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FRAMEWORKS: Paul's letter to Philemon

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Frameworks: Philemon


v.1-3 Greetings
v.4-7 Thanksgiving and Prayer
v.8-18 Paul's Plea for Onesimus
v.19-25 Final Matters


v.1-3 Greetings


v.1,2 (Paul from prison to his old friend Philemon) Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,

To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker— also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home:

v.3 (may God bless you all) Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.



v.4-7 Thanksgiving and Prayer


v.4,5 (your reputation for faith and love releases thanks whenever he prays for them) I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus.

v.6 (he prays their understanding of the faith will be deepened) I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ.

v.7 (his love has blessed so many people) Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord's people.



v.8-18 Paul's Plea for Onesimus


v.8-10 (Paul has a request – it could be an order but he prefers it be a request) Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, [Onesimus means ‘useful'] who became my son while I was in chains.

v.11 (it is to do with Onesimus, who he now views as his son) Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.

v.12 (with a full heart he is sending him back to Philemon) I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you.

v.13 (he would have liked him to stay to help him while in prison) 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.

v.14 (but he wants his old friend's approval) But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary.

v.15,16 (I know he was a runaway slave but now he has come to Christ I hope you will see him as a brother who is very dear to me) Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— 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 fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.

v.17 (so, my partner in the gospel, I hope you can receive him back as you would receive me) So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.

v.18 (if he owes you anything, charge it to me) If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.



v.19-25 Final Matters


v.19 (perhaps we shouldn't talk of the debts owed) I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self.

v.20 (but I do want something of value from you now) I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ.

v.21 (I am sure you will do this) Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.

v.22 (and get ready to receive me when I am released) And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.

v.23,24 (others you also know here send their greetings) Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.

v.25 (so may God's grace be yours) The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.



Notes: There are various things that arise in this simple little letter:

1. The change in Onesimus and its effect on how he may be viewed

2. The debt Philemon owes Paul

3. The whole subject of slavery


1. Onesimus: he was originally a slave and although technically he is still ‘owned' by Philemon, Paul makes the case for him to now be considered a brother in Christ which should completely change the way Philemon views him.

2. Philemon's debt: Paul clearly thinks that Philemon ‘owes him' for having brought the gospel to him and him having had his life changed for the better.

3. Slavery: to fully understand how slavery fits our understanding, rather than make limited comments within the text, here we provide some guide notes

1. Historical Misunderstanding supporting Slavery
2. The General Teaching about Slavery
3. The Silence of the New Testament

1. Historical Misunderstanding supporting Slavery

It has to be said that knowledge of the Bible and its teaching prior to the twentieth century was often inadequate. No doubt part of this was to do with the limited education that had existed in previous centuries and, indeed, often the poor quality of spiritual life in the church, during certain periods of church history.
Apparent approval of the slave trade by the church seems to have come from a complete misuse and misunderstanding of several verses from Genesis:
“When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, he said, "Cursed be Canaan ! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers." He also said, "Blessed be the LORD, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem. May God extend the territory of Japheth.” (Gen 9:24-27)
Some of Ham's (the youngest son's) descendants were thought to populate Africa and therefore this was mistakenly applied to Ham, though the curse was on Canaan, not Ham!
The poor quality of learning in earlier centuries applied these verses to Africans because:
• they did not understand the full Biblical teaching about curses and blessings, and
• they tended to take verses out of context and assume they applied to life at any time, because
• they did not understand the historical contexts or development of Scripture.

For those who wish to understand these things, let's deal with each of those failures, one by one:

