• The Apostle Paul is in prison in Rome, and among others attending him is Onesimus from the city of Colossae. Onesimus had become a Christian through the ministry of Paul, and they now had a close relationship. There was a problem, however: Onesimus was a “runaway slave” having fled from his master, Philemon, and Philemon was also a dear friend of Paul, also having become a Christian through Paul’s ministry. In the Roman empire, a runaway slave was to be returned to his or her master. So how should Paul handle this delicate situation involving his two friends and brothers-in-Christ? Paul’s letter to Philemon is the answer, and through this letter, God shows us the importance of love and grace, and the meaning of being part of the body of Christ and living out that reality in the situations of one’s life at whatever the cost or consequence.
3. Accepting the Changed (Philemon 15-18)
  • Paul gently urges Philemon to be reconciled with Onesimus, who is a new creation, a “new man” in Christ, and to forgive him, allowing Onesimus's debt to be imputed to and paid by Paul (just as our sin debt was imputed to and paid by Christ).
Sermon Preparation Guide
  • Importance – What are the central ideas of the text?
    • God is sovereign and works out His plan in the lives of people to their benefit and to His glory. – Philemon 15
    • The relationship believers have one with another is eternal. – Philemon 15 & 16
    • Our lives as co-workers for the gospel are intertwined in life and in ministry. – Philemon 16 & 17
  • Implications – What questions should the listener be asking?
    • How do you see God working sovereignly in your life as it relates to your relationships with others in the church?
    • Do you treat your relationships with other believers as eternal? If you do, how does that make a difference in day-to-day life?
    • Do you consider co-workers in ministry as dear to you, and to that extent are you willing to take on the burden of others for the sake of the gospel? Philemon 16-18
Talk it Over Discussion Guide
  • Interpretation – What is the text telling/showing us?
    • What does it mean to say that God is sovereign?
    • How does God’s sovereignty work out in the lives of His children? How did it work in the life of Onesimus?
    • What does reconciliation mean? What does Paul want to happen between Onesimus and Philemon?
    • What is the practical difficulty in the way of reconciliation between Onesimus and Philemon? What is the basis on which Paul proposes to solve that difficulty?
    • What is the change in the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon? What brought about that change?
    • What does it mean to be a partner in the Lord?
    • How should one’s relationship with the Lord affect one’s relationship with fellow believers? What was such an effect as between Onesimus and Philemon?
    • Why did Paul offer to pay Philemon for any wrong he suffered on account of Onesimus?
  • Implementation – What should the listener’s response be?
    • How do you view God’s sovereignty as working in your life?
    • Can you point to any events or circumstances in your life, as you look back, that tell you that God was at work? And what was God doing and teaching in those events or circumstances?
    • How have you been changed by the gospel?
    • How has your transformation into a child of God affected your relationships with other believers?
    • What does the concept of “partnership” in the sense of sharing, community, and fellowship, mean to you in terms of relationships with others and ministry for the gospel?
    • Would you be willing to pay out of your personal resources to cover someone else’s wrong for the sake of reconciliation?
    • How does this text speak to you? How should you apply the truths of this text to your life?
                              Sermon Teaching Notes (as prepared by Pastor Dick Murphy)
                              • Investigation – What’s generally going on in this area of Scripture?
                              As he hones in on the actual request of Philemon that he take Onesimus back (Philemon 17), Paul suggests that the entire episode of Onesimus’ running away and then coming to faith in Christ through Paul, and now being in a relationship with Philemon as brothers in Christ, was perhaps part of God’s sovereign plan all along (Philemon 15). God is the God who constantly reaches out to bring people to Himself, and He has brought Onesimus into His family. And now that Onesimus is a Christ follower, Philemon can “have him back forever” (Philemon 15) as their mutual salvation is eternal, and they are now brothers. It seems clear that Paul’s intent in saying these things is to point out to Philemon that the spiritual relationship between him and Onesimus is changed: Onesimus is no longer a non-person under Roman law as a slave to Philemon, but is now his beloved brother in Christ, and Philemon is ever to consider him thus going forward (Philemon 16). Indeed, Paul seems to be suggesting that this changed relationship should be more than merely spiritual but should have its effect in the flesh (Philemon 16) in a change in the master-slave relationship. In other words, the suggestion is that Philemon give Onesimus his freedom on the basis that he already has his freedom in Christ. In short, because of what God has done in Christ, everything is changed, and the lives of Onesimus and Philemon need to be altered and lived out accordingly.

