This devotional is written by Matt Coombs.


Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,

To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker – 2 also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier – and to the church that meets in your home:

3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Thanksgiving and prayer
4 I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. 6 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. 7 Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.

Paul’s plea for Onesimus
8 Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9 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 – 10 that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.

12 I am sending him – who is my very heart – back to you. 13 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. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favour you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. 15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for ever – 16 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.

17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back – not to mention that you owe me your very self. 20 I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.

22 And one thing more: prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.

23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. 24 And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.

25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.


Philemon is one of the shortest books in the bible, with 25 verses and only 355 words. It can also be overlooked. But in my humble opinion, this is a really important New Testament letter that continues to be relevant in every generation.

Philemon is a gentile convert to Christianity living in Colosse. Onesimus is Philemon's slave. But Onesimus has run away, met Paul and has also been converted. So Paul is writing to Philemon who has been financially damaged and had his honour offended (at least in his household) by this situation, and he is asking for forgiveness. Forgiveness for Onesimus who is willing to return, but there is also an implied request for forgiveness for Paul's crime of harbouring a runaway slave too.

Slavery in the Greco-Roman world was not based on capture and race, as in North American and European history. Instead, it was more to do with birth and social status. Historians estimate that approximately 1 in 3 people in Italy during the first century, and 1 in 5 across the rest of the Roman empire were slaves. While some slaves were loved members of households, many were not. Some household leaders would crucify one slave to set an example to the others.

Onesimus' return, therefore, is a big deal. This is why Paul's letter is so important in its original context. Philemon could punish Onesimus and any other slaves connected to him. He could make life harder for him. He could lower his status.

But Paul says: Welcome him as you would welcome me. (17)

Paul's desire is reconciliation, forgiveness, restoration. Paul wanted a fresh start, not as a slave and slave owner, but as siblings (16).

There is a perceived hierarchy going on in this letter.

Apostle > Convert > The convert's slave.

Paul is suggesting a new paradigm.

Sibling = Sibling = Sibling.

Three brothers, not three levels of power or hierarchy.

Paul is saying to Philemon, that in Christ you have as much in common with the slave Onesimus as you do with me, the Apostle who converted you, so treat him as you would treat me.

This letter speaks afresh to those of us who call ourselves disciples of Jesus to establish cultures where sibling-ship, not slavery becomes the norm.

This letter challenges us as Christians (particularly Christians with power or privilege) as it did Philemon (who had power and privilege) to put our money where our mouth is. Paul is asking: how Christian are you? How gospel-centred are you willing to be?

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