• 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.
4. Accountability for the Changed (Philemon 19-25)
  • Philemon was likely converted through Paul’s ministry; so as brothers, Paul could speak to Philemon with special love and remind him of his responsibility to Paul, which is as much a responsibility to Jesus, in regard to Onesimus.
Sermon Preparation Guide
  • Importance – What are the central ideas of the text?
  • We have a personal responsibility to make relationships work on the basis of love and reconciliation. – Philemon 19, 21
  • God in Christ took it on Himself to bring reconciliation to us and take on Himself our sin debt. – Philemon 18 & 19
  • Our obedience to the “law of love” is the essence of our relationships with fellow believers (and others for that matter). – Philemon 20 & 21
  • Implications – What questions should the listener be asking?
  • How do you take personal responsibility in your relationships?
  • What does the fact that you were reconciled to God through Jesus affect how you handle your relationships?
  • What is the “law of love” and how are you doing in your obedience to that law? Philemon 21-25
Talk it Over Discussion Guide
  • Interpretation – What is the text telling/showing us?
  • Why did Paul add that it was he who is writing the letter and who will repay and debt owed Philemon?
  • Why would it be right for Paul to imply that any debt owed by Onesimus not really have to be paid by Paul?
  • What is the relationship between Paul's having been involved in Philemon's coming to Christ and the matter of a debt owed by Onesimus to Philemon?
  • What is the benefit that Paul wants from Philemon in the Lord?
  • How might Philemon refresh Paul's heart?
  • What is the basis of Paul's confident in Philemon's obedience? What would constitute Philemon's obedience and why?
  • What effect on Philemon comes from Paul's saying he desies to visit Philemon in person?
  • What is the effect of Paul relaying greetings from others who are with him beyond the greetings?
  • Implementation – What should the listener’s response be?
  • What is charged to your account in terms of sin? What is the amount you can pay to be free from that sin?
  • Can Onesimus pay the cost for his freedom as a slave from Philemon?
  • Why does Onesimus need Paul to intercede for him?
  • How did Jesus intercede for us (for you!) to cover the cost of your slavery to sin?
  • What does mutuality in love mean to you as part of your church?
  • What does mutuality of responsibility mean to you as part of your church?
  • How might you have to change your attitudes and actions in light of how Jesus has changed you on the inside? Is there anyone to whom you need to be reconciled, and if so, what will you do to bring about that reconciliation?
  • What lessons in reconciliation, love, trust, forgiveness, mutuality of love and responsibility, and grace have you learned from the study of Philemon and how are you going to apply those lessons to your life? Pray about this; ask God to show you the answers, and to give you the strength of spirit to respond to Him.
Sermon Teaching Notes (as prepared by Pastor Dick Murphy)
  • Investigation – What’s generally going on in this area of Scripture?
Paul has asked Philemon to accept Onesimus … to be reconciled with him as a brother in Christ (Philemon 12, 15-17). Paul has not ordered Philemon to do this, but has instead appealed to him as a brother to accept Onesimus as one who is part of the fellowship of faith, and do it as if he were accepting Paul himself (Philemon 17). And Paul has even offered to pay for any wrongs or loss Philemon has suffered on account of Onesimus (Philemon 18). In today’s text, the final verses in the overall study, Paul begins by confirming his offer in his own handwriting! In other words, Paul took the pen (he did this if he was writing this letter through a secretary; or if he was writing it himself, he simply wanted to make it clear that such was the case) and added that this offer was his personal promise (Philemon 19). In essence, then, Paul signed a promissory note which effectively gave his statement the force of a legal obligation in documentary form.

Did Paul really mean that he would pay any debt Onesimus owed to Philemon? One has to think yes, or Paul would not have written what he did. However, the rest of verse 19 adds a parenthetical thought to the equation. Specifically, Paul adds that he needn’t mention that Philemon owes Paul his life. Why did Paul add this thought? And what did he mean by it? It seems these words indicate that Philemon came to faith through Paul’s ministry, and in that sense owes Paul his own self, the implication being that Philemon's position is the same as Onesimus's position, as he owes Paul his own self too. This reality being the case, then, Paul is essentially saying that any debt Onesimus has to Philemon is covered by the “spiritual debt” Philemon owes Paul. Commentator Arthur A. Rupprecht writes, “… Paul’s hint can hardly be missed: ‘I will repay it. Charge it to the bank of heaven.’ ” Again, we see in Paul’s statement a reflection of the redemptive act of Jesus on our behalf, of His paying our own “sin debt” with His life. Thus, Paul fully expects that whatever debt or loss Philemon has suffered is more than covered by the gain to the kingdom through the reconciled relationship with Onesimus and through forgiveness extended to him out of love. Paul follows up the thought in the next verse which speaks of mutuality: he writes, “I, Paul, am benefitting you by returning Onesimus to you as a co-laborer in the work of the gospel, and I anticipate you will benefit me by being reconciled to Onesimus and wiping all accounts clean.” Then he adds, “Refresh my heart in Christ” which speaks of the mutual responsibility of one believer to another and reminds Philemon of how he has already lived in such a way in reference to other believers (Philemon 7). How can Philemon do no less for Paul than he has already done for others.

