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Major themes in the Book of Philemon
The Book of Philemon

-The Book of Philemon comprises a personal letter from Paul to the family of a man named Philemon
-As we shall learn, Philemon was a follower of Christ who had the means to host the church of Colossae in his home
-While a follower of Christ, Philemon had a blind spot in his life. Philemon's blind spot was this: He was a slave owner. As common as this was and though it was considered acceptable by his culture, this was not right
-As a slave owner, Philemon had a particular problem-- one of his slaves-- a man named Onesimus-- had run away (and no doubt stolen from him on his way). By God's providence and sovereignty, Onesimus had come across Paul, heard the message of repentance from sin and faith in Christ, and had responded by becoming a follower of Jesus.
-This book serves as Paul's attempt to facilitate the reconciliation of Philemon and Onesimus to one another as brothers in Christ.


-Paul wrote Philemon (along with Colossians, Ephesians, Philippians) while under house arrest in Rome
-Shortly after writing Colossians and Philemon (which were both sent to the same city of Colossae), the city was destroyed by a giant earthquake (about 62 A.D)
-Church at Colossae (located in modern day Turkey) was founded by Epaphras


Major themes in the Book of Philemon

1. The transforming power of Christ v.11

In 2 Corinthians 5:17 it says; "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!"

The Book of Philemon details the remarkable transformation that took place in the life Onesimus. He went from being a thief, scoundrel, and wanted criminal, to a caring, faith filled, willing to reconcile with the man he had stolen from, person.

Further: Onesimus became a man who lived up to his name. The name Onesimus means useful. For a time he was quite useless, yet in Christ he was transformed and became what his name meant.

What effected the transformation in Onesimus. One can't say it was the change in cities or the country that he was living in. It had nothing to do with him deciding to "turn over a new leaf". The transformation of Onesimus had everything to do with God's having Onesimus "bump into" Paul-- and Paul was faithful; for he spoke to Onesimus of sin, of the judgment to come, of the forgiveness that can be had in a relationship with Christ--- and by the Spirit of God, Onesimus' heart was convicted and he was brought to faith in Christ.
No one is beyond the transforming power of Christ. Paul was once a persecutor of the faith. Matthew was a tax collector. Simon was a Zealot-- a member of a group not opposed to violence against Rome. The Corinthian church was made up of those who had formerly been sexually immoral, idolaters, homosexual, thieves, adulterers, drunkards, prostitutes, slanderers, and swindlers (I Corinthians 6:9-11)

To receive this gift one must confess their sin, humble themselves before God, and put their faith in Christ as Lord-- committing themselves to pursuing holiness as detailed in the Bible.

Post script

In A.D 110 Ignatius wrote a letter to Ephesus. The letter was addressed a man named Onesimus. It is possible, if Onesimus was a young man when Paul wrote the letter to Philemon, that it was the same Onesimus-- living faithfully as a follower of Christ.

2. The abolition of slavery v.15-16

-Slavery is an ancient practice- that exists in some parts even today.
-For a long time the majority of Christians in the United States and the Commonwealth countries were on the wrong side of the issue of slavery.
-The United States fought a civil war over slavery.
-The song "Amazing grace" owes itself to a reformed slaver -- John Newton.
-The abolition of slavery in the British Empire owes itself to a Christian man named William Wilberforce-- who spent almost his entire life working against it.
-In the days of Paul and the Roman empire, almost 60 million were slaves. People were slaves by economic necessity, by birth, or as the result of war.
-In the Old Testament impoverished Israelites sometimes sold themselves into slavery. While allowed -- and never mandated--their kinsmen redeemers were supposed to act on their behalf. Further, every 50 years all such slaves were to be released and their property returned to them (Leviticus 25:10)

While Paul, in his writing never sanctions armed revolt or even disobedience against slave owners, Paul was an abolitionist, for the Book of Philemon serves as a powerful weapon against the institution of slavery. The principles of the Book of Philemon destroy slavery.

The key verse that lays the frame work for the abolition of slavery-- v.15-16

"Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good- no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. "

In appealing to Philemon to forgive Onesimus, Paul goes further-- calling on Philemon to free Onesimus--- the point being that brothers in Christ are to be equal and are equal-- for how could a brother hold a brother as a slave. Such reminds us of the 2nd most important command "Love your neighbor as yourself" Matthew 22:39. True love will not have another in a position of slavery.

