Overview of Philemon for New Testament Reading
Christ Jesus came to be the great wall remover. He tears down the division and barriers between God and man, and man with other men. All ground is level at the cross because God is no respecter of persons (Romans 2:11, Galatians 2:6, Ephesians 6:9). He does not show favoritism and there is no partiality with Him. His death and resurrection opened the way to eternal life to bring all who believe into the family of God (Ephesians 2:14-18). This letter underscores the power of the gospel for life transformation.
Roman, Greek, and Jewish culture were littered with barriers, as society assigned people to classes and expected them to stay in their place—men and women, slave and free, rich and poor, Jews and Gentiles, Greeks and barbarians, pious and pagan. But, with the message of Christ those dividing walls came down with no distinctions (Colossians 3:11).
This is a personal letter to a slave owner, Philemon, whom Paul ministered to and was friends with in the Colossian church. It is a plea for a master’s mercy on a run-a-way slave named Onesimus, who had converted to Christianity while in prison with Paul in Rome (1:10). So Paul explains how he is sending Onesimus back to Philemon now as a brother to be accepted in Christ (1:11-12,16). Paul tactfully asks Philemon to forgive his new brother (1:10,14-15,20) because the divisions that were once there no longer remained. They were now one in Christ.
This book, written right around 60 AD about the same time as Ephesians and Colossians were developed, and serves as a masterpiece of grace and tact with a profound demonstration of the power of Christ and of true Christian fellowship in action. What barriers are in your home, neighborhood, and/or church? What separates you from fellow believers? Is it race? Status? Wealth? Education? Personality? As with Philemon, God calls you to seek unity, breaking down those walls and embracing your brothers and sisters in Christ.
Forgiveness- Philemon was Paul’s friend and the legal owner of the slave Onesimus who had run from him. Paul’s plea was for Philemon to overlook the transgression and accept and restore a new brother in Christ. Can we forgive those who have wronged us?
Barriers- No one is lost to the point God cannot save them. No one is beyond His love. Christian love and fellowship overcome the world’s barriers and segregations as we are all one in Christ as a family. Walls of race, economics, politics are removed in the bond of Christ.
Respect- Paul was a friend to both parties, Philemon and Onesimus. He has authority as an apostle to tell Philemon what to do, yet he chose to appeal to his friend in Christian love rather than dictate what he should do. He gave Philemon proper ownership of the situation. Tactful persuasion accomplishes a great deal more than commands when dealing with people. Remember to exhibit courtesy and respect in all your relationships.
1. Paul’s appreciation of Philemon (1:1-7)
2. Paul’s appeal for Onesimus (1:8-25)- Paul offers to pay the debt of this slave just as Christ paid our debt of sin on the cross. Like Onesimus, we must return to God our Master and serve Him with a humble spirit.
Philemon 1:15-16 “15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good-- 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.”
*Notes from this overview were aided by:
New American Standard Bible: Life Application Study Bible, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Mich.: 1995, pgs. 2153-2154.
-Paul’s short, succinct letter to the slave owner, Philemon, is from prison. Paul, along with Timothy write not only to Philemon, but Apphia (his sister in the Lord), Archippus (their fellow soldier in the Lord), and the church that congregated in Philemon’s house (Philemon 1:1-2). Paul pronounces his customary grace and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ upon them (Philemon 1:3). *Application* Paul’s salutation offers his relational ministry that we should recognize and incorporate into our own ministries in the Name of the Lord. The greatest gift spiritually speaking is love and we can easily see Paul’s compassion and care in these first few verses here in Philemon. Go and do the same with people who are in this spiritual struggle with you.
-The body of the letter offers thanksgiving of remembrance towards Philemon for his own love and faith that he has demonstrated for the Lord and all the saints. Paul’s prayer is that Philemon’s faith will be shared effectively for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. Paul has been given much joy and comfort through the testimony of Philemon as he has refreshed many in the faith (Philemon 1:4-7). *Application* It is always nice to hear complimentary words for edification (building up). We should note Paul’s sincerity in these compliments. He is not just buttering his buddy up to ask for a favor, and neither should we. Instead, be genuine in your praise of people’s good works and make it glorify the Lord always.
-Paul says that as an apostle, he could command this action of Philemon, but for good will and respect he is rather appealing to him in confidence that he will do the right thing in accepting his runaway slave back now as a brother in Christ Jesus. Onesimus, who once was useless and deceptive, is now a believer as a spiritual son of Paul and very useful to the Kingdom of God. Paul is seeking Philemon’s consent for Onesimus’ Kingdom ministry with his owner and possibly in the future with him both in the flesh and in the Lord (Philemon 1:8-16). Onesimus is therefore being sent back with honor and dignity with the hopes of being accepted back into his former home with his earthly master as a Christian brother. Paul asks that Philemon receive Onesimus as he would receive Paul and promises to repay from his own account any wrongs. Paul is making a request for refreshment and reconciliation in the Spirit of Jesus Christ (Philemon 1:17-20). Paul writes in confidence that Philemon will do more than he is requesting in his obedience to do what is right in the Spirit of love (Philemon 1:21). *Application* Paul can be bold with his request because he knows who is in control of Philemon’s spirit. When the Holy Spirit has control of us, He gives us the power to forgive and restore past sins and grievances with our fellow man. Apply this passage in your own life with people you might have gotten crossways with. Determine to forgive and restore in a spirit of Christian fellowship and relationship. Bitterness will not get you anywhere O friend (2 Samuel 2:24-28, Ephesians 4:31, Hebrews 12:15, James 3:14).
-Paul hopes to be able to come to his friend Philemon in the near future and asks him one more thing, to prepare a guest room for him. He sends greetings and another grace statement from several in his company of fellow prisoners and workers as he ends the letter (Philemon 1:23-25). *Application* We can see the generosity of Philemon if we closely at the text. He is certainly a man of means since he had slaves. But he was welcoming and hospitable as evidenced from the church in his home and Paul’s very natural appeal for a guest room if he can come to him. Make sure you do the same with the resources God has given you. Make your home a base for Kingdom work and do all you can to be hospitable to the saints.
Verses to Memorize- Philemon 1:15-16