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Freedom and Forgiveness – Philemon

Read the Passage: Philemon

Author and Date: The book of Philemon is known as one of the prison epistles—along with Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians—as Paul wrote these letters  between 60–63 AD from a Roman prison (cf. Acts 28:16, 30). Observe that Philemon is the only personal letter among the prison epistles, and one of just four personal letters of Paul in the Bible, the others being 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus. In regard to canonical placement, Philemon is the last of Paul’s letters in the New Testament (unless Paul wrote the letter of Hebrews). The book of Philemon was accepted as an authentic Pauline letter by the earliest Christian writers. In fact, the authorship of this book is among the least disputed of Paul’s epistles. Note that Philemon is the shortest of Paul’s thirteen letters, being only 335 words in length, and is the third shortest book in the Bible. Only the epistles of 2 John and 3 John are shorter in length than Philemon.

Theme and Purpose: The man Philemon was apparently a wealthy Roman citizen, a resident of Colossae and member of the church there (cf. Col. 4:9; Phile. 1). Philemon had become a Christian under Paul’s earlier ministry, likely during Paul’s three-year stay in Ephesus on his third missionary journey (cf. Acts 19). Note that Colossae was a small town, located 120 miles east of Ephesus. Philemon owned a large home (cf. Phile. 2) and employed many servants. Paul wrote this letter because a servant of Philemon named Onesimus (cf. Col. 4:9), whose name means “useful” or “profitable,” had stolen money from Philemon and fled to Rome. While Paul does not record the exact circumstance of their meeting, Onesimus had providentially met Paul in Rome and had become a Christian. Paul grew to love Onesimus and longed for him to remain in Rome (cf. Phile. 11–12, 16); yet, since Onesimus had broken Roman law and defrauded his brother Philemon, Paul sent him back to Colossae to seek forgiveness and reconciliation, as well as to make restitution. It is probable that Paul sent Onesimus back to Colossae with Tychicus, as Tychicus delivered Paul’s letters both to the Colossian church (cf. Col. 4:7–8) and to the Ephesian church (cf. Eph. 6:21–22).

Background: Servants: Bondservants were common in the New Testament era, with up to one-third of the Roman population being servants. Given the history of sinful racial slavery in the West, as well as our prioritizing of the concepts of liberty and personal rights, it is challenging for us to read biblical materials about bondservants with unbiased eyes. While an imperfect analogy, in some passages, it may be helpful for us to employ the category of indentured servitude, or perhaps even military service, to process biblical teaching on bondservants. Certainly, as with all human relationships, some biblical-era servants were abused; yet, the category cannot be inherently evil, as Jesus is referred to as a servant (cf. Isa. 42:1; Mark 10:44–45; Phil. 2:7), Christ instructed His follower to become servants (cf. Matt. 20:24–28), and Scripture refers to all believers as servants of Christ (cf. Rom. 6:22). The point of these passages is that a believer’s true identity is not rooted in oneself, but in Jesus Christ. Note that when Paul addresses bondservants, he stresses the spiritual equality of all men (cf. 1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:28) and injects the gospel into the dynamics of their relationships (cf. Eph. 6:5–9; Col. 3:22–24; 4:1; 1 Tim. 6:1–2).

Praise for Philemon (1:1–7)

This letter begins with a standard personal greeting; however, it is significant that Paul repeatedly refers to himself as a “prisoner” in this book (cf. Phile. 1, 9, 23). While, Paul does call himself a prisoner elsewhere in his writings (cf. Eph. 3:1; 4:1; Col. 4:10; 2 Tim. 1:8)—and recall that he was in prison as he wrote—it is interesting that three of the seven times Paul refers to himself as a prisoner in his writings are in this short letter about an escaped servant. Note that the term “prisoner” Paul employs in this passage is similar to, but stronger than the word for “slave” he uses later to describe Onesimus (cf. Phile. 16). Paul mentions Timothy at the beginning of this letter, rather than at the end with his other ministry colleagues, for Timothy was Paul’s protégé. Observe that Apphia and Archippus are likely Philemon’s wife and son (cf. Col. 4:17). As he does in all his letters, Paul wishes Philemon “grace,” which is God’s unmerited favor.

Plea for Onesimus (1:8–16)

Following his brief greeting and commendation in his opening lines, Paul presents his plea to Philemon in Phile. 8–16. Rather than command Philemon to accept and to forgive Onesimus, Paul appeals to Christian love. Paul again mentions his imprisonment, as well as his advanced age, and then he exhorts Philemon to receive Onesimus. Clearly, Paul wanted Philemon to freely forgive Onesimus, as this would be a wonderful testimony before the church and the watching world. Furthermore, Paul desired for Philemon to voluntarily release Onesimus, so he could assist him in ministry. It is interesting that Paul appeals to the doctrine of providence in his petition that Philemon forgive Onesimus as he writes, “Perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose” (Phile. 1:15). Note that God can use even our disobedience to promote His Kingdom. While Onesimus’ leaving Philemon involved wrongdoing, God was at work for good.

Pledge of Restitution (1:17–25)

In Phile. 1:11, Paul tried to lighten the gravity of the situation for Philemon, by making a play on words, as he referred to Onesimus as one who “once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me.” Recall that Onesimus means “useful” or “profitable.” Thus, Paul was saying that Onesimus was now able to live up to name. Similarly, with his request that Philemon forgive Onesimus, Paul was encouraging Philemon to live up to his name, which means “affectionate” or “one who shows love.” In Phile. 17–25 Paul concludes this letter by addressing some practical issues. First, since Onesimus had likely stolen from Philemon when he fled, Paul promised to make restitution. Second, Paul requests that Philemon prepare to lodge him on a planned future visit to Colossae. Finally, Paul passed along personal greetings from several Christian brethren who were known to Philemon from Paul’s earlier ministry.

Application Questions:

  1. Like Paul, do you genuinely rejoice over the faith and ministry of others?
  2. What does Scripture mean in referring to believers as bondservants of Christ?
  3. What do you think Onesimus felt on his return journey to Colossae?
  4. What do you think Philemon felt when Onesimus appeared carrying Paul’s letter?
  5. What did Paul mean in writing, “You will do even more than I say” (Phile. 1:21)?
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