Bible Topics
in the Christian Library
"By This They Will Know"

Philemon 17-20

John L. Kachelman, Jr. 


I. The title gives the lesson's topic away--brotherly love, the ideal of Christianity (Jn 13:34,35). Of all the traits of the gospel (rejoicing, hope, peace, joy, kindness, etc.), the trait of "love" is most prominent. This trait is the most beautiful and rewarding. One was asked for whom he labored the least, he answered, "For the ones I love." The he was asked for whom he labored the most; he replied, "For the ones I love." Such is the beauty of love--it does the most, and yet thinks the least of what it does!" 

II. Perhaps it is surprising to discover that one of the clearest lessons on this marvelous trait is found in one of the shortest books in the New Testament. 

1. Paul now reaches the object of his letter--he is going to request that Philemon accept Onesimus back without any grudges or ill-feelings. 

2. Thus, the stage is set for a clear demonstration of Christian love in practice. 

3. Philemon had obeyed the "gospel of love" and now was asked to practice that gospel in his life. 

III. Although love is easily discussed, it is often neglected. There is a disparity between what we know and what we do. Due to this problem, we need to look at how Philemon's love was to be practiced so all would know he followed the great gospel of love in his life. 


I. The Demonstration of Christian love. 

A. "Consideration" of one another as a "partner" (17). 

1. Paul mentions this concept first as a demonstration of Philemon's love. 

2. "Partner" -- an intimate friend, a comrade; a relationship with another that involves mutual responsibilities; one who was "yoked" with another (cf. Philip 4:3). 

3. By using this term, Paul implies that "partners" are considerate and sensitive to one another. Such is a true trait of Christian love. Believers are partners with each other--united in service, possessing common ideas, hopes, and aims, one in principle and purpose. The secret for unity is an understanding of this "partnership." All are in essence "yoked" together and the only way to succeed is to pull together! 

4. Such was the urging of Paul to Philemon--"You and Onesimus are now partners! Make the partnership work by love and consider each as a vital partner to success!" 

B. "Hospitality" that welcomes new members with the same affections as older members (17b). 

1. Philemon was about to meet a new brother and Paul urges him to greet the newest brother exactly as he would Paul. Only Christian love would provide the impetus for such a greeting! 

2. "Receive" -- more than giving a hearty welcome. It is opening the heart, taking into friendship and fellowship (Ro 14:3; 15:7). It was impossible for Philemon to do this with a standoff attitude! 

3. "As you would me" -- no hesitation when it comes to welcoming brethren. Understanding they are brethren ought to immediately touch our affections (Hb 13:1-3). 

4. Whenever you meet a brother, you owe them the same love and affection you have for all brethren. To show degrees and distinction is a tragic adulteration of this great love (Jas 2:1-10). 

5. The essence of love -- The Egyptian hieroglyphic representing love is a naked child, with a heart in his hand, giving honey to a bee without wings. The child represents the humility of love; the heart in the hand represents the cheerfulness of love; giving honey to a bee without wings pictures the worthiness and helplessness of the object of love. 

C. "Willingness" to forgive and suffer personal wrong for one another (18-19). 

1. This is the "stumbling block" for many. They will accept another as a partner and even welcome them. But when wrong is committed, their love is extinguished! 

2. The supreme test of Philemon's love was here--would he be willing to forgive Onesimus? To make it even harder, Philemon was not only to forgive Onesimus but he was to be eager to do it. In arguing why Philemon should do this, Paul focused upon a critical point often stressed by Jesus--one who is forgiven MUCH ought to be eager to forgive LITTLE! (Mt 6:12,14,15; 18:21ff). 

3. Paul encourages Philemon to forgive by two actions: 

a. He is willing to stand in Onesimus' place--"account" refers to a legal debt, a justified bill. Thus, Paul demonstrates the example of self-sacrifice that Philemon needs to emulate if he is to freely forgive Onesimus. 

b. He asks Philemon to remember his own debt to Paul that cannot be paid. Philemon's debt is far greater--how can he repay the blessings of the gospel? All that had made life glorious to Philemon came from the gospel. That debt could never be repaid! By reminding Philemon of the grace freely received, Paul also reminds him of how the same grace must be freely bestowed. 

