Philemon 15-16 – A Family Spirit

Written by Paul J. Bucknell on June, 06, 2019

Philemon 15-16 – A Family Spirit

There are many particular ways to understand the great blessings God has brought into our lives as Christians. Perhaps the greatest is the gift of the family, a place where one is accepted and belongs. The family is a significant part of each one of our lives, whether we would admit it or not. Let me share three perspectives of the family that are important to our lives: our natural family, God’s family, and a small Christian group family (cell or small group).

A.) Becoming A Family Member (Philemon 15-16)

Let’s start by thinking about the blessings of our natural families. Let’s first look at Philemon 15-16:

For perhaps he was for this reason parted from you for a while, that you should have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. (Philemon 15-16)

Some of you might not be familiar with this short but stimulating book of Philemon. In it, we discover that Onesimus, a runaway slave from his master Philemon, met the Apostle Paul in Rome when in jail. There, Onesimus came to know the Lord. Now Paul was sending him home back to Philemon. There are two particular touching statements shared here. Verse 15 says,

Parted from you for a while, that you should have him back forever.

Philemon might be upset on how this wayward slave ran away, even perhaps stealing objects that financed his trip. Onesimus doesn’t have any money to pay back. Indeed his life is at stake here, but the cost and time of the trip certainly was worth it. Philemon, in the end, exchanged a briefly lost wayward slave for a brother forever.

The other phrase comes from verse 16, “No longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother.”

Onesimus was the worst of slaves. One might think of a washing machine that tears up your clothes or a bed that purposely moves around to make you uncomfortable so you can’t sleep. So here, Onesimus, instead of serving, actually serves himself and causes lost to his master. He was a slave, a bad slave. But now he has become a brother.

And not only a brother but a beloved brother. One used to see these movies where the plot was between a person of a certain status in love with someone of different rank or caste. Onesimus came back as a person holding a different status and heart.

Now because he belonged to God’s family, he was also a family member, a brother, to his Master Philemon. The apostle in his letter to Philemon calls on him to treat him not as a slave but as a brother. One would kill a slave for such a crime but now only deserves a rebuke since he is a brother. This is what makes the family so different and special.

A Preferred Status with an Open Acceptance

There is a connection that goes deep in the family. Because of this relationship, you place your family members on preferred status. Paul speaks to Philemon this way and asks Philemon to similarly treat Onesimus. There is a brother-brother element. We can talk in such a way because we are family. Even if you have issues with him, you still are bound to care for his welfare.

Some people ask whether a person is saved even though he has sinned. I simply tell them that once a person is truly in the family, then he always will be (John 1:12-13). Once a son, always a son. You might be a bad son. You might change your name, but in the end, you still are a son. The prodigal son, for example, must have dishonored his father when asking for his inheritance early on so that he could spend it on frivolous matters. But how did the father treat him upon his return? His father was looking for him.

Application of Philemon 15-16

Have you been able to rightly love your family? Do you realize that special bonding is from God? Being a family member requires love and commitment. I remember one sister so patiently caring for her mother before her death. 1 Timothy 5:8 says,

“But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever.”

Parted for a while - Philemon 15

B.) Becoming God’s Family Member (Gen 2; Col 1:13-14)

God in His great wisdom started a family when He created Adam, and from this one family came all families. What we often don’t realize is that God could repopulate the earth through various means. He could have created an automated process where every ten seconds, another creature would pop out from the earth and have life. He could have made only one sex and skipped the whole process of having children. He could have made it so that we did not need to deal with all the in-law problems, but God chose to establish a father and mother, children, grandparents, in-laws, and all the respect and love one should have for one another.

I grew up in a broken home. When I had a chance to go to college, it was never near home. I went to three different states to study partly because of my difficult time at home. I am so slow learning how to love my family, but I am trying. I am beginning to see success in this world has more to do with how I care for my parents than how much money I make or where I live.

