Pastor David B. Curtis


Media #303a MP3 Audio File

Onesimus & Philemon

Colossians 4:7-9 & Philemon


This morning we begin to look at Paul's closing remarks to the church at Colosse that run from verses 7-18. Paul is finished with his instructions, and he now adds some personal comments and closing remarks.

In the closing verses of this book, Paul gives us a list of some of those people who had helped him in ministry. Often, when we read the closing to a letter like Colossians, we miss the significance of the list of people mentioned at the end. We think of it merely as a literary custom, but I think it is much more than that. What it reveals is that Paul was not working alone. He had help. There were many helpers who worked with Paul, without whom Paul's ministry could not have been nearly as effective. Paul knew that, and he acknowledged that by including them here:

Colossians 4:7 (NASB) As to all my affairs, Tychicus, our beloved brother and faithful servant and fellow bond-servant in the Lord, will bring you information.

Most of the names mentioned in verses 7-18 are not well known. We are familiar with Barnabas and Mark, and certainly with Luke, but the rest are not as well known. Tychicus, who is the primary messenger of this letter, is one of those who are not so well known.

The name of Tychicus appears five times in the New Testament (Acts 20:4, Eph. 6:21, Col. 4:7, 2 Tim 4:12 and Titus 3:12), and, unlike other names which recur, there appears to be little doubt that the individuals mentioned in all these passages are one and the same person.

Tychicus traveled widely with the apostle Paul. He joined Paul from Ephesus to Jerusalem at the end of the third missionary journey (Acts 20:4). He joined Paul's team on the final visit to Jerusalem (Acts 20:4-5; cf. I Cor. 16:1-4; cf. II Cor 8:19ff). Tychicus was with Paul in his first Roman imprisonment and carried the epistle of Colossians from Rome to the believers in Colossae. He was from the Roman province of Asia (Acts 20:4).

Tychicus' willingness to travel with Paul to Jerusalem shows his servant's heart. Such a journey was not to be undertaken lightly. Travel in the ancient world was far more difficult and dangerous than in our day. The trip to Jerusalem would be very arduous, and it would take Tychicus away from his family, friends, and church for a long time. Along the way, Paul was repeatedly warned that trouble awaited him in Jerusalem. Although Tychicus must certainly have heard those warnings, he remained with Paul.

At the close of Paul's life, Paul sent Tychicus with Trophimus on a missionary journey to Ephesus to take Timothy's place (Tit. 3:12; II Tim. 4:12). Tychicus was dispatched to Ephesus during the second Roman imprisonment (II Tim. 4:12). This would free Timothy to rejoin Paul who wanted to see him before he met his fate as a martyr (II Tim. 4:9,21). He may have been sent to relieve Titus in the oversight of the churches on the isle of Crete as well (Titus 3:12).

Tychicus was one of those no-name servants of God in the New Testament who made a big impact for the cause of Christ. He was Paul's servant to the churches of the Lycus Valley. He bore both the epistles of Colossians and Ephesians to their destinations (4:7-9; Eph. 6:21-22). The trip from Rome to Colossae was a difficult one. Tychicus would first have to cross much of Italy on foot, then sail across the Adriatic Sea. After traversing Greece on foot, he would sail across the Aegean Sea to the coast of Asia Minor. After all that, he still faced a journey of nearly one hundred miles on foot to reach Colossae. That he was entrusted with delivering the Word of God once again indicates Paul's trust in him.

Paul gives a three-fold expression of the admiration he has for this servant-hearted brother. He was "our beloved brother" - the literal Greek here reads: "the beloved brother"; the article "the" marks him as well known to them. He was well loved having endeared himself to Paul by his love for Christ.

He was dependable in every way for he is called "faithful servant." The word servant is from the Greek diakonos, which means: "an attendant, a waiter (at table or in other menial duties)." It seems that Tychicus had a greater concern for Paul and the body of Christ than in serving his own interests.

