(last edited 6/8/15)

Jan Young


This New Testament "book" is a short letter Paul wrote to a well-to-do believer and leader in the church at Colossae, Philemon, who had become a Christian through Paul. At least part of the Colossian church met in his home; churches met in homes for the first couple centuries. First we will talk about what happened before this letter was DELIVERED to Philemon--details we learn from this letter, even from reading between the lines and making some inferences. We learn "what happened before what happened happened." Then we will read verse by verse; then we will discuss the implications and application of this letter.

Onesimus, Philemon's slave, runs away. He has also stolen from Philemon, either in the past or perhaps to fund a means of escape (or maybe both). In the Roman Empire at that time, the population may have been about 120 million, with half that being slaves. Slavery was an accepted part of the culture; freedom was not yet seen as every man's right. The culture of slavery was more like that of servants in Victorian England than slavery on American plantations. Yet the slave-owner had the right to punish, brand with a hot iron, kill, even crucify, a runaway slave. Because slaves were such a large segment of society, it was important that slaves have very little motivation to run away or revolt.

Paul had written in other letters to churches about Christian slaves and Christian masters. He does not write of the evils of slavery or push for social change; he writes of changed hearts and changed relationships. Consider how these individuals of different social classes will now relate to each other in the context of the church. If a Christian master now finds himself the owner of a Christian slave, consider how their relationship will change.

Somehow Onesimus ends up hundreds of miles away in Rome, where Paul is imprisoned. Somehow he meets Paul in Rome. J. Vernon McGee speculates that Paul may have been preaching in public, in his chains, and Onesimus happens across him, his attention attracted by the chains of a fellow speaking as well as his message. It's also possible that at some point, Onesimus decided to seek out Paul, likely having heard of him through Philemon and the church that met in his home. Whenever and however it is that he finds Paul, he too becomes a believer. Paul feels very affectionate towards Onesimus (whose name means "useful") and finds him useful. Would Paul be right or wrong in allowing him to stay? Both Paul and Onesimus now have choices to make; what are the options and considerations in this situation?

So Paul writes this letter and sends it to Philemon via Onesimus. We don't know how much time has passed since Onemimus left. We don't know if Philemon has already heard that Onesimus is with Paul or that he is now a believer. We don't know if he knows anything other than that his slave ran away and stole from him, and has been gone for a period of time. If Philemon knows nothing, imagine his reaction when Onesimus, the runaway slave, shows up at the house of Philemon, the Christian slave-master. Imagine their meeting, and Onesimus handing him this letter. Is he furious, or what? Does Onesimus say anything to him before he reads the letter, or not? Imagine Philemon reading it, silently or aloud, and Onesimus watching him. Does Onesimus already know what's in the letter? Would Paul have chosen to share the content of the letter with him, or not, letting him struggle with being able to accept whatever the outcome of his return?

1 If Philemon has heard nothing of what has transpired, I imagine him stopping after the first few words and staring at O in amazement as he realizes that O has met his beloved Paul and has come from him. If he had experienced anger upon seeing O, we wonder what he is feeling now. Unlike his typical greeting to churches, Paul does not identify himself as an apostle. This is a personal letter, and we will see that he chooses not to use his authority to command Philemon. Why doesn't he say he is a prisoner of Rome?

We see that Timothy is with Paul; the closing of the letter tells us that others are with him also, but they are not mentioned here. So perhaps Paul is saying that pastor Timothy shares in and supports what Paul is about to say in this letter. Philemon's name means "friendly"; Paul reminds him of his love for him and that he values him as what? Is Paul just being kind and polite, or might he also be gently setting Philemon up for what he is about to request of him?

2-3 Because this personal letter on the disposition of this slave problem is addressed to three people, it appears that Apphia is Philemon's wife. Perhaps she is addressed also because the wife supervised the slaves. (Or--my feminine intuition speculates that perhaps she was involved in the situation somehow--in some unspecified way?) Archippus is likely their son. We read about him in Col. 4:17; he may have been acting as pastor in this house church or perhaps he had some other ministry, but he needed encouragement to carry out his ministry. Philemon had not merely made his large home available to the church; he and his son played what role in this church? If Philemon is indeed a leader in the church, Paul may be indirectly reminding him of the greater accountability that leaders have before the Lord and the example they are to the church. All of this Paul reminds him of, before getting to the heart of the letter. He continues with his typical greeting, 3.

4-7 Paul still hasn't mentioned the purpose of his letter; what does he talk about instead? He reminds Philemon of his many good qualities. What is Philemon like? And beyond that, what does Paul also pray for, 6? Paul reminds him that these qualities are because of what, 6? Is Paul saying in 6 that he prays that the fellowship/partnership/koinonia aspect of Philemon's faith will be activated as Philemon thinks on and acknowledges how God has forgiven him and blessed him spiritually and materially? In 7 is he reminding Philemon of what a blessing he has been to Paul and others in the past, probably both spiritually and materially? Do you see what Paul is leading up to and how he is preparing Philemon to receive what he is about to say?

8-9 "Therefore" tells us what? Paul has just proven that Philemon is what kind of man? And because of that, what is Paul about to do 9? Ask a favor, instead of doing what, 8? Is Paul even playing on Philemon's sympathies in 9? Do you think Philemon might suspect where this is leading? Do you imagine him stopping and glancing at O, maybe struggling with conflicting emotions, especially anger? Do you think O might be struggling with fear? Do you think he is silently praying?

