Rev. Thomas Tyree, Jr., Pastor, Grace Bible Church of Costa Mesa, California

Copyright 1995-2014 Rev. Thomas Tyree, Jr., All Rights Reserved


The New Testament epistles present a different style in divine revelation. God had used law, history, poetry, prophecy, and the Gospel narratives heretofore, but in the epistles He employed a more personal and direct method. In this intimate way, God looks back to the cross and communicated about the Church. It has been said that the epistles are the love letters of Christ to us. The Book of Philemon was written by the Apostle Paul on about 62 A.D.

We could divide the New Testament epistles into two general categories - epistles and letters. The epistles are general while the letters are more personal and individual. Under this division or category, the epistle of Philemon would be classified as a letter for it is individual and intimate. Perhaps Paul did not expect its contents to be divulged. However, at other times he knew that he was writing Scripture. This does not detract from the inspiration and importance of Philemon, but rather adds to its value and message.


The story behind the epistle to Philemon was enacted against the dark backdrop of slavery. There were about 60 million slaves in the Roman Empire at this time when the Empire had a total population of approximately 120 million. Usually a slave was no more than a chattel. Often he was treated worse than an enemy and was subject to the whim of his master.

The story can be briefly reconstructed. Onesimus was a slave to Philemon, a believer of Colosse. This slave had the opportunity to run off, or run away, and he seized upon it. He found his way to Rome where he felt his identity and past life would be swallowed up by the great metropolis. One day, he chanced upon a gathering where Paul was preaching. There, he heard the Gospel and believed whereupon the Holy Spirit regenerated him and made him a new creation in Christ. He told his story to Paul who sent him back to Philemon with this accompanying letter.


The primary purpose of this letter is to manifest the love of Jesus Christ for each one of us as seen in what He did for us before God in pleading our case. This is the finest illustration of the doctrine of Substitution. We can hear our Lord Jesus Christ agreeing to take our place and to have all our sin imputed to Him. Our Lord took our place in His spiritual death, but He gives us His place in spiritual life. We have the standing of Christ before the Lord or we have none at all. Christ took our hell and He gives us His heaven. Onesimus, an unprofitable runaway slave was to be received as Paul the great apostle would have been received in the home of Philemon.

If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. (Philemon 1:18)

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)

So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. (Philemon 1:17)

The practical purpose is to teach unconditional love of all the brethren. The Apostle Paul speaks of the new relationship between master and servant in the other Prison Epistles. Here, in Philemon, he demonstrates how it should work. These men belong to two different classes in the Roman Empire and hate each other and hurt each other. Now, they are brothers in Christ and they are to act like it under unconditional love! Unconditional love is really the solution to problems of management and labor.


1. Paul's greeting is seen in Philemon 1:1-3.

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Philemon 1:1-3)

2. Philemon's reputation is reviewed in Philemon 1:4-7.

I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints. (Philemon 1:4-7)

3. Paul's plea is presented in Philemon 1:8-16.

Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I then, as Paul--an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus--I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. I am sending him--who is my very heart--back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good--no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord. (Philemon 1:8-16)

4. Paul's substitution is seen in Philemon 1:17.

So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. (Philemon 1:17)

5. Paul's imputation is presented in Philemon 1:18.

If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. (Philemon 1:18)

6. Paul's items and requests are listed in Philemon 1:19-25.

I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back--not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask. And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers. Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. (Philemon 1:19-25)

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