Philemon

Updated: Apr 10, 2021

Grace and peace to you all.


Today we will look at one of my most favorite NT books yet also one of the most ignored NT books. We will, of course, start with a bit of historical background before we begin studying the text itself. Do note that this is our first textual study so our format will be slightly different. I will model this study off of my previous Cult studies where I will post a question under the verse reference. If the question itself is underlined then it is a question for you to answer and put in the chat (they will also be copied at the end of the study for your convenience as well). All other questions are to help the flow of the study as well as your own personal mediations (though do feel free to post the optional answers in the chat as well).


Historical Background and Trivia

Technically Philemon could be thought of as "2 Colossians" since Paul would have written them at the same time in 60-62 AD during his time under house arrest by the Romans. Paul writes to Philemon, a Christian friend and slave (or servant) master to Onesimus concerning their fractured relationship. While still a personal letter Paul wrote it with the intent for it to be read by Philemon's house-church also (1:2).


It is worth noting that this letter is one of the shortest letters of the NT and it is also the only NT writing that does not warn against false teaching. This helps us to understand the personal earnestness Paul had for Philemon and Onesimus and their conflict as well as Paul's desire for them to live out the reality of their redemption in Christ. Paul was ultimately asking for Philemon to forgive and free Onesimus, a man who wronged Philemon somehow (most likely theft). The church had to see its need to forgive Onesimus for offending their brother. Moreover, the church also needed to know they should hold Philemon accountable for doing what love demanded in Onesimus' case. Further issues of background and theology will be dealt with as we move through this study.


Greeting 1:1-3


1:1

It is typically common for most of us to merely read and not absorb the greeting section of a text. Let us now compare Philemon 1:1 to Colossians 1:1

"Paul, a prison for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother..." (Philemon 1).

"Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother." (Colossians 1:1).


First, notice how Paul does not identify himself as an apostle in this letter. Here we see Paul laying aside his own God-given apostolic authority for love's sake, as the saying goes "the ground of Calvary's cross is level" that is all are equal when we come to the cross in repentance. Paul here, in humility, is showing himself on equal footing with Onesimus for love's sake as we'll see and expand on further in verse 9.


We also see that Paul is "a prisoner for Christ Jesus". This could mean either that Paul is a prisoner "of" Christ, that is he is in submission to Christ and Lord and Master, or in prison "for" Christ, that is he is in chains for practicing the faith. We could go either way on the particular meaning of this introduction for both meanings are justifiable in the text and theologically. Our point in this is that Paul is showing great love and tenderness to Philemon in verse 1.



Why does Paul mention Timothy?

"Timothy was not the co-author of this letter, but probably had met Philemon at Ephesus and was with Paul when the apostle wrote this letter. Paul mentions Timothy here and in other epistles (Col. 1:1) because he wanted him recognized as a leader and the non-apostolic heir apparent to Paul." (Macarthur Study Bible).


Who was Philemon?

Philemon was a wealthy member of the Colossian church that met in his own house and the master of Onesimus. It is interesting to note that church buildings were not common until the third century. Thus, house churches were the norm for the earliest centuries of Christianity.

1:2

"Apphia...Archippus"

Philemon's wife and son, respectively.


"in your house"

As stated before, Paul wanted this letter read in Philemon's house-church because it would hold Philemon accountable and show the church on the matter of forgiveness. That being a reflection of God's forgiveness towards us.


In Charles Spurgeon's sermon, A Pastoral Visit Mr. Spurgeon makes several comments that I believe are worth noting for discussion:


"We need no consecrated places for the worship of God...a building cannot be a church. A church is an assembly of faithful men, and it cannot be anything else...But it strikes me that a number of converted people are not necessarily a church; but, in order to form a church, they must worship together...A church is not merely a company of people meeting for worship; there must be some bond of unity..."


House churches are quite uncommon in our age. We typically meet in buildings called churches for worship nowadays. However, given the recent development of James Coates' GraceLife church being fenced off by the Canadian government, I believe it is worth briefly discussing modern house churches.


It is common to hear many evangelicals say something like, "Oh how I wish we could be more like the early church." Or perhaps, "I wish we could go back to the early church age." (Personally I am not conceived that we are out of the early church age. For we do not know when the hour of our Lord's return will be. Perhaps tomorrow, perhaps thousands of years from now). Their hope and desire may very well be granted to them; perhaps the American church must begin meeting in homes in secret should this, very literal, persecution spread to the rest of us. With this said, let us now muse on the possibility of the reality of our own house church.