God does not require that we be brilliant or clever in the ministry. We do not have to be original. God does not expect us to be famous or popular. He does not even expect success from us. He does expect us to be faithful:

1 Corinthians 4:1-2 (NASB) Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God. 2 In this case, moreover, it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy.

Someone has said that the greatest ability in the world is dependability, and this is true. Paul could depend on Tychicus, he was a faithful servant.

Today it costs us relatively little to minister the gospel faithfully. No one persecutes us. No one puts us in jail for preaching the gospel. No one ostracizes us for our witness for Christ today. Yet there is more unfaithfulness in ministry today than in Paul's day. God is looking for people upon whom He can count to do His ministry.

Tychicus appears to have been used by Paul primarily as a postman and messenger of those things which had happened to him, and which he felt he needn't to commit to writing. In Eph 6:21 and Col 4:7-8, we read of him as being the one who was bearing the letter that was being sent, and also that he would relate to the recipients of the letters all those things which had befallen Paul.

The last title is "fellow bond-servant in the Lord" - this is from the Greek sundoulos, which means: "a co-slave." This reveals the kinship that Paul sensed with this man as the Apostle wrote from his prison cell. Tychicus had entered into his labors as a slave of Christ, sharing in the suffering and the joys of Christian ministry. It would be incorrect for us to think of Tychicus simply as a bearer of letters or as a reliable informant as to the events that had surrounded Paul's continuing proclamation of the Gospel.

Paul never told "religious lies" about his colleagues, describing them more than what they were. He never exaggerated their accomplishments. However, he did give them their due. He accurately estimated their abilities and qualities. This thumbnail sketch of Tychicus was accurate. He not only was a brother, he was a "beloved brother." He not only was a minister, he was a "faithful minister." He not only was a servant, he was a "fellow servant". If Paul were writing a letter to your church, would he give a similar description of your Christian walk?

Colossians 4:8 (NASB) For I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts;

Paul sent Tychicus with this letter for two primary purposes. He wanted to provide more information about himself and his present ministry than he felt led to record in this letter. He also wanted to encourage the Colossians. The news reported by Tychicus would comfort the hearts of Paul's readers and diminish their anxiety. Paul's courageous faith would be an encouragement to them.

Preterist sidebar: If we are not careful, we can begin to think that the Bible was written to us in this century and is detached from history. But the close of this epistle brings us back to reality, that the Word of God was given to real people, who lived in the first century. Paul writes, "I have sent him to you" - who was sent to whom? Tychicus was sent to the Colossians. Many believers hold the view that the Bible was written to us. If this is true, are we to be waiting for Tychicus? No! This was written two thousand years ago. Tychicus is dead and so are all the original audience. Now, I'm sure that you won't get much argument about this, Christians understand the principle of audience relevance here. But when it comes to references about Christ coming, we ignore audience relevance and time frame, and most of Christianity is still waiting for Him. There needs to be a consistency in the application of the principle of audience relevance.

Colossians 4:9 (NASB) and with him Onesimus, our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of your number. They will inform you about the whole situation here.

The name "Onesimus" only occurs twice throughout the New Testament, and, in both places, we can be sure that it refers to one and the same individual. All we learn here about Onesimus is that he was a faithful and beloved brother. And that he was originally from Colossae, he's a hometown boy - "who is one of your number."

How many of you know who Onesimus was? If we want to learn more about Onesimus, where do we go? Turn with me to the book of Philemon. How many of you have ever heard a message on the book of Philemon? Well, you're about to. We're going to spend the rest of our time this morning looking at the short New Testament book.

The book of Philemon is no mere casual note; it is a short intimate letter carefully crafted and sensitively worded. It demonstrates integrated Christian thinking and living and offers a blend of love, wisdom, humor, gentleness, tact, and above all, Christian maturity. Furthermore, it is a letter about Christian fellowship and participation.

The book was written about A.D. 62 during Paul's first imprisonment in Rome and carried by Onesimus and Tychicus at the same time that they delivered the Colossian and Ephesian letters.

