Philemon

THE LETTER TO PHILEMON. The occasion of this letter is Paul’s sending Onesimus, a runaway slave, back to his master, Philemon. The apostle wants to secure forgiveness and restoration for Onesimus, since he has led the runaway slave to the Lord. He wants to clarify to the church what the master-slave relationship should be when both parties are in Christ; to secure lodging for himself after he is released; to send greetings from his associates.

Philemon is very personal and the shortest of Paul’s writings, consisting of 355 words in the Greek. Yet, the letter is not strictly private. It gives every reader a glimpse of how Paul deals with a personal affair that lies at the very heart of Christian relationship—reconciliation.

It demonstrates the fine art of “friendly persuasion.” It is a tender illustration of Christian love and grace. Onesimus had repented, but could not make restitution. Colossians explains forgiveness and reconciliation between God and man and Philemon illustrates the need for forgiveness and reconciliation between men.

Philemon: Love, Joy and Peace Illustrated

Writer: Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother

Addressee: To Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and the Church of Colossae (founded about A.D. 54-56, probably by Epaphras) (Colossians 1:7).

Date and Place Written: Autumn of A.D. 60. Paul was a prisoner at Rome. It was composed the same time as Ephesians and Colossians.

Occasion and Purpose:

Paul’s returning of Onesimus, a runaway slave, to Philemon (Philemon 1:15-16; Colossians 4:9, 17). Paul wants to secure forgiveness and restoration for Onesimus. He wants to clarify to the church what the master-slave relationship should be when both parties are in Christ. He wants to secure lodging for himself after he is released from prison. He wants to sent greetings from his associates.

Key Verses: Philemon 1:10, 18

Key Words: Appeal (Philemon 1:9-10); Grace (1:3, 25); Love (1:5, 7, 9); Joy (1:7); Peace (1:3)

Themes:

A. Thematic Themes:
It is Paul’s appeal for Philemon to accept Onesimus because of the various facets of their relationship in Christ.

B. Primary Themes:
1. The Doctrines of Forgiveness and Reconciliation —> An Illustration of Colossians, cf. Colossians 1:14; 2:13; 3:13; 1:19-23
2. Picture of Christ as the Redeemer of Lost Sinners —> Grace and Peace
3. Application of the Fruit of the Spirit: Love, Joy, and Peace

C. Subordinate Themes:
1. Personal: Character of Paul
2. Ethical: Sensitivity to doing what is right
3. Providential: God is behind and above all events
4. Practical: Application of highest doctrines to common affairs
5. Evangelical: Encouragement to seek and save the lowest
6. Social: Relation of Christianity to slavery
7. Spiritual: Analogy between it and the Gospel

Characteristics:

Philemon is the most personal and shortest of Paul’s writings, consisting of 355 words in the Greek. Yet, the letter is not strictly private. It gives every reader a glimpse of how Paul deals with a personal affair that lays at the very heart of Christians relationships.

It demonstrates the fine art of “friendly persuasion.” It is a tender illustration of Christian love and grace. Onesimus had repented, but could not made restitution. According to Church History, the freed Onesimus became the bishop of the church at Ephesus and was the agent who collected Paul’s letters.

The salutation gives a glimpse into a Christian household of that time. Eleven persons are mentioned: five in the salutation (Philemon 1:1-2), five in the closing greeting (1:23-24), and Onesimus the central figure. Twice in the letter the Apostle makes a word-play on the name Onesimus, which means “useful” or “profitable” (1:11, 20). This letter exerted a profound impact on the controversy of slavery. Both sides of issue appealed to it.

Philemon should be read like the opening chapters of the Book of Hosea. According to church history, the freed Onesimus became the bishop of the church at Ephesus and was the agent who collected Paul’s letters.

The outline of Philemon:

Paul’s Greeting, 1:1-3
Paul’s Praise of Philemon, 1:4-7
Paul’s Plea for Onesimus, 1:8-16
Paul’s Promise, 1:17-25

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