1) Do you love the Lord your God now?

The American church has, in our lifetime at least, mostly wasted our persecution-free age on mostly trivial matters and horrible theology. Let us make it a point to not waste another day that the Lord gives us in this time of freedom. Let us make the most of our time in good fellowship with the Lord's people and not neglecting the love of our neighbors.


2) Do you love the Lord's worship now?

Tis easy now to neglect the fellowship of the saints and it will be all the more easy when, and if, persecution should come to us later. I am not asking, “are you the best, or even the loudest singer at your church?” I am asking do you enjoy singing with the Lord’s people? Is your heart thankful toward God in song when you do sing with the Lord’s people (Col. 3:15-16)? Do you merely mouth the words to the songs or is your heart glad, or refreshed, by its’ truth?


3) Do you love the Lord's people now?

Some of them may be difficult to love now for they "stinketh" (John 11:39, KJV) or perhaps they are not as sanctified now as you might like. No matter, they are still the Lord's blood-bought people. Perhaps some of them may be easy for you to love now for they are of a similar personality to you. But perhaps not. All the same, for they, like you, are the Lord's people. Love and treasure them now while you still can. For, later, they may be imprisoned for the faith as Paul was. Moreover, you may be imprisoned with them! Love them as best you can now so that you can love each other all the more later in the trials of persecution.


"But," I hear someone saying, "you said we would be discussing the reality of house churches; not on my godly desires right now!" Indeed, I did. Assuming all three of the aforementioned loves are in accord with The Lord's word to us I see no real reason to give instruction on how to do house worship should we ever need to do such a thing under the trial of persecution. For, if our desires are right currently we will have no trouble doing, and loving, a church met in our homes later. Best to prepare our hearts now for what may lay ahead. Now back to our regularly scheduled program.



1:3

Paul uses the same greeting in all of his letters. Why do you think he focuses on "grace" and "peace"?

Perhaps it is because there is no better summation of the Christian life. Grace from God to us undeserving sinners! Peace between us and God and our fellow brethren. For God's grace to us always results in peace internally, within us, and externally, between our fellow sinners.




Philemons' Love and Faith 1:4-7

1:4


Interesting that Paul should be in prayer for them. Usually, we pray for those in prison; not the other way around. What would motivate Paul to pray for them while in prison?

His love for Philemon and his church would be the driving factor. And their good testimony (1:5) would also drive Paul to pray. Paul did not let his circumstances dictate his relationship/faithfulness to God. The application for us is that we should not let our circumstances, or emotions, dictate our obedience to God either.

I know I am often given over to desire in my own spirit and this affects my joy in God and love of neighbor (not to mention the energy I have to serve them). Paul knew that God would work in Philemon and his church through his prayers for them despite his present circumstance. Perhaps our lives are not what we would like them to be (for I am reasonably sure that Paul did not always enjoy his imprisonment) but we should not let this neglect to make use of our God in requesting great, bold, and glorious things from Him. For He is not one to turn away His children!



What are you thankful for in regards to this Bible Study?

Obviously, the chance to study another book of the Bible is always something to be grateful for. But I'd say that I'm also grateful for you all individually.


In general, what are you thankful for?



1:5

An amazing verse! Philemon was known to the Apostle for his love of the Lord and the saints. For this should be the mark of all the children of God. For our purposes in this study, we can ascertain that Philemon was not a harsh master toward Onesimus. Thus, making Onesimus’ (presumable) theft all the more wounding to Philemon. Perhaps there is an application for us here in regards to our Master; for He is not harsh or abusive to us.

Indeed, He is quite good, loving, and gracious to all His own! If it was foolish and stupid for Onesimus to leave this man of such great love toward Christ and His Church that it was even known to the Apostle then surely it is all the more foolish and stupid for us to leave the great, perfect, eternal, and satisfying love of our Lord and Master. Mediate on the folly of sin and the faithful love of Christ and your appetite for sin shall soon vanish.


With this said, what do you want to be known for? Perhaps a better question is: what are you currently known for in your church?

I hesitate to answer my own question on this one. For I am afraid that I am most likely known as the shy and quiet bearded one. As stated before, I am often given into despair and rarely feel as if I have anything worth saying; I am not particularly accomplished or interesting. I would do better to remember that my local church is indeed just that- "mine" and it is given to me by God and I’m given by God to them. Perhaps further mediation on God's grace in giving me this local best remedy for despair that I might be known to them as something more than "shy and quiet".