But this one family God formed soon faced great trouble once Adam, our head, disobeyed his Father God. Though he received the inheritance of the earth, Adam turned it over to the evil one when choosing a new master and obeyed Satan rather than God. This is where Adam ‘sold’ his whole family into bondage. And so mankind—all became under the power of the evil one. Colossians 1:13-14 says, “For He delivered us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

Where were we before we met Jesus? We were in the domain of darkness. Where are we now? In the Kingdom of God’s beloved Son. Hebrews 2:14-15 shares a similar thought,

14 Since then the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil; 15 and might deliver those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. (Hebrews 2:14-15)

We were subject to slavery all of our lives. A slave gets used to living like a slave—slavery is his mentality. He doesn’t think of father and son but of master and slave. He has no possessions and doesn’t even own his own body. But now, Onesimus, having come to know the Lord in Rome, he suddenly found release from a life of spiritual slavery into a life of freedom in God’s light. He was bought by Christ, securing a place in God’s family. By faith we believe in Jesus and die to our old selves, becoming alive in Christ. It is in Christ we have our hope. We are part of God’s family because we believe in Christ. In this way, Jesus is said to be the Second Adam. God started a whole new family through Jesus Christ. If you are not part of Jesus Christ, then you are not a part of this family.

Let me share one last passage here.

9 No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. 10 By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother. (1 John 3:9-10)

We need to be born again!

Nine times the phrase “born of Him” or “born of God” is used in 1 John alone. “For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith” (1 John 15:4).

The idea is simple. If you want to be part of a family, you need to be born into that family. But you say, excuse me, but what child chooses to born in any family? Your question is good. Let me briefly share three phases about becoming part of God’s family. It is very important for Christian and non-Christian to know these matters.

Pre-natal care. We always start caring for the baby before it is born. The mother eats well. Take vitamins. This is very much like the seeker groups or gospel groups. We give them the most nourishing things that can support a good and strong life.

Birth: At some point, God brings about the new birth. Like giving birth, it is somewhat predictable but not absolute. I have learned to give up choosing times and sexes. God brings about the new life inside a person. It happens when all of a sudden there is faith in Jesus Christ. Before one could not quite understand or believe the Gospel. You attend meetings but didn’t believe. But then you, at some point, find yourself believing. It all came together. Just like a child being born does not understand what is going on—everything rotates around in the darkness, sounds are muffled, then comes the bright, sudden splash of light. The baby is born. Light. Air. Sounds. Everything is so different.

Post-natal: After birth, the new Christian requires lots of care and attention. This needed attention will lessen as the days increase. In fact, it will be considered normal and good if one day this new believer that was born will care for another that will yet be born.

John in 1 John repeatedly says there will be three characteristics of those genuinely born into God’s family:

Live righteously: They will live in a way like the Father. Like Father like son.

If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone also who practices righteousness is born of Him. (1 John 2:29)

Love Brothers: They will love the other members of the family and hold a special preference.

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. (1 John 4:7)

Believe in Jesus Christ: They will believe that Jesus is Christ. Right belief.

Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God; and whoever loves the Father loves the [child] born of Him. (1 John 5:1)


Something is special about being part of God’s family. We get to have a special relationship with other Christians and share Christ’s inheritance. Are you a member of Christ’s family? Is the birth process taking place right now? Birth comes when one sees the awfulness of our sins and the great forgiveness through Christ. When we turn from our past lives, we begin living for Christ.

I should warn that there are many people who profess to be Christians but don’t observe all three characteristics. They need to be very concerned whether they really are born of God or just casually attached themselves to a family, pretending to be members.

New Believer classes introduce new believers to the great Lord and Savior. As we are born into His family, then we become very special to each other. We all need to learn many things on how to be one of those pleasant and committed family members, rather than being irresponsible and always asking for something. Every member is crucial for the glorious building of God’s church which is God’s family, the church (not the building).

C.) Becoming a Small Group Family Member (1 Peter 2:9)

I would like to get even more practical in our last point. It is important to become an active cell or small group family member. What often happens is that we become children of God but neglect to absorb its main benefits. It’s like having family in town but never seeing them. To really make the church of God shine, we need to embrace our new heritage.

