Did You Know...?
- “Philemon” means “friendly” or “loving.”
- Apphia (2) was probably Philemon’s wife.
- Archipus (2): This name also appears in Paul’s final greetings in the epistle to the Colossians (Col 4:17).
- “Onesimus” means useful or profitable.
- Slavery (cf. 16): While we may think of slavery as a despicable institution, slavery in the Roman world differed significantly from the slavery practiced in America during 17th to 19th centuries. “Central features that distinguish 1st century slavery from that later practiced in the New World are the following: racial factors played no role; education was greatly encouraged (some slaves were better educated than their owners) and enhanced a slave’s value; many slaves carried out sensitive and highly responsible social functions; slaves could own property (including other slaves!); their religious and cultural traditions were the same as those of the freeborn; no laws prohibited public assembly of slaves; and (perhaps above all) the majority of urban and domestic slaves could legitimately anticipate being emancipated by the age of 30.”
Although most slaves in NT times were born into slavery, “large numbers of people sold themselves into slavery for various reasons, e.g., to pay debts, to climb socially (Roman citizenship was conventionally bestowed on a slave released by a Roman owner), to obtain special jobs, and above all to enter a life that was more secure and less strenuous than existence as a poor, freeborn person.”
The Bible neither endorses nor upholds the institution of slavery. But before we question why the Bible does not condemn the institution of slavery, let us keep in mind that any social or economic institution, including, for example, capitalism, can lend itself to great evil because of man’s fallen nature. The Bible does not speak out against social institutions per se. But, through the message of the gospel, the Bible seeks to remove the evil in men’s hearts—the root of any social injustice. For this reason, it was the teachings of the Bible that paved the way to the final abolition of slavery in America.
- Epaphras (23; cf. Col 4:12) was one of the early workers in the church of Colosse.
- Mark (24) was the cousin of Barnabas (Col 4:10) who had once deserted Paul and Barnabas at Pamphylia on Paul’s first missionary journey (Acts 12:25; 13:13). But Paul later found him to be useful to the ministry (2Tim 4:11). He was believed to be the author of the gospel of Mark.
- Aristarchus (24) was a fellow prisoner with Paul (Col 4:10), a Macedonian of Thessalonica and one of Paul’s travelling companions on Paul’s second missionary journey (Acts 19:29; 20:4; 27:2).
- Demas (24) was one of Paul’s fellow worker (cf. Col 4:14), but later forsook the the ministry for the love of the world (2Tim 4:10).
- Luke (24) was the author of the gospel of Luke and Acts (compare Lk 1:3 and Acts 1:1), a beloved physician (Col 4:14), and a friend to the end (2Tim 4:11). He was with Paul during Paul’s imprisonment in Rome (Acts 28; Col 4:14)
- Salutation (1-3)
- Thanksgiving and Praise for Philemon (4-7)
- Appeal on Behalf of Onesimus (8-16)
- Restating the Appeal and Making A Personal Request (17-22)
- Greetings (21-25)
In terms of its organization, which paragraph is the heart of the letter?Hide Answer
The appeal to Philemon in 8-16 makes up the central part of the epistle.
Go through the entire epistle and pick out words and phrases that would directly or indirectly persuade Philemon to accept Paul’s appeal.
How does Paul identify himself?Hide Answer
Prisoner of Christ Jesus (1, cf. 9).
How does he identify the other believers in the salutation?Hide Answer
Beloved friend and fellow laborer (1). Beloved… fellow soldier (2).
Is Paul speaking to everyone addressed in verse 2, or is he speaking to Philemon?Hide Answer
Although Paul addresses more than one person in his salutation, he uses the singular “you” through the remaining of the letter except in 22 and 25. He also addresses the reader as “brother” at the end of verse 7. Thus, Paul’s commendation and appeal were meant for Philemon.
What is the reason for Paul’s thanksgiving?Hide Answer
He has heard of Philemon’s love and faith (5).