1:6

“Sharing of your faith”

Paul does not speak of an evangelistic outreach here. Rather, we might say “fellowship of the faith” or perhaps “the common bond of the faith” Our faith is indeed meant to be shared with outsiders so that they might be brought into the fold. However, we are also meant to share it, and ourselves, with each other so that “full knowledge” or rich, full, and true experiential knowledge of the truth. IE We are to know and be moved by the fact that Christ, not only died for me but for my brethren as well. He died so that I would become a part of a community or an eternal family. Paul wants our faith to be useful/effective for building one another up; for this is a good thing and makes our faith in God known to all.

Consider how this is done in your location church, one of the ways that this is done is through Communion; where we all partake of the visible signs (bread and wine) to show the invisible grace (our eternal redemption). When you take communion you are reminding me of our common redemption through the death of Christ. We are to continually remind each other of our relationship to Christ; as Paul is doing here with Philemon.

Paul's hope for Philemon was that shared fellowship would help Philemon understand Paul's request for freeing his slave, Onesimus, and enable him to respond rightly to the Apostle's appeal. Philemon's enslavement of Onesimus was a public matter that would reflect Christ and His Church. Philemon faced a hard choice, one that would have social, theological, doxological, internal (within his own heart), and external to those around him. The fellowship of believers in the church, and their understanding of their unity in Christ, and how scripture calls them to treat each other would all help Philemon see Paul's request for Onesimus' freedom as good and proper.


How do we come to full knowledge of those things?

Using them; Paul wants us to have a deep, rich, full, experiential knowledge of the truth and love in us. That is if we are to know/experience the love of Christ it is best to begin by showing the love of Christ to other-mainly our brothers and sisters in Christ.



1:7

"refreshing"

Perhaps through encouragement, discipleship, financial support, and prayer. However, the saints were refreshed they were given rest, relief from the aid of the church.


What effects does love have on your life?

Lots of effects; perhaps chiefly of joy and comfort just as Paul mentions here.


How might we refresh your heart? Is there any way we can love, serve, encourage, support (etc) you?




Paul's Plea for Onesimus 1:8-22


1:8

It is important to note that just because God, in His word, records a practice and regulates that practice (in this case slavery) it doesn't automatically endorse a practice itself.


And by what authority could Paul command Philemon?

His own Apostolic authority.


What does Paul believe is required of Philemon?

To receive Onesimus, forgive him, and free him due to their, now, common union/faith in Christ. For this is the key to the whole letter; Paul wants Philemon to forgive and free his, now, fellow brother in the faith just as Christ forgave and freed us when we came to faith in Him.



1:9

Though Paul could've told/commanded Philemon to free Onesimus he didn't. Because God's law has limitations:

1) There can never be enough laws to cover all scenarios. God could reveal should a code. But we could never follow it.

2) Law has no power to make us obey (Romans 7:7-25).

3) External conformity to the law of God isn't enough to please Him. A truly good deed is fully/truly good only if it has the right motivation; love of God and neighbor. Love, not law, is the primary in Christian ethics. Paul wanted Philemon's actions to be pleasing to God. Love moves us to do more than what the law ever could.


So how does Paul appeal to Philemon?

Love. The primary motivation in all the Christian life is love.


What does Paul's age have to do with his appeal?

“This is more than a reference to his chronological age (which at the time of this letter was about 60), this description includes the toll that all the years of persecution, illnesses, imprisonments, difficult journeys, and constant concern for the churches had taken on Paul, making him feel and appear even older than he actually was.” (Macarthur Study Bible).




1:10

What does "whose father I became" mean?

Meaning that Onesimus had come to the faith and that Paul was the instrument by which his salvation came. Because they know belong to the same family of faith they had a strong, loving, intimate relationship with one another; Paul is his spiritual father, Onesimus his spiritual son.


So why did God allow Paul to be imprisoned?

One answer is that Onesimus would be saved through him.


Why does God allow bad things to happen to you?

God rarely, if ever, puts you through a trial for solely your sake. Your trial is, usually, for your brethren’s benefit or blessing. Similar to how Paul’s imprisonment was for Onesimus’ salvation and reconciliation to Philemon. And similar to how Christ suffered and died for us. Now, that said, does that make the pain of your trial go away? No, probably not. However, it does ensure that none of our sufferings is ever in vain or fruitless and that is a sweet, albeit small, thought to help us get through and grow through our trials.


