Text: Philemon 1:1-25
Title: Letter to a Slave Owner
I. As I prepared for the sermon, I looked over biblical indexes of theology books for references to Philemon. I did not find any.
A. My eyes would read 2 Timothy, Titus, and then Hebrews.
1. One would think that the letter to Philemon did not exist.
a. It seems that in the works of many theologians, it was easy to dismiss the letter.
B. The letter does not speak about predestination or eschatology. It does not discuss the
problem of evil or the Trinity.
1. It is only about 25 verses long, not even half as long as many chapters in Luke.
a. Yet, God has placed it in the cannon of Scripture.
II. What is it about?
A. It is a letter from a convict to a slave owner. A letter of an apostle to a disciple of Christ.
It is a letter from one friend to another.
B. It is a passionate letter.
1. As important and enjoyable as theology can be, Paul isn't writing that here.
a. The is about the fate of a human being.
William Barclay writes that we see the uniqueness of the letter at the opening.
A. Paul writes, “Paul, a prisoner”, not “Paul, an apostle” as many of his other letters begin.
B. Paul claims a humble identity: Paul a convict, with no religious title given.
C. Why such a reference? Paul wants to identify with the subject of his letter.
1. A fellow named Onesimus, a slave, a slave owned by a Christian.
2. Onesimus is owned by Philemon to whom the letter is addressed.
Onesimus was in an unfortunate institution.
A. The slave was a living tool.
1. He was of no more value than a plow or hammer and often they were treated as such.
B. Tired of being a slave, Onesimus flees, and probably robbed his master for the journey
for the journey to Rome would have cost money.
Allured by the notions of excitement and preconceived ideas of fun in the big city,
Onesimus arrives in Rome. However, his experience was probably more like the prodigal son in Jesus' parable.
A. Onesimus ran out of money and the good times were over.
B. By God's grace he encounters Paul. He probably knew Paul from visits the apostle had
with his master Philemon.
Paul could turn Onesimus in to the authorities. This he does not do.
A. Paul leads Onesimus to become a Christian.
B. He develops a warm, parental, affection for the young man.
C. Onesimus helps the lonely time in prison to be more bearable, and the text hints that
Onesimus performs various tasks for Paul such as delivering and receiving mail.
D. There is a problem: Onesimus does not belong to Paul and Onesimus has wronged
Philemon, a fellow Christian.
Paul is not supporting slavery.
A. In not turning Onesimus into the Roman authorities, Paul wants to go beyond simple
legalism. This is an issue between Christians.
B. Paul wants the situation cleared up. Paul wants no rumors getting back to Philemon
that he has stolen a slave.
C. Paul does not want anyone to think he owns slaves.
D. At the same time Paul wants to show mercy to Onesimus.
E. He sends Onesimus back to Philemon to clear up the entire situation.
This would not have been easy for Onesimus to do. The penalties for a run away
slave were severe.
A. Death by torture was common. Pliny writes about a slave that happened to drop a
silver goblet. He was sentenced to be thrown into a pit of lamprey fish.
B. Like Pirhanna, the fish tore the slave apart.
C. As the young runaway was returning to Philemon, he was probably worried. Legally, Philemon can have Onesimus executed.
But with Onesimus Paul has sent the letter that I read for you this morning.
A. Paul takes a non-authoritative strategy. He does not use his apostolic authority.
1. Paul: “I could order you by the authority of Christ to do the right thing, but I
will not, rather I wish to appeal to you on the basis of love.”
B. Paul could be saying: 'We are not talking about church apostle to slave owner; we
are talking to one another as fellow believers in Christ.”
SERMON PAGE ONE