1.1 Curses & Blessings
A study of Isaac's use of blessings in Gen 27:27-40 clarifies what happens:
i) A blessing is simply a prophetic decree of good over a person, i.e. a speaking out of God's will for this person's future.
ii) Please note that this doesn't mean that God makes a person act in particular ways, more that He knows that this person will act in these ways to bring this about.
iii) A curse is a similar prophetic decree but it is judgment decreed by heaven.
iv) Very often the person bringing the blessing or curse simply has a sense of the rightness of what they are saying which they may see in the light of circumstances before them, but which may have a much wider prophetic application which heaven knows, but they don't.
v) Thus in the case of Noah, he has a sense of punishment to come upon a future generation. The two older sons had acted honourably towards him while the younger son despised him. Noah sensed that it would be a future generation that would be brought down because this same bad attitude would be theirs. The result would be their downfall. These three sons would develop into three families and into three sets of peoples and Canaan would be submissive to the others, i.e. a slave to them. That would be an historical outcome for these people.
vi) The fulfilment of this was seen as follows: a) From Shem eventually came Israel. b) From Ham came Canaan and from him came “Sidon his firstborn, and of the Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites, Girgashites, Hivites, Arkites, Sinites, Arvadites, Zemarites and Hamathites.” (Gen 10:15-18). Many years later the land of Canaan was occupied by these pagan peoples who worshipped idols, sacrificed their children etc., people who had the option to join their distant cousins in their present form, Israel, leave the land, be made slaves, or killed – the options were theirs. That was the actual historical outworking of that original prophecy in Genesis 9.

1.2 Taking Verses out of Context.
We have no right to just pick out verses and apply them to support our prejudices. Did the church of several centuries ago use this verse to justify supporting the growing practice of slavery or did they use these verses to justify starting slavery? We suspect the former. Whether all churches felt the same or there were some who dissented from this concept, we don't know. Before the abolitionists there were a number of clear Christian leaders who spoke out against slavery. The fact that a large number of those who worked for abolition happened to be Christians suggests that there were always dissenters.
Possibly one reason that Christians so often side with the present government or leaders of society, is that the general tenor of Scriptural teaching is generally to obey God's law, and secondarily to obey the laws of society and submit to the government of the day. Whether it is a conscious thing or sub-conscious thing is debatable, yet it does happen and sometimes Christians have been slow to question the establishment.

1.3 Misunderstanding Historical Contexts & Development of Scripture
One of the key things to understand about the Bible is that it is largely teaching or revelation that comes with historical contexts, i.e. God reveals Himself through His acts in respect of Israel and its surrounding nations in the Old Testament, and then through His Son and the emerging church in the New. There is within the flow of history a development. Thus the Law of God was largely for the nation of Israel and therefore applied to them in their particular geographical and cultural location as a nation under God, and cannot apply to individuals in hundreds of different cultures in different locations at different times in history. The only part of the Law that could thus be applied like this are the Ten Commandments. Nevertheless the rest of the social, civil or criminal law is there as wise guidance for us and indeed many of our present laws reflect things found in the Pentateuch. The ceremonial or sacrificial law is no longer operational in that a) the Temple no longer exists and b) Jesus has fulfilled the meaning of those laws.
The key point to be made is that certain aspects of Old Testament teaching came within specific historical contexts which do not apply today. Thus we find people unwisely trying to apply specific things from specific events into present day situations which are quite different. When it is a matter of principle, that may be different, but to take verses, as in the case cited above, and try and give them general application is to distort the truth.

2. The General Teaching about Slavery

Please bear in mind what has just been said, that this law in the Old Testament applied ONLY to the nation of Israel, which was a primitive society, initially in a very primitive world – in which slavery already existed, and the curse of Noah applied to a specific context.

2.1 The pre-existence of slaves
• When Abraham encountered local king or war-lord, Abimelech, that king already had slave girls (Gen 20:17).
• The truth is that Abram also had slaves, because that was what Hagar was considered (Gen 21:10).
• Joseph was sold by his brothers as a slave to the Midianite traders (Gen 38:28) who were obviously slave traders, who sold him on as a slave to Potiphar in Egypt where slaves were obviously common (Gen 39:1).
• Joseph subsequently spoke about making one of the brothers a slave (Gen 44:10).
• After four hundred years, Israel still living in Egypt, were all made slaves for the Egyptians (Ex 1:11-14).
• It is quite clear therefore, that in those early years slavery was a well established world practice, and was not something instituted by God through Israel. It was an expression of oppression by powerful people over less-powerful people, an expression of sin in the world, and a well-established practice that sinful men were not likely to give up easily (and this needs to be born in mind in what follows and in the light of comments about the Bible not saying anything about abolition).