                              With all the foregoing laid out, Paul makes his request that Philemon receive Onesimus (Philemon 17); that is, that he take him back. But Paul doesn’t merely make the bare request; instead he sets the request in the context of relationship and partnership. He says, in effect, “Philemon, if you regard me as your partner in the gospel, as your brother, and I know you do, then regard Onesimus likewise and receive him just as if you were receiving me.” The request is thus set in the idea of community, namely the community that Christ is building in which each member of the body of Christ has importance and that all members of the body are to love and serve one another as if they were serving Christ Himself. All Jesus’ followers are “partners” in the mission of the Church, which is to take the gospel to the world. Onesimus is now a partner with Paul and is also a partner with Philemon. And Philemon will now have the opportunity to live that out with Onesimus upon his return, and to do so before the eyes of church that meets in his house. By so doing, Philemon will be able to strengthen the body-life of the church in Colossae, and give testimony to the changing nature of the gospel as it changes people and how they live.

                              Within Paul’s request that Philemon take Onesimus back as a brother (and free him as well) seems also to be the request that Philemon allow Onesimus to return to Paul to serve him while he is still in prison. (Philemon 13-15) In so doing, Philemon would indeed be partnering with Paul in the advancement of the gospel, and Onesimus would be serving both Paul and Philemon through serving Christ. What a beautiful example of the oneness of the body of Christ and the reality that each member is important to the whole of the body and to the other members. Such is the meaning and implication of the word “partner” in verse 17. It is the Greek word “koinonos” which is a variation of “koinonia.” The word was often used in a commercial sense to refer to “business partner.” However, Paul (like the New Testament writers in general) infuses the word with spiritual meaning in the sense of fellowship, of being a part one of another, of commonality shared. So here the clear implication from Paul is that he and Philemon are in fact part of each other, they are connected and share not only a common faith but a common love which now includes Onesimus. In short, Paul writes, “If you (Philemon) are part of me, then Onesimus is part of you too because he is part of me; so consider him such.” Their relationships have all been changed by Jesus; they have been transformed and now operate out of love and grace, not law. The law would have Onesimus return to Philemon as a slave to be treated (or mistreated) in any way Philemon saw fit as the owner and master. However, grace and love would have Philemon treat Onesimus as an equal and even free him into service of the true King. For Philemon to respond as Paul is requesting would be a radical thing; it would speak to the church at Colossae the truth that the gospel has transformed our relationships and our lives; and it would confront the “social and economic order head on” (so writes Arthur A. Rupprecht in his Philemon commentary in Vol. 11 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary.”) and speak to that order of the far reaching touch of the gospel in the lives of those who follow Jesus.

                              Paul then goes a step further and adds that if Onesimus has wronged Philemon and owes him anything (it was not unusual for runaway slave to steal from their masters), Paul would cover it for Philemon! Paul loved Onesimus so much, and was so committed to his reconciliation to Philemon that he was willing to extend himself and his own resources to assist in the process; literally Paul offered himself as a substitute for what Onesimus otherwise owed Philemon (which he was unable to pay). This is remarkable, in one sense, but perhaps not so remarkable if the “partnership” picture is true. Again, we do not know the details, but it is the case that slaves who were educated and skilled were the source of significant income to their masters; hence the loss of such a slave meant the loss of income. Thus, even if Onesimus did not steal goods or funds from Philemon, he did take away Philemon’s right to earn income from his labor. In either case, Philemon suffered loss at the hands of Onesimus. Philemon was wronged, and Onesimus was in fact indebted to him. By offering what he did, Paul was making it easier for Philemon to respond properly to Paul’s request regarding Onesimus. Paul is in effect saying, “I’ll take care of the financial loss; so don’t worry about it or let it be a hindrance to your reconciliation with Onesimus.” What an act of love on Paul’s part, and what a picture of what Jesus did for us in offering Himself as the price for our sin. We owed a sin debt to God which we could never afford or pay, but which Jesus covered by having our sin charged to His account, as it were, in that he owed nothing given that He was sinless. The transaction of grace on the cross led to our reconciliation with God and eternal life. Paul’s offer was a transaction of grace extended to Philemon to make reconciliation between Onesimus and Philemon a reality.

                              Changed. That is the name of this series of lessons from Philemon. The title of a recent contemporary Christian song is “The Gospel Changes Everything.” And that title is indeed the truth, and especially so in relationships one with another. In Christ, the old is passed away and new has come, and Christ followers are new creations (II Corinthians 5:17), created in the likeness of God in righteousness and holiness of the truth (Ephesians 4:24). So the gospel changes the individual; and it also therefore changes relationships as they must be based on the love of Christ which issues in the treatment of each other as brothers and sisters in the same family of God. Philemon must reconcile with Onesimus who is a “new man” in Christ. And that reconciliation must transcend the confines of the social order and break through to shine the light of the gospel of grace to all around them. Likewise with us. Our relationships in the body of Christ must shine the light of the gospel to all around as it shows forth what it means to live as part of the same family of love. May we live in that way.