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Bondservant to Brother



Continuing in our collection, Live Again, Ben Stuart connects Colossians to the book of Philemon and helps us understand how the implications of the Gospel renovate our hearts and help us reconcile with others.

Key Takeaway

Redemption inside leads to reconciliation outside. This means that as Christians, we are called to forgive and live at peace as far as it depends on us. Jesus redeemed us and reconciled us into a right relationship with Him, therefore, we do that for others as well.

Philemon is a book written to a particular person in the Church at Colossae, so this week we will focus on that book and see how Paul narrows the scope on one person's life.

Paul called Philemon a beloved friend and fellow worker, which he reserved for someone in the Christian community. Beloved means we love each other. Being a fellow worker shows that he has skin in the game, he's laboring and funding.

Paul then mentions Philemon's family. Apphia is probably his wife and Archippus his son. Archippus understands the hits you take when proclaiming the Gospel and likely took some for his dad. He's also mentioned at the end of Colossians. Paul tells him to "see that you fulfill the ministry that you have received in the Lord."

Because of Paul's greetings and shout outs at the end of the letters, we know that Philemon was written to him inside of Colossae. The same names in the community are mentioned. Philemon 1:2 tells us that either all or some of the church in Colossae met in his house. Philemon has to be on the wealthy side to be able to afford to do that. When this letter was written to Colossae, the letter for Philemon was included. Paul tells them to reconcile. Philemon is show others how to do this.

Verses 3-5: Paul sincerely thanks God for Philemon because he sees his faith in the Lord Jesus become love for Jesus and for others. Redemption inside leads to reconciliation outside.

Verse 6: The word for "share" here is "koinonia", meaning fellowship, generosity- not just evangelism. Paul's desire for Philemon is that the knowledge he has deepens his effectiveness.

Verse 7: Paul is comforted and thrilled in seeing him love and care for others.

Verse 8: After Paul has commended him, he lets Philemon know that he's not afraid to command him to do the right thing in Christ, but he prefers to appeal. We don't do the things of God because of external compulsion, we do it because of internal conviction. So Paul doesn't want to have to demand; he wants him to have willing compassion. A renovated heart leads to a reconciling life.

Verse 9: Paul, with authority and wisdom, directly speaks to Philemon. But he also speaks as a prisoner, he has proven that he has taken some major hits. He is asking Philemon to do the same.

Verse 10: Paul finally brings up why he is writing. He has become like a father to Onesimus, Philemon's bondservant.

Verse 11: Paul is acknowledging that there was some sort of breech between Philemon and Onesimus. He states that Onesimus was formerly useless to Philemon, but now he is useful to the both of them. Paul is using a play on words because Onesimus means "useful".

Verse 12: He is sending Onesimus back to Philemon. Paul is making it personal and asking Philemon to do the right thing with the right heart.

Verse 13: Paul would rather have Onesimus with him to continue to have him help. He insinuates that Onesimus is helping on Philemon's behalf since he can't be there with Paul.

Verse 14: Paul, again, is letting Philemon know that he is about to ask him to do something with Onesimus, but he wants the choice to rise out of inner conviction, not outer compulsion. See Colossians 4:9, Paul wrote a letter on reconciliation across boundaries and sends the letter via Onesimus.

Verse 15-16: Spiritually, Philemon may have Onesimus forever, they are brothers in Christ. Paul finally exposes the breech. Onesimus was a bondservant of Philemon and left. Paul sent him back, not because he had to, but to promote reconciliation. There was no Jewish or Roman law that said he did. He's not returning a servant, he's sending a brother.

How slavery works out in the Bible. It's different than the 18/19th Century. This is an explanation, not a defense. Slavery was used across all different cultures and nations across the world. You never see anyone rise up against it until Christianity.

Egypt- perpetrated, race-based, compulsive, endless, harsh

Israel- regulated, kidnapping not allowed (laid out in Exodus). God put laws around it. There were laws for prisoners of war, some would sell themselves to a wealthy person in a way to protect themselves (food, shelter, medical), temporary, free after 7 years. See Leviticus 25.

Rome- they were a slave economy, 1/3 of the population was considered slaves. Race not a factor. Meant to be temporary. They had multiple types of slavery. 1) Kidnapping. 2) POW, war criminal, life in prison. 3) Born to a slavewoman. 4) Bondservant, work off debt. 5) Self selling or selling a family member for protection and personal advantage. It could be used as a process of social integration, negotiate the terms, work for free for education and status, released by age 30. 6) Baby girls were picked up and pimped out in brothels. God condemns kidnapping, being in debt, and selling yourself in to slavery. In 1 Corinthians 7:22, Paul says don't worry to the bondservant, stay where you are. The Kingdom is not a political overthrow. However, if you can get out of it; do! Christ already purchased you.

In the 300's, Gregory of Nyssa states that slavery is against the heart of God. His here was his sister who helped collect the abandoned baby girls and raise them.

Verse 17: Paul says, if Philemon considers him as his brother, receive Onesimus as he would receive him. Paul lead them both to Christ, they are family.

Verse 18: Paul anticipates that there is a financial loss somehow, so since Onesimus is no longer his bondservant and is instead his brother, Paul offers to take the debt on himself. It's the Gospel. All of our debt is put on Christ, all of His love is put on us. Paul doesn't preach the gospel in this letter to Philemon because he is showing it.

Verse 19: Paul promises to pay the difference and writes the letter personally even though most of his letters were dictated. He reminds Philemon that he wouldn't have known about Jesus unless Paul hit for him by proclaiming the Gospel.

Verse 20: Paul is doubling down. Yes, he is saying Philemon thinks he is saying. He needs to take the hit for the Gospel and Onesimus debt is gone. Love those who hurt you. Forgive. Paul appeals for him to do it to refresh his heart.

Verse 21: Paul leans in and ensures that he believes that Philemon is going to do it...and even more.

Verse 22: Paul is going to trust but verify. He's sure Philemon will forgive and love Onesimus, but he's still going to stop by to make sure. It's built in accountability.

Why is this book even in the Bible?

Onesimus went on to become the Bishop of Ephesus, leader of one of the most influential cities in the Church. Many scholars believe Onesimus is the one who preserved this letter because it is the charter of his freedom. He was showing that this is the implication of the Gospel. This letter of liberty is a testimony to how the Gospel renovates hearts.


"Nobody cares what we preach if they don't see it lived out in practice. If the Gospel doesn't touch your resentment or your wallet, you're playing games."

Ben Stuart

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Scripture References

  • Philemon
  • 1 Corinthians 7:22
  • Colossians 4:17
Ben Stuart Ben Stuart is the pastor of Passion City Church D.C. Prior to joining Passion City Church, Ben served as the executive director of Breakaway Ministries on the campus of Texas A&M. He also earned a master’s degree in historical theology from Dallas Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Donna, live to inspire and equip people to walk with God for a lifetime.