• 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.

2. Accommodating the Changed (Philemon 8-14)
  • Having thanked and encouraged Philemon, Paul now intercedes on behalf of Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave, Onesimus having come to Christ through Paul’s ministry. Paul writes to Philemon “brother to brother,” not as an apostle.
Sermon Preparation Guide
  • Importance – What are the central ideas of the text?
  • God wants His children to relate to one another out of love. – Philemon 9
  • As members of the body of Christ, we are part of each other. – Philemon 11, 13
  • It is an act of love to intercede for another. – Philemon 8, 9, 12
  • Implications – What questions should the listener be asking?
  • How do you relate to others in the church? Do you serve them out of love?
  • Do you consider yourself to have a part in the ministry of others in the church and of the church as a whole no matter what it is that you are doing?
  • Is there anyone for whom you need to intercede, whether by prayer or in another way? Ask God to show you who that might be and, if there is someone, what you might do for that individual.

Talk it Over Discussion Guide
  • Interpretation – What is the text telling/showing us?
  • Why didn't Paul use his authority as an Apostle to write to Philemon? What would be more effective about taking the “brother-to-brother” approach than the Apostolic approach?
  • Describe the foundation that Paul is building in the text for the request that he is going to make for Onesimus. What were the bases of Paul's appeal?
  • What did Paul mean when he wrote that in sending Onesimus back to Philemon, he was sending his “very heart?” (verse 12)
  • How would Onesimus take Philemon's place if Onesimus were with Paul?
  • How was Onesimus formerly “useless” to Philemon, and why would Paul make that point?
  • How can Onesimus be “useful” to both Paul and Philemon?
  • Implementation – What should the listener’s response be?
  • How should we relate to one another in matters of how to live out our faith? In other words, what impact and influence can we have on each other to live faithfully for Christ?
  • When it comes to obedience and living for Jesus, how key are relationships within the community of faith?
  • What does it mean to intercede on behalf of another (and not just in prayer)?
  • What are the risks that face you when you intercede on someone's behalf?
  • What is the “law of love” and how does it impact the way you relate to others?
  • What does it mean to put another's interests before your own?
  • Are you willing to intercede on behalf of another for the sake of the life of the body of Christ and the church? How might you do that?
Sermon Teaching Notes (as prepared by Pastor Dick Murphy)
  • Investigation – What’s generally going on in this area of Scripture?
Paul began his letter to his beloved friend Philemon with thanks for him, for His love and for his service, and in so doing encouraged Philemon’s walk of faith. And Paul prayed for Philemon, that he would grow in love and the practice of his faith so that he will understand more fully that which he has in Christ and the participation he has in the lives of others in and through Christ. What a wonderful beginning to a letter. Wouldn't you want to be on the receiving end of such thanks and encouragement? I'm sure you would.

Having thus set the stage for his intercession on behalf of Onesimus, Paul gets right to the point starting at verse 8. Remember, Onesimus is Philemon’s runaway slave and has become a Christian under Paul’s ministry, though Philemon doesn’t know this. Paul understands fully that under Roman Law, he can intercede to a master on behalf of a runaway slave; but he also knows that the master has the ultimate right to deal with the returned runaway slave in whatever way he chooses. But that is the way of the world, and Paul intends to approach the situation in the way of the Kingdom of God, and thus the basis of his intercession for Onesimus is love (Philemon 9). Paul does not write to Philemon as an Apostle, with all the authority that status would have given him to “order” Philemon to follow the request Paul is going to make (Philemon 8). Rather, Paul proceeds as Philemon’s dear friend and brother in Christ; indeed, he “appeals” (Philemon 9 & 10) to Philemon “for love’s sake” (Philemon 9), one believer to another, albeit as “an old man” and a prisoner (Philemon 9). Paul proceeds in such manner not only because it is the way of the King, but because he is confident that Philemon will respond out of his proven faith, love and service. This is therefore a personal appeal from Paul because of who he is, because of his person (an old man, which suggests wisdom), because of his present condition (in prison for Christ’ sake), and because of his participation in the lives of both Onesimus and Philemon in terms of having led both of them to faith in Jesus. Paul wants Philemon to do “what is required” (Philemon 8) of his own volition (Philemon 8, 14), and by using the phrase, “what is required” Paul does not mean required with reference to Roman law but instead with reference to the “law of love” by which we serve others just as Christ served us.