1:11

Personal freedom wasn't highly valued then. Freed slaves had zero guarantees of a better life. That's why Paul never issues a blanket statement for all slaves to be free. 1:13 tells us that Onesimus was serving Paul by bringing him goods and attaining to needs while Paul was under house arrest in Rome. Thus, Paul gave up a comfort in sending Onesimus back to Philemon and moreover Paul sacrificed a close friend (thus, sending back his heart). Paul risked never seeing his friend again because Philemon may decide to keep Onesimus rather than freeing him.


In using the word “useless” Paul is making a play on words here. Onesimus means useful; apparently, Onesimus was not living up to his name while in his master's service. Paul here is saying that God has transformed Onesimus; he is a changed man.


What one critical way God has changed your life right now?



1:12

"my very heart"

What’s something (practical) we could do to cultivate this kind of love towards one another?


1:13

What did this appeal to Philemon cost Paul?

His spiritual son. Our love and emotions toward one another, if they are true, should cost us something; IE pride, time, forgiveness etc.


1:14

Again, Paul wants Philemon to be mature in faith by making the right decision with love. Moreover, if Philemon were to release Onesimus Paul would serve alongside Onesimus. This is a reminder to us in our own Christian lives; we are free by God's grace to serve/love not to sin.



1:15

Christian ethics are founded in love and love is found in the word. Christian ethics says that love must guide our decision that fulfills God's moral law (Romans 13:10). Love will call us to go above and beyond the bare necessity but it never demands us to violate principles for conduct in the moral law of God. In personal relationships, love often calls us to overlook offenses; this might be why Paul doesn't refer to Onesimus' offense directly. Paul continues his argument for Philemon to be reconciled to Onesimus by appealing to God's sovereignty; it seems that through Onesismus' offense to Philemon that Onesimus was saved as Paul suggests in 1:15-16.


Moreover, when outreaching to a non-believer who may be a close friend, keep this verse in mind; for they might be living out the prodigal son story. There is always hope for salvation for the lost sinner; God is omnipresent, they can never wander too far from the hand of God.


Notice the contrast between "a while" and "forever". Also, notice the surety of Paul in their eternal salvation.


What are some ways we can know that we're saved?

Our continued love of God and desire to grow in godliness.



1:16

Here, Paul wants Philemon and Onesimus to be reconciled. Appeals by love, not rules because Paul wants Philemon to move/grow toward true holiness; not just legally fulfill the letter of the law. Christianity never sought to abolish slavery but rather to make the relationships within it just and kind. Christianity is a matter of a right, and ordered, will in accordance with God's words; not mere rule-keeping.



1:17

In essence, Paul was calling Philemon to practice the fellowship that he claimed with Paul. He was to trust Paul's word that Onesimus was a new man and receive him back. If Philemon truly knew and loved Paul then Philemon would be able to act on Paul's word. Moreover, Paul was offering to pay the restitution for Onesimus to be reconciled to Philemon. Paul was modeling what Christ did in reconciling sinners to God; out of love paying a debt on our behalf.


It is also worth noting that freeing a "wayward" slave was unheard of in ancient Rome at this time. So if Philemon released Onesimus in accordance with Paul's teaching then it would've cost Philemon all his social capital.



1:18

Here, it would seem that Onesimus had wronged Philemon somehow (again, most likely theft of some kind, though we don't know for sure). Though Paul does not make direct reference to it. After Onesimus' transgression toward Philemon, he ran away, most likely due to fear of punishment from his master. Whether Onesimus sought Paul out to advocate for him to Philemon or Onesimus merely stumbled into Paul in his wayward journey is unclear.

Regardless of the exact details of Onesimus' conversation Philemon must now forgive his runaway slave and cancel all his debt to him; love is costly. Moreover, Paul never mentions Onesimus' transgression against Philemon; this models the true, full, everlasting forgiveness we have in Christ. For God will never again call on or remind us of our sin when it has been paid for by the blood of Christ.



1:19

Paul was willing to help Philemon make up whatever loss Philemon might take for freeing Onesimus but Philemon still had to do what love demanded. Following Christ often means doing things that the unregenerate (unsaved) people can't understand. The Christian ethic is a communal ethic. Christ came to purchase the Elect, a community, who will all be affected by each other's decision. Thus, all must be treated equally within the church. Paul's demand to refresh his heart reflects this idea of Christian communal ethic (1:20). Basically, the call was for Philemon to consider how his decision would affect his relationship with Paul and the church. All Christians may rightly expect believers to serve and love one another.