What does he ask for in his prayer?Hide Answer
Paul prays for Philemon so that the sharing of Philemon’s faith may become effective (6).
Based on Paul’s words, what can we learn here about: a. Faith? b. Love?Hide Answer
a. Faith: We must show our love toward all the saints (5). Our love for the saints will refresh their hearts (7).
b. Love: Our faith is toward the Lord Jesus Christ (5). We ought to share our faith (6). The sharing of our faith is effective by the acknowledgment of every good thing which is in us in Christ Jesus (6). Prayer is an important factor in effective witnessing (4,6).
How are you sharing your faith in your life?
Read several translations of verse 6 to see its possible meanings. How does the sharing of faith relate to the knowledge of God’s goodness?Hide Answer
Only when we have come to know God and his goodness, through understanding of God’s word and experiencing God’s grace, can we effectively share this understanding and experience with others.
Paul has the authority in Christ to command Philemon (8) and expect Philemon’s obedience (cf. 21). But he chooses to make an appeal instead. a. What is Paul’s appeal?Hide Answer
Paul asks Philemon to receive Onesimus (12,17).
Why does he rather make an appeal? (9,14)Hide Answer
He makes an appeal “for love’s sake.” Because of Paul’s love for Philemon and vice versa, a command would not be necessary nor appropriate. Paul just needs to make a personal request and he trusts that Philemon will do what he asks. Furthermore, because Philemon is an exemplary believer who loves all the saints, Paul does not need to command him to show the same love to Onesimus. Instead of making Philemon act out of compulsion, Paul wants him to accept Onesimus out of freewill.
Why is an appeal often more effective than a command?Hide Answer
While a command may temporarily force someone to act superficially and grudgingly, an appeal can touch the heart of a person so that he would gladly do what is right out of his heart. Such approach is most effective when we know that the person has always acted with love and faith and only needs a simple reminder from us to continue to do what is right.
What can we learn from Paul about our relationship with one another in Christ?Hide Answer
As fellow servants of Christ, we sometimes argue about who is right and who should have the final say. We may insist on our views and expect others to obey. But this approach usually results in disunity, and even when others comply to our demands, they are only doing so out of compulsion. We should rather choose the way of love and gently share our views with others, knowing that they will have the wisdom and the heart to do what is best after listening to our appeal.
What can we learn here about the motive behind our obedience?Hide Answer
Love must be the motivating force behind all our actions. Like Paul, we ought to encourage others out of love. Like Philemon, we must also do our duty of of love, not by compulsion.
Why does Paul mention that he is the aged and a prisoner of Jesus Christ in verse 9?Hide Answer
In making his appeal to Philemon, Paul relinquishes his apostolic authority and humbles himself with such lowly identities as “aged” and “prisoner.”
How does Paul identify Onesimus in 10 and 12?Hide Answer
“My son” (10) and “my own heart” (12).
How do these words strengthen Paul’s appeal?Hide Answer
Since Paul considers Onesimus his very own, he hopes that Philemon would receive Onesimus the same way he would receive Paul.
Verse 11 is a wordplay on the name “Onesimus” (see Did You Know…?). The unprofitable Onesimus has now become profitable. What can we learn here about the true meaning of Christian conversion? In your life, how do you show that you have been converted to Christ?Hide Answer
The Bible teaches us that the life of a true Christian is like a fruitful tree and is characterized by godly conduct that brings benefit to others and glory to God (Jn 15:8,16; Rom 6:21,22; Gal 5:22,23; Php 1:9-11; Heb 6:7-8; 2Pet 1:5-8). In this sense, we ought to be productive through the bearing of spiritual fruit. If we possess Christian qualities, we will naturally also be productive members of society and make positive contributions to the world.
According to Paul, what may have been the purpose for Onesimus’ departure?Hide Answer
That Philemon might receive Onesimus forever.