Finally, Paul adds that he is confident that Philemon will act out of obedience, not to Paul but to the law of love, and even that he will go further in that obedience than Paul has asked him to go (Philemon 21). The lesson is that there is mutuality in love among believers, but also mutuality of responsibility. Paul is acting out of love for both Philemon and Onesimus and for the community of faith in Colossae, out of responsibility to these same individuals to assist in bringing about reconciliation between two brothers in Christ, and he is anticipating the response of love and responsibility on Philemon's part to effect that reconciliation out of love. It appears that in this verse, Paul is effectively asking Philemon to free Onesimus, which would certainly be going the “extra mile” in mutual responsibility and doing “more than I say.” (Philemon 21) We cannot be sure this was Paul’s request, but it makes sense given the overall tenor of the letter, and goes beyond Paul’s merely asking that Philemon allow Onesimus to return to serve Paul after he has been reconciled to Philemon. In any case, Paul requests that Philemon get ready to welcome Paul into his home when Paul visits which he is hoping to do upon his release from prison (though that is not stated as such) which he trusts will come about in part through Philemon's own prayers to that end. That visit will, Paul notes, be a gift of grace from God who, in answering that prayer, will “give” Paul to Philemon. (Philemon 22) Why does Paul add this desire on his part to visit? Certainly because he simply wants to visit given his personal relationship with Philemon, among others in Colossae. His coming to visit Philemon will also serve as a gift of Paul's apostolic presence which, if nothing else, underscores the importance of the request he makes of Philemon in this letter regarding Onesimus and underscores the principle of accountability, namely that we are accountable one to another for our Christlikeness. One can imagine that Paul's visit would be a sweet time of fellowship as he shares with Philemon (and with Onesimus as well if he were to be present) the powerful effect in Philemon's life, and in the life of the church at Colossae, of his reconciliation with Onesimus. Not that Paul intended his wish for visiting to add any pressure to the request of the letter, but one thinks that it quite likely did add impetus to Philemon's “obedience” and his accountability.

Paul closes this short but full letter with greetings from those who are with him in prison whether as a fellow prisoner as in the case of Epaphras, or serving him as is the case with Mark, Aristrarchus, Demas and Luke. The presence of the named individuals in this greeting gives credence that this letter was sent to Philemon along with the letter to the church at Colossae to be delivered by Tychicus (Colossians 4:7), as the same individuals are named in the greeting at the end of that letter (Colossians 4:10-15). From the verses in the Colossian letter we learn that Epaphras was from Colossae (Colossians 4:12), that Mark is John Mark who is Barnabas's cousin (Colossians 4:10), that Aristarchus is a fellow prisoner, and that Luke is the physician Luke (writer of the gospel of Luke and Acts). With these personal greetings (which, by the way, are a typical format of ancient letter writing), Paul ends the letter with the request that the grace of Jesus be with Philemon and the others who are included in as recipients of the letter (Philemon 2 & 25).

Change and transformation – these are the overriding themes in this letter, along with reconciliation, love, trust, forgiveness, mutuality of love and responsibility, and grace. We see one believer (Paul) interceding on behalf of another brother (Onesimus) to aid in his life as part of the church and in terms of his relationship with a third brother, Philemon. Ultimately, Paul is seeking that lives be lived in concert with the change brought about by Jesus. And that means reconciliation out of love, which is for the health of the two individuals involved, but also for the life of the church. Beyond that, the effect of reconciliation is to give witness to the social order of the change the gospel brings to life in general. Things are not the same after the gospel penetrates hearts; relationships are changed; attitudes are changed; actions are changed. And the changes are the result of conforming one's life to the character of God and infusing society with His love and grace that change everything. And the lessons in all of this are not only for Philemon, Onesimus and the Colossian church; they are for us today. The gospel still changes everything; it has changed us from the inside out into new creations and it has changed the way we live and how we live together as God's people, reconciled to Him and to each other. We all now live under the rule of the “law of love” by which we belong to God and to each other, and by which we both accept and are accountable to one another … all because we have been changed by God's grace in Christ. May we live in this way so that we might “refresh” one another and give joy and comfort to one another from our love, and in that be a witness to the world of the love of God in Christ that is available to all who call on Him. May God be praised by our lives lived in this way.