Philemon - The Avatar

One of the shortest letters, it remains one of the most powerful. From a deeper understanding it provides rich understanding on the development of a great leader.

The Avatar - Presentation Overview

  • Introduction
  • Paul’s Role:
    • Perception of hidden value
    • Priming into visible value
    • Paying his debts and cancelling the past
    • Persuasion that church accepts new leader
  • Church’s role
    • Partnership in utilizing leader
  • Onesimus’s role
    • Perseverance
  • The Jesus analogy
  • Our Role
  • Discussion

Timeline of the New Testament


  • Paul writes while under his two years of house arrest in Rome – first imprisonment
  • While heavily guarded he has faithful team members with him as he strengthens the ministry in various churches
  • He appears to have the same team as when he wrote the Colossian letter (also sent via Onesimus who was referred as “faithful” and beloved brother”)


  • Onesimus’ name means profitable; useful
  • Reflects God’s power to restore a useless person into useful ministry in His Church. [7]
  • Reflects role of leaders
  • The context may not be clear to us
  • The conclusion is agreed on by most scholars that he later became an apostle and bishop.

Philemon:A Pastoral Epistle?

  • Interestingly, while this letter was written around or after the Colossian letter it is placed after the pastoral epistles.
  • Was this also viewed as a pastoral epistle?
  • Personally I see the birth and grooming a leader by leaders – the culminating pastoral epistle.
  • While Timothy and Titus his “true” sons, were long established and trained in the ministry, this new “begotten” son Onesimus appears to be launched, hence the importance of this letter.

    These then were key next gen. leaders:

    • Timothy, a Jew
    • Titus, a Greek
    • Onesimus, a slave

The Avatar Possible Contexts to the letter

Traditional Interpretation [5]

Contemporary Interpretation [5]

Onesimus was a “runaway slave” who fled from his master, Philemon.

Onesimus, a slave, had encountered Paul  possibly even sent by his master, Philemon.

He fled to Rome and encountered Paul during his house arrest

Philemon may have even sent Onesimus to assist and care for Paul while he was under house arrest.

Under Roman law he could face death for runaway slaves. [3]

Philemon was not Roman and therefore not under Roman law [4]

Paul writes to Philemon out of legal obligation, to ask pardon  after he returned home.

Paul resists even viewing Onesimus as a slave and writes to Philemon and the church in his house to accept Onesimus as a missionary.

He had also stolen something from his master, Philemon.

He was not a thief, but probably a debt slave.


Considering both view points (though I am tilted to the second due to reasons in the following slides and notes):

  • Paul has not stated history,  and
  • The bible is complete in itself

What lessons can we derive given either of the views may be true?


Paul brings out the best in Onesimus by:

  • Perception of hidden value
  • Priming into visible value
  • Paying his debts and cancelling the past
  • Persuading church to accept him.

Paul’s Role – Perception of Hidden values

Paul considers him his spiritual son

Philemon v 10 I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, 11 who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me.

Paul’s Role – Priming into visible value

Paul seems to be saying that Onesimus has a heart similar to Paul – a heart for ministry and service and wishes the Colossians to perceive that as well. 

Philemon v 12 I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart, 13 whom I wished to keep with me, so that on your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel;

16 no longer as a slave..

Paul’s Role – Paying his debts, cancelling the past

Paul is not saying that Onesimus has wronged Philemon.There is an assumption here ..IF.. He may have been a debt slave with a financial debt possibly inherited as was the then practice.

Philemon v 18 But if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand, I will repay it (not to mention to you that you owe to me even your own self as well).

Paul’s Role – Persuading Church to accept new leader

This letter is not a personal letter. It is addressed to the entire church which met at Philemon’s house, of which Philemon was the then pastor. Apphia is proably Philemon’s wife and Archippus a leader. This itself is a strong case against the traditional perspective.

Philemon v 1 To Philemon our beloved brother and fellow worker,  2 and to Apphia our sister, and to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:…

Paul’s Role – Persuading Church to accept new leader

Paul writes in a spirit of partnership to accept him as they would, Paul. To accetpt him as a senior ministry partner. As a leader.

Philemon v 15 For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, 16 no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother.. in the Lord. 17 If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me.


Church’s Role – Partnership in utilizing new leader

Philemon v 17 If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me.

Onesimus’s Role – Perseverence

Earlier perceived as a useless slave to suddenly be positioned as a useful leader would have not been easy for Onesimus. But he perseveres and wins. Onesimus donned the leader’s garb, slipped into his new shoes and never turned back.

The Avatar

Onesimus the slave was no more Onesimus the son was born


The Jesus Analogy

The same story continues today

  • Perception– Jesus sees our worth
  • Priming – Jesus prepares us
  • Paying debts – Jesus has cancelled our past
  • Persuasion – Jesus will create acceptance
  • Partnership of church – Jesus will use us to reach heights we will never otherwise know

Our Role

  • What about us?
  • Are we confident enough in Christ to be the amazing person he wants us to be?
  • Are we running away from our past rather than facing it and overcoming it?
  • Or are we persevering to the end like Onesimus did?

The Avatar – Recap

Paul’s Role

  • Perception
  • Priming
  • Paying debts
  • Persuasion

Church’s Role

  • Partnership

Onesimus’ s Role

  • Perseverence


  • What strikes you on the leaders’ role in the great transformation of Onesimus?
  • Why is there shortage of leaders in the church? What can we do?
  • How can we see with the eyes of Jesus and help a useless person to become useful? How do we ensure it’s the right person?
  • How can we develop our own worth to achieve heights for Jesus? Share what steps you would like to take to accomplish this.

Historical Records

Bond-slave to…Bishop?

Traditional records mention that:

  • Saint Onesimus also called Onesimus of Byzantium and The Holy Apostle Onesimus, was a slave to Philemon of Colossae, a man of Christian faith.[1]
  • May be the same Onesimus named by Ignatius of Antioch as Bishop in Ephesus[2][9]. Also known by some as Bishop of Byzantium[8].

Historical Records: Bond-slave to … Bishop?

He is venerated in the:

  • Roman Catholic Church
  • Eastern Orthodox Church
  • Lutheranism

A feast in his memory is celebrated on February 15 or 16, or November 22 (Gregorian calendar), February 28 (Julian calendar)

The Avatar – References

  1. Onesimus. Ecumenic Patriarchate of Constantinople. Retrieved Apr 2, 2011.
  2. The Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians


  2. The holy apostle Onesimus – http://www.serb
  4. Wikipedia

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