What would happen if you got a new job, but did not change where you would be from 9 to 5 or what you would do from 9 to 5? It’s just as awkward to treat church attendees as strangers when now you are all family members together. You need commitment and devotion. Sometimes a husband is in one place and a wife in another. Although this might be okay for temporary emergencies, it is not good for normal life. The beauty and glory of marriage occur when together. How about caring for our children? Again, the family is God’s design and requires the parents to raise their children, giving them a sense of belonging.

Just think if Philemon treated Onesimus the same way after he returned. Was he the same? No. Now he is a brother. This means that Onesimus would get the special and preferred treatment of a brother. Yes, he did wrong, but he will be forgiven. His debt will be forgiven or a plan to work it off will be formed. And though a slave by occupation, he is a brother, gaining trust on a higher level enabling him to experience the love of God and others.

Cell groups enable a group of Christians to care for each other in a way that the family was designed. We find that we have a common birth, a common Father, a common culture (God’s Word), and a common purpose. If we only come to Sunday worship, then disappear to our separate screens, we will act more like estranged slaves than beloved brothers and sisters, not gaining the benefits of being God’s family member. This is why, though it might seem difficult to make that commitment to the church family, but it is very important and needed to develop the family spirit.
Some of us have just not been exposed to good family life. A psychologist once state to me that since I came from a broken family, I probably would get a divorce and have a bad family. I want to thank God for extra grace for desperate people like myself. We can and must learn God’s greater ways. God has offered so much to us. I want you with me to take advantage of this great opportunity, not only officially to be a member of God’s family, but to practically work it out in your lives.

  • We all want to be loved unconditionally.
  • We all need a place where we can grow up and be our true selves instead of always pretending.
  • We all need a place where people who care about us will warn and help us.
  • We all need a place where we can serve others in the way God designed.
  • We all need others to whom we are accountable for our lives.
  • We all need others to protect and care for us.
  • We all need to gain from the wisdom and example of others.
  • We all need a place to share our lives with others who will not gossip and spread the news.

Cell groups are one such place. Of course, cell groups can be dysfunctional like a bad family. But when you are committed to living rightly and caring for others, you will see more than just another family. You will see Jesus in your midst working. You will never want to leave this place but always be part of a people who share their lives with you. Yes, we realize many of you will leave one day just as I anticipate my children will grow up and start their own families (four already are married and moved out). But it seems to me, that it is always better to love and be loved, have lots of memories and friends than to live isolated, lonely, and discouraged lives. I encourage each of you to join a cell group even if you are here for a short time. If you are only here for a brief time, let the Lord teach you how you each can be the most committed of all your family members in your cell group.

What is a commitment? Because we belong to our families, we cannot just ignore relationships. God calls us to endure all the interpersonal difficulties and trust Him for grace and miracles to work out the details. If we join a cell group and can’t easily get along with them, do we stop going? No, but we seek peace with others and show commitment by praying that God would build up everyone in the cell group. The depth of love in your group will depend upon each member’s commitment to the group. You are here to love each other and not just meet with each other.

We started with two particular phrases from Philemon 15-16.

Parted from you for a while, that you should have him back forever

no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother.

Let God make the most of your time at your present church. Remember if you are no longer a slave, then don’t act like a slave. Your Father in heaven is more than willing to teach you how to be a good son or daughter. Just think of the Dad when his child came up and asked how he could be a better son. The Dad would treasure his child’s humble and willing heart and do everything to work with that child to have him or her fit in. The problem with most children is that they don’t ask. They are too busy. But our Heavenly Father is doing something new in our midst by building up His children to be a great and glorious family to His glory.

BFF NT resources

Get all our New Testament resources at above NT Digital Library.

Study Questions for A Family Spirit

  1. State aloud and memorize Philemon 15.
  2. Why do you think Onesimus left?
  3. Name a place you purposely left? Why did you leave?
  4. Why did Onesimus return?
  5. Describe the family you grew up in. Was it a place you like to be? Explain.
  6. Describe the circumstances where you first became part of God’s family?
  7. How does one become part of God’s family?
  8. What are some practical ways Philemon was to ease Onesimus back into his former situation?
  9. Are you happily part of God’s family?
  10. How could the “family spirit” of your community be better?
  11. List one thing you can do for your church/small group to improve its functioning.
  12. What is your commitment like when you start experience rough interpersonal relationships?


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