4. Here is the beauty of brotherly love toward the penitent. "For my own part, if my pocket was full of stones, I have no right to throw one at the greatest backslider upon earth. I have either done as bad or worse than he, or I certainly should if the Lord had left me a little to myself; for I am made of just the same materials: if there be any difference, it is wholly of grace (John Newton)." There can be a greater debt than stolen money or a runaway slave--the debt of unwillingness to forgive! 

The Christian must always welcome back the man who has made a mistake. Too often we regard the man who has made a mistake and who has taken the wrong turn with suspicion; too often we show that we are never prepared to trust him again. We can believe that God can forgive him; but we, ourselves find it difficult to forgive him. It has been said that the most uplifting thing about Jesus Christ is that He trusts us on the very field of our defeat. When a man has made a mistake, the way back can be very hard, and God will not readily forgive the man who, in his self-righteousness or his lack of sympathy, makes it harder" (Wm. Barclay).

D. "Eagerness" to associate with one another because of the mutual benefits shared in fellowship (20). 

1. Paul knew the outcome even as he wrote (21), and, thus, he knew the joy that would come to him. 

2. "In the Lord" -- a fresh reminder of how wonderful it is to be in fellowship with one another and the Lord. 

3. "Refreshed" -- cf. Verse 7. Provides real delight, a rest, and gladness of the soul that prepares one for renewed labor or suffering. 

4. It is this eagerness of Christian love that causes many to look forward to assemblies and associations with brethren. 

II. The Practicality of Christian love. 

A. It is the only emotion that is able to bind members of Christ's body together! (Ep 4:14-16). Without it there is only division, strife, and discord (Col 2:2; 1 Co 13:4-7). 

B. It is the critical imperative to personal value--without it, I am nothing (1 Co 13:1-3). 

C. It is the identifying trait of God's family. Genetic similarities exist in all offspring and here is the "dominate trait" of God's family line (Mt 5:44-48; Col 3:12-14; 1 Jn 4:7,12). In John Drinkwater's play "Abraham Lincoln," there is a telling dialogue between Lincoln and a certain woman who zeal for the North has become blind fanaticism and invective against everything about the South. She asks the President if there had been any news from the front lines and Lincoln answers, "Yes, there is news of victory. They lost 2700 men and we lost 800." The woman was ecstatic and says, "How splendid!" Lincoln registered deep dismay, repeated slowly, "Thirty-five hundred human lives lost...." The woman interrupts, "Oh, you must not talk like that, Mr. President. There were only 800 that mattered." Lincoln's shoulders dropped lower, but his tear-rimmed eyes flashed as he said with measured emphasis, "Madam, the world is larger than your heart!" Such is a thought suggested by the text. 

D. Christian love enables man to conquer sin. Christianity never permits one to escape the past, but it does enable us to face the past and rise above its captivity! Onesimus had to face facts, he could not evade his misdeeds. He had to go back, but when he went back he would rise far above the past! Christian love practiced by Philemon forgave and restored! (Lk 15:17ff). 

E. The most practical thing about love is that it works! It unites, serves, sacrifices, and satisfies. Nothing else can accomplish these things. So great is love that Satan has marshaled the legions of darkness to combat its power. However, once found, love is beautiful, powerful, and never forgotten! It warmed Philemon's heart and enabled him to accept Onesimus as a partner! 


I. I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall of Philemon's home and observed him as he read this letter. How do you think he reacted? The challenge is tremendous -- 1 Jn 4:7; Phil 17. Forget Philemon for a minute -- how do YOU react when faced with practicing the "gospel of love?" 

II. The "gospel of love" ought to produce "believers of love." Philemon was a Christian, he could really do no less than what God did in forgiving him. As Philemon practiced "love" toward Onesimus, he would be showing many observers the reality of the power of the gospel in human lives. We can do no less!

Copyright 1998 by John L. Kachelman, Jr. may be reproducted for non-commercial purposes at no cost to others.

Top of Page