The Book of Philemon

Onesimus and You: From Slavery to Sonship.


By I Gordon




Have you ever read the book of Philemon? If so, did you benefit from doing so? I must say that before now, I can’t say that I was greatly enriched by this little book. In fact, to be a little more honest, I had said to my brother that there is nothing in the book of Philemon! Nothing![1] I had never heard a sermon from the book of Philemon, nor had I ever heard any teacher say ‘now please turn with me in your bibles to the book of… Philemon.’ Not once. I read it a few times but always seemed to struggle with what I could take out of it for my life.  


Well, during the past week, I have been reading the life story of H.A Ironside. What an amazing man he was… but that’s another topic! At one stage in the book, two questions were posed to him which caught my attention – ‘On what passages of scripture have you preached most?’ and ‘What is your best loved sermon’ His reply to the first question was Exodus 12, Psalm 32, Romans 1:16-20 and (now I thought I must be going slightly mad..) Philemon! In reply to the second question he said that it was very hard to say, but probably his most favourite sermon was ‘Charge that to my account’ from, of course, the book of Philemon! I was beginning to feel rather small at this point for the book of Philemon, which I nearly written off, seemed to be the favourite of this great bible teacher and leader!


Background to the book


Well, all I can say is that the message of Philemon ‘clicked’ for me when I saw the title of Ironsides sermon – ‘Charge that to my account.’ But more on that later! First we have to do a little digging so that we understand the background to the book.


The background to the book of Philemon is the story of a slave... a slave by the name of Onesimus. The Bible Knowledge Commentary says “Onesimus, a slave of Philemon, had run away, having evidently robbed his master (Phile. 18). His travels somehow brought him to Rome where, in the providence of God, he came in contact with Paul. Through this contact Paul led Onesimus to know the Savior. Then Onesimus in some way became useful to Paul (vv. 12-13). But Paul realized that Onesimus had a responsibility to Philemon and should make restitution for his thievery. Thus Paul deemed it right to return Onesimus to Philemon. Tychicus was given the responsibility of carrying Paul’s letter from Rome to the Colossians, and Onesimus evidently traveled back with him (Col. 4:7-9).”


This book then is Paul’s letter to Philemon, explaining the situation, and request that Onesimus not be treated as a thieving runaway slave, but now as a beloved brother in Christ.


It’s value for us…


Now, this book has tremendous value for us today because, in a certain sense, it is the story of our lives as well. The great reformer Martin Luther clearly saw this and wrote:


“Here we see how St. Paul lays himself out for poor Onesimus, and with all his means pleads his cause with his master: and so sets himself as if he were Onesimus, and had himself done wrong to Philemon. Even as Christ did for us with God the Father, thus also St. Paul does for Onesimus with Philemon… We are all His Onesimi, to my thinking.”


This study is not going to be a verse by verse commentary of this little book. It is just a small attempt to show the wonder of the grace of the Lord Jesus to us through the simple story of a runaway slave, Onesimus. I write in the hope that you can see something of your own life in his story, including the great position that we now find ourselves ‘in Christ Jesus’.


The unprofitable slave… from useless to useful!


Philemon 1:10-18 “I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, who formally was useless to you, but now is useful to you and to me. I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart… For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, 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. If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me. But if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account.”


We read above that while running from his master, Onesimus met up with Paul and became a Christian. The slave, who had stolen betrayed and run from his master, had been turned around by the power of the gospel! While you may not have thought about it, there is a very real sense in which this speaks of our lives, for all of humanity are slaves until they find the Lord Jesus Christ.


Jesus said ‘“I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. (John 8:34)

Paul wrote “But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin.” (Gal 3:22)[2]


Those who have not been saved and set free by the power of the Lord Jesus are still in slavery to sin. They also become slaves to all sorts of fears and superstitions[3] (because if you don’t believe in something, then you will fall for anything![4]) And like Onesimus of old, many today are still running from their master having stolen from Him the glory, praise, and sacrifice that is due to His name.[5] This is the story of us all, I’m sure you will agree, at some stage of our lives.


Unto Him who works all things together for good…


While this may have been our story, it certainly doesn’t have to finish that way! We read above that Paul said ‘For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever.’ In other words, Paul was saying that while things may have looked bad in the outward (Philemon was probably very angry with his thieving runaway slave), God has a way of turning these things around! Sometimes things have to get worse before they get better. They say that it is darkest just before the dawn, and saving grace often works in the same manner. Are you praying for someone’s salvation at the moment? If things seem to be getting worse, or they seem to be running like Onesimus, don’t let fear or unbelief slip in. God’s ways are not our ways.


Now notice also that Paul alluded to the fact that God has allowed this separation so that ‘you would have him back forever.’ Paul wasn’t just speaking of this life. No way… He knew that Onesimus had left as a slave, but he had returned a son, and, as Jesus said


“Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:35-36)


Isn’t that fantastic? I think it is. A son belongs to the family forever![6] And that is the wonderful position believers find themselves in today… no longer just a slave or a servant of God, but a member of the very household of God. Paul also emphasised to Philemon that Onesimus would return ‘no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother.’ So it is with us, for –


Gal 4:4-7 When the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.


