Home   e-Library       中文 
e-Library Home |  Browse By Category |  Study the Bible    
 (Philemon & Hebrews)
1: Appeal for Forgiveness and Acceptance (Phm 1-25)
TOC | Previous | Next

1: Appeal for Forgiveness and Acceptance (Phm 1-25)


Paul was the writer of this epistle, but he also mentioned Timothy in the opening of the letter.


Philemon, who lived in or near Colosse (modern-day Turkey), Apphia, Archippus, and the church that met in Philemon’s house.


Around 58-61AD.


From prison, possibly in Rome.


We do not know the exact circumstances that occasioned the writing of this epistle. The epistle itself does not tell us why Onesimus was away from Philemon and how he came into contact with Paul. The traditional belief has been that Onesimus was a runaway slave, and that, according to Roman law, Onesimus’ offense was punishable by beatings, chains, or even death. But, with recent investigations on slavery during the Roman era, we have reasons to question these assumptions. Onesimus’ departure might not have been for the purpose of escape, and Paul’s letter was probably a plea for a sooner manumission rather than for restraint on punishing Onesimus. 2vol5/307

Regardless of the larger legal and social context, we know from Paul’s letter the following facts about Onesimus:

1.   He was Philemon’s slave (Phm 16) but has departed from Philemon (15).

2.   He has wronged or owed Philemon in some way (11,18,19)

3.   He became a believer during his stay with Paul (10).

Paul intends to send Onesimus back to Philemon, but he also feels the need to make an appeal on behalf of Onesimus. Thus Paul writes to Philemon, urging him to forgive and receive Onesimus and consider this former slave a dear brother in the Lord.

Unique Characteristics

1.   The letter contains many terms of endearment, more than any other letters of Paul: brother, friend, fellow laborer, sister, fellow soldier, beloved, love, my own heart.

2.   The letter is a masterpiece of tactful persuasion. It follows the conventional structure found in the genre of Greek rhetoric: 1) commendation, 2) appeal to reason, and 3) appeal to emotion.

Key Verses

“I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me” (10-11).

“But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account” ().


1.   After reading the epistle several times, record the themes that you have observed in the epistle.

1.   Appeal and intercession, conversion, oneness in Christ, forgiveness and reconciliation, repaying debt on another’s behalf.

Modern Relevance

The “players” in the letter are themselves a symbol of our unity in Christ. Paul, a Jew in prison, writes a letter to a wealthy Greek believer concerning a slave. For the modern reader, Paul’s letter to Philemon continues to serve as an appeal to Christian love. Slavery is no longer around, but we may still judge people by certain criteria and show partiality. We know that in Christ we have all become one body, but do we ever look down on anyone because of their status, appearance, income, or intelligence? Do we consider every believer a dear brother or sister?

Paul’s letter also teaches us the spirit of reconciliation. Does anyone owe you anything or have wronged you in some way? What should you do about it? What’s the first step? If two members of Christ’s body are at odds, how can you be the peacemaker and intercessor between them? These are questions that we must ask ourselves as we study the epistle and ponder on its relevance to our own lives.

The Basics

Did You Know…?

1.         “Philemon” means “friendly” or “loving.”

2.         Apphia (2) was probably Philemon’s wife.

3.         Archipus (2): This name also appears in Paul’s final greetings in the epistle to the Colossians (Col).

4.         Onesimus” means useful or profitable.

5.         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.” 2vol6/66. 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.” 2vol6/67

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.

6.         Epaphras (23; cf. Col) was one of the early workers in the church of Colosse.

7.         Mark (24) was the cousin of Barnabas (Col) who had once deserted Paul and Barnabas at Pamphylia on Paul’s first missionary journey (Acts ; ). But Paul later found him to be useful to the ministry (2Tim ). He was believed to be the author of the gospel of Mark.

8.         Aristarchus (24) was a fellow prisoner with Paul (Col), a Macedonian of Thessalonica and one of Paul’s travelling companions on Paul’s second missionary journey (Acts ; 20:4; 27:2).

9.         Demas (24) was one of Paul’s fellow worker (cf. Col), but later forsook the the ministry for the love of the world (2Tim ).

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), and a friend to the end (2Tim ). He was with Paul during Paul’s imprisonment in Rome (Acts 28; Col)








Key Words/Phrases

General Analysis

1.   In terms of its organization, which paragraph is the heart of the letter?

2.   Go through the entire epistle and pick out words and phrases that would directly or indirectly persuade Philemon to accept Paul’s appeal.

Segment Analysis


1a.        How does Paul identify himself?

1b.        How does he identify the other believers in the salutation?


2.         Is Paul speaking to everyone addressed in verse 2, or is he speaking to Philemon?

3.         What is the reason for Paul’s thanksgiving?

4.         What does he ask for in his prayer?

5.         Based on Paul’s words, what can we learn here about:

5a.        Love?

5b.        Faith?

6.         How are you sharing your faith in your life?

7.         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?


8.         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.

8a.        What is Paul’s appeal?

8b.        Why does he rather make an appeal? (9,14)

8c.        Why is an appeal often more effective than a command?

9.         What can we learn from Paul about our relationship with one another in Christ?

10.        What can we learn here about the motive behind our obedience?

11.        Why does Paul mention that he is the aged and a prisoner of Jesus Christ in verse 9?

12a.      How does Paul identify Onesimus in 10 and 12?

12b.      How do these words strengthen Paul’s appeal?

13.        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?

14a.      According to Paul, what may have been the purpose for Onesimus’ departure?

14b.      How did Onesimus’ departure accomplish this purpose?

15a.      Based on verse 16, how has Onesimus become more valuable to Philemon?

15b.      What can we learn here about how we ought to relate to our fellow believers in Christ?


16a.      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?

16b.      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?

17.        What is Paul reminding Philemon of in verse 19b?

18.        Note how verse 20 echoes verse 7. What quality in Philemon is Paul appealing to?


19a.      What is Paul confident of?

19b.      Why is such kind of confidence important in our relationship with our brethren in the Lord?

20.        In fulfilling your duties, do you often do more than you are asked? What makes a person do more than he is asked?

21.        Paul anticipates meeting Philemon and the other brethren in the near future.

21a.      What would help bring about Paul’s release?

21b.      What does this expected meeting relate to Paul’s present appeal?

22.        How is the benediction and prayer in verse 25 important in light of Paul’s appeal to Philemon?

PDF Download