Father, help me understand the radical impact of the gospel on all of my relationships. Give me wisdom and grace to see all fellow believers as brothers and sisters, regardless of their economic or social status and regardless of their relationship to me in the eyes of the world. Enable me to forgive and accept even those who wrong me, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
WATCH AND LEARN
Watch a brief overview of the story of Philemon (1:30).
Video posted under Standard YouTube License.
Don’t worry; it’s only 25 verses long! When you’re finished, read Colossians 1:1–8 and 4:7–17 and compare the names in the two letters.
From the information in the letters of Philemon and Colossians, we can piece together a general outline of the situation that Paul addresses in Philemon. It appears that Philemon is a Christian believer in Colossae (Colossians 1:1, 4:17; Philemon 1–2) who was wealthy enough to own at least one slave and who was noted for refreshing the saints (Philemon 4–7). Epaphras founded the church in Colossae, not Paul (Colossians 1:7), and Paul had apparently never been there (Colossians 2:1). At the same time, Paul clearly knew Philemon very well, and there is good reason to believe that Paul may have led Philemon to faith in Christ somewhere else (perhaps during Paul’s long ministry in nearby Ephesus [Philemon 19]). Onesimus was Philemon’s runaway slave. This is a serious crime in Roman law. Onesimus found Paul in prison in Rome and was converted to faith in Christ (Philemon 10–16). So here’s where it gets interesting: Paul is now sending Onesimus back to Philemon. As a Roman slave-master, Philemon had the legal right to punish Onesimus severely, yet Paul wrote this letter to urge Philemon to treat Onesimus as his brother in Christ, rather than a slave.
Introduction Paul uses the standard format for the introduction of letters in the ancient world, but as always, he infuses it with rich theological content. He also prepares the way very skillfully for the appeal he’s about to make on behalf of Onesimus. He identifies himself as a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and he identifies Philemon as a beloved fellow worker. His thanksgiving and prayer for Philemon stress the love and generosity that Philemon habitually shows to the people of God, and the joy and comfort this has given Paul.
Appeal Paul makes it clear that what he’s asking is required of Philemon as a Christian and that Paul would be well within his rights to command what he’s merely requesting. In many ways, this actually makes the outcome of the letter a foregone conclusion. However, Paul makes his appeal in the form of a request rather than a command, and he presents himself in ways that are calculated to provoke sympathy rather than fear.
During his appeal, Paul employs a play on words by talking about the “usefulness” of Onesimus, as the name Onesimus means “useful.” He calls Onesimus his child and says that in sending him back to his master, he’s sending his own heart. The core of Paul’s appeal is the changed relationship that now exists between Philemon and Onesimus. By Roman law, Philemon owns Onesimus as his slave, and he has nearly limitless power over him. In Christ, however, Onesimus is now Philemon’s brother, and that trumps all other considerations.
That said, it’s not entirely clear what Paul asks Philemon to do. He’s certainly asking that Philemon receive his old slave back graciously and that he cancel any debt or damage that Onesimus might owe him. He hints in verse 21, however, that he expects even more than that. This may include sending Onesimus back to Rome to tend to Paul’s needs (verses 12–14), and many have speculated it might also involve giving Onesimus his formal freedom from slavery.
4 I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers,5 because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints,6 and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.
Paul did not demand that Philemon set his slave free, nor did he attack the institution of slavery per se—either here or anywhere else in the New Testament. However, the claim Paul makes is still very radical and counter-cultural. Paul says fellow Christians are family members—brothers and sisters in Christ—and this new reality completely supersedes all legal categories and social conventions. He asks Philemon to forego his legal rights for the sake of the surpassing importance of the family of Christ, to forgive someone who had legally wronged him.
- Do you look down at some kinds of Christians because they’re different from you in terms of social status? The type of job they have? Their race, nationality, or educational level?
- If you supervise other believers at work or exercise any type of authority over them, do you lord it over them, or do you treat them first and foremost as brothers and sisters?
- Do you insist on your rights at the expense of treating other believers graciously?
- Make a list of people over whom you exercise authority. Add to it any categories of people—by job type, socio-economic status, ethnicity, or any other category—on whom you tend to look down. Pray seriously through the list, asking God to show you how you treat people; ask Him to change both your heart and your behavior toward them. Ask others who are close to you to give you input on how you treat people.
- Are there people who have genuinely wronged you, whom you have difficulty forgiving? Ask God to change your heart toward them, and reach out to them in a concrete way this week to show grace toward them.
- Review your Outreach and Evangelism habits and Your Use of Time. Do those two portions of the below assessment again. What has changed over the last six months? Are there any new habits you would like to continue after this study is finished? Plan to put your new habits into action next week (if you aren’t already) and tell your accountability partner which habit/activity you started or plan to continue and ask them to check up with you about it. [Being a Disciple, Making Disciples]
USE OF TIME
- Think about where you spend your free time. Reading, ministry, outreach, studying, sleeping, shopping, social media, entertainment, recreation, other reading etc? Make general notes of what you do, when and for how long.
OUTREACH, EVANGELISM AND DISCIPLESHIP
- How much do you interact with unbelievers? In what contexts? (ie. work, school, social clubs, recreation, neighbors?)
- Do you have any cross-cultural relationships?
- Do you have a particular plan for outreach and evangelism?
- Are you currently involved in discipleship relationships? In accountability relationships?