Daily Bible Studies
|Series Theme: Philemon Studies|
Who, what, when?
This is a short letter from the apostle Paul to a friend of his, a man he had previously led to Christ. He is writing to this friend, Philemon, about a runaway slave, Onesimus, who has become a Christian and who Paul is sending back.
From Paul's letter to the Colossians, we can infer that Philemon lived in Colossae because Archippus is referred to there (Col 4:17 & Phile 2) and Onesimus is referred to as coming with the main letter (Col 4:9). It would seem therefore that this present letter was written by Paul at the same time as his letter to the Christians at Colossae
The initial answer to, “Why this letter?” is obvious by the content of the letter. Paul was appealing to Philemon to receive Onesimus back as a brother rather than a slave (and tradition has it that Philemon did that and freed Onesimus). But there is a bigger question: why should this short letter be included in the canon of Scripture? Well, we'll leave you to think about that as you go through the four studies, and we'll make comment at the end. Because it is such a short letter, if you can put aside say an hour you could go through these studies in one sitting.
Passage: Philemon 1-7
A. Find Out:
1. To whom does Paul write? v.1,2
2. Why does Paul thank God for them? v.4,5
3. What does he pray for and why? v.6
4. What have their love done for him? v.7
Paul writes not to a church but to three people, and to one of them in particular. Philemon is considered a dear friend – there is a sense of closeness in this. Paul's thoughts of them always generates thankfulness (v.4). Why? Because a) of their faith – that is their relationship with the Lord and b) their love – that is their attitude and actions towards people. That two-fold concern is always at the heart of Paul's desires for other people – that their relationship with God, and to others is flowing and growing. In these people, it clearly is!
But Paul isn't content with that, he doesn't only write to them to hold their present position, he wants them to be ever reaching out to others (v.6) and this, says Paul, will enlarge the parameters of you understanding your faith. Why? Because when you share the love of God with others it helps you realise the wonder of it, and as they respond and come to Christ, you take on a spiritual parenting role, which in itself enlarges and matures you.
These people had blessed Paul greatly (v.7) because of the way they had blessed others; they had “refreshed the hearts of the saints”. What a beautiful phrase! Their love had reached out and touched others and picked them up, strengthened and blessed them. That in its turn had blessed Paul.
Passage: Philemon 8-12
A. Find Out:
1. What did Paul say he could do? v.8
2. Yet what did he rather do? v.9
3. On whose behalf does he speak? v.10a
4. How had Onesimus changed? v.10b,11
5. So what was Paul doing? v.12
This letter really needs reading in its entirety if we are to make sense of parts of it. We're going to see that Onesimus is a slave, a runaway slave who had previously belonged to Philemon – and Paul had met him, brought him to Christ, and was now sending him home.
However, he emphasises the point, he's not sending back the same person who ran away, he's sending a Christian slave home (v.10). Previously he had been an ordinary slave – indeed not a very good servant – but now his whole outlook on life has been changed, he's now a valuable and capable servant. There is a play on words here by Paul. You'll see if you look at the footnote for verse 10 that Onesimus means ‘useful'. In coming to Christ he has fulfilled his potential and now he matches his name!
Now Philemon could treat a runaway returning slave harshly, but Paul is appealing to his old friend to receive him back in quite a different way. As an apostle, probably as the spiritual father to this church, he could instruct or command Philemon, but he comes with the same grace he is hoping for in Philemon.
For us living in the 21 st century this is perhaps a difficult situation to understand, but slavery was the norm for those days. Some slaves actually became part of the family, but other slave owners harshly treated their slaves as mere goods or possessions. The owner was all powerful in respect of the slave. This is why Paul writes as he does.
Passage: Philemon 12-16
A. Find Out:
1. What was Paul doing about Onesimus? v.12
2. What would he have liked to have done? v.13
3. But why was he now acting as he is? v.14
4. What suggestion does he put up? v.15
5. How does he say Onesimus now comes to Philemon? v.16
In these verses Paul reveals his heart towards two people – one a friend and church leader, the other a friend and slave. Let's consider the slave first.
