Handfuls on Purpose

by James Smith, 1943


This is the briefest of all Paul's Epistles. It is the only sample of the Apostle's private correspondence that has been preserved. It is known as "The Courteous Epistle." Its object was to persuade Philemon not to punish, but reinstate, his runaway slave, called Onesimus, and as he was now converted, treat him as a brother in the Lord.


I. The Task.

Invariably, in those days, runaway slaves were crucified. Paul must try to conciliate the master— Philemon—without humiliating the servant—Onesimus; to commend the repentant wrong-doer, without extenuating his offence; thus he must balance the claims of justice and mercy.

II. Its Solution.

1. Touching Philemon's heart by several times mentioning that he was a prisoner for the Gospel's sake.

2. Frankly and fully recognized Philemon's most excellent Christian character, thus making it difficult for him to refuse to live up to his reputation, and to lead him to deal graciously with the defaulter.

3. Delayed mentioning the name of the penitent until he had paved the way.

4. Referred to Onesimus as his "son," thus establishing the new kinship in Christ.

5. After presenting his request, assumed Philemon would do as he had requested (21).

6. Refused to command with the authority of an apostle, but entreated as a brother, as a bosom friend. See verses 8, 9, 20; especially "Dearly beloved" (v. 1).

7. Frankly acknowledged the wrong done (11), and promised to make good any loss (18, 19).

8. By a careful choice of words, avoided irritation, as, for example, he says "departed" (15), not fled or runaway, etc., etc.

9. Feels the slave must not encounter his outraged master alone, so arranges for Philemon's friend, Tychicus, to accompany him and act as mediator. It is clear that Tychicus conveyed this letter to Philemon with Onesimus. (See Colossians 4:7-9).

10. Mentions his plans to visit Philemon (22); and how could he meet him if he had refused to carry out his request?



I. Fellow-believer. Trusting (6).

1. "Fellowship of your faith" is R.V. "This faith which you share with us" (Way.).

2. What a glorious fellowship is this of faith. What an honor to be numbered as a member of the Lord's Household of Faith.

II. Fellow-soldier. Fighting (2).

1. Apphia is called "The Sister" in R.V. Was she Philemon's wife or daughter?

2. It is generally understood that Archippus was Philemon's son.

3. Fighting follows trusting. Soon the young believer discovers this. Fightings without—yes, and fightings within—"Flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh" (Galatians 5:17). Remember it was immediately after God had given water (type of Holy Spirit) to Israel, that Amalek (type of flesh) fought Israel. (See. Exod. 17:1-8). Observe force of "Then" in verse 8. But in this fight, through our Heavenly Moses on the Mount—our Lord Jesus as Great High Priest—we are more than conquerors.

III. Fellow-laborer. Working (1).

1. Philemon is not mentioned in the Epistle to the Colossians, but Archippus, whom Paul associates (in Philemon 2) with Philemon, is mentioned in such a way as to imply that both were office-bearers (Colossians 4:17). "Sharer in our toil" is Way's translation. Philemon was one of Paul's converts.

2. "Our fellow-workman" (J.N.D.).

IV. Fellow-prisoner. Suffering (23).

1. Only Epistle where Paul begins by simply calling himself a "prisoner." Six times does he allude to this (1,9,10,13,22,23).

2. The Epistle begins with Paul in bonds, but leads up to Paul in prayer.

3. Observe, "prisoner for Jesus Christ" (1, R.V.). He does not dwell on this in any spirit of boasting or proud display, but for a benign purpose.

4. Suffering for the Lord falls naturally to the lot of all born-again ones. The lustings of the flesh, for example, cause suffering. Then grace does refine, making us more sensitive to the jeers and taunts of the world, and to the unkind and uncharitable criticisms of fellow-believers.

5. But let us never forget we are not the only sufferers, for this is the common lot of all believers. "Fellow-prisoner."

6. It is generally understood that the prominent brethren took turns in voluntarily sharing the Apostle's imprisonment, so as to minister to him in his bonds, "not being ashamed of his chain" (2 Timothy 1:16). By such a fellowship of suffering they must have refreshed the heart of the Apostle.

7. Epaphras is the shortened or provincial form of Epaphroditus.



I. Original Position. God created man perfect, and thus man was His property. But in sinning he not only departed from God, as Onesimus had done, but also robbed Him of His rights and just dues.

II. Sad Plight. As Onesimus fled to Rome, and was in a parlous position, so with man. As Roman law gave a slave no right to asylum, so the Law of God affords man no right of asylum, no resting place, no way of escape. The Law says, "The soul that sins, it shall die."

