.D. ____________

    _______________ is not mentioned but is probably the one that carried the letter


    Philemon – “____________” – they probably met and become close while Paul was in Ephesus.

    A “___________________” with at least some important ministry in the church that met at his home

    Apphia – a “sister” – a believer who is probably Philemon’s _____________

    Archippus – a “__________________” – the same one Paul had encouraged in ministry in Colossians 4

    He may have been Philemon’s son, and a __________ in the church. Paul identified with his ministry.

    The church at Philemon’s __________ – Paul’s plea to Philemon would also be a plea to them.

    Greeting – simple, yet profound.

    A ____________ for God’s blessing and peace to be upon them.

    The ____________ of Jesus is affirmed as the one joined with the Father in giving grace and peace

The Purpose of the Letter – Overview

    Paul is making an ______to Philemon to accept back his runaway slave, Onesimus, as a Christian brother

Flight & Conversion

    Onesimus had fled from his master and may have _____________ from him at the same time – vs. 18

    He had made it to ____________, where by some means he heard about and went to Paul

    Onesimus heard the gospel and was _______________ becoming dear to Paul and useful in service

    He was ________________ going back to Philemon, his master

Roman Slavery

    Slavery was crucial to the Roman economy and ______________ in daily social life

    Slaves made up between ____________ % of the population

    Sources of slaves included: _____of conquest; kidnap victims of slave traders; children born to slaves

    Selling _____________ or a relative to pay off debt – or better one’s position

    A slave could be in an equal to or even ______economic condition compared to a non-citizen free man

    Capable slaves might be ______________ and gain business, trade or even medical or artistic skills

    A _______master was a slave’s greatest danger, followed by physically demanding or dangerous work

    Slaves were considered chattel _____________ and proper treatment made economic sense

    Slaves had minimal legal rights – which could be ________. They could be beaten / scourged at whim

Runaway Slaves

    If caught, they would be _____________ on the forehead and could have their joints / bones broken

    The master could severely scourge them or even _________ them as a warning to other slaves

    Roman _________ heavily penalized non-citizens that would hide a runaway slave

    A Roman citizen, such as Paul, was ______legally obligated to turn in a fugitive slave to a non-citizen

    Traveling with Tycichus __________Onesimus from slave catchers, and Paul’s letter would intervene

Paul’s Thankfulness – vs. 4-5

    Paul was thankful to God about Philemon’s spiritual ______________ demonstrated in love and faith

    Philemon’s faith in Jesus Christ generated his __________ for all the saints.

Paul’s Prayer – vs 6

    A general prayer for Philemon’s ________________ growth in spiritual maturity

    A specific prayer that Philemon will ___________ Christ’s example in his response to Onesimus

Paul’s Joy – vs. 7

    Paul was joyful because Philemon had brought _________________ refreshment / rest to the saints

    Paul found joy & comfort in Philemon’s spiritual maturity and _____________ to other people

The Basis of Paul’s Appeal – vs. 8-9

    Paul knew well his position and authority as an ________, but he refused to use that to compel Philemon

    Paul made his appeal strictly on the basis of ____________ – “. . . for love’s sake I rather appeal.”


    Philemon had the kind of ______________ that all of us should want in our own lives.

    Paul gives the ______________ of how mature believers should interact with each other

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