Interesting that Paul calms his hand wrote this letter when he didn't pen Romans. Perhaps this shows Paul's earnestness in the appeal/message of the letter?



1:20

What is the refreshment Paul asks of here?

For Philemon to obey the law of love. By forgiving Onesimus, Philemon would keep the unity in the church at Colossae and bring joy/encouragement to the imprisoned Apostle. We, the body, are refreshed when other members of the body obey/love God. God is working in us and wants to work through us. Seeing God work through a brother's life is a true refreshment in ministry.



1:21

Although Paul never explicitly tells Philemon to free Onesimus 1:21 is the clearest evidence that freedom is what Paul sought. The Spirit inspired the Apostles but He didn't give them personal knowledge of every situation; without personally knowing every slave/master Paul couldn't tell each individual specifically what to do. What they did do, however, was lay out principles of humane treatment that could apply broadly even when a slave couldn't be freed because it would condemn him to a life of danger or poverty.


The Apostles had to work with the hand dealt to them; slavery was foundational to the ancient economy, it couldn't be unilaterally abolished without making life worse for countless people. Moreover, the church didn't have that kind of power anyway. Principles, consistent with Christ's teaching, were put forth even though slavery wasn't the ideal.


Here, Paul is not guilting Philemon to do the right thing. Paul is reminding Philemon of who he is- a child of God, and to whom he belongs to-The Father.

When our spirit is downcast, we must remember who we are and to whom we belong.

When we are tempted to sin against God we must remember who we are and to whom we belong.

When we are lonely in this life we must remember who we are and to whom we belong.

When we are tried in the work of the Gospel we must remember who we are and to whom we belong.

We must draw strength from the unconditional, certain, eternal, irrevocable, (predestined), firm foundation of our identity in Christ Jesus.

Our Lord and Master was not slow to love, not easy to fall into sin, or quick to anger; far from it in fact. It is this Lord, Savior, Master, Redeemer, Creator of all, Sovereign of all that we are to imitate in our lives. Be strong in the Lord and the power of His might and strength toward in the Gospel. Beloved, be like Christ in all things; especially the hard things. In this, your Father smiles upon your love and affection and worship of Him. Remember who you are and at what price you were brought.



1:22

In a similar manner how God has graciously given me you all. And I am indeed grateful for you and refreshed by your presence in my life.


Final Greetings 1:23-25

1:23

"Epaphras”

"The reference to Epaphras ties this letter closely to the letter to the Colossians, in which Epaphras is mentioned in 1:7 and 4:12. There are the only references to Epaphras in Paul’s letters, yet we learn significant things about his character: Epaphras shared the gospel with the Colossians (Col. 1:7); he spoke positively about the Colossians to Paul (Col. 1:8)...he is characterized as a “servant”, or “slave” of Christ Jesus (Col. 4:12), he struggles for the Colossians in prayer (4:12); he worked hard on their behalf (Col. 4:13). Finally, Paul describes him here as a “fellow prisoner” (ESV Expository Commentary).



1:24

"Mark, Aristarchus"

Paul and Mark had once a broken relationship. It had since been mended and this would have been known to the believers in Colossae. Paul here mentions Mark to remind Philemon that Paul himself had worked through the issues of forgiveness. Paul had lived through the message he was delivering to Philemon now.



1:25

The letter ends with several greetings and a call for the blessing of grace to be upon Philemon. Today we are still in need of God's grace as we face difficulties between believers in the body of Christ. Moreover, Paul is modeling a healthy Christian relationship that he desires for Philemon and Onesimus. While we do not know if they were ever reconciled the grace of Christ gets the last word in this letter. For, he has accomplished ultimate reconciliation with us (Col. 1:20-21). As believers, we now seek to live out that union with Christ and pray in hope that others will share in the same ultimate reconciliation along with us.


We know that we are "saved by grace". What role does grace play in our Christian walk right now?



Discussion Questions:

  1. What are you thankful for in regards to this Bible Study?

  2. What do you want to be known for? Perhaps a better question is: what are you currently known for in your church?

  3. How might we refresh your heart? Is there any way we can love, serve, encourage, support (etc) you?

  4. What one critical way God has changed your life right now?

  5. What’s something (practical) we could do to cultivate this kind of love towards one another?

  6. What role does grace play in our Christian walk right now?


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