III. God has a Partner (17). It is thought by some that Philemon and the Apostle had been partners in some business concern. In Jesus, God has a Partner utterly and entirely one with Him. He interposes on our behalf. Knowing to the full how much we have wronged God, and how much we owe Him, Jesus says, "Put that on Mine account." All our debt is put to Christ's account.

IV. Grace Intervenes. Roman law permitted a slave to flee to his master's friend, who could plead for him. Onesimus sought out his master's friend, Paul the Apostle, and he was born again—"whom I have begotten in my bonds" (10). Sinners fly to the Lord Jesus Christ. In Him, and through Him, they receive pardon, are begotten anew as sons, and find both a Savior, an Intercessor, and a Father. The sinner returns to God, and is received, not as a runaway slave, but as Christ Himself (16).


IN CHRIST JESUS. Philemon 5-8

There are eleven references to the Lord Jesus by name in this short Epistle of but one chapter. The specially significant phrase, "In Christ Jesus," occurs oftener than in the same number of verses anywhere else in Scripture. The Lord Jesus is referred to in many offices, as follows:

I. The Object of the faith and love of His people (5). "A faith that looks up to our Lord Jesus" (Way).

II. The Channel through which God's grace and peace becomes ours (3, 25).

III. The Source of any good thing in us (6).

IV. The Transforming Power (16). In verse 11 we have two pictures of one man. Here is a play upon the meaning of the name of Onesimus, which is "Profitable." Profitable by name, he became, through sin, unprofitable to his Master, but through the grace of the Lord, and through Christ's wonderful transforming power, profitable to both Paul and his friend Philemon. The Lord transforms waste into wealth. "In the Lord" (16), that is the explanation of the wonderful transformation in Onesimus.

V. Gives Boldness to His servants (8).

VI. Gives Satisfaction and refreshment to workers, by prompting their converts to generous and praiseworthy actions (20).

VII. Gives Restfulness in the consciousness that He knows all, and that nothing can come to us save by God's permission (1, 9, 23). Observe, Paul calls himself, not a prisoner of the Roman authorities, true though that was, but of Jesus Christ. Behind Rome he saw the Lord, and knew his imprisonment could not have been but for Divine permission.



This may be taken as the key-word of the Epistle, and forms both its heart and radiating center. Observe the gathering emphasis in his repetition of this word, how he strikes each time a louder note and a higher key.

I. The Act. What was he to do? Receive (12).

II. The Manner.—How was he to receive Onesimus?

1. As Philemon would Receive Paul Himself (12, 17). "As my own flesh and blood" (C. & H.). "As a piece of my very heart" (Way). "I send part of myself" (W.). As Dr. Scofield has pointed out,. "Receive him as myself"—reckon to him my merit. "If he has wronged you or owes you ought, put that to my account" —reckon to me his demerit. Striking illustration of the Divine reckoning in our justification.

2. As a Beloved Brother in the Lord (16). In the flesh, Philemon has his brother-man for his slave; in the Lord Jesus he has the slave for his brother. By conversion, one sinner becomes son to Paul and brother to Philemon, his owner and master.

III. The Period. "Receive him forever" (15). "For perhaps he therefore departed for an hour (lit.), that you should receive him forever." What a contrast we have here. Paul suggests a loving Providence over-ruling.


BESEECH. Philemon 8-10

Note the intensity of feeling apparent by Paul's use and repetition of the strong word "beseech." But pray also note the Apostle's great wisdom in waiving his authority to command.

I. Paul's Authority (8). "Therefore, though I might with Christ's authority speak very freely and order you to do what is fitting, it is for love's sake that—instead of that— ... I entreat you" (W.). Paul had authority to command Philemon to reinstate Onesimus, because

1st. He was an Apostle.

2nd. He was Philemon's spiritual father.

3rd. Philemon was an office-bearer under Paul.

II. Paul's Wisdom (9). Paul wisely decided, in this case, not to exercise his authority, but to appeal to their mutual love, and to his aged and suffering condition. Elder brethren, and Christian leaders in Churches, would be well advised to more frequently emulate Paul's example, and to take care that their responsible position does not create a permanent, officious, domineering, autocratic, and dictatorial spirit. Such can easily be developed. Note the frequency in Paul's Pastoral Epistles of his commendation of a "gentle" spirit. There is a world of wisdom in that exhortation.

III. Paul's Success (10). There is no doubt whatever that Paul succeeded in his plea. His skill in presenting his case, and, above all, his gentle, loving entreaties were overwhelming. More success would be granted in many difficult Assembly and Church matters if Paul's example were more frequently copied.


Hebrews is an anonymous book. Though no one can dogmatize with regard to its authorship, it does seem to be of Paul's thinking and Luke's composition and writing. It was addressed to the converted Jews living in Judea, who, on account of bitter persecution, were wavering in their allegiance to Christ. It is an epistle of exhortation, comfort, and warning.