Paul describes Onesimus as his child, and indicates that he came to faith while Paul was in prison. Using a play on words, Paul describes Onesimus, whose name means “profitable, or useful,” as formerly “useless” (Greek “achrestos”) to Philemon, but now “useful” (Greek “euchrestos”) to both Paul and Philemon. Onesimus, though he presumably was previously useful to Philemon in his role as a slave who produced profit and return for Philemon, was then useless to him in a spiritual sense as he was not a believer who could co-labor with Philemon for the Kingdom, and now useless in a physical sense because he had run away. But going forward, Onesimus, who was useful to Paul in prison, can now be useful to both Paul and Philemon because he is a brother in Christ who can co-labor with them for the Kingdom. And Paul goes on to point out how much benefit Onesimus is to him by noting how sending him to Philemon will cost Paul: Paul will suffer loss on a personal level because of his love for Onesimus (Philemon 12); Paul will also suffer loss because sending him to Philemon will mean that Onesimus will no longer be able to minister to Paul in his imprisonment (which obviously means Paul is limited in what he can do, and needs help) and thus progress the gospel message (Philemon 13). Nevertheless, Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon, which is in fact the right thing to do under Roman law,. However, by putting the request in such terms, Paul seems to be suggesting that Onesimus be returned to stay with Paul, and that such an outcome would literally enable Onesimus to minister to Paul on Philemon’s behalf, the idea being that Philemon himself would thus participate in the gospel ministry of Paul through Onesimus.

Notice that Paul has not yet specifically asked Philemon to receive Onesimus back or release him to Paul. To this point, the letter has been a prelude to the request to come, and a prelude based on Paul's relationship with Philemon and his relationship with Onesimus. If taking Onesimus back as a believing brother is the “right” thing to do (and it is), Paul simply wants Philemon's actions to be voluntary and an outgrowth of his understanding of the claim of the gospel and his salvation on the way he lives. Clearly, Paul's words so far have underscored the reality of the body of Christ and that those in the body are related one to another and must consider each other in the way that they live out their lives.
We wonder what Philemon was thinking as he read Paul's words. We believe, of course, that the outcome was that Philemon welcomed Onesimus and released him into ministry, or else the Holy Spirit wouldn't have allowed this letter to be preserved and included in the canon of Holy Scripture. But we would like to think that Philemon was considering his life before the Lord Jesus as he read Paul's words, that he was understanding more deeply what it means to be part of the body of Christ, and that he was seeing more clearly that how he responded to this situation would have a profound impact not only on him, on Onesimus and on Paul, but on the church of which he was a leader, and for that matter, on all who would come to know his story. And we would also like to think that Philemon was beginning to understand that how this situation played out would have an impact upon those from the secular community who would see what happened and, in that, see the community of the King and want to be part of it.

While we might not be faced with the kind of situation that faced Philemon, each of us is yet faced with how we are integrating our faith with our life, with how we apply the law of love, and with how we do these things without being forced but rather voluntarily out of a response to what God has done for us. The question facing Philemon was how had his life really changed. The same question is before each of us as a follower of Christ. How am I living out my faith? How am I refreshing the hearts of others, both in the body of Christ and outside the body? How am I being an encouragement and a giver of joy to others? How am I fulfilling God's call to live completely for Him in everything? How am I interceding for others for His glory? The wonderful thing about a living faith is that it is a process, and it involves growing, intentionality, submission, humility, and perseverance; and best of all, it is a process in which God the Holy Spirit is making us over into the image of Christ and enabling us to work effectively for the King of kings to the glory of God in “partnership” with Him for the gospel. May we each continue to live this way in His power.