Philemon appears to have been a comparatively wealthy Colossian who owned slaves, as did most of the rich in his day. He evidently came to faith in Christ as a result of Paul's influence (v. 19), perhaps when Paul was residing at Ephesus. Onesimus was one of Philemon's slaves. He ran away from his master, and he eventually made his way to Rome where he could have lost himself in the crowd. There, as a result of divine providence, he came into contact with Paul and became a Christian (v. 10).

Paul and Onesimus both knew the danger the slave faced in returning, since slave owners had absolute authority over their slaves and often treated them as property rather than as people. The aim of this letter is quite simple: to return Onesimus to Philemon and to ask Philemon to forgive Onesimus' transgressions, all based on an appeal to Philemon's faith, love and grace in Christ.

Philemon 1:1 (NASB) Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our beloved brother and fellow worker,

Paul calls himself a "prisoner of Christ Jesus" - the word "prisoner" is the Greek word desmios, which means: "a captive, in bonds." He repeats this fact three times (verses 9,13,23), which must have been important to Paul's purpose. He was in prison because he served Christ. As himself the Lord's captive, he is pleading for another captive whose story is the burden of this letter.

It is significant that Paul did not write with apostolic authority as he did in many of his epistles; he writes to Philemon as a personal friend. Paul calls Philemon "our beloved brother and fellow worker." Not only did Paul love Philemon, but he considered him as a co-laborer in the gospel ministry. "Fellow worker" in the Greek is sunergos, which means: "a co-laborer."

Philemon 1:2 (NASB) and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:

He addresses not only Philemon, but Apphia, who possibly could have been Philemon's wife. Paul may have addressed her specifically, because normally the wife had day to-

day responsibility for the household slaves. Archippus may have been their son, or perhaps Philemon's biological brother, or his friend. He may very well have been the Pastor in the church that met in Philemon's house.

He also addresses the house-church which meets in Philemon's house because all were aware of Onesimus' departure from Colosse. Christian congregations were dependent upon the hospitality of wealthy members who could furnish their own houses for this purpose. This note then contains an indication of the social status of Philemon. Before the third century there is no certain evidence of special church buildings for worship.

Onesimus was to be welcomed back by the entire household - Philemon, Apphia, Archippus and the house-church. Paul probably addressed the epistle to all of them to rally the support of other Christians to encourage Philemon in his Christian responsibility.

Philemon 1:3-6 (NASB) Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4 I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers, 5 because I hear of your love, and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all the saints; 6 and I pray that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for Christ's sake.

Paul praises God and thanks Him for such a close friend and such a fine character as Philemon. Paul commended Philemon for the fruit of the Spirit that Philemon permitted the Spirit to manifest in his life.

When Paul states he gave thanks "always," he means that he did not forget Philemon in his regular prayers. We shouldn't regard this as a mere literary suck up. Paul must have had an extensive prayer list and presumably spent some time each day naming before God all his churches, colleagues, and supporters.

Whenever Paul remembered Philemon in prayer, he gave thanks for him. Evidently his testimony had been consistently honoring to the Lord. The basis of this thanksgiving was Philemon's love and faith. Reports of these qualities had undoubtedly reached Paul through Epaphras (Col. 1:7-8), and probably others as well.

In verse 5, Paul acknowledges Philemon's spiritual maturity -"I hear of your love, and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all the saints." In the succeeding verses we will see that Onesimus, too, is acknowledged by Paul as a spiritually mature believer. Thus, both Philemon and Onesimus are spiritually mature.

Philemon 1:7 (NASB) For I have come to have much joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother.

Paul says that he has experienced much joy and comfort as he heard of Philemon's love. Please remember, Paul is in prison, he is chained, his physical movements are confined, his recreation is very limited, his pleasures are denied; in these circumstances, Paul makes the statement, "I have come to have much joy." He is not just joyful, but he has "much" joy because of Philemon's love.

