Summary: Sermon 1 in a series on the short letters of the New Testament. This one is on the letter by Paul to Philemon concerning Onesimus.

A Postcard to a Friend for a Friend

Series: New Testament Postcards

January 6, 2013

A very brief PowerPoint presentation for this message is available by emailing me at

TEXT: Turn to Philemon


Illus. – Back in 1820 the average person in England wrote only three letters a year. There’s a good reason for that: letters in those days were mailed without a cover and could be read by anyone.

But William Mulready had an idea to ensure privacy—the envelope. It was an idea he stole from the French On a visit to France Mulready noticed that important messages were completely enclosed in a little paper case making their contents concealed to the peering eyes of the curious.

On his return to England he introduced this new way of sending mail. It was an instant success, and now, as Paul Harvey would have said, you know the rest of the story!

But there’s still one form of mail that anybody can still read. That’s the postcard. It’s reserved for very short messages, generally to a close friend or relative.

The New Testament is divided into four main divisions:

• the HISTORICAL books, consisting of the four Gospels and the book of Acts

• the EPISTLES (or letters) of the Apostle Paul, of which there are thirteen

• the NON-PAULINE EPISTLES (that is, those not written by Paul), including James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and possibly Hebrews

• PROPHECY (of which Revelation is the only prophetic book in the New Testament)

The epistles vary in content and length—from longer books, like Romans, 1 & Corinthians, and Hebrews, to shorter ones—such as Galatians, Ephesians, and 1 & 2 Timothy. There are four books in the New Testament that are only one chapter long. You might call them “New Testament Postcards”—the title of our series. They’re the ones highlighted in red in the PowerPoint slide—Philemon, 2 and 3 John, and Jude. These are the three or four books we’ll examine in this short teaching series.

About six years before his execution in Rome, Paul dropped a personal memo to a man named Philemon, who lived in Colossae. It is the only private letter by the Apostle Paul included in the New Testament.

This little letter—more like a postcard—is the shortest of Paul’s writings. It’s 25 verses long and you can read it in 4 minutes. In fact, you can read it more quickly than many people can find it in their Bibles!

Yet, short as it is, it’s a magnificent study in love, forgiveness and restoration. In a nutshell, Philemon is a warm request from Paul asking Philemon, a slave owner, to accept back and reinstate his runaway slave named Onesimus. Between the lines are some wonderful truths for us today.


Paul wrote this book while under arrest in Rome after his third missionary journey. Acts 28:16-31 tells us that while under arrest in Rome, Paul preached the Gospel to those who came to his residence.

In Rome, Paul was exposed to slavery in its rawest form. It’s reported that there were 60,000,000 slaves in the Roman Empire in the first century. Conditions were often unbearable for these slaves. Slaves were living tools—viewed as two-footed creatures without souls. At will, their masters could terminate their lives without a question being raised. It was a dreadfully violent and unjust period of human history. But Paul shows love for this slave and intercedes in his behalf.


Two main conflicts surface in Philemon: A conflict of persons and a conflict of principles.

• The CONLICT OF PERSONS was a conflict between Philemon and Onesimus Onesimus was a slave owned by Philemon who had apparently robbed his master and fled to Rome, hoping to blend into the crowds and avoid being apprehended. He left behind him some kind of unresolved injury, which is not mentioned in the letter. Verse 18 implies some kind unresolved debt, perhaps from Onesimus robbing him.

• The CONFLICT OF PRINCIPLES was the conflict between justice and forgiveness. In God’s providence, the fugitive slave crossed the path of Paul, and somewhere along the line, Onesimus came to know Christ by faith. Under Paul’s influence, Onesimus grew in the Lord and apparently realized that his past action was wrong.

But the damage had been done and his life was in danger if Philemon did what the law allowed. What was he to do? Would his owner, also a Christian, take him back? The normal treatment for such a slave was death, torture, or disfigurement. At the least, his forehead would be branded with an “F,” representing the Latin term fugitivus—meaning “runaway.”

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