When he speaks of Onesimus he says “who is my very heart”. That speaks of the very closest of feelings possible. That's what he feels about this converted slave – he's now part of Paul's heart. In fact Paul would really like to keep him with him to support him while he's in prison, but he feels there is a better way he must follow, that of sending him home to his master, who just happens to be Paul's old friend.
Now let's consider Philemon. Paul has just appealed to him on the basis of love (v.9) and he clearly wants to win Philemon's heart so that he will respond spontaneously and not out of duty (v.14). In the way he speaks to Philemon he reveals his belief in Philemon, in his spirituality and in his faith. He suggests that perhaps what happened with Onesimus running away was in fact part of a divine plan (inferred) to enable Onesimus to come to Christ, so that Philemon could have a brother back, not a slave.
In all of this we are confronting a major doctrine in the New Testament, that when a person comes to Christ they become an entirely new person (e.g. Jn 1:12 ,13, 3:3, 2 Cor 5:17 , Gal 3:28). This letter is the only place in the New Testament where this new equality is spelled out in such clarity in respect of such roles and relationships being annulled. This takes away ALL divides!
Passage: Philemon 17-25
A. Find Out:
1. How does Paul ask Philemon to view him? v.17a
2. What does he ask Philemon to do? v.17b-19
3. What further does he ask of him? v.20
4. What does he feel sure of? v.21
5. What further request does he make, and why? v.22
6. Who also were sending greetings? v.23,24
Paul has just been saying how Onesimus is now so different and is likely to be more useful to him in the future than he has been in the past, because of his change of heart when he became a Christian. It then obviously crosses Paul's mind that maybe Philemon had lost out somehow because of Onesimus running away. It's OK, he says, if you've lost out in any way, charge it to me. Look, he goes on, seeking to make Philemon realise how much Paul is putting himself out, I'm actually writing this with my own hand. Writing was more of an effort in those days and usually Paul had a scribe write as he dictated. This letter is too important, is what he implies, to not do it myself. I want you to realise, he is saying, that in every way I can, I want to convey how important I believe this issue is.
Then he plays his trump card: actually, he reminds Philemon, you owe me your life – presumably because Paul led him to Christ – so I'd like to put a claim on that life now. I want you to bless me. I'm confident, knowing you as I do, that you will respond well to my requests and (to raise the ante even more), I'm hoping to be out of this prison soon and I'll be coming to see you. There is a sense here that Paul knows he is crossing a cultural divide with this slave issue, and so he is pulling out all the stops for Onesimus and Philemon.
SUMMARY / CONCLUSION
Because this is such a short letter, we'll run the Summary and Conclusion in together.
In these 25 verses we have seen:
Why this Letter in the Bible?
Why should such a simple and short letter be included in the Scriptures? There could, perhaps, be at least two reasons for this.
First, because it is just another letter from the great apostle Paul and it reveals more about him and more about the relationships he had with others who he's brought to the Lord.
Second, because it actually underlines and illustrates something that Paul taught elsewhere (Gal 3:28 ), that in Christ there are to be no social divides. Because Onesimus has become a Christian, he is now a brother to Philemon which, in many ways, undermines the whole social structure that had existed before – of master and slave. We cannot emphasise this enough: in a day when slavery was the norm, centuries before Christians would stand against the practice, this is some of the MOST radical teaching possible.
How could the slave owners of black slaves in America have continued if they were Christians and slaves became Christians? How could Apartheid in South Africa have continued where many whites claimed to be Christians and had black Christian servants? The answer can only be that they were blinded to the teaching of Paul and particularly blind to this letter. Sin does that in us.
But the challenge must be greater than that for us today. If we are Christians, do we look down on anybody in a different social class from us? If we do, we're no better than the slave masters and it means that we haven't taken on board the thrust of this simple letter. As Paul says, “you are all one in Christ” (Gal 3:28 ) May it be so!