1: Appeal for Forgiveness and Acceptance (Phm
Paul was the writer of this epistle,
but he also mentioned Timothy in the opening of the letter.
lived in or near Colosse (modern-day Turkey),
Apphia, Archippus, and the
church that met in Philemon’s house.
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:
was Philemon’s slave (Phm 16) but has departed from
has wronged or owed Philemon in some way (11,18,19)
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.
letter contains many terms of endearment, more than any other letters of Paul:
brother, friend, fellow laborer, sister, fellow soldier, beloved, love, my own
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.
“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” ().
reading the epistle several times, record the themes that you have observed in
and intercession, conversion, oneness in Christ, forgiveness and
reconciliation, repaying debt on another’s behalf.
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.
Did You Know…?
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.
(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
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.
(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 ;
(24) was one of Paul’s fellow worker (cf. Col), but later forsook the the ministry for the love of the world (2Tim ).
(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
terms of its organization, which paragraph is the heart of the letter?
through the entire epistle and pick out words and phrases that would directly
or indirectly persuade Philemon to accept Paul’s appeal.
1a. How does Paul identify himself?
1b. How does he identify the other believers in the salutation?
Paul speaking to everyone addressed in verse 2, or is he speaking to Philemon?
is the reason for Paul’s thanksgiving?
does he ask for in his prayer?
on Paul’s words, what can we learn here about:
are you sharing your faith in your life?
several translations of verse 6 to see its possible meanings. How does the
sharing of faith relate to the knowledge of God’s goodness?
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)
is an appeal often more effective than a command?
can we learn from Paul about our relationship with one another in Christ?
can we learn here about the motive behind our obedience?
does Paul mention that he is the aged and a prisoner of Jesus Christ in verse
12a. How does Paul identify Onesimus in 10 and 12?
12b. How do these words strengthen Paul’s
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?
is Paul reminding Philemon of in verse 19b?
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?
fulfilling your duties, do you often do more than you are asked? What makes a
person do more than he is asked?
anticipates meeting Philemon and the other brethren in the near future.
21a. What would help bring about Paul’s
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?