 It is at this point and this point only, that a person becomes ‘useful’ to God. Paul wrote that he was sending Onesimus back to his master, “who formally was useless to you, but now is useful to you and to me.” The name Onesimus means ‘useful, or profitable”. And that is what he became once he was restored back to his master. The same is true for you. It is not until you come back into a relationship of dependence upon God that you become ‘useful’ once again. But what a privilege it is to be used by Almighty God for His plans and purposes!


Accept him as you would me.


Look also at the acceptance the Onesimus was to receive. Paul wrote that ‘if then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me.’  Now I’m sure that if Paul had turned up at Philemon’s place (who was apparently quite rich), Paul would have been given a wonderful welcome, with all his needs looked after. But at Paul’s request, Onesimus, the one time thieving runaway slave was to be accepted by Philemon as much as Paul would be himself! I’m sure you understand the parallel but let me spell it out anyway. The Bible says that we are ‘accepted in the beloved (Ephesians 1:6)’  In other words, God the Father accepts us just as He would His own Son Jesus, even though, in ourselves, we are little better than a thieving runaway slave. Amazing![7]


Charge that to my account!


Now, Paul knew that there was still a debt that Onesimus owed Philemon, and justice demanded that this debt be paid. It is because of this that Paul wrote ‘if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account.’ What fantastic words for Onesimus, who probably had no way of paying his master back what he had stolen. And what fantastic words for us, because we too had no way of paying the debt which we owed God. But God is a God of justice[8] and for this reason we read -


Romans 3:25-26 “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood... He did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”


And the Lord Jesus, for His part, said ‘whatever debt of sin that is owed to you Father, charge that to my account.’[9]  Your debt of sin was not overlooked but was entirely paid for by the once and for all sacrifice of our wonderful saviour Jesus Christ.


So Onesimus was a very fortunate man. At one time a runaway thieving slave, but now an accepted beloved brother, restored to his master. It is a fantastic reminder of the wonderful grace that has been shown to each of us who have placed their faith in the Lord Jesus. We are no longer slaves but sons. The following song captures the timeless message that speaks of our very, very, fortunate position –


I’m forgiven, because you were forsaken. I’m accepted, you were condemned.

I’m alive and well, your Spirit is within me, because you died and rose again.

Amazing love, how can it be, that you my King would die for me?

Amazing love, I know it’s true. It’s my joy to honour you, in all I do. I worship you.



Other Bible Studies in the Riches of Grace Series


[1] Actually, to be even more honest, and to show that God always has the last say, not long after my brother and I were joking over the fact that there was nothing in the book of Philemon, another friend got up at church (we have a time of ‘open church’ in our meetings where anyone can share) and said ‘I just wanted to share on this awesome verse in Philemon that I read during the week...’ Anyway, we had to laugh because it was the first time I had heard anyone share, even something small, from the book of Philemon and it was straight after our discussion that it couldn’t be done!  The bible, I continually find, is like an orange. The more you squeeze, the more juice comes out! And my stupid comments that there is nothing in Philemon just showed my own laziness and failure to squeeze hard enough!


[2] For other scriptures about slavery see Romans 6:19, 7:14-25, 8:15, Gal 4:3,7,30, Heb 2:15, 2 Pet 2:19.  You will see that people, before they are saved, are slaves to sin, fear, and all manner of ‘religions’ and false gods. In fact, as 2 Pet 2:19 says,’ a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him.’


[3]  I switched the old TV on this morning and there was a program about Feng Shui on. You may know the stuff… you know, logical stuff like your business isn’t successful because the door is in the wrong place and all the chi energy is escaping! Or if you want to find a partner make sure the water in your aquarium doesn’t flow towards the north-east. It will cause the ying and yang to go bing and bang! Read any woman’s magazine and see all the fears and superstition that people allow to rule their lives now. It is crazy what happens to society once they remove faith in a creator God.


[4] G.K Chesterton once said “it is often supposed that when people stop believing in God, they believe in nothing. Alas, it is worse than that. When they stop believing in God, they believe in anything! “


[5] According to Psalm 96:7-9 all nations are called to give glory, sacrifice, and worship to the Lord. He is their maker, He is the only true God. In this sense, all those who have not come to know the Lord still rob from their master like Onesimus did so long ago.


[6] And, if I were to jump back up on my soapbox again, this certainly speaks of eternal security. A son is in the family forever. How could you ever have confidence if you believed in the only alternative – eternal insecurity?


[7] I once read a small illustration that said if you look through red coloured glass, then everything is red. If you look through blue coloured glass, then everything is blue. Well, when God looks at His children, He does so through the pure white purity of His Son Jesus… and everything is white!


[8] It has been said that after the fall, God’s love would have forgiven mankind of their sins, but God’s righteousness prevented the forgiveness. God’s righteousness would have judged mankind, but God’s love prevented the judgement. A catch 22? Not for God. In sending Jesus to the cross for our sins, God showed both his love and righteousness. He is now perfectly just to forgive the believing sinner for the price has been paid by another! 


[9] And, when Satan tries to accuse the brethren before God, the Lord Jesus still stands for us, saying ‘that has been charged to my account’! Game, set and match!