24 July 2015

Philemon 1-21

“Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for ever, no longer a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother – especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” (vv. 15-16)

Psalm: Psalm 49


While in prison, Paul writes to a well-known friend and householder Philemon, regarding a fellow prisoner Onesimus who was once a servant to Philemon, but imprisoned for an unknown crime against him. Paul has adopted Onesimus, and following his freedom asks Philemon to receive him with trust and respect as a brother offering to clear any debt that lies between them.

Not only is Philemon being expected to receive a former servant as an equal, but also to receive him as an adopted child of Paul - freed and redeemed, and coming to Philemon now working for Paul rather than Philemon.

Paul puts the onus on Philemon to do the right thing, not because Paul asks him to, but because he wants him to do so of his own free will.

It seems like Philemon is put in a corner - because if he objects in any way he is at risk of offending Paul, and countering the doctrine of forgiveness and salvation by grace, and also the idea that all are equal and free in Christ.

Paul is enacting his own doctrine of salvation, Onesimus represents the person redeemed by God's grace through Christ, received as a child of God, forgiven and free, and then placed among other Christians who are also redeemed and free. We recall the words: "There is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female: for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatian 3:28).

To Ponder

  • How many of your opinions and judgements of others are still formed by your sense of worth or deserving, or another's seeming status in society?
  • How difficult is it for you to receive the acceptance of another person?
  • In the light of your response to these two questions, how does this passage speak to you? 

Bible notes author

The Revd Michael Sawyer

Michael Sawyer is the minister of the Chelsea Methodist Church and Fulham Methodist Church. He was previously minister of Shepherd's Bush Road Methodist Church.