Note that Paul's appeal to free Onesimus is in part built upon his position as a prisoner-

-"Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus" v.1
-"a prisoner of Christ Jesus" v.9
-In speaking of Epaphras (the founder of the church at Colossae) Paul calls him "my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus" v.23

ASIDE: In Paul speaking of himself as a prisoner of Christ Jesus he was making a few points.

1. He was literally a prisoner of the state for preaching the message of Jesus. He was a captive.
2. Paul considered himself to be a slave of Christ. We are to have this view of ourselves. We belong to Jesus. He is our master. In 1 Corinthians 6:20 it says of us "you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body."

While we are not meant to be a slave to any man-- we have been called to be slaves of Christ-- who bids that we take his yoke upon ourselves-- and in whom is found true freedom.

3. Forgiveness/reconciliation v.8-17

As a child in school I probably recited the Lord's Prayer several thousand times. One line that sticks out from this model prayer that Jesus gave is "Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors." Matthew 6:12

Despite my praying this and everyone else in school reciting that, forgiveness is never an easy thing. Resentment, bitterness, anger, retaliation-- those are easy, forgiveness is not.

In the Book of Philemon, in addition to Paul appealing to Philemon to free Onesimus, he appeals also appeals to him to forgive him and to be reconciled to him.

As you might imagine, I'm sure that Philemon was ticked with Onesimus-- for he broke trust and he stole from Philemon. Yet the call is to forgive Onesimus and to receive him- not as a slave but as a dear brother in the Lord.

In sending Onesimus back to Philemon Paul took a big risk with Onesimus' life.

Who knows for sure how a person will respond when offended. Philemon could have had slave catchers hired to go after Onesimus. By law Philemon could have had Onesimus executed for his crimes. Sometimes Christians do some really wrong things.

Why then did Paul send Onesimus back? Why did Onesimus go?

-Paul believed that Philemon was a true Christian
-Onesimus was a transformed man
-Think of the testimony of those two being reconciled and Onesimus going free
Philemon's name means "one who kisses"

In appealing to Philemon to Philemon to forgive Onesimus and be reconciled to him, Paul was appealing, in a pure way, to Philemon to "kiss and make up" with Onesimus. Just as Paul appealed to Onesimus to live up to his name, he also appealed to Philemon to live up to his-- all made possible by the grace of Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Is there someone that you are holding a grudge against? Is there someone who is not on your "like" list? Is there bitterness in your heart towards a person? Is there a person who you'd rather not see again because you are angry with them?

The call of the Scripture is to forgive as you have been forgiven.

-Such forgiveness starts with you being willing to forgive (feelings won't come first)
-Forgiving doesn't mean what they did was ok either
-Forgiving doesn't mean that their won't be consequences for that person, depending on what they've done

4. Coaching/ Training in righteousness

As we read Philemon together we noticed that Paul appeals to Philemon to be reconcile to and forgive Onesimus. We also notice that he puts more than a little pressure on Philemon to do so.

"Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love" v.8-9

"So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back-not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask." v.17-21

Coaching: Another way to consider the pressure Paul put upon Philemon

Instead of just saying "Paul was trying to pressure Philemon" let's reframe what is going on in the text to this: Paul is coaching Philemon. He's counseling him from afar.

In writing this letter, Paul was coaching Philemon on what the proper and godly response was to Onesimus.

We need coaching. We need to be reminded of what the right thing is and why we should do it. This is why we are systematically studying the Bible together.

Whether we be 10 or 100 we must accept that as people and as the followers of Christ that we need coaching and instruction on how to live the Christian life- The Bible and its principles being our ultimate authority.

Hebrews 10:24 says; "And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds."

5. The call to be a source of refreshment and encouragement to others v.7,20

Twice the word "refresh" is used in Philemon

In verse 7 Paul writes; "Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints."

In verse 20 Paul, at the close of his appeal to Philemon says; "refresh my heart in Christ."

Philemon had a well deserved reputation for refreshing others. On the basis of his doing such, Paul appeals to him to refresh him by receiving, forgiving, and freeing Onesimus.

The word refresh means to cause or permit one to cease from any movement or labor in order to recover and collect ones strength.

Our call is to refresh someone. We are called to be encouragers. We are to be a "breath of fresh air" to others.

Proverbs 11:25 says; "A generous person will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed"

Jesus is the greatest one as it regards refreshing others. Consider the call of Christ- particularly in light of the definition I gave a moment ago "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." Matthew 11:28-30