10-14 Here is the meat of the letter. How does Paul tactfully and gently try to influence Philemon's feelings and actions, in 10? in 11 (with a play on words)? in 12? What three considerations does Paul use in 13 to influence Philemon's thinking? 1)O could minister to Paul ON PHILEMON'S BEHALF, 2)to Paul who is imprisoned/in chains, 3)for the gospel! How is 14 the clincher?

How is Philemon feeling about now? It all depends on what happened before what happened happened. We don't know what Philemon was like as a master. Perhaps he was unfair, unbearable, vindictive. My "writer's imagination" can only speculate. Perhaps Philemon is merely wishing he had his slave back, that he would get back to work now; or perhaps he is furious and desires to punish him. We wonder how he would be feeling while reading this letter.

But what if the reason O ran away was Philemon's wife? What if she was mean or petty, or impossible to please, or taunted him, or had even lied about him? And what if Philemon knew but had never done anything about it, or maybe he just couldn't control his wife? In this case, how might he be feeling while reading this letter, realizing the option Paul has provided to gracefully resolve the entire situation while sidestepping the actual problem? Speculation, yes--but inspired by the Old Testament story of Potiphar's wife and how her deviousness got Joseph in trouble with the master. I can see O explaining to Paul why he doesn't want to go back, even though as a believer now, that would be the right thing to do. And I can see the twinkle in Paul's eye as he wisely concocts this plan! But....maybe it wasn't anything like that at all...no matter. Perhaps we are not told the details so that the lesson could be more universally applied in our lives. And no matter how it happened, we see Paul's wise and skillful approach.

15-16 Again, we don't know if what Paul is offering would be seen by Philemon as a graceful way out of a sticky situation, or is Paul suggesting he restrain anger and offer grace instead, even though he has the right to punish wrong-doing. If Philemon returns O to Paul, as Paul hopes, the story is over. But if he retains O in his service, how might things change between them in the home when the slave becomes a "beloved brother"? In their church? Either way, Paul points out that God had a plan here; what wording tells us this? "perhaps...for this reason."

Can we, like Paul, often look back at things that happen and see God's hand in a negative situation? Sometimes we can see that but it has not occurred to someone else who is in the situation; we can encourage them by sharing insight. Can we improve a negative situation just by looking at it from a different angle? Paul appeals to Philemon lovingly and wisely and says he could command him but won't, honoring Philemon's own free will in the matter while at the same time skillfully influencing that free will to make the desired choice. Is this kind of how God works in our lives? Does God have the right to punish us for our sin? Who intercedes on our behalf to bring us grace and mercy instead of punishment?

17-20 Isn't 17 what Christ says about us to the Father? And 18? This illustrates the doctrine of substitutionary atonement: we have rung up charges deserving death, but Christ offered to pay them on our behalf, with His own blood. So whether O had stolen, or was thought to have stolen, or was falsely accused of stealing, Paul's offer in 18 would wipe his account clean. In 19 he reminds Philemon of what? He may be referring to his new life in Christ, or maybe something else happened in which Philemon's actual life had been in danger. Paul also hopes Philemon will now benefit him and become useful to him, 20.

Paul lets Philemon know that he is very serious about his love and concern for O and for a restored relationship between the two. Because of the vast social distance between the two, can you imagine the difficulty both of them may have with this new type of relationship--as Christian brothers who are spiritual equals? In later centuries, this little book was actually used to help bring slavery to an end.

21-22 Might Paul's mention of "obedience" hint at his authority as an apostle, which he has avoided saying outright? What might he mean by "more than" what he says? O's freedom? Throughout this letter, we have many outstanding examples of loving but firm Christian tact; is this something we sometimes struggle with? We can learn from Paul's example. 22 is one of the few places we see Paul imply that he hopes for prayers on his behalf regarding his imprisonment. He has hopes and plans for the future, but even as an apostle, he does not claim to have knowledge of future events.

23-25 Epaphras, as we saw in Colossians, apparently founded the church in Colossae, and may be the leader or pastor; he is with Paul as he writes, perhaps also as a prisoner--it's unclear if that is the literal meaning. Mark is John Mark, who in Acts deserted Paul and Barnabas but was later reconciled with Paul. Demas is mentioned several times, but later, in II Tim. 4:10, he deserts Paul at his second imprisonment, "having loved this present world." And of course Luke the physician is often with Paul. Paul is generally surrounded with fellow-workers. 25, is Jesus WITH us, walking by our side? He is IN us, in our spirit, through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, and we are in Him.

We don't know what Philemon did as a result of this letter, but since he apparently saved the letter and shared it with others, what might we assume? It eventually was found worthy of including in Scripture, having many lessons and truths. Sound doctrine is important, but doesn't it help to see how Christian truths play out in real life?

(I can imagine this story as a TV drama, starting with a flashback of Philemon first meeting Paul, believing in Christ along with his wife and son, developing a warm relationship with Paul, working in Colossae to plant a church, opening his home to this church, and seeing his son become active in ministry. All along, in the background, we see O, the household slave, perhaps in a negative light, yet seeing him exposed to the teachings of the faith, setting the stage for his eventual conversion. We may even see things in Philemon's family and home that contribute to O's bad attitude and eventual escape. We would see how and why O traveled from Colossae to Rome, and how he met Paul. We would see his conversion, his growing relationship with Paul, including the revealing of the story of why he ran away. We see the point at which he and Paul discuss his return home, and watch him travel home. We see his face and Philemon's as they meet; we apprehensively watch the reading of the letter, waiting for Philemon's reaction. We watch them struggle with their new relationship, at home and in the church, and find out if O is returned to Paul or possibly even set free. I would love to watch this movie! When I get to heaven, I hope to meet Onesimus and hear the rest of the story!)

Copyright 2014 Jan Young

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