How did Onesimus’ departure accomplish this purpose?Hide Answer
While Onesimus was away, he became a believer in the Lord. Thus, when he returns to Philemon, he will become “more than a slave—a beloved brother.” This new relationship will be the basis for receiving Onesimus forever.
Based on verse 16, how has Onesimus become more valuable to Philemon?Hide Answer
Formerly, Onesimus was valuable to Philemon for economic reasons. But now, he is valuable to him in a spiritual sense, having become a dear brother. Paul asks Philemon to look beyond Onesimus’ social status and regard his spiritual status as of greater worth. Now, not only has Philemon gained a profitable employee, he has gained a beloved brother in the Lord.
What can we learn here about how we ought to relate to our fellow believers in Christ?Hide Answer
Let us not valuate or judge our brethren by their social or economic status. Instead, we should regard them all as our beloved brothers and sisters in the Lord and love them simply because they are members of Christ’s family. As the Bible states, “for you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:26-28).
Here, Paul restates his appeal. In verse 17, Paul identifies himself with Onesimus. In verse 18, he volunteers to pay for the wrongs and debts of Onesimus. How is Paul’s attitude and action an imitation of our Lord Jesus Christ?Hide Answer
Our Lord Jesus Christ also identified Himself with us (Heb 2:11-18; 4:15). He took our sins upon Himself and paid for them with His own life (Isa 53:4-6; 1Cor 15:3; 2Cor 5:21; Gal 1:3,4; 1Jn 2:2).
Are you willing to pay for the wrong of your brother in order to reconcile him to another brother? What would motivate you to do so?
What is Paul reminding Philemon of in verse 19b?Hide Answer
Paul points out that Philemon owes him even his own self. By this Paul probably means that Philemon was also Paul’s convert.
Paul has just volunteered to pay any debt owed to Philemon. But he reminds Philemon that, if Paul does not expect repayment from Philemon although he owes Paul his very self, Philemon should likewise forgive Onesimus of the much smaller debt. Paul’s words brings to mind the parable of our Lord in Mt 18:21-35.
Note how verse 20 echoes verse 7. What quality in Philemon is Paul appealing to?Hide Answer
Paul appeals to Philemon’s love. He urges Philemon to refresh his heart by receiving Onesimus with love just as Philemon’s love has always refreshed the hearts of the saints.
What is Paul confident of?Hide Answer
He is confident that Philemon would obey and do even more than he is asked.
Why is such kind of confidence important in our relationship with our brethren in the Lord?Hide Answer
Trust is essential in motivating our fellow believers. Oftentimes, we may be too quick to correct and admonish others without giving them the benefit of the doubt that they are also willing to do the right thing. But if we learn to have more confidence in others, in many cases we will only need to gently encourage rather than immediately resort to sharp rebuke.
In fulfilling your duties, do you often do more than you are asked? What makes a person do more than he is asked?Hide Answer
When we act out of love and willingness, we tend to do more than we are asked because we are doing things out of our hearts. If we serve the Lord out of our love for Him and out of willingness, we will be motivated, not having to be constantly reminded and prompted by others. We will also gladly carry out the Lord’s work without complaint.
Paul anticipates meeting Philemon and the other brethren in the near future. What would help bring about Paul’s release?Hide Answer
The prayers of Philemon and other believers in the church (22).
What does this expected meeting relate to Paul’s present appeal?Hide Answer
Paul trusts that when he meets Philemon, Philemon will have done what Paul has asked and even more.
How is the benediction and prayer in verse 25 important in light of Paul’s appeal to Philemon?Hide Answer
Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, we have received God’s generous provision of salvation and heavenly blessings. Through this grace, we are also able to carry out His will in our lives (1Cor 15:10; Eph 2:10; Php 2:13; 4:13; 2Tim 2:1). In the same way, it is by the grace of the Lord that Philemon will be able to continue his deeds of love and do even more than what Paul has asked. Just as Paul usually ends his exhortations with a benediction in his other epistles, the benediction in Philemon is a proper conclusion to Paul’s appeal.