2.2 Slavery and the Law of Moses
“If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished ” (Ex 21:20). An obvious restraint on bad slave owners.
• The law of Strict Liability (as our present law calls it) held an owner accountable to anyone gored by his bull if he knew the bull had a tendency to do that. If they are killed by it, the owners life is forfeit, whether the dead person was a slave or not. If they were simply gored and were a slave then a fine is imposed. Laws of consideration that covered both slaves and non-slaves. (Ex 21:28 -32).
• The slave as well as anyone else was granted a day's rest on the Sabbath (Ex 23:12).
“If a man sleeps with a woman who is a slave girl promised to another man but who has not been ransomed or given her freedom, there must be due punishment.” (Lev 19:20). The slave girl is thus protected from powerful men.
“If one of your countrymen becomes poor among you and sells himself to you, do not make him work as a slave. He is to be treated as a hired worker or a temporary resident among you; he is to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. Then he and his children are to be released, and he will go back to his own clan and to the property of his forefathers. Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves.” (Lev 25:39-43) Israelites were not to work as slaves and were eventually to be released back home.
“Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property.” (Lev 25:44,45). Israelites could join in the same practice as the rest of the world. Note that is not a mandate to treat foreign slaves harshly: “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt.” (Ex 22:21 Also 23:9)
“If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand him over to his master. Let him live among you wherever he likes and in whatever town he chooses. Do not oppress him.” (Deut 23:15,16) Israel could thus become a refuge for fleeing slaves, who could join Israel and become one with them.
• Thus if we look carefully, we find that the Law given to Moses regulated what was an existing practice in the world and forbade Israelites to be slaves, to accept slaves from other countries but to treat them well. A slave fleeing to them was to be given refuge. Contrary to much that is spoken about slavery in the Old Testament, there is a caring and concerned element in the Law that helped slaves coming from the rest of the world.

3. The Silence of the New Testament

The comment is often made that the New Testament is silent on the matter of slavery. That isn't quite true:

3.1 Instructions to Slaves
“Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God.” 1 Pet 2:18-20
“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free.” Eph 6:5-8
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Gal 4:28

• These instructions come in letters to churches and are therefore instructions to slaves who are Christians and part of the church. For them to be able to hear these instructions read out they would have to take part in the ordinary life of the church, i.e. although they were still slaves there was obviously an equality in the faith, slave and non-slave (Gal 4:28 above)
• The message to slaves was ‘standout in the way you serve', with the clear implication that their witness will lead others to Christ.

3.2 Instructions to Masters of Slaves
“Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.” Col 4:1
“the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free. And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.” Eph 6:8,9
• The message for those who owned slaves and, for the same reason as above, were obviously Christians, was treat them well.
• The reason given is that God is watching you and (implied) you will be answerable to Him.

3.3 Conclusions
• It seems almost as if the Lord knows that, in those early days, there is little point in saying the world, ‘Don't have slaves', because the world was not ready to receive it.
• What the Christian world was ready to receive was the possibility of the division between master and slave being almost removed where they were Christians, or at least the master was a Christian.
• The Lord knew that there would be, at a specific time later in history, when world slavery (because it was common) would rise up in some of the leading nations in the world where there was a Christian influence, and after a period of acceptance (yes, even by many Christians), there would rise up among a number of those Christians a conscience that would work and work until slavery was abolished.
• It is worth noting in passing, that people worked in service (‘below stairs') in a very class conscious world right up until the early part of last century, under conditions that were not far off slavery at times. The social structures of society would require the pressures of social change following the First World War before change would come for such workers.
• Today we consider such servitude immoral although voices are really rarely raised against prostitution slavery, which is common in many parts of the world, possibly nearer to home than we would like to think, or child labour which is akin to slavery, and certainly the slavery of children being drafted into fighting gangs in certain war-torn areas of the world. (Slavery or people traffiking is The biggest money-making crime in the world today!)
• Although the Christian church was obviously slow to take up arms against slavery, and even accepted it for a long period, the church (comprising largely of ordinary people) were not the instigators of slavery, and were in fact the majority of those fighting for abolition.
• Competing against culture has always been difficult and Christians are still human beings who don't like to flow against the tide. We can be grateful that some did!