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Philemon 17-22 – A Refreshing Response

Our study of the Epistle to Philemon has me wondering about what actually happened when Onesimus arrived back at Philemon’s house. Did Onesimus have butterflies in his stomach and a fearful look in his eye? Did Philemon have a stern look when his slave returned. We may never know. But the letter sent along with Onesimus asked Philemon to receive him in a way befitting a Christian.

  1. What does it say?

    Paul asked Philemon to receive Onesimus as himself if Philemon considered him to be a partner. But if Onesimus had wronged Philemon or owed him anything, that should be put on to Paul’s account. Paul noted that he was writing the letter himself and that he would repay him. He also noted that Philemon owed Paul his own self. But he wanted his brother Philemon to give him joy in the Lord and to refresh his heart in the Lord. He was confident to write to Philemon because he believed he would obey and do even more than asked. He also asked Philemon to prepare a guest room for him because he trusted that God would answer Philemon’s prayers and he would be granted to him.

    Paul wanted Philemon to receive Onesimus as himself (17). Paul knew that Philemon considered him to be a partner in ministry. The word for partner comes from the word usually translated as fellowship.1 If he considered Paul as someone he had close fellowship with, he wanted Philemon to treat Onesimus with the same amount of respect and camaraderie.

    Paul wanted Philemon to charge him for anything owed by Onesimus (18-19a). Paul thought that Onesimus must have done something wrong to Philemon. He could have done some injustice or owed a debt to Philemon. So Paul asked Philemon to charge him for whatever wrong had been done. With legal terms, he promised to pay by saying so in his own writing.

    Paul wanted Philemon to remember what he had done for him (19b). With all his asking, Paul stopped to note that Philemon owed him his own self. Because he doesn’t say what he meant by that, we are left to wonder what Philemon owed to Paul.

    Paul wanted Philemon to bring joy and refreshment to him in the Lord (20). Philemon’s response would be beneficial to Paul because he would receive joy and refreshment by his response. And that joy and refreshment would in the end be in the Lord because of what the Lord had done in their lives.

    Paul wanted Philemon to know that he was confident in his right response and effectual prayers (21-22). He knew Philemon well enough to expect him to listen to and do what he had asked and even more. And he was confident that Philemon’s prayers for him would lead to him being released and a future visit.

  2. What does it mean?

    Christians can vouch for others (17-19a).

    When a close friend needed a co-signer for a wedding ring, I signed my name to the loan. By doing so, I was putting my reputation on the line and promising to pay the debt if my friend did not. Paul did so for Onesimus. He vouched for his reputation to the one who probably had something against him. Paul had seen the change God had made in Onesimus and stood by him offering even to pay any debts he had to Philemon. What an encouragement this must have been to Philemon. And what a strong statement this must have been to Philemon.

    Christians should remember what others have done for them (19b).

    Paul wanted Philemon to remember that he owed his own self to Paul for some reason. We aren’t told what it was, but it is apparent that Philemon would know. It may have been that Paul had led Philemon to the Lord. If this were the case, Philemon would forever be grateful for Paul’s spiritual ministry to him. It may be that Paul had helped him out of a difficult situation earlier perhaps financially or in some other way. If so, any debt owed by Onesimus would seem small when compared to what Paul had done earlier. Whatever the case may have been, the good things done for us by others should always be kept in mind when forgiving another person for what they have done to us.

    Christians can benefit others (20).

    Paul believed that Philemon’s response would be a benefit to him bringing joy and refreshment in the Lord. Being imprisoned at that moment, he experienced his share of difficult days. But he knew that Philemon’s proper response in the Lord would refresh him by seeing the work God did in his life. This is not limited to people of Paul’s day. Any Christian can be a blessing to another by doing what is fitting in the Lord.

    Christians can produce confidence in others (21-22).

    Paul had a high regard for Philemon. Knowing how the Lord had worked in his life and having experienced good things during their relationship, Paul was confident that he would do the right thing. He was also confident that Philemon was praying for him and that God would answer those prayers by releasing him from prison. This is something not limited to Paul’s day. When a Christian regularly does what is pleasing to the Lord, he builds confidence in others to do so all the time. It is a confidence built on the work God has been doing in him (Phil. 1:6).

  3. How does it apply?

    Remember those who have helped you.

    Paul reminded Philemon what he had done for him in the past. Can you think of someone who helped you in the past. Maybe it was the person who led you to the Lord, discipled you, or just did something kind to you. Don’t forget to thank God for that person today and, if they are still alive, to thank them for what they did for you.

    Remember to be a blessing to others.

    Paul told Philemon that he could bring joy and refreshment to him in the Lord. If you remember how someone helped you in the past, think of how you could help someone in the Lord today. Your life can be a blessing to someone as you tell them about Jesus, point them to answers in the Bible, pray with them about something, or simply be an encouragement to them.

    Remember to be consistent.

    Paul had confidence in Philemon because he was consistent in character and prayerfulness. Can that be said about you? Thankfully, the Lord is working in you through your Bible reading, the Holy Spirit’s help, and your own diligent effort. As you grow more like Jesus, you will become (or have become) someone who is consistently trying to be like Jesus. Keep up the good work because your consistency will both please the Lord and be an example for others to follow.


In the end, we must remember that all that we are is a benefit given to us by God because Jesus willingly gave Himself for us on the cross. He paid the price for our sins when we didn’t deserve it. He put up his reputation and righteousness for us. So, all that we are and have received is because of Him. When we keep that in mind, we will be more likely to be patient with those who have wronged us.


Deibler, Edwin C., “Philemon” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, New Testament, USA: SP Publications, 1983.

McGee, J. Vernon, Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee, Vol. V, 1 Corinthians through Revelation, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1983.

Poole, Matthew, A Commentary on the Holy Bible, Vol. 3, The New Testament, Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1979, orig. 1685.

Rienecker, Fritz, and Cleon Rogers, Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976, reprint 1980.


  1. Deibler 773. ↩︎