Paul says, "the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you" - The word "refreshed" comes from the Greek anapauo. It is a military metaphor signifying the rest that an army takes while on the march to regain strength for renewal of warfare. A form of this word is used in:

Romans 15:32 (NASB) so that I may come to you in joy by the will of God and find refreshing [sunanapauomai] rest in your company.

Paul here implies that true refreshment comes from one saint to another as they enjoy each other's company.

1 Corinthians 16:17-18 (NASB) And I rejoice over the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus; because they have supplied what was lacking on your part. 18 For they have refreshed [anapauo] my spirit and yours. Therefore acknowledge such men.

Paul cites by name three believers whose company recently "refreshed" his soul. And the ramification is that believers occasionally require "refreshment." And that this refreshment comes from fellowship with other believers.

Our Lord used this word in:

Matthew 11:28 (NASB) "Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest [anapauo].

The connotation here is to give rest from effort. Paul will again use the term in Philemon 20, which says, "Yes, brother, let me benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ." And the inference here is that Philemon's attitude, faith in God, and love are all images and expressions of love for Christ, and the character of Christ being expressed in Philemon, so that by associating with Philemon, Paul experiences the same refreshment that he would have found with Christ Himself. This is a spiritually mature man.

Philemon's spiritual maturity is about to receive a test. Will the spiritual maturity of Philemon be able to endure the natural influences of sin? Is Philemon's love stronger than his sense of justice toward Onesimus?

Philemon 1:8-9 (NASB) Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to order you to do that which is proper, 9 yet for love's sake I rather appeal to you-- since I am such a person as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus­

Paul's "confidence," which comes from the Greek word parrhesia, meaning: "all out-spokenness, i.e. frankness, bluntness" was his assurance that he commanded Philemon, he would do as he requested, because Paul was an apostle. Paul, because of his spiritual gift of Apostleship from Christ, could order Philemon to do what is right, namely, accept Onesimus back without retaliation or hatred. But Paul sets aside his spiritual authority. Rather, he appealed on the basis of love, the love of Christ that bound all the parties involved in this situation together.

At this time Paul would have been about 55 years old, which in his day was older than it is in ours because life expectancies were shorter then. He appealed as a father for his son in the faith. His reference to his present imprisonment also would have encouraged Philemon to accede to his appeal.

Paul says that he is "a prisoner of Christ Jesus." Paul here registers his perspective on his personal life and his incarceration in Rome; he is the prisoner, not of Nero or of Rome, but of Christ. And here is the principle that Paul believes, knows, and understands: Jesus Christ controls history; that Paul's incarceration was for a purpose, which included the evangelizing of Onesimus and writing the pastoral letter of Philemon as a part of the canon of Scripture.

Philemon 1:10 (NASB) I appeal to you for my child, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, Onesimus,

Paul now, for the first time, uses the name of Onesimus, the runaway slave who was probably guilty of theft, which was a common sin of slaves. Onesimus is furthermore referred to as Paul's begotten son, won to the Lord while Paul was in bonds. The Revised Standard Version translates this phrase: "whose father I have become in my imprisonment." Yeager translates the phrase: "to whom I have given spiritual birth while chained here."

Apparently Onesimus fled the home of Philemon in Colosse and came to Rome. Here's Onesimus, fleeing to Rome to try to melt into the masses, but no one hides from God. Isn't this great? Remember your own life. There you were, minding your own business, going your own way; either ignoring or trying to run from God, but suddenly you find yourself sitting down and in your right mind at Jesus' feet, converted by divine grace through the gospel.

How did Onesimus meet Paul? We only know that he met Paul in Rome, and that Paul led him to Christ during the time that the Apostle was in prison. We also know now that Onesimus was saved, he wanted to return to Philemon and make whatever restitution he was able.

Philemon 1:11 (NASB) who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me.

There is a play on words here - Onesimus comes from the word onesis, meaning: "profitable"' or "helpful," but he became unprofitable, because of his sin of running away from his master and probably for stealing enough money to permit his escape to Rome. "Useful" had been "useless" to Philemon, but now he was living up to his name. He had proved useful to Paul, and he could be useful to Philemon. The name Philemon means: "affectionate" or "one who is kind." If the slave was expected to live up to his name, then what about the master?

Philemon 1:12 (NASB) And I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart,

Onesimus had so endeared himself to Paul that his departure was an extremely painful prospect for the apostle. Paul, who was big-hearted, sees that instead of forcing the slave to beg for mercy all by himself, he returns supported by Tychicus and the letter from Paul addressed to the entire congregation of Colosse. In this letter his love and the spirit of forgiveness is emphasized.

Philemon 1:13-14 (NASB) whom I wished to keep with me, that in your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel; 14 but without your consent I did not want to do anything, that your goodness should not be as it were by compulsion, but of your own free will.

Paul had a desire to keep Onesimus with him as his "minister" rather than a "slave," but he would not do so without Philemon's permission. He implies that he wanted to borrow Onesimus to do for him what Philemon would have personally done now that he was in prison suffering persecution for the sake of the gospel. Without Philemon's permission, however, Paul would not retain Onesimus in Rome.

Philemon 1:15-16 (NASB) For perhaps he was for this reason parted from you for a while, that you should have him back forever, 16 no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

Paul's "perhaps" here or "peradventure," as it is translated in Romans 5:7, might rightly be called God's providence. God providentially rules even over human sin. A case in point is found in Genesis 45:4-8 and 50:15-21 in which God overruled the sin of Joseph's brothers when they sold him into slavery. In spite of their sin, God intervened and worked it out for the good of all the sons of Jacob. Joseph said:

Genesis 50:20 (NASB) "And as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.

Onesimus departed "for a season," that (Philemon) could receive him forever. In the flesh Philemon has a brother for a slave; in the Lord he has a slave for a brother. Paul does not declare the slave emancipated and free now, but he implores Philemon not to look upon Onesimus merely as a possession, an instrument or a tool, as slaves were then regarded. He is to be treated as a beloved brother:

Philemon 1:17 (NASB) If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me.

Paul's term "partner" (koinonos) must not be weakened to mean merely an intimate friend or companion. It suggests the fellowship or partnership of those who have common interests, common feelings, common work. Paul is saying: If you consider me to be a fellow-participant in the saving work of the blood of Christ (and he is, is the statement of the conditional clause), then welcome Onesimus, who also resides under the blood of Christ, as you would welcome me. Philemon's refusal of Paul's request would be inconsistent with his acknowledgment of this partnership.

Paul was putting Philemon in a precarious position by pleading for forgiveness and restitution for Onesimus without a punishment that was obvious to all. How would the other slaves respond to this? Would they all want to "get saved" so they would have better treatment? ,

Onesimus would probably have been returning in fear and trepidation, because he was taking quite some risk - though a necessary one at that - in coming to his city where there was some unresolved business that needed doing with his master.

Philemon 1:18 (NASB) But if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account;

First, Paul admits by his use of the first class conditional clauses, that Onesimus has wronged Philemon and could never pay back the large sum of money he stole.

"Charge that to my account" means the same as "impute it to me." It is a commercial term of substitution. Paul used the same word in Romans 5:13, and it is translated "imputed" or "counted," where he says, "Sin is not imputed (charged) when there is no law." Paul's offer is a beautiful illustration of biblical forgiveness based on imputation (2 Cor. 5:21).

Philemon 1:19 (NASB) I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand, I will repay it (lest I should mention to you that you owe to me even your own self as well).

This letter and pledge of the Apostle Paul to Philemon is his "promissory note" - a legal document, evidence in a civil suit in which Philemon could sue Paul for the amount, if he were still living, or sue his estate if Paul were dead.

Apparently Philemon had become a Christian through Paul's ministry either directly or indirectly. Paul here uses apophasis or insinuation, which is when professing not to mention certain matters, the speaker then proceeds to do so. In other words, Paul says, "I won't even mention the fact that you owe me your own salvation and present happiness," but in not mentioning it, he has mentioned it. But note that Paul does not press it any further. The mere hint should be more than enough for a man of Philemon's character. And also note that Paul will personally repay the stolen monies rather than crudely remind Philemon of what he has just delicately insinuated.

Philemon owed Paul a debt that he could never repay. He had been forgiven by the Lord, thanks to the gospel message he had heard from the lips of the Apostle Paul. The entire basis for forgiveness is the fact that we have also been forgiven (Matthew 18:21-35).

Philemon 1:20 (NASB) Yes, brother, let me benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ.

By receiving and forgiving Onesimus, Philemon would be repaying Paul and encouraging him. Another play on words occurs in that the Greek word translated "benefit" is the root of the one translated "Onesimus." One writer rendered this clause, "Let me get help as well as you get Helpful." As Philemon had refreshed the hearts of the saints (v. 7), so Paul asked him to refresh his (Paul's) heart by forgiving and accepting Onesimus.

Philemon 1:21 (NASB) Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, since I know that you will do even more than what I say.

Paul was sure Philemon would go the second mile; he would do more or better than Paul asked of him. Not only will Philemon receive Onesimus back, but Paul hints that he might even see fit to send Onesimus back to him. As we read between the lines we could interpret the "more" as a desire of the apostle for Onesimus to be returned to him for the service of the gospel.

Philemon 1:22 (NASB) And at the same time also prepare me a lodging; for I hope that through your prayers I shall be given to you.

Paul was rather expecting that he would be released and is already asking that at Colosse lodging be prepared for him. Paul's hopes seem to have been fulfilled, for after his first Roman imprisonment, he was released and supposedly made a trip to Spain. We have no record that Paul did or did not fulfill his desire to visit Philemon. The prospect of this visit would have motivated Philemon further to accept Onesimus.

Paul believed the prayers of the Christians in Philemon's church could result in his being released. Paul held that prayer had an objective as well as a subjective value. He believed in prayer as a mighty working force in the spiritual universe. As such he sought and valued the prayers of others on his behalf, and he himself faithfully exercised such intercession for the saints.

Philemon 1:23-25 (NASB) Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you, 24 as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow workers. 25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

The "your" is plural in the Greek text and refers to the whole church in Philemon's house.

There is no evidence as to how Philemon and his wife, Apphia, and Archippus responded to Paul' letter. Did Philemon forgive Onesimus? We have no direct record of his response to this letter. However, the fact that Philemon preserved this epistle and allowed it to circulate among the churches strongly suggests that he did behave as Paul had requested.

So the drama is shared by three characters. Here is an ex-Jewish rabbi, to whom all Gentiles were once untouchables; a wealthy Gentile, to whom an itinerate Jewish preacher in a Roman prison would normally be an object of contempt; and a runaway slave, a thieving, ungrateful one without hope of human sympathy or even human justice. All three are caught up through their common allegiance to Christ into an entirely new relationship where each acknowledges the other as one of God's adopted sons and a brother for whom Christ died.

Onesimus was a testimony to the power of God to transform a life. Paul tells the Colossians that the man who left Colosse as a runaway slave now returns as one of your number. He was to be treated as a member of the church, because in Christ there was neither slave nor freeman (Gal. 3:28).

Does verse 19 imply that we owe a debt to the person responsible for leading us to Christ? "Lest I should mention to you that you owe to me even your own self as well."If so, how do we repay that debt? Prayer? Do you pray for the person who led you to Christ? Thankfulness? I encourage you to reflect this week on your salvation and the person that shared the gospel with you. Maybe you could write them a letter or give them a call to let them know how much you appreciate their faithfulness in sharing the gospel with you. Maybe in doing so you will be an encouragement and a refreshment to their soul.

Continue the Series

Berean Bible Church provides this material free of charge for the edification of the Body of Christ. You can help further this work by your prayer and by contributing online or by mailing to:

Berean Bible Church
1000 Chattanooga Street
Chesapeake, VA 23322