Today we are considering Philemon, the last book of Paul in our Bibles, and the shortest, containing only one chapter. The main purpose of our examination is to determine upon which side of the dispensational dividing line this book falls.

I do not see anything in the book of Philemon that would lead us immediately one way or the other. The book is an appeal by Paul to his friend Philemon on behalf of a runaway slave of Philemon’s named Onesimus. Onesimus happened upon Paul in Rome, it seems, and Paul led him to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Now Paul would like to keep Onesimus with him, but knows that there is this matter of Philemon, his owner, and the money he had stolen from him when he ran away. Paul does not want to keep Onesimus when this matter is unresolved with Philemon. Thus he writes this letter to Philemon to accompany Onesimus as he returns to his owner. In this letter, Paul urges Philemon to forgive Onesimus, and to accept him back as a brother. This is the right thing for him to do, and Paul appeals to him to do it.

Now while there is nothing in this book to point solidly to it being in one time period or another, we can get a hint as to when it must have been written by comparing it with the book of Colossians. For example, consider the first verse of both books.

Philemon 1. Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our beloved friend and fellow laborer,

Colossians 1:1. Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,

So both books were written by Paul and Timothy together. Next, notice the people who are with Paul and who greet Philemon along with Paul and Timothy.

Philemon 23. Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you, 24. as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow laborers.

Now, notice these same people give greetings at the end of Colossians.

Colossians 4:10. Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, with Mark the cousin of Barnabas (about whom you received instructions: if he comes to you, welcome him),

Colossians 4:12. Epaphras, who is one of you, a bondservant of Christ, greets you, always laboring fervently for you in prayers, that you may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God.

Colossians 4:14. Luke the beloved physician and Demas greet you.

So the list of people with Paul seem to be the same for the writing of Colossians and the writing of Philemon. But finally, notice that Onesimus is one of those who was carrying the letter to the Colossians!

Colossians 4:7. Tychicus, a beloved brother, faithful minister, and fellow servant in the Lord, will tell you all the news about me. 8. I am sending him to you for this very purpose, that he may know your circumstances and comfort your hearts, 9. with Onesimus, a faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will make known to you all things which are happening here.

This almost confirms that Colossians and Philemon were both written together, and sent together by Paul. Philemon might well have been a Colossian himself. So the close connection between Philemon and Colossians, a book clearly written in the dispensation of grace and after Acts 28:28, points almost undeniably to the fact that Philemon must have been written at the same time, and after the great dispensational change.

Before we close the book on Philemon, though, I would like to note how beautifully this book fits in with the character of God’s work in the dispensation of grace. Paul clearly wants very much to have Philemon grant his request and show mercy on Onesimus. He loves Onesimus, and wants to see this matter with Philemon settled. Yet notice how he chooses to ask Philemon to do this.

8. Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting, 9. yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you—being such a one as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ— 10. I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains,

Paul acknowledges his own position as a representative of Christ, and that he could use that position to command Philemon to do what is right. However, instead, he appeals to Philemon through love, both the love he has for Philemon and the love Philemon has for him. Moreover, Paul expresses his desire in this.

12. I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, 13. whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel. 14. But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary.

Paul does not wish to force Philemon to do anything that is not according to his will. He wants the good that Philemon does to be totally voluntary. Moreover, he goes even further to appeal to Philemon in verse 17.

17. If then you count me as a partner, receive him as you would me.

Moreover, he takes personal responsibility for Philemon in verse 18.

18. But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account. 19. I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay—not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides.

So Paul promises to pay what Onesimus stole, taking his crimes upon himself.

In all this, then, Paul becomes a wonderful picture for us of the way our God acts towards us in the dispensation of grace. God has not lost His great power. He is just as capable of commanding us to do the right thing as He ever has been. Yet, like Paul to Philemon, He does not choose to do this. Instead, He appeals to us to do the right thing for love’s sake. Our Lord does not force us to do anything good by compulsion. Instead, He wants every good deed we perform to be voluntary. He calls upon us to treat each other as we would Him, though He does not force us to do so. And finally, He identifies us with Himself, taking our wrongs upon Himself, and graciously paying for them out of His own wealth.

Thus, in this whole letter, Paul becomes a picture of our Lord acting in grace, and the way he appeals to Philemon is the very same way our Lord would appeal to us. He wants us to obey and to please Him, not because He ever forces us to or punishes us if we do not, but for the sake of our love for Him. He calls upon us to walk worthy of all He has given us. We owe Him our very selves, and so He calls upon us to do what would please Him. And, as we love Him, He is confident that we will do what pleases Him, even though we would not have to. This is exactly the way He treats us in grace, and this book becomes a great picture of that, as well as an appeal to us to act even as Philemon should have acted, and to deal graciously with each other, as Ephesians 4:32 says.

32. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.

So this is the message of Philemon, and again it is one that fits best with the dispensation of grace. It is indeed a book worthy of being written in the gracious dispensation in which we live. So we have discovered the dispensational place of Philemon, and concluded that it was written to men living in our dispensation today. Let us study it carefully and learn from it, therefore, and see the things